Individual and Collective Responsibility

Collective Guilt, Restitution, and Action

Some philosophers are strict individualists and do not acknowledge that individuals can function as part of, or as representative of, a greater whole such as a state, tribe, religion, and so on. But some collective responsibility seems essential in terms of maintaining community identity. If a nation signs a treaty or a corporation agrees contractually to do something, individuals must act as representatives or members of these entities. Collective identity appears to be pivotal in nations making reparations for past wrongs. An interesting example is the case of post-WWII restitution (returning stolen property, compensation) for crimes done by a government, even when the government no longer exists, and is even outlawed.

An example of collective responsibility, with a focus on collective guilt, is the Christian doctrine of original sin. In Christian theology, the implications of “the fall” (the original disobedience of Adam and Eve in Genesis 1-3) are variously interpreted. The story of the fall is often referred to as the “Edenic” (after the Garden of Eden) or “Adamic” (after Adam) narrative. On one view, all subsequent humans were present in Adam (as primogenitor of humankind), and can be considered blameworthy in virtue of their having been there.

On another view, the teaching of original sin is given in terms of inheriting the results of wrong-doing. So, imagine that one of your ancestors impregnated your other ancestor by rape, and that you would not have been born had the (wrongful) conception not occurred. This gives rise to the following reasoning: the rape should not have occurred; you were born because of the rape; therefore you should never have been born. There are all sorts of replies to this line of reasoning, but it hints at why one might think of one’s very being as inheriting or giving rise to some regret. And of course, assuming one’s being born is the result of much love and goodness, one may think of oneself as inheriting ancestral blessings.

adam and eve