Terrorism, Retribution, and Collective Responsibility

Mark R Reiff. Social Theory and Practice. Volume 34, Issue 2. April 2008.

Two Concepts of Terrorism

“War,” Clausewitz famously said, “is not merely an act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse, carried on with other means.” Terrorism, in turn, is commonly seen as a form of war, for it seems to fit neatly within this definition. The terrorist has political objectives that he seeks to further using the same kind of coercive means that could be justified, if they could be justified at all, only as a means of war. But the terrorist does not usually abide by the accepted rules of war. He often uses prohibited weapons and/or tactics, is at best indiscriminate in his attacks, and frequently makes civilians and civilian objects the direct object of attack. In defense of his choice of targets, means, and methods, the terrorist argues that given the overwhelming firepower of his enemy, his options for armed struggle are limited, and the use of force against civilians and civilian objects is the only way he can draw attention to his cause and otherwise advance the interests of the political community he purports to represent.

While the terrorist’s attempt to bring himself within the moral justification that sometimes applies to war is purely a consequentialist enterprise, it is subject to a three-pronged moral response, one that relies not only on consequentialist moral reasoning but on deontological moral reasoning and virtue theory as well. There is the argument from consequences, which asserts that as a means of furthering political change, terrorism is almost always counterproductive, hindering rather than advancing the political interests the terrorist purports to represent, even assuming those interests are legitimate. There is the argument from rights, which claims that terrorism violates the basic human rights of (at least) its civilian victims, and is therefore morally objectionable regardless of its consequences. And there is the argument from virtue, which notes that slaughtering civilians requires no skill or courage and therefore generates no honor or glory, making the terrorist not a virtuous warrior but a vicious one.

Of course, these arguments against the morality of terrorism may not be irrefutable, but their power is formidable, and one would expect that any attempt to overcome them would be difficult indeed. Yet it is pointless to deny that terrorism has only become more widespread, and those participating in it more convinced than ever that it is justified. While many people find this baffling, there is an explanation for why the standard arguments against the morality of terrorism have proved so unpersuasive. By treating terrorism as a war-like instrument for advancing a political agenda, we frame the moral debate surrounding it as presenting the question of the morality of political coercion by violent means, and therefore as invoking the usual arguments about how and when such coercion can be justified. But terrorism is not only a means of political coercion. It is also, in the view of many terrorists, a means of retribution. It is a means of exacting punishment on a political community the terrorist believes is collectively responsible for grievous wrongs certain members of that community have committed.

Indeed, a desire for retribution seems to be part of what is motivating not only the foot soldiers but also the ideologues and operational leaders of various terrorist movements. Many Islamic militants, for example, hold the West responsible not only for humiliating and corrupting the Islamic political community, but also for enabling the brutal, repressive regimes in their own countries, at whose hands many of them and their predecessors and followers were imprisoned, tortured, and sometimes killed. The radicalizing effect of such experiences on those who survive them should not be underestimated. For these individuals, violence and terrorism offer not just a means of coercion, a means of continuing to advance their political agenda, but also a means of obtaining justice for the grievous wrongs they believe have been committed against them and other members of their political community. As a leading journalist notes,

[o]ne line of thinking proposes that America’s tragedy on September 11th was bom in the prisons of Egypt. Human Rights advocates in Cairo argue that torture created an appetite for revenge, first in Sayyid Qutb, [whose writings have inspired some of the most radical elements of the Islamic fundamentalist movement], and later in his acolytes, including Ayman al-Zawahiri [Al-Qaeda’s principal ideologue and operational chief]. The main target of their wrath was the secular Egyptian government, but a powerful current of anger was directed toward the West, which they saw as the enabling force behind the repressive regime. They held the West responsible for corrupting and humiliating Islamic society. Indeed, the theme of humiliation, which is the essence of torture, is important to understanding the Islamists’ rage against the West. Egypt’s prisons became a factory for producing militants whose need for retribution-they called it “justice”-was all-consuming.

Retribution also appears to be a prominent motive for many suicide bombers. Many Israelis, for example, view retribution as an important motive behind Palestinian suicide attacks, and a recent survey by Amnesty International reports that retribution for Palestinian deaths is indeed one of the explanations that Palestinians consistently give for targeting Israeli civilians. Reports also indicate that retribution is an important motivating factor for Chechnyan suicide attackers, many of whom have lost family members to what they consider Russian aggression, and there is strong evidence that the motives of Mohammed Atta, one of the leaders of the 9/11 hijackers, and Mohammed Sidique Khan, one of the 7/7 bombers, were also largely retributive.

While there is much evidence that terrorism can have retributive as well as coercive motives, few moral theorists have recognized the significance of this, and none have given terrorism-as-retribution the attention it deserves. Even if terrorism is viewed only partly as a means of retribution, this is a serious omission, for in such cases the usual arguments against terrorism-as-coercion have no moral force. Terrorism-as-retribution is immune to the argument from consequences, for retributive justifications rely on deontological not consequentialist moral reasoning, so even if terrorism were most likely to be counterproductive and impede rather than advance the interests of the terrorist’s political community, this would not make terrorism-as-retribution morally unjustified. If the victims of such acts are morally responsible for wrongs committed against the terrorist’s political community, and the form and extent of retributive punishment imposed does not transgress moral limits, then a standard deontological claim of moral justification would be made out.

Terrorism-as-retribution is also immune to the argument from rights, for punishing those responsible for wrongdoing is not a violation of their rights if they deserve punishment and the appropriate limits on the form and extent of punishment are met. Indeed, the whole point of the argument from collective responsibility is to show that each member of the offending group is responsible for all its wrongdoing and is therefore punishable on a joint and several basis. The relevant question is accordingly not whether terrorism-as-retribution violates its victims’ rights, but whether the assignment of collective responsibility on which it relies is morally justified. Relying on the argument from rights to attack terrorism-as-retribution simply begs the question, for it presupposes that individuals have a right not to be punished for the acts of others when this is in fact the issue in dispute.

Finally, terrorism-as-retribution is also immune to the argument from virtue. Punishment is not the equivalent of battle; the limits that virtue theory imposes on the conduct of the warrior do not apply when it comes to determining the morality of punishment. It is not vicious to impose punishment on those who deserve it even if they are defenseless and powerless to resist. Indeed, it is virtuous, not vicious, to see that those who deserve punishment receive whatever punishment is their due. Once again, to explain why terrorism-as-retribution is morally wrong even when the appropriate limits on the form and extent of punishment are met, we must attack the notion of collective responsibility on which the terrorist relies.

Unfortunately, this is not as easy as it might appear. Collective responsibility is a fundamental moral presupposition, and fundamental moral presuppositions must be evaluated on their own terms. Terrorism-as-retribution accordingly challenges our moral thinking in a way that terrorism-as-coercion does not. We cannot simply reject collective responsibility because it violates our notions of individual responsibility, for one fundamental moral presupposition cannot be used to defeat another without begging the question of which fundamental presupposition is correct. Besides, we already seem to accept departures from our usual insistence on individual responsibility in a variety of contexts. To undermine the claim that moral responsibility may be assigned collectively as well as individually, we must show why these accepted departures from individual responsibility are independently justified, and why such justifications do not apply to collective responsibility generally. But to conclusively defeat the notion of collective responsibility, we must demonstrate that there are independent reasons to believe that it is morally repugnant, or that it is incoherent as a moral concept, or, at the very least, that it entails commitments even its proponents are unlikely to be willing to accept.

This is the task I have undertaken in this paper. First, I attempt to redefine collective responsibility, separating out the forms of individual responsibility that I contend are often inappropriately confused with it. Next, I demonstrate how a prima facie moral justification for a pure conception of collective responsibility could be derived by viewing the community rather than the individual as the fundamental social unit. I then consider whether this prima facie justification can survive on an allthings-considered basis. To address that question, I consider some of the implications of a pure conception of collective responsibility, and question whether group membership is a sufficiently determinate moral category on which to base the assignment of moral fault and whether the proponents of collective responsibility are really willing to make the commitments that such a belief would entail. Finally, I argue that notwithstanding the reluctance of some on both the left and the right to reject collective responsibility, we should not hesitate to do so, for the notion is both morally repugnant and self-defeating, and therefore can never provide a just basis for the assignment of moral fault.

Individual and Collective Responsibility Restated and Redefined

The term “collective responsibility” is commonly used to describe any situation in which all members of a group are held morally responsible for a wrong committed by less than all of them, and often by only one, while the term “individual responsibility” is commonly reserved for situations in which individuals are held morally responsible for their own wrongs. To determine which wrongs are attributable to which individuals, in turn, individual responsibility is commonly reduced to causal responsibility-for individual moral responsibility to attach, it is typically seen as both necessary and sufficient for the individual to have committed a wrong that has caused harm. What constitutes a wrong and what constitutes harm and even what constitutes causation are open questions, and how we resolve these questions may be controversial, but the fundamental notion behind this conception of individual responsibility is a causal one. Causation connects the individual to the wrong and gives rise to various rights and obligations between that individual and the parties harmed, including the right to seek and an obligation to pay compensation and, in some cases, the right to seek and an obligation to accept retribution.

With individual responsibility defined in such a fashion, the term collective responsibility becomes a catchall category for everything else. Into it would fall any case in which we believe an individual should be held morally responsible for a wrong even though the usual causal connection between that individual and the wrong is missing. Whether the assignment of collective responsibility is justified in a particular case would simply depend, then, on what substitute for causal responsibility was being proposed to support it.

But I am going to argue that distinguishing between individual and collective responsibility in this way is a mistake, for defining collective responsibility negatively rather than positively leads us analytically astray. It assumes that such a thing as collective responsibility exists and the only question presented is whether a particular basis for assigning such responsibility is one we should recognize or reject. When we actually examine the bases on which these assignments of alleged collective responsibility are made, however, we find that even though causal responsibility may be lacking, the assignments still draw their moral force from the acts or omissions of the individuals held responsible. To avoid confusing what are really justifications for imposing individual responsibility with those for imposing collective responsibility, we must accordingly redefine our notion of individual responsibility to include both causal responsibility and its substitutes, and then back these fundamentally individual-based justifications out. What will be left is a conception of pure collective responsibility, one that has only two conditions: that there be an underlying wrong, and that the individual held responsible be a member of the group to which the actual wrongdoer belongs. Under this conception, all members of the wrongdoer’s group, including those whom we would not hesitate to characterize as civilians and even children can be held responsible for a wrong committed by any one of them. As we shall see, it is this conception of collective responsibility on which the morality of terrorism-as-retribution ultimately depends.

But perhaps the terrorist need not resort to such a broad conception of collective responsibility in order to justify his acts of retribution. After all, many moral theorists are willing to concede that some civilians are not innocent of wrongdoing even if collective responsibility includes only the substitutes for causal responsibility that we already accept. Why these substitutes for causal responsibility are better understood as bases for assigning individual rather than collective responsibility, and why these substitutes for causal responsibility are not broad enough to justify the most heinous acts of terrorism-as-retribution in any event, is the topic we turn to next.


One possible basis for assigning moral responsibility despite the absence of causal responsibility is consent. If someone agrees to be responsible for the wrongdoing of another, or perhaps even if he has merely allowed others to reasonably believe he has entered into such an agreement, there is arguably nothing unjust about holding him responsible for any injury that results. Indeed, this is arguably what undergirds our willingness to impose agent-principal liability, and few people are inclined to take issue with the moral appropriateness of that. And we have no problem enforcing agreements to answer for the debt of another, at least once someone has relied thereon. The circumstances under which such an agreement should be deemed to exist may be controversial, of course, and whether the responsibility that arises should be treated as true moral responsibility or mere legal liability may be controversial too, but it is not inconceivable that in the right circumstances a claim for moral responsibility could be made out.

But this does not make consent-based responsibility collective rather than individual. While the usual causal connection between the wrong and anything the party ultimately held responsible did is missing, it is that party’s own voluntary act (giving his consent) that justifies assigning responsibility, not his membership in a group to which the wrongdoer also happens to belong. To the extent that the argument from consent has any moral force, it is because it is actually rooted in traditional notions of individual responsibility. It is not an argument for collective responsibility, and assignments of responsibility that rely on it are not examples of collective responsibility in action.

This is why the argument from consent cannot be used to justify terrorism-as-retribution. Surely none of the terrorist’s civilian targets have expressly consented to be personally responsible for the allegedly wrongful acts of their national or ethnic or religious group. Nor can we imply such consent from voting or other acts of political participation without encountering the same well-known problems that arise when implied consent is used to try to justify political obligation. And while hypothetical consent may explain political obligation, it can provide no similar service here, for it is hard to see why free and rational citizens in some sort of original position would think it in their interest to consent to personally answer for wrongdoing by any one of them or by their nation. As an argument for terrorism-as-retribution, the argument from consent accordingly fails, but not because it is an argument for collective responsibility-it fails because the kind of individual responsibility it requires cannot be made out on any reasonable interpretation of the facts.

Contributory Fault

Another possible basis for assigning moral responsibility despite the absence of causal responsibility is contributory fault. An individual who has not directly caused a wrong may nevertheless have contributed to it by providing various kinds of material, financial, emotional, or political support. This is the kind of moral responsibility that underlies aiding and abetting liability, and we generally think of this kind of moral responsibility as unproblematic. Alternatively, the individual may have made the commission of the wrong more likely simply by joining with others to form a conspiracy with wrongful aims. This is the kind of moral responsibility that underlies co-conspirator liability, and again, we generally think of this kind of responsibility as unproblematic. Finally, the individual may have failed to prevent wrongdoing even though he could have done so without exposing himself to a significant risk of harm. As Karl Jaspers said, “passivity knows itself morally guilty of every failure, every neglect to act whenever possible, to shield the imperiled, to relieve wrong, to counter-vail.” And while we generally do not impose legal liability for such passive contributions to the wrongdoing of others, we often do assign moral responsibility.

Because there will often be a number of causal contributors in these cases, our willingness to hold each contributor morally responsible looks like a willingness to assign collective responsibility. But in each case, the moral force behind the assignment of responsibility comes from the acts or omissions of the group member held responsible-either the provision of assistance to those engaged in active wrongdoing, the voluntary participation in a conspiracy with wrongful aims, or the failure to act when we think there is a moral requirement to do so, and not from group membership alone. While such individuals have not directly caused a wrong, they have knowingly facilitated its commission in a meaningful way, and under well-established methods of moral reasoning we may accordingly subject them to retribution as long as the amount of retribution taken is proportionate to their individual causal contribution.

It is easy to see terrorism-as-retribution as simply a misguided attempt to rely on this causal contribution form of moral responsibility, even though it is fundamentally individual rather than collective. Indeed, terrorists often claim that each member of their target group has in some way causally contributed to that group’s wrongdoing. But most groups that terrorists attack are not composed exclusively or even predominantly of voluntary members. The “increasing the danger of wrongful conduct” argument that supports imposing moral responsibility on those who join criminal conspiracies but commit no wrongful acts themselves is accordingly not generally available to the terrorist. And while some group members could be characterized as aiders and abettors for providing political or economic support or for simply not protesting vociferously enough against the wrongs in question, this would not be true of all members of the target group, at least in many cases. Certainly children could not reasonably be considered causal contributors, yet terrorists rarely exclude children as targets of retribution. And the contributions of many of those who are causal contributors are typically minimal and indirect. While they may bear some responsibility for the harms their contributions helped create, they do not bear the same responsibility as those whose contributions were more substantial and direct. Some punishment may be imposed upon them, but as many theorists argue, not the amount that would be due more important causal contributors, and certainly not the amount imposed by a terrorist attack. In most cases, this purported justification for terrorism-as-retribution accordingly fails, but once again, not because it is based on a conception of collective responsibility-it fails because it is based on a conception of individual responsibility that ties the degree of punishment imposed to the degree of one’s causal contribution and this requirement has typically not been met.

The Receipt of Benefits

Another argument sometimes used to justify the assignment of collective responsibility is that even though the individuals held responsible may not have caused or contributed to the wrong at issue, they have all benefited from it. In essence, this benefit is the fruit of a poisonous tree, and all those who feed on it are morally tainted by the wrong that created it. All white people, for example, even those who did not engage in or approve of such wrongful acts, currently benefit from centuries of discrimination, exploitation, and enslavement of people of color, and their continuing receipt of these benefits helps fuel contemporary claims for reparations. Similarly, many people in the Islamic world believe that all Westerners currently benefit from equally long-standing acts of humiliation, degradation, and oppression of the Islamic political community. This not only helps fuel hatred against the West, it also seems to justify punishment of all those living in the West, regardless of their lack of causal responsibility for the wrongs that produced such benefits.

If the benefits involved were excludable-if people could avoid receiving them simply by exercising self-restraint-then any responsibility that attached to the failure to do so would be individual, not collective. But even when the benefits involved are nonexcludable, it is important to remember that not every member of the group benefits to the same degree. All current Americans, for example, benefit to some extent from the many wrongs inflicted over the years on the Native-American population, but those who actually own or enjoy income from wrongfully appropriated Native-American land benefit more, and some much more. Relying on the receipt of benefits as a moral justification for retribution accordingly requires that we make distinctions between individuals based on the share of benefits each receives. Any responsibility that flows from this would accordingly again be individual, not collective.

There also does not seem to be any reason why the receipt of benefits alone should make each member of the collective responsible for the wrongdoing that produced these benefits. We do not think that someone who receives stolen goods, for example, is punishable for the theft itself. To the extent that the receipt of benefits of a moral wrong is itself a moral wrong, it is a separate and independent moral wrong. Yet the retribution the terrorist seeks to exact is retribution for the original wrong, the wrong that produced these benefits, not the wrong that arises from their subsequent receipt. Under any form of measure, the amount of retribution due for the original wrong will vastly exceed that due for the mere receipt of an undifferentiated portion of its benefits. As a justification for terrorism-as-retribution, the receipt of benefits argument accordingly fails, but once again, not because it is an argument for collective responsibility-it fails because except in rare cases, the degree of individual responsibility it does support will not justify terrorism-as-retribution on the facts.

The Possession of Morally Repugnant Beliefs and Dispositions

Yet another argument sometimes used to justify imposing collective responsibility is that all those in the offending group allegedly possess morally repugnant beliefs and dispositions. The thought here is that by harboring such beliefs and dispositions, even members of the group who manage to resist their darker impulses and act correctly contribute to a climate in which wrongful acts by some members of their group are likely to occur. But even assuming that contributing in this way to an increased risk of harm supplies a moral warrant for punishment, there is a problem in using group membership as a proxy for this. While there may be some empirical basis for attributing specific morally repugnant beliefs and dispositions to small, voluntary organizations with well-defined objectives like the KIu Klux Klan, the alleged connection between group membership and morally repugnant beliefs and dispositions is in most cases based on racial, religious, or ethnic stereotypes that are empirically dubious at best and often morally repellant. And even if group membership were an appropriate proxy for attributing particular beliefs and dispositions to group members, distinctions would still have to be made between those who merely harbor such beliefs and those who act upon them. It is accordingly hard to see how the mere possession of morally repugnant beliefs and dispositions could justify the level of retribution the terrorist typically inflicts. In any event, any responsibility imposed would still be based on what each individual’s beliefs and dispositions were presumed to be, and would therefore once again be individual, not collective.

Collective Responsibility and the Responsibility of Collectives

There is one final distinction between individual and collective responsibility that I want to emphasize before I go on to discuss how the assignment of pure collective responsibility might be justified. Although it is often overlooked, there is a difference between holding a nation, corporation, association, or any other collective responsible for some wrong resulting from the acts of one or more of its members and holding an individual responsible for some wrong resulting from the acts of another member of his collective. Just because we can do one does not mean we can do the other. Nevertheless, people often refer to the type of responsibility assigned in both cases as collective responsibility. Some further vocabulary is then used to distinguish one kind of collective responsibility from the other. For example, Joel Feinberg calls collective responsibility that remains exclusively at the collective level “nondistributional,” while he calls collective responsibility that is passed through to each member of the collective “distributional.”

While the use of Feinberg’s taxonomy is now generally accepted, it has had some unfortunate effects. When we are trying to assign responsibility to a collective, the issues can be and often are purely metaphysical-what we need to explain is how an entity that is not a single, conscious, self-aware, decision-making being in the same way that individuals are can be morally responsible for anything. Some theorists, for example, claim that only individuals are capable of being morally responsible, and that it makes no sense to assign moral responsibility to collectives of any kind. Others think that it does make sense to hold collectives morally responsible if they have established decision-making procedures and members with oversight responsibilities, like nations and corporations, but deny that we can hold more loosely organized associations morally responsible no matter what wrongdoing has been committed by their members. Still others claim that even mobs and other collectives with no established decision-making procedures or organizational structures can be morally responsible if they have come together for some shared reason or objective. In any event, what is at issue in all these cases is the nature of the entity to which responsibility is sought to be assigned, and whether that entity has the kind of attributes that make it metaphysically possible for it to be held responsible for wrongdoing as if it were an individual even though it is not.

When we are trying to assign responsibility to someone purely because he is a member of the same collective to which the actual wrongdoer belongs, in contrast, the issues involved are necessarily normative-there is no need to explain how something that does not have the kind of free will and decision-making capabilities that humans have can be assigned moral responsibility, for mat is not what we are contemplating doing. What we need to explain is how one individual can be morally responsible for the wrongdoing of another when the only connection between them is that they are both members of the same collective. The issues involved in assigning responsibility to a collective can be normative too, but only when we are trying to assign responsibility to a collective for the wrongdoing of its members purely because they are members of the collective and not because they are agents of it in some accepted sense. There are metaphysical difficulties in the latter enterprise as well, for we must still decide whether the entity involved is the kind of entity to which responsibility can be assigned, but there are no normative difficulties in assigning responsibility to collectives in any other case. At least there are no special normative difficulties-if collectives can be morally responsible for the acts and omissions of their agents, they are morally responsible in the same way and for the same reasons that individuals are responsible for the acts and omissions of their agents.

This is because it is the basis on which responsibility is assigned, not the number of individuals to whom it is assigned, which determines whether responsibility is individual or collective in the sense in which I am using these terms. As a normative matter, when responsibility is assigned to individuals or collectives based on causal responsibility or one of its substitutes, it is individual; only when it is assigned to individuals or collectives based on the group membership of the wrongdoer alone is it collective. By nevertheless referring to the responsibility of collectives as collective responsibility regardless of the basis on which it is assigned, we obscure the fact that no special normative issues may be in play, and more importantly, we risk creating the impression that some normative work is being done when this is not necessarily the case. Because we need not embrace collective responsibility in the normative sense in order to assign responsibility to collectives for the acts of members who can be considered agents of the collective, it is essential that we keep this distinction between collective responsibility and the responsibility of collectives firmly in mind.

For example, if we accept that it makes metaphysical sense to assign responsibility to collectives such as nations and believe that America’s invasion of Iraq was morally wrong, or that its soldiers or other agents committed wrongs in the course of carrying out the invasion or the subsequent occupation of Iraq, then America as a nation may be subjected to moral criticism for this. America may be required to pay compensation out of the national treasury, and it may even be subject to economic sanctions or other forms of punishment by the international community that would otherwise infringe its national rights or interests but for the wrongdoing in which it has been engaged. But neither the issuance of criticism, nor the demand for compensation, nor the imposition of punishment requires a commitment to collective responsibility in the normative sense. And this is true even if the punishment imposed on America as a collective has effects on individual Americans. Indeed, the punishment of an individual wrongdoer often has effects (and sometimes quite severe effects) on members of his family, but this does not make the responsibility assigned to him collective rather than individual. As long as the punishment is directed at assets, rights, or interests that are possessed by the collective as an entity rather than by individual members of the collective personally, no issue of collective responsibility in the normative sense is implicated.

It is the terrorist’s failure to limit his targets in this way, not the fact that he assigns blame to a collective, which puts the issue of collective responsibility in the normative sense potentially in play. While collectives may have assets, rights, and interests, they do not have physical bodies. Collectives are therefore not subject to the same range of punishments as individuals. Individual members of the collective cannot be imprisoned or physically attacked or killed or have their personal assets seized or destroyed as punishment for wrongdoing by the collective or its agents unless the individuals in question are personally responsible for that wrongdoing in some way. And to be personally responsible for that wrongdoing, they must be individually responsible for it under our notion of causal responsibility or one of its substitutes, or be collectively responsible for it in the normative sense based on their membership in the collective alone.

What this means is that we need not embrace collective responsibility in the normative sense to find key individuals in management and leadership positions personally responsible for the wrongdoing of their collectives. The corporate managers and members of the board of companies like Enron, for example, can and indeed should be held individually responsible for the wrongdoing of their companies given their substantial causal contributions to these wrongs, as can those lesser agents and employees who were directly involved in such wrongdoing. It is only when we try to hold otherwise uninvolved “rank-and-file” members of a collective personally responsible, as the terrorist does when he makes civilians and civilian objects the direct object of attack, that we must resort to normative notions of collective responsibility based on membership alone. Whether such a notion can indeed provide the requisite moral justification for terrorism-as-retribution is the question to which we now turn.

Can the Assignment of Collective Responsibility be Morally Justified?

The first thing we must recognize if we are to determine whether the assignment of collective responsibility can be morally justified is that answering this question is more difficult than many people seem to realize. We cannotsimply reject collective responsibility on the grounds that it fails to take adequate account of our individual moral agency unless we establish that individual moral agency is independently required, and this may not be possible to do. Causal responsibility and its established substitutes trigger moral responsibility because they all rely on a very specific conception of the fundamental social unit-an individualist conception-and it is from this conception that our notions of individual responsibility are derived. This conception lies at the heart of liberalism, and is therefore so predominant in our moral thinking that it is difficult to see how one could think of responsibility in any other way. But it is not the only conception on offer. Those who reject liberalism-and most contemporary terrorists would certainly fall into this category-often begin with a very different conception of the fundamental social unit, a communitarian conception, and if one begins with a conception of the community as the fundamental social unit one can derive a very different notion of responsibility indeed. Exactly how this works, and whether there are nevertheless arguments to be made about the morality of collective responsibility that do not assume that a communitarian conception of the fundamental social unit is incorrect are the topics I will examine next.

Two Conceptions of the Fundamental Social Unit

Every theory of morality begins with some conception of the fundamental social unit. By this I mean that every theory of morality is based on some view as to the identity of the ultimate subject of moral concern. The ultimate subject of moral concern is a social unit because it represents a view about how society is constructed, and what priorities we should adopt in regulating the relationships within it. This ultimate subject of moral concern could be the individual, or it could be the community, which of course can itself be variously defined, or it could be some mixture of the two (although I will not have anything to say about the consequences of adopting a mixed view here). It is important to note, however, that whatever view one adopts, the identity of the fundamental social unit is not derived from empirical observations about how individuals see themselves as constituted in the social world, although arguments for each view often include such claims. Rather, each view as to the identity of the fundamental social unit is a presupposition, an ordering from which various moral questions can be derived, based on decisions about how one should define the realm within which morality is to operate.

Liberalism, of course, has long been associated with individualism and the view that the individual is the fundamental social unit. But this does not mean liberals do not believe that community is valuable or that community is something government should foster and support. On the contrary, liberals commonly hold both beliefs. But community identity and values are cherished under liberalism because they are instrumental to the realization of individual identity and values, not because they are viewed as intrinsically valuable in themselves. Under liberalism, the priority of the individual is presupposed, and the community is accordingly seen as derivative of the individual, not the other way around.

It is because they view the individual as the fundamental social unit that liberals believe in individual responsibility, and often exclusively in individual responsibility, at least once this is properly redefined to include both causal responsibility and its substitutes. After all, if the individual is the fundamental social unit, then this is where responsibility must lie. The individual is the center of the moral universe, the initial cause of moral wrongs, and the ultimate recipient of their injurious effects. All human actions and reactive attitudes must therefore be evaluated from the individual’s point of view. If the individual is the fundamental social unit, each individual is responsible for his own acts and omissions and not for those of anyone else.

But the view that the individual is the fundamental social unit is controversial. Many reject this view in favor of one that takes the community, not the individual, to be the fundamental social unit. For those that hold this view, the community is not an aggregate of individuals; individuals are instantiations of their community. Communities do not derive their identities from the individuals that make them up; individuals derive their identities from the communities of which they are part. The individual is not prior to the community; the community is prior to the individual. Indeed, the individual exists and persists only as a part of a communal being, “as a river that flows into the ocean does indeed persist in the midst of the waters, but without name or personal identity.”

This view is often associated with communitarian theorists in the West, but even if these communitarians are not as committed to it as they are claimed to be, it has important adherents in the Middle East. Consider, for example, this excerpt from Sayyid Qutb’s Milestones, one the most important statements of the purpose, nature, and scope of the Islamic fundamentalist conception of jihad:

[The] Muslim community does not denote the name of a land in which Islam resides, nor is it a people whose forefathers lived under the Islamic system at some earlier time. It is the name of a group of people whose manners, ideas, and concepts, rules and regulations, values and criteria, are all derived from the Islamic source.

What this means is that for Qutb, a community can exist even if it has no members. It is prior to the individual, and individuals draw their identity from it, not the other way around. This is how Qutb can state that the Muslim community has been extinct for centuries, “crushed under the weight of those false laws and customs which are not even remotely related to the Islamic teachings, and which, in spite of all this, calls itself the ‘world of Islam’.” According to Qutb, the entire modern world, whether it calls itself Muslim or non-Muslim, is in a state of jahiliyyah, or ignorance of the Divine guidance. It has therefore necessary for a small “vanguard” to initiate a movement of Islamic revival, to lift this veil of ignorance and bring the wayward home to their community, which can then reassert its rightful place as the leader of the world. For Qutb and those inspired by him, the primary role of morality is accordingly not the protection of the individual and his autonomy, as liberals seem to believe, but the protection of the community and the bonds that hold the community together.

This view has a number of important consequences, but the one that is of interest to us here is that imposing collective responsibility for at least intercommunal wrongs seems to flow from this. If the community is the fundamental social unit, then this is where responsibility ultimately resides-there is nowhere further back along the chain of responsibility to go. Individuals are to be viewed not as moral ends-in-themselves, but as moral nerve endings, the means by which the community experiences the outside world and expresses the moral character of these experiences. Given the communal nature of their moral identity and character, when a member of the community is wronged by an outsider, all are wronged, and when a member of the outsider’s community is punished for this wrong, all are punished, for in each case all experience the suffering of every one. But most importantly, when one member of a community commits a wrong against a member of another, all members of the wrongdoer’s community are equally responsible for that wrong, for each member of the community is an expression of its moral center. All intercommunal wrongs are therefore wrongs for which each member of the wrongdoer’s community can be justly punished even though he or she is not causally or in any other way individually responsible for that wrong.

Note that this eliminates the need for any further justification of the assignment of responsibility to each member of the collective. The assignment of such responsibility requires a transfer of responsibility from the wrongdoer to another-a transfer that must be justified-only if we view the individual as the fundamental social unit. If we view the community as the fundamental social unit, the guilt of one is the guilt of all as a conceptual rather than a contingent matter. We do not need to rely on causal responsibility or any of its substitutes to provide a justification for a transfer of responsibility, for no such transfer is taking place. If the community is the fundamental social unit, responsibility simply belongs to each member of the community by reason of his or her membership alone.

Not only does viewing the community as the fundamental social unit support the assignment of responsibility to group members who have not individually committed or contributed to the wrong, it also explains why group members cannot rely on individual grounds for absolution. If responsibility is collective, the only relevant defenses are those that are equally available to every member of the collective. Persons who oppose the wrongful policies and actions of the groups of which they are members do not thereby generate immunity for themselves from punishment for these wrongs, for any punishment imposed on them as individuals is not directed at them as individuals-they are merely bearers of that punishment, the method by which it is inflicted on the community as a whole.

Indeed, this explains what would otherwise be the incomprehensible selection of targets by some terrorists. Take, for example, the case of Margaret Hassan, a woman of Anglo-Irish descent who was abducted and killed by terrorists in Iraq even though she was married to an Iraqi, had lived in Iraq for over 20 years, worked for an Iraqi aid organization, and vigorously opposed both the imposition of sanctions against Iraq and the country’s eventual invasion. If any non-native Iraqi should have been spared retribution for the wrongs about which her abductors complained, she should have been. But in the eyes of her abductors, her responsibility for these wrongs was collective, not individual. Because her responsibility was not the product of her individual acts, her individual acts could not relieve her of that responsibility. Indeed, there was nothing she could have done to escape responsibility for the wrongs committed by the group of which she was deemed a member. Her abduction and murder was not personal, directed at wrongs she had committed as an individual, it was communal, directed at her only because she was seen, rightly or wrongly, as a member of the wrongdoer’s community.

Is Membership a Sufficiently Determinate Moral Category?

What I have shown is that by viewing the community rather than the individual as the fundamental social unit we can derive a concept of collective responsibility that does not require causal contribution or any other individual act or omission-only membership in the same group as the wrongdoer. But is the concept of group membership sufficiently determinate to function as a moral category, as a basis on which moral responsibility can be assigned? The problems associated with determining group membership are certainly notorious, especially where racial, religious, and ethnic groups are concerned. How do we decide who is black or white, Jewish or Christian, British or Iraqi? Are people of mixed backgrounds in a separate group, or are they members of each group with which they have connections, or only one? Can membership be voluntarily acquired and resigned, or can it be awarded and withdrawn only through procedures established by the group as a whole, or is it an immutable characteristic that is beyond anyone’s control? On what does this depend? If there are no objective principles available through which the bounds of membership can be determined, then any assignment of group membership must be arbitrary and capricious, leaving any attribution of collective responsibility based thereon lacking in moral force.

One possible solution to this problem is to determine membership according to a subjective “self-identification” test. A person would be a member of those groups (and only those) in which he considers himself a member. But this seems inconsistent with the idea of responsibility itself. Built into that idea is the notion that one cannot evade responsibility simply by failing to recognize the basis on which it is assigned. If I commit a wrong, I am individually responsible for that wrong even if I do not believe it is a wrong, for it is contrary to the essentially reactive nature of an assignment of responsibility to allow this to be determined by the potentially idiosyncratic notions of the putative wrongdoer himself. Whether I am collectively responsible for a given wrong therefore cannot depend on whether I consider myself a member of the relevant group.

But if we lack principled objective criteria to determine membership and we cannot rely on the subjective views of the wrongdoer to make membership determinate, any indeterminacy will have to be resolved by the subjective notions of those assigning collective responsibility to others. And indeed, this is how such questions seem to be resolved. Rather than allow their potential victims to determine their own membership status, terrorists act as the final arbiters of membership themselves. They decide who is American or British and who is not, they decide who is a true Muslim and who is not, and they decide who is a member of the wrongdoer’s group and who is not. Qutb, for example, argued that even those who profess to be Muslims are not true Muslims if they have been too influenced by the West, and therefore may be justly made the object of attack.

Of course, if we accept that questions of group membership are to be decided according to the subjective notions of those seeking retribution, assignments of group membership are bound to be controversial on some number of occasions. The question, then, is whether the inherently controversial nature of some of these subjective membership determinations is fatal to the concept of collective responsibility as a whole. Unfortunately, I am inclined to believe that it is not. In many cases, perhaps even most, determining group membership will not be controversial. Some people are clearly American, or British, or Western, or unbelievers. The fact that there may be irresolvable indeterminacies at the fringes of a moral category does not mean it cannot be justly applied at the core. Indeed, many other moral categories are subject to a similar degree of indeterminacy. Causation, for example, the bulwark of individual responsibility, is also subject to a fair degree of indeterminacy. In many cases, the common “but for” test for causation excludes those to whom we would assign causal responsibility, and includes others to whom we would not. But articulating a principle that explains our intuitive reactions in these cases and allows us to devise a better test for causation has proven difficult to do. While this may leave the precise scope of the category of causation uncertain, it does not seem to rob it of its moral significance. And I see no reason why the same cannot be said for membership. The scope of each category might be somewhat indeterminate and therefore sometimes controversial, but this alone would not render it morally unacceptable as a criterion for responsibility and retribution.

Collective Responsibility Taken Seriously

A more promising strategy for attacking the concept of collective responsibility may be to take it seriously, for it may have implications even its proponents are unwilling to accept. If so, we can accuse those who purport to embrace collective responsibility of moral inconsistency. Either they must accept its unpalatable implications, or they must acknowledge that they really do not believe in collective responsibility after all.

One such potentially unpalatable implication arises out of the interaction between collective responsibility and the doctrine of proportionality. If we recognize collective as well as individual responsibility, those who have been the victims of wrongdoing have greater latitude in satisfying their retributive desires than they would if we recognized individual responsibility alone, for they can seek retribution against any member of the wrongdoer’s community rather than only the individual wrongdoer himself. In determining the amount of punishment that can be imposed, however, this case is no different from any other-regardless of who is ultimately to be punished, the amount of punishment due is determined by the doctrine of proportionality. If the act for which retribution is due is murder, but the murderer has evaded capture, the murderer’s entire family cannot be killed, even if they are collectively responsible, for that would exceed the bounds of proportionality. But perhaps one member of the family could be. If this is done, however, and then the actual murderer is caught, is further retribution against the murderer himself morally permissible?

The answer, it seems, would be no. Recognizing collective responsibility does not authorize the imposition of more retribution than morality would otherwise permit; it merely affords those seeking retribution alternative targets for imposing the amount of retribution due. Once alternative targets are selected and the morally allowable amount of retribution taken, the retributive debt created by the wrong is discharged. If the person individually responsible for the wrong is subsequently apprehended, he must be allowed to go unpunished. If those who advocate the recognition of collective responsibility are unwilling to embrace this conclusion, then they are not taking collective responsibility seriously. And if they are not going to take the notion seriously, they are not morally entitled to take advantage of the wider scope of retributive targets that collective responsibility allows.

But what if the cumulative effect of the wrongs at issue were so serious and the resulting harm so great that the limits of proportionality could never be exceeded no matter how much punishment was imposed on the wrongdoer’s community? Suppose, for example, you believe that “the Jews” are collectively responsible for the murder of the Son of God, as, unfortunately, many people throughout the world still do. When we try to use the doctrine of proportionality to limit the scope of retribution to be imposed, we encounter problems. If all Jews are collectively responsible for the murder of the Son of God, presumably no amount of punishment could ever exceed the amount of retribution due. Indeed, such a crime would seem to justify the continuing punishment of the Jewish community until the end of time, or until all Jews are exterminated, whichever happens first. Because there are no limits to be exceeded here, those who hold all Jews collectively responsible for the murder of the Son of God can avoid ever having to confront the potential inconsistency between their belief in collective responsibility and their belief in the principle of proportionality.

The same problem arises with regard to terrorism-as-retribution. Many in the Islamic world believe that their political community has suffered centuries of humiliation, degradation, and violation by the West. We may deny that these perceived crimes are indeed crimes, but it is unlikely that those who consider themselves our victims will ever be persuaded by such denials, not least because this would probably require them to adopt our definition of what would constitute a moral crime and abandon theirs. The question of who bears responsibility for these crimes, however, is at least potentially open to debate, for this relies on moral presuppositions, such as the belief in the doctrine of proportionality, which we may actually share. But we have a problem here. Even though the doctrine of proportionality would impose some limit on the amount of retribution that could be exacted for these crimes, the alleged severity of these crimes makes it unlikely that this limit will soon be reached. Once again, those that seek retribution for these crimes would seem to be able to do so without having to confront any inconsistency between their belief in collective responsibility and their belief in proportionality.

The fact that people can sometimes avoid facing inconsistencies in their beliefs, however, does not mean that these inconsistencies do not exist. Even if one were to hold an entire community responsible for wrongs only when these were so serious that the limits of proportionality were likely never to be reached, one would not be morally entitled to do so if one were not prepared to respect the limits that proportionality imposes in other circumstances. In other words, proportionality imposes a conceptual limit on the amount of retribution due, not merely a contingent one. For those not prepared to respect these limits, their embrace of collective responsibility smacks of moral opportunism and represents a mere disguise for prejudice, an attempt to avoid the bounds of morality, not a principled method of defining them.

Of course, some terrorists would reject the idea that proportionality imposes a moral limit on what can be done in the name of retribution. Instead of seeking the metaphorical eye for an eye and employing a strategy of tit for tat, they would claim that morality allows them to impose far greater suffering on those morally responsible for wrongdoing than the suffering caused by the wrongdoers themselves, a strategy I have elsewhere labeled “the Chicago way.” The thinking behind this strategy is that an excessive response is more intimidating, and therefore more effective for deterring future violations than a proportionate response. For those who hold this view, taking collective responsibility seriously poses no problem because they are not trying to use it to avoid the limits of proportionality. Instead, they reject proportionality as a fundamental moral presupposition and embrace the over-retaliation of the Chicago way for independent reasons, reasons that arise out of a fundamental reconception of the moral basis for retaliation itself.

While I do not believe that excessive retaliation can be morally justified in this way, I will not argue this position here, for even if I am right about this, the charge of moral inconsistency would still not be available against everyone who claims to believe in collective responsibility. Some people who embrace collective responsibility are no doubt prepared to take it seriously on a conceptual as well as a contingent basis and to allow an actual wrongdoer to go unpunished once the limits of proportionality have been reached through punishment of the wrongdoer’s community. The charge of moral inconsistency and the opportunism it reveals are accordingly alone not enough to establish that collective responsibility is morally unjustified. To prove this, I must show that collective responsibility is not merely inconsistent with some of our commonly held moral notions, it is morally indefensible. And to do that, I must return to the argument from consequences.

A Return to the Argument from Consequences

Because the argument that provides the prima facie justification for the assignment of collective responsibility is a deontological argument-the view that the community, not the individual, is the fundamental social unit-it would seem to be immune to the argument from consequences. Indeed, the essence of deontological moral reasoning is the belief that morality sometimes requires (or at least permits) us to act or refrain from acting even when doing otherwise would have better consequences. But this does not mean that consequences are irrelevant to deontological moral judgments. As Rawls notes, “deontological theories are defined as nonteleological ones, not as views that characterize the lightness of institutions and acts independently from their consequences. All ethical doctrines worth our attention take consequences into account in judging lightness. One which did not would simply be irrational, crazy.” While consequences are not determinative in deontological moral theories, they nevertheless have moral weight. At least in extreme cases, deontological moral judgments are not absolute. When the consequences of recognizing or applying certain deontologically derived rules of conduct would be overwhelmingly bad, we have reason to reject them.

The belief in collective responsibility is such a belief. Note that I am not suggesting that retribution against those deemed collectively responsible for certain wrongs is morally impermissible merely because it is often counterproductive to the interests of those in whose name retribution is supposedly being sought. This would simply be the standard argument from consequences, and that kind of argument from consequences is not sufficient to overcome a deontologically derived moral belief. What I am suggesting is that the consequences of embracing a pure conception of collective responsibility are much worse than this. Some of the most heinous moral crimes in human history have been facilitated if not motivated by a belief in collective responsibility. The Nazi architects of the Final Solution, for example, sought to justify their actions at least in part by reference to a vast array of crimes and other moral wrongdoing supposedly engaged in by the “worldwide Jewish conspiracy” against the German people. Similarly, the perpetrators of the genocide in Rwanda sought to justify their actions by reference to numerous crimes allegedly committed by the Tutsi people, including the assassination of the Hutu president, an act that was in fact most likely committed by Hutu extremists. Indeed, there are far too many cases of genocide supposedly justified (at least in part) as collective responsibility-based acts of retribution to mention them all here, and the suffering of those caught up in these events is too extreme to be set forth in detail.

Of course, the causes of genocide are multifarious and complex, and I do not want to overstate the role that collective responsibility plays in this. The targets of genocide are typically seen not only as collectively responsible for a series of (what are often mostly imagined) crimes, but also as beings of lesser moral worth. Those engaged in acts of genocide typically see themselves as ridding the world of contemptible inhabitants as well as settling old scores. No doubt one belief supports the other, and both are probably necessary for acts of genocide to occur. One provides a reason for taking action against entire populations; the other explains why natural human sympathy and inhibitions against cruelty and barbarity are unlikely to prevent such action from taking place. The precise psychopathology of those who engage in genocide may be difficult to understand or even to identify. But it is undeniable that a belief in collective responsibility is one important part of it.

This is not to say that believing in collective responsibility will always produce such catastrophic results, or even that it will often do so. Attributions of collective responsibility may only lead to relatively minor, localized or even individualized acts of violence, and may even be used to justify the payment of reparations, which is why collective responsibility is sometimes attractive to those on the left. But attributions of collective responsibility have led to the wholesale murder, displacement, and oppression of entire peoples often enough that it should be obvious that a belief in collective responsibility cannot easily be controlled-given human nature, we must regard it as always presenting an invitation to evil, and reject it even though the consequences of its application might sometimes be relatively benign, or even beneficial.

Perhaps, however, this argument has moved too swiftly. Is a concept’s mere potential for abuse enough to warrant rejecting reliance on it in all circumstances? After all, other moral concepts that we generally accept can also be subject to abuse. Consequentialism itself, for example, can be used to justify some extremely unpalatable actions, perhaps even the extermination of whole populations, but most people are nevertheless prepared to apply this method of moral reasoning in many situations. If genocide is merely a contingent rather than a necessary consequence of the belief in collective responsibility, then perhaps this is not alone enough to make such a belief morally unacceptable.

But the consequences of embracing collective responsibility are also likely to be extremely negative in another way. When the community accused of collective responsibility is not in a position to defend itself, the accusation encourages the widespread oppression, displacement, and decimation of its members. When the accused community is in a position to defend itself, however, collective responsibility-based acts of retribution are most likely to produce an endless cycle of retaliation and counterretaliation that ultimately proves devastating for everyone involved.

To see why, let us consider the conditions under which notions of collective responsibility originally developed. At one time, people lived in small, tightly knit communities with little technological skill or resources. Within these communities, the social order was structured around family groups, since this was the smallest feasible unit within which people could survive. Given this structure, it was natural to think of the community as the fundamental social unit, for only by working together as a community could family groups and their individual members hope to thrive. Indeed, most assets were not individually owned, but were owned by family units or sometimes by the community as a whole. Compensation for intracommunal wrongs accordingly had to come from family units, not from individuals. And while punishment could be imposed on individuals, there were severe practical limitations on the community’s ability to investigate acts of wrongdoing and to identify, capture, and punish individual wrongdoers. These limitations were even more severe when the wrongs at issue were intercommunal, because the communities involved were often widely dispersed or highly mobile. Under such conditions, insisting on individual responsibility would effectively mean that many wrongs would go unpunished.

Accepting collective responsibility as a moral presupposition, on the other hand, had distinct advantages. It acted as a deterrent, for even individuals who thought they could personally escape punishment would refrain from misconduct if they did not want members of their family (or in the case of intercommunal wrongs, members of their community) punished in their place. And it ensured that there would be some outlet for the injured party’s retributive impulse even if the individual wrongdoer could not be caught and punished. This, in turn, promoted social order and stability, for if the desire for retribution were frustrated, it would be likely to fester and grow, and people harboring such feelings are less likely to be cooperative, even with those who did nothing to cause these feelings to arise. Believing in collective responsibility was accordingly a pragmatic response to primitive conditions that could be morally justified on consequentialist grounds because of its deterrent effect and overall contribution to both intracommunal and intercommunal social order.

In light of these pragmatic considerations, collective responsibility was an accepted form of moral responsibility until at least the latter part of the Middle Ages. As the identification, prosecution, and punishment of individual wrongdoers became easier, however, the pragmatic arguments that seemed to justify believing in collective responsibility began to fade, and as communities and even families became more atomized and individuals more capable of sustaining themselves without recourse to the assistance of others, it began to seem more natural to see the individual as the fundamental social unit. Eventually, there seemed to be little reason to believe in collective responsibility and, with the rise of individualism, good reason to reject it. For a long time now, it has accordingly been fashionable to dismiss the concept of collective responsibility as the relic of a tribal age that has been superseded by events, justifiable only under conditions that no longer hold.

But it is tempting to think that this might not be the case in the international arena. The investigation, prosecution, and punishment of the intercommunal wrongs of which the terrorist complains are at least arguably subject to the same problems that once beset primitive societies. It is not easy or even possible for those among the terrorist’s political community to identify, capture, or punish those they perceive as individual wrongdoers. International institutions that can and can be seen to fairly and effectively investigate and adjudicate such grievances arguably do not exist. So the terrorist might argue that taking retribution against those collectively responsible for such wrongs is the only form of retribution that present conditions will allow.

There is a key difference between the social conditions that characterized primitive societies, however, and those in which the terrorist and his political community find themselves under even the most generous of interpretations. To the extent that adopting collective responsibility as a moral convention actually did promote social order within and between primitive societies (itself a controversial issue), this was because all the relevant parties generally (although not necessarily universally) accepted it as a just and proper basis for taking retribution. In other words, holding a community collectively responsible for the acts of any of its members had whatever good effects it had precisely because that community already embraced the concept of collective responsibility on deontological grounds. Under such circumstances, punishment of the wrongdoer’s community rather than the wrongdoer himself was at least arguably more likely to settle controversies than to inflame them. If a wrongdoer’s community recognizes only individual responsibility, however, there is no consequentialist case to be made in favor of collective responsibility-based acts of retribution. Indeed, the exaction of retribution on anyone but the actual wrongdoer is almost certain to trigger retaliation, not acceptance, as the military response to the current wave of terrorism-as-retribution has made all too clear. In these circumstances-when the communities involved have asymmetric moral conventions regarding the assignment of responsibility-the reliance by one community on collective responsibility to justify acts of retribution is simply the opening shot in a potentially endless cycle of retaliation and counter-retaliation that is most likely to result in mutual devastation and destruction.

But like the argument against collective responsibility that is based on its potential for abuse, there is also a problem with the argument from asymmetry. Even if endless cycles of retaliation and counter-retaliation are the likely consequence when the communities involved have asymmetric moral conventions regarding the assignment of responsibility, this not only provides a reason for the community that embraces collective responsibility to reject it-it also provides a reason for the community that rejects collective responsibility to accept it. Why must the community that believes in collective responsibility be the one that has to abandon its beliefs? Both reasons are equally powerful, for either course of action would solve the asymmetry problem. Without some further reason for solving the asymmetry problem one way rather than the other, the mere fact that the consequences of such asymmetry are extremely unattractive does not by itself constitute a conclusive argument against collective responsibility, for it does not resolve the question of which conception of responsibility is correct.

There is another weakness in the argument from asymmetry as well. Lengthy cycles of retaliation and counter-retaliation can arise even between communities whose moral conventions regarding responsibility are symmetric. Whenever there is disagreement as to whether an initial wrong has been committed, for example, each side would believe it had been the victim of a wrong committed by the other and therefore had a continuing justification to retaliate. Indeed, disagreement as to who committed the initial wrong may be the more common cause of cycles of intercommunal violence. Accordingly, even when moral conventions regarding responsibility are symmetric, this will merely marginally reduce, not eliminate, the possibility that such cycles of violence could arise.

What all this means is that like the argument from indeterminacy and the argument from proportionality, the argument from consequences cannot deliver the knockout blow against collective responsibility that we have sought. The argument from consequences provides some reason to reject collective responsibility, but this reason is not conclusive. Once again, if we are going to prove that the assignment of collective responsibility is morally unjustifiable, we are going to have to supply a better argument than this. That argument, I submit, is that collective responsibility is self-defeating.

Is Collective Responsibility Self-defeating?

A theory (and, of course, any corresponding practice based thereon) is self-defeating when it is true that if people embrace the theory, its aims will be, on the whole, worse achieved. Sometimes a theory is indirectly self-defeating-that is, it is self-defeating because people who are disposed to act as it recommends will be less likely to actually act as it recommends. Many theories are self-defeating in this way. A theory that says you should try to be more spontaneous, for example, is indirectly self-defeating, for the more you try to be spontaneous the less likely you will succeed. But a theory can also be directly self-defeating-that is, it can be self-defeating even if people do manage to act as it recommends. A theory that says everyone’s life will go best if each always does whatever is most in his individual self-interest no matter what others do is self-defeating in this way, for in a decision situation that takes the form of a collective action problem, this will be worse for each than if everyone were willing to cooperate with others. In a Prisoner’s Dilemma, for example, each will be better off if everyone cooperates rather than defects, but everyone will defect if each does what is individually best for him. In either case, however, a theory that is self-defeating is condemned by its own terms, for the aims it seeks to further will be furthered more if we do not do or try to do as the theory recommends. Accordingly, if a theory is self-defeating, we have good reason to reject it.

To determine if collective responsibility is self-defeating, in theory and in practice, our first step is to identify what the aims of embracing collective responsibility might be. To do this, it is important to remember that both individual and collective responsibility are fundamentally conceptions of responsibility full stop. All conceptions of responsibility are designed to enable us to distinguish between harms that “just happen” and the kind of harms for which we think people are morally responsible-harms that are connected in some way to the acts or omissions of human agents, at least in part. For those who believe in individual responsibility, this connection is provided by causal responsibility and its substitutes. For those who believe in collective responsibility, this connection is again provided by causal responsibility and its substitutes, but in cases in which this connection is present, a further sufficient connection is provided by group membership. In other words, the class of persons held collectively responsible (and remember, I am using the term collective responsibility here to refer to the normative issues involved in the assignment of responsibility to individuals based on group membership, not to the metaphysical issues involved in the assignment of responsibility to collectives) include both that set of individuals who are causally responsible for the harm or connected to it by some substitute for causal responsibility and those who are members of the group to which this first set of people happen to belong. The class of persons in the latter category will usually be much larger, but the ultimate aim of assigning responsibility to those in either category is the same. Whether we are assigning responsibility to people for their own acts and omissions or for the acts and omissions of others within their group, our aim is to provide guidelines for all on how they should behave and to encourage all to conform their behavior to these guidelines by threatening to impose sanctions (including but not limited to the sanction of moral regret) on those responsible for any deviations. The belief in collective responsibility is accordingly indirectly self-defeating if having such a be lief is likely to make people less inclined to follow the dictates of morality instead of more, and directly self-defeating if acting on such belief is likely to make people more likely to violate the dictates of morality rather than comply.

In my view, there is good reason to believe that collective responsibility is indirectly if not directly self-defeating. Believing that people are collectively responsible for the wrongdoing of each member of their group as well as for their own wrongs means believing that people should be judged according to the worst behavior of each member of their group. Believing in collective responsibility (and believing that others will act on such a belief) accordingly turns morality into a public space, a behavioral commons where all bear the costs of moral wrongdoing (in the form of exposure to feelings of guilt and the risk of punishment) but only the individual wrongdoer (at least in most cases) will be able to enjoy whatever benefits are to be had from the wrong itself. The incentives that a belief in collective responsibility creates are therefore the incentives of the Tragedy of the Commons. In smaller groups, where the prospect of preventing others from succumbing to the temptation that wrongdoing presents has a substantial probability of success, the fear of sanctions may provide sufficient incentive for everyone to behave properly and to take whatever steps they can to ensure that their neighbors do as well. But in larger groups, it will be almost impossible to ensure that every member of the group conforms his behavior to the dictates of morality. In these circumstances, each member reasons that even if he behaves properly, some members of his group will not. He will therefore be subject to punishment and feelings of guilt in any event, so why not at least try to capture some of the benefits of wrongdoing by engaging in wrongdoing himself? What we have done is create a collective action problem that encourages people to act in ways we are actually trying to prevent.

It is important to note that the problem here is not that people are less likely to feel responsible for their own misconduct if they feel that others will be held collectively responsible for that misconduct as well, as some theorists seem to believe. People who embrace collective responsibility-that is, people who internalize the sense of responsibility it reflects and take that sense of responsibility seriously-actually have more reason to feel responsible for their own misconduct, not less, for they are both individually responsible for it and collectively responsible for it as members of their group. Rather than allowing such people to avoid a sense of responsibility, the problem with believing in collective responsibility is that it actually encourages people to feel responsible and subject to punishment even when they have personally behaved correctly and have no influence or control over those who have not. Because avoiding responsibility is no longer within their ability to control, avoiding responsibility no longer provides the incentive it otherwise would to refrain from personal misconduct. Embracing collective responsibility accordingly undermines the very concept of responsibility itself, for it encourages people to disregard rather than obey the strictures of morality.

Now I am not so naïve as to believe that this argument is likely to convince a would-be terrorist that his conception of collective responsibility is self-defeating and that any acts of retribution he might base thereon would be morally indefensible. Those who are prepared to seek retribution by attacking civilians and civilian objects are already past the point of being amenable to reasoned moral argument. Their beliefs are fixed, and are probably immune to re-evaluation no matter what new arguments or evidence they encounter. But the larger community from which they come, and which has some sympathy with their aims but also some qualms about their methods, are not necessarily immune. They are amenable to reasoned moral argument, and there is some hope that if they realize that their belief in collective responsibility is self-defeating, they may be more willing to abandon it. And if they do abandon it, or at least begin to question whether such a notion is morally defensible, perhaps the supply of those willing to engage in collective responsibility-based acts of violence will begin to dwindle. Until that time, it is essential that we take the notion of collective responsibility more seriously, and resist the temptation to ignore the issue merely because we find acts of terrorism based thereon so indisputably abhorrent. Collective responsibility is a dangerous notion, and dangerous notions only tend to spread when we fail to seriously engage those who would promote them.