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Collective responsibility (doctrine)

Collective responsibility is a concept or doctrine, according to which individuals are to be held responsible for other people's actions by tolerating, ignoring, or harboring them, without actively collaborating in these actions.

This concept is found in the Old Testament (or Tanakh), some examples include the account of the Flood, the Tower of Babel, Sodom and Gomorrah and in some interpetations, the Book of Joshua's Achan. In those records entire communities were punished on the act of the vast majority of their members, however it is impossible that there weren't any innocent people, or children too young to be responsible for their deeds.

The practice of blaming "the Jews" for the death of Jesus is another example of collective responsibility. In this case, the blame was cast not only on the Jews of the time but upon successive generations.

The concept is also present in Western literature, most notably in Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner", a poem telling the tale of a ship's crew who died of thirst because they approved of one crew member's killing of an albatross.

Collective responsibility, in the form of group punishment, is often used as a disciplinary measure in closed institutions, such as boarding schools, military units, prisons, psychiatric facilities, etc. The severity and effectiveness of this measure may vary greatly, but it often breeds suspicion and isolation among their members, and is almost always a sign of authoritarian tendencies in the institution or its home society. For example, in the Soviet Gulags, all members of a brigada (work unit) were punished for bad performance of any of its members.

Collective guilt, or guilt by association, is the controversial collectivist idea that a group of humans can bear guilt above and beyond the guilt of particular members, and hence an individual holds responsibility for what other members of his group have done, even if they themselves didn't do this. Advanced systems of criminal law accept the principle that guilt shall only be personal. This attitude is not usually shared by other systems of law. Assumption of collective responsibility is common for feud. Such systems tend to judge the guilt of persons by their associations, classifications or organizations, which often gives rise to racial, ethnic, social and religious prejudices.[4] Collective guilt is regarded by some as impossible because it seems to presuppose that collections of humans can have traits, such as intentions and knowledge, that strictly speaking are claimed to be truly possessed only by individuals. The principle of collective guilt is totally denounced in libertarian social thinking. However, there are those who consider such judgements on collective guilt to be overly reductionistic and accept the existence of collective guilt, collective responsibility, etc. Sometimes the idea of collective guilt can be a form of association fallacy. History is filled with examples of a wronged man who tried to avenge himself, not only on the person who has wronged him, but on other members of the wrongdoer's family, ethnic group, religion, nation, tribe, or military. The mass shootings of Nicholas II's family in 1918 is one real life example, while 1959's Ben-Hur and 1983's prison drama Bad Boys are two cultural examples of this. Likewise collective punishment is often practiced in different settings, including schools (punishing a whole class for the actions of a single unknown pupil) and, more transcendentally, in situation of war, economic sanctions, etc, presupposing the existence of collective guilt.

It has been suggested by Werner Cohn that the accusation that others apply "guilt by association" is itself a fallacy, for two reasons:

  1. The term "guilt" is ambiguous. Sometimes it applies to criminal guilt, which requires a very high standard of proof ("proof beyond a reasonable doubt"). But more often, "guilt" refers to various shortcomings that require lesser standards.
  2. "Association" is also ambiguous. Sometimes "association" may be totally innocent, such as the association of fellow travelers on a train. But other kinds of association, for instance criminal conspiracy, are not at all innocent.

The idea of collective guilt became popular in Western World since the 1960s, as many historical injustices, including e.g. slavery in the United States, has been perceived by intelligentsia as faults of the society requiring retribution on behalf of those who had nothing to do with them (see e.g. Reparations for slavery and White guilt).[5][6][7][8]

Terrorism is commonly rationalized by its practitioners on ideas of collective guilt and responsibility.[9] Many nations have laws holding corporations, but not the individual decision-makers within them, responsible for certain kinds of acts. For example, in the United States corporations can be fined for violating pollution laws, but the individuals who actually ordered and directed the polluting activity may not themselves be regarded as having broken any laws, since they act as corporate officers on behalf of the shareholders. This is generally known as the "corporate veil".

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