The idea of Macro-Responsibility

Recently there was an amusing article about how the Egyptians wanted the Jews to make reparations for their looting of Egypt during the Exodus event when Moses led the Hebrews out of Egypt.

While we rightly snigger at the hilarity of this claim, the absurdity of making the Jews responsible for an action or event which occurred almost three millenniums ago, yet when it comes to events closer to our time, there are some who still think that, for example, we should hold the British Empire responsible for the Opium War, or White Americans responsible for slavery or Western Europe responsible for the Crusades, etc, whereby such charges of moral responsibility are accompanied by passionate outburst or righteous convictions, etc.

There is however a fundamental ambiguity with attempting to attribute “moral responsibility” to macro people groups.

Two Types of Responsibility

Moral responsibility pertains to moral agents and persons, however, the attribution of moral agency and responsibility is not to be confused with attribution of causes to effects. We morally attribute the death of the Archduke of Franz Ferdinand to Gavrilo Princip. However, we do not “blame” the volcano for covering the sky with volcanic ashes; we simply attribute it as a cause to that effect. To get morally indignant over a volcano for throwing up volcanic ashes into the sky would simply be an absurd form of anthropomorphism.  The problem is that the two types of phenomena are often conflated. This is understandable because we, confusingly, use the same word “responsible” to describe both. The volcano is “responsible” for the volcanic ashes in the sky. Harry Truman was “responsible” for authorising the use of the atom bomb. It is easy for discourses on “responsibility” in the former sense to fuse and merge with the latter, we confuse actions with causes.

Thus when it comes to macro-groups and macro-events/action, the action-causation distinction begins to blur. It is difficult to attribute unified moral agency or personhood to something as vast, complex and multifaceted as a nation spanning over centuries, an empire or an entire civilisation consisting of thousands and thousands of different actors and players.

One can certainly attribute very specific localised particular acts to very specific localised particular players, e.g. the desire to sell opium by British traders, or Commodore Perry sailing up to Japan and forcing them to open up at gunpoint.  We can certainly morally condemn the unworthy motives of the British Opium traders for selling drugs, etc. But then the waters becomes muddied when we attempt to go further upscale. Is the whole of the British government or people to be morally condemned for wanting to sell Opium? Maybe some of the parliamentarians find opium trading distasteful but really did believe in the principle of free trade and commerce and wanted China to open up to them, just as today there are many supporters of selling marijuana or other drugs, not because they like drugs themselves, but simply on the principle of free trade or other reasons. We can of course say that the British government and the British people “caused” the Opium War; the Opium War was an “effect” of the British sending gunboats and troops to China. But what is the moral charge here?  Who is morally responsible for what act? It is almost impossible to say.

Ideas as Actors

If it is difficult to attribute moral agency to an entire people group, it becomes even harder to attribute moral agency to an entire civilisation or culture. The belief that principles and ideas have “effects”, while certainly plausible, isn’t the same thing as attributing moral blame and responsibility to them. We can say, belief in the ideas of the equality and the supremacy of the General Will “caused” the horrors of the French Revolution, but does it make any sense to make ideas morally responsible for human actions? If anyone could be “responsible” it would have to be another human actor, say, Rousseau (and even here it is difficult to say what Rousseau is morally responsible for. Telling lies and making false promises of a “better” world under the General Will? His ideas can be said to “cause” the French Revolution, but what act is he to be charged with?).

Traditionally the past has adopted a curious way of “attributing” moral agency or responsibility to ideas. As Milton posits in his Paradise Lost, ideas are themselves spirits, whether of demonic or angelic origin, and they possess us and, quite literally, “inspire” us unto actions. Thus, the pagans gods of old were, quite literally, fallen angels in disguise and in that sense, the pagan gods really did exist, they were just fallen spiritual agents. Later it was Hegel who would practically merge the two phenomena, spiritual agency and ideas which has effects on human behaviour, into one Geist or Spirit. Whether that “Spirit” be the idea/ideal of a nation, culture, principle, system etc, etc, these are more than the sum of the particular acts of thousands upon thousands of individual actors but somehow merges to become a single “personal” grand Spirit of the land or country or whatever.

William Blake's Moloch
William Blake’s Moloch

To digress a little, I am an unrepentant amateur thinker in the analytic tradition. I dislike wholes, whether of systems, structures, cultures or whole people groups, etc, and always seek to break them down into particular smaller manageable pieces and think that, more often than not, the whole is merely the sum of its parts and not a “thing in itself”. I don’t deny the existence of these systems structures or cultures or principles of course, I merely tend towards qualifying and circumscribing their meaning and effects by the particular facts. Anyway continuing with Hegel…

With all due respect to him and the continental tradition, this conflation of moral agency with the effects of ideas has lead to an incredible confusion of discourse. I am fine with attributing moral agency directly to ideas if one attributes them as part of the language of demons and angels and the spiritual world, beyond the reach of material empirical moral agency. What I object to however is abstracting this talk of the “moral responsibility” of ideas outside of this spiritual context, and making them the literal object of human jurisdiction in crime and punishment. An idea, from our worldly point of view, is not a person or a moral agent. It has effects in the real world and on human behaviour, yes, in the same way an itch causes me to scratch it, but to charge an itch with a crime, and made to make reparations or serve a sentence, make utterly no intelligible sense whatsoever. You can “blame” an idea for an event in the cause-and-effect sense, but you can’t make it serve jail time or make reparations, etc.

The Confusion of Moral Actions and Effects in History

To come back to history, you can of course morally attribute blame to particular actors and even entire groups of people, but what sense is there in morally blaming “the British Empire”? Is there a literally centuries old Britannia living in Britain for you to haul before a court of law and be charged for crimes? This sort of thinking is of course essentially nonsense. We can of course determine causes and effects, we weigh with a judicious sense of proportion both the good and bad effects of the British Empire, but to be morally outraged, to be morally indignant, to call for blood, etc, is simply ludicrous and simply stems from a very primitive sense of anthropomorphism, treating the British Empire like a moral agent or person.

From a rule consequentialist point of view, we establish courts of laws; we charge, convict, acquit and condemn people of crimes because of its deterrent benefits, for restoration and for securing the safety of the public from dangerous people. We have civil courts to determine responsibility for damaged property or reputations and we compel the guilty party so to make such reparations. However when it comes to nations, empires and civilisations, what does it mean to “restore” some lost empire or nation which has since vanished? What does it mean to make reparations to entire groups of people who has since died and passed on? Does the Chinese want the British to help restore the Qing Dynasty? Does the black Africans want the whites to return them back to Africa from where they’ve been wrongly taken? Again, it is one thing to observe the effects of ideas and beliefs, it is another thing to confuse the effects of ideas and beliefs upon particular concrete people with moral agency, liable for moral/civil guilt and condemnation and the proper object of reparations, restoration, etc. Can one make material reparations to an immaterial idea? Especially something as vague and as abstract as a people group which has since radically diverged from the original victims of some wrong?

Maybe one can speak of deterrent effects, but the deterrent effect exists only because the general populace believe that there is an overarching stable system of civil and criminal courts which is empirically efficacious in the enforcement of its decision and will enforce it against anyone who maybe tempted to do wrong. But in the real world no such empirically efficacious universal courts, governing the behaviour of nations, exists. Thus the usual system of actions and policies associated with the language of moral agency, is vacuous when it comes to nations, empires and civilisation. This is simply a case of an illegitimate projection of a phenomena within a particular localised system of civil institutions, the phenomena of moral agency and responsibility, unto the world’s stage.


Traditionally disputes and battles between collective human actors were subject simply to the arbitration of the gods or God who is the natural judge between entire people groups. “May the Lord judge between us!” And people groups and nations were vindicated according to who, in the positivistic and empirical sense, won the battle. This is a form of “might is right”, the victor is simply the one who has the Mandate of Heaven or the divine vindication, the world itself is arena of the divine courts. However, because entire people groups and nations are a complex mix of good and bad, eventually a certain element of “moral luck” is involved. Maybe on a particular issue or action, an empire maybe right or good, but overall the gods or the Lord may judge that it is about time for a nation and empire to be judged, and that their evils outweigh the good, and they are defeated and destroyed.

Perhaps this desire to make entire people groups, nations and empires subject to moral judgement by turning them into agents is simply our attempt to make them liable to human control, to prop up the belief that indeed, we can make a difference to macro human phenomenon. To reinforce our belief in our ability to act on a macro scale, we make macro people groups subject to human censure by rendering them more human… literally.

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