Book Review: Duty to Respond: Mass Crime, Denial, and Collective Responsibility
Duty to Respond: Mass Crime, Denial, and Collective Responsibility.
By Nenad Dimitrijevic
Budapest, CEU Press, 2011. Pp. 228, cloth $45.00 / €40.00.
Reviewed by KATARINA RISTIC, University of Leipzig
The “theory of responsibility” as Feinberg named the part of philosophy dealing with actions, harm, blame and praise seeks to identify conditions for ascribing guilt and blameworthiness to individuals regarding their actions. Harm to others, even in most liberal accounts of John Stuart Mill or Feinberg, is legitimating ground for legal coercion. War crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide constitute radical cases of harm to others, considering the intensity of the harm, the status of the victims, and the number of injured. There is little, if any, doubt that individuals are to be held morally and legally responsible for such crimes. Still, legal punishment of individuals responsible for mass crimes seems to be historically rare, almost accidental, applied only in several cases during the last century. Moreover, the just war theory is at great pains in deciding morally right in a case of war. If holding accountable individuals who ordered or committed such crimes causes difficulties, attempts to assign collective responsibility to members of perpetrators’ groups who neither committed nor supported the crime is even harder. And that is the main goal of Dimitrijevic’s book.
Critics consider the concept of collective responsibility a “barbarous notion” since individual responsibility is fundamental to the very possibility of distinction between individuals in a moral sense. Nevertheless, reflection on the experience of WWII has prompted some authors, most notably Jaspers, to develop different types of responsibility ranging from moral to metaphysical guilt, the latter being based on identity rather than on actions. Jaspers grounded metaphysical guilt in solidarity, which makes all human beings “co-responsible for every wrong and every injustice in world.” More recently there have been prominent attempts to further develop the concept by Larry May, Anthony Appiah and Virginia Held, to name only few authors who address the controversy of collective responsibility. May for example argues that shame or taint are moral concepts which correspond to metaphysical guilt, because in order to avoid taint, individuals must change “who they are in the face of their communities’ harms.”
Dimitrijevic shares May’s account to great extent. For both authors, moral responsibility is based on relational features of individual identity – an individual’s interests, intentions, beliefs, values etc. are constantly shaped and reshaped in groups (p.146-147). Although groups are not separate entities, they do add particular value to the individual identities, mostly due to solidarity relationship which is the source of common good and common interests. This solidarity is not only emotional, but rather normative, since it is based on shared normative frameworks. Hence, even when individual participation is not direct and causal, it can be, as May put it, “social-existential.” May claims that this responsibility cannot be vicarious, and it demands that individual reacts out of “duty of authenticity” which requires acknowledgment and acceptance of responsibility for the harms done in the name of the group one belongs to. Those who do not show disapproval are responsible for omission, and although not blameworthy, their sanction is “moral taint”. Dimitrijevic widens this argument, holding each member of group co-responsible, firstly because of intention for mass crime, and secondly because of participation. Mass crimes are committed in the name of the whole group, and they cannot be reduced “to the collective actions of a causally identifiable group of perpetrators, collaborators and bystanders,” (p. 176) since all group members are to some extent related to the crime. The duty to respond, he argues is “moral cost of group membership” (177). Dimitrijevic rejects claim that moral disassociation is enough to cut relations with the group, because such choice does not exist. Individuals can do nothing to break the ties, since “national identity remains relevant, due to the moral relevance of the group structure,” (p. 180), which is now established around collective crime. Since a shared moral horizon is a dynamic concept, constituted in constant reflections on relation between universal and group specific values – members of the perpetrators’ community share “harm-specific duties” in post conflict period. (p. 188). A group’s morality is distorted by collective crime, which transformed decent society in “crime-supportive society”. Therefore, the moral taint of decent persons does not follow from their omission to act, but from the shared moral horizon of the group. The group has to “explicitly revise its criminal ethics” hence there is a duty of every member of the group to actively reflect the past crimes and contribute to the new interpretation of collective past. (p. 191).
The main criticism of Dimitrijevic’s account is that group identity, constructed around collective responsibility for mass crime, becomes a primordial, essential characteristic. Apart from the question whether group identity can be based on such events, despite some suggestions that e.g. German national identity can only be grounded in Auschwitz, one could ask, as Hannah Arendt did, if this kind of firm collective identity only strengthens discriminatory ideologies, preventing development of the idea of humanity – as the only guarantee against future exterminations – “excluding no people and assigning a monopoly of guilt to no one.”
In conclusion Dimitrijevic’s book doubtless presents a valuable contribution to the current research on collective responsibility and a brave attempt to cross one of the most sacred boundaries of individual responsibility. His argumentation is persuasive and original and the book offers excellent reading in the tradition of the best analytical philosophy.
Arendt, Hannah. “Organized Guilt and Universal Responsibility.” In Collective Responsibility – Five Decades of Debate in Theoretical and Applied Ethics, edited by Larry May and Stacey Hoffman. Lanham: Rowman & Litlefield Publishers, 1991.
Feinberg, Joel. Doing & Deserving : Essays in the Theory of Responsibility. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1970.
Jaspers, Karl, and E. B. Ashton. The Question of German Guilt, Perspectives in Continental Philosophy, No. 161089-3938. New York: Fordham University Press, 2000.
Lewis, H.D. “Collective Responsibility ” In Collective Responsibility – Five Decades of Debate in Theoretical and Applied Ethics, edited by Larry May and Stacey Hoffman. Lanham: Rowman & Litlefield Publishers, 1991.
May, Larry. “Metaphysical Guilt and Moral Taint ” In Collective Responsibility – Five Decades of Debate in Theoretical and Applied Ethics, edited by Larry May and Stacey Hoffman. Lanham: Rowman & Litlefield Publishers, 1991.
Walzer, Michael. Just and Unjust Wars : A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations. 3rd ed. New York: BasicBooks, 2000.
 Joel Feinberg, Doing & Deserving : Essays in the Theory of Responsibility (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1970).
 Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars : A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations, 3rd ed. (New York: BasicBooks, 2000).
 H.D. Lewis, “Collective Responsibility ” in Collective Responsibility – Five Decades of Debate in Theoretical and Applied Ethics, ed. Larry May and Stacey Hoffman (Lanham: Rowman & Litlefield Publishers, 1991), 17.
 Karl Jaspers and E. B. Ashton, The Question of German Guilt, Perspectives in Continental Philosophy, No. 161089-3938 (New York: Fordham University Press, 2000).
 Larry May, “Metaphysical Guilt and Moral Taint ” in Collective Responsibility – Five Decades of Debate in Theoretical and Applied Ethics, ed. Larry May and Stacey Hoffman (Lanham: Rowman & Litlefield Publishers, 1991).
 Bernard-Henry Levy, Ein paar Versuche, in Deutschland spazierenzugehen, FAZ 17. 2. 1999.
 Hannah Arendt, “Organized Guilt and Universal Responsibility,” in Collective Responsibility – Five Decades of Debate in Theoretical and Applied Ethics, ed. Larry May and Stacey Hoffman (Lanham: Rowman & Litlefield Publishers, 1991).
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