Moral Responsibility for Collective Crime

January 15th, 2013 5:45 pm

Nenad Dimitrijevic

The origins of my interest in moral responsibility are non-academic. Initially it was – and it still is – all about emotions: sadness, mourning, shame, embarrassment, hopelessness, feeling of the loss of the place in the world.

Why such emotions? I am an ethnic Serbian, a member of a social group in whose name the grave crimes were committed in the recent past. I am haunted by the ghosts of the innocent people killed. Some of my co-nationals thought and acted on the assumption that I would be morally better off if some children, women and men whom I never met would not live on Earth anymore. And so they were killed. Had it not been for a certain moral reading of my good as a member of the Serbian nation, they would still be alive.

In light of this simple moral fact, I have to re-visit some basic moral questions: How should I live? What should I think and how shall I feel about what happened? How should I perceive my place in the world? What should I believe? What should I do? How should I treat other people?

Answers to these questions ought to follow a broad set of guidelines. First, post-criminal society, its political regime, and all its citizens are duty-bound to explicitly disassociate themselves from the criminal past. Second, this disassociation ought to go beyond legal and political accountability: it requires asking the question of moral responsibility. Third, provided certain conditions are met, all members of a non-voluntary group in whose name mass crime is committed, share responsibility for it. ‘Certain conditions’ point to a special case of mass crime, which I will call ‘collective crime’.

This introduction is followed by two sections. Section one offers a summary account of the concept of collective crime. Section two explicates the concept of collective moral responsibility.

1. Collective crime

In my focus are societies whose pasts are distinguished by massive and systematic violations of the right to life and basic human dignity. Such acts of violence can be preliminarily named mass crimes. Mass crime is a regime-sponsored criminal practice, which is identified on the basis of the following elements: the number of perpetrators; the number of victims; variety of types of harm; the role of political authority; the ideological foundation of crime; the manner in which the victims were chosen; the character of response of the majority of subjects to the wrongdoings and their justification; the grave moral and political consequences that ensued and that go beyond the direct harm and suffering of victims.

An important inference of these features is normalization of crime, which itself has two important aspects. The first consists in ideological, legal and political institutionalization of crime: the system of values, political arrangements and legal norms are shaped in a manner that allows, justifies, and renders routine harming targeted people. The second possible aspect of normalization is the majority support for the regime and its practices. If both aspects of normalization are present we can talk about ‘populist criminal regime’.

Populist criminal regime relies on the support of its subjects, or more precisely, on the support of those subjects who belong to the group in whose name the regime rules. The essential quality of this relationship is not repression, but rather populist integration, which includes a high level of ideological and practical agreement about crime. Nazi Germany and Serbia under Milosevic’s rule provide examples. Crimes committed by such a regime can be identified as ‘collective crimes’. Collective crime is an act committed by a significant number of members of a group, in the name of all members of that group, with the support of the majority of group members, and against individuals targeted on the basis of their belonging to a different group.

There is one important point to note in the analysis of collective crime: wrongdoers act not in their own name only, but in the name of the whole group. Those who join for the criminal purpose, who formulate and spread criminal intention, and who engage in criminal acts, will justify each of their steps by invoking the identity of the whole group and some alleged good of each of its members.

The necessary feature of such an ethical attitude is the re-presentation of the targeted group in the same perverted ethical terms, as the embodiment of everything that is morally wrong. Targeting innocent human beings is justified by the claim that they are not simply inherently ‘less worthy’ – they represent the threat to ‘our good’. The circle is closed by inferring that destruction of the ‘enemy group’ is both necessary and good. Consequently, killing is ethical. The fact that at work is a perverted ‘ethics of evil’ does not deprive this justification of importance – without its acceptance by the majority, collective crime would not be possible at all. Here is a simple equation: the more horrifying a criminal practice, the more it is presented in moral categories, by promoting ultimate moral wrong – killing and harming innocent persons – into the basic standard of right and good.

Collective crime leaves difficult legacies. First, the regime change cannot possibly turn those who until yesterday voluntarily supported killing into decent persons. Second, the character, and magnitude of the recent atrocities are such that they cannot be wilfully erased from collective memory, nor disassociated from the present. Third, collective crimes ought not to be forgotten. The fact that it was possible for such things to happen outlines the range of necessary paths of dealing with the past. We have to reflect on past atrocities, and we have to condemn them. This is not a moralistic stance that would depart from a metaphysical perspective of an abstract moral truth, to end up with posing unachievable demands on ordinary people. Rather, this is the minimum requirement of practical morality – without meeting it, post-criminal society would remain caught in the past.

2. Collective moral responsibility

The idea of collective moral responsibility is simple. It says, to repeat: all members of the group in whose name the collective crime was committed should be held accountable.

A powerful objection against the concept of collective responsibility is well known: how could someone who did not intend, support, or participate in wrongdoing, i.e. someone who did nothing legally punishable or morally wrong, be still held morally accountable?

I want to argue that the nature of the evil past requires contextual rethinking of the concept of moral responsibility. The moral predicament requires going beyond the first person singular: the crime affects individuals as group members. We need to think in terms of responsibility beyond causality and control.

Here is the somewhat extended claim:

There can be situations in which each member of a collective can be held morally accountable, regardless of whether he or she contributed to an action and its consequences, regardless of his or her attitude to that action, and regardless of whether he or she was able to influence that action.

This approach to responsibility is based on the insight that collective crime has become integrated into the individual identity of each member of the group. It was committed by some members of a social group, in the name of all members of that group. It was justified by reference to the core of the group identity, its alleged shared values, norms, traditions, and interests. This justification was accepted by the majority of the members of the perpetrators’ group. We agreed, or at least we witnessed to a publicly made and implemented agreement that our world would start anew and that it would be based on two pillars: voluntary self-exemption of our group from the civilizational constraints and the forced exclusion of the targeted group from our community, which was at the same time meant as their exclusion from the moral commonwealth of human beings, and, ultimately, their physical destruction. At stake is the fall below a certain civilizational minimum, which directly targets the moral integrity of each member of the perpetrators’ group.

Thus, the foundation of my responsibility becomes the identity I share with the perpetrators. It is only by coincidence that I am a member of a non-voluntary social group (say, a nation), but the crime was consciously and systematically committed in my name. The contingent nature of my national identity is revoked by the intention and action of those who proclaimed my national name as the very reason for killing the people of another name. The ideological foundation, character and scope of the crime, all penetrate my individual identity. The fact that my inclusion in the ideological pattern of the crime rested on the ideological manipulation and an institutionalized lie, which I perhaps consistently opposed, does not suffice to exempt me from the duty to respond. Once the innocent people were killed, the lie expressed in my name has ceased to be a mere lie: it has become a fact. This is why the mere fact of my group identity yields my duty to acknowledge the injustice done, as well as the victims’ right to demand from me an unambiguous, public demonstration of the rejection of the crime.

If this holds good, collective moral responsibility could be understood as the duty of all members of the group to take a moral stance towards the crime that was committed in their name. What ‘taking the stance’ exactly means will depend on where the person stood during the atrocities. But nobody is free from the sinister past. This ‘past that has not passed’ defines moral position of each group member, by posing at least three broad requirements. First, we all have to reflect on recent wrongs, learn from our moral fall, and find in these lessons the guidelines for re-shaping internal group relationships. Second, we are duty-bound to publicly acknowledge victims’ suffering, to tell them that what happened was wrong and unjustifiable, and that we are sorry. Third, we should be able to demonstrate – as individuals, society, and polity – that we deserve to be granted one more chance to return to the civilized human community.


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