Collective responsibility  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Collective responsibility also known as collective guilt is a concept in which individuals are responsible for other people's actions by tolerating, ignoring, or harboring them, without actively collaborating in these actions.


In religion

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 interpretations, 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 to state that there were no innocent people, or children too young to be responsible for their deeds.

The practice of blaming the Jews for Jesus' death is the longest example of collective responsibility. In this case, the blame was cast not only on the Jews of the time but upon successive generations. This comes from Matthew 27:25-66 New International Version (NIV) 25: "All the people answered, 'His blood is on us and on our children!'"

Collective punishment

Collective responsibility in the form of collective punishment is often used as a disciplinary measure in closed institutions, e.g. boarding schools (punishing a whole class for the actions of one known or unknown pupil), military units, prisons (juvenile and adult), psychiatric facilities, etc. The effectiveness and severeity of this measure may vary greatly, but it often breeds distrust 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 punishment is also practiced in situation of war, economic sanctions, etc., presupposing the existence of collective guilt. Collective guilt, or guilt by association, is the controversial collectivist idea that groups of humans can bear guilt above and beyond the guilt of individual members, and hence an individual holds responsibility for what other members of their group have done, even if they themselves didn't do this. Contemporary systems of criminal law accept the principle that guilt shall only be personal. Others view groups as being entities in themselves (an entitative group), capable of holding guilt or responsibility independent of any of the group's members.

The mass shootings of Nicholas II's family in 1918 may be regarded as an example of such an approach.

Terror groups of all kinds bomb civilians who are seen as collectively responsible for the acts of their leaders. The state level bombing of civilians became popular in the Twentieth Century although ancient warriors would often slaughter whole cities if they resisted demands for capitulation or tribute.

During the occupation of Poland by Nazi Germany, the Germans applied collective responsibility: any kind of help given to a person of Jewish faith or origin was punishable by death, and that not only for the rescuer but also for his/her family. During the occupation, for every German killed by a Pole, 100-400 Poles were shot in retribution. Communities were held collectively responsible for the purported Polish counter-attacks against the invading German troops. Mass executions of łapanka hostages were conducted every single day during the Wehrmacht advance across Poland in September 1939 and thereafter.

Another example is when after the war, ethnic Germans in Central and Eastern Europe were held collectively responsible for Nazi crimes, resulting in numerous atrocities against the German population, including killings (see Expulsion of Germans after World War II and Beneš decrees).

In business

As the business practices known as corporate social responsibility (CSR) and sustainability mature and converge with the responsibilities of governments and citizens, the term "collective responsibility" is beginning to be more widely used.

Collective responsibility is widely applied in corporations, where the entire workforce is held responsible for failure to achieve corporate targets (for example, profit targets), irrespective of the performance of individuals or teams which may have achieved or overachieved within their area. Collective punishment, even including measures that actually further harm the prospect of achieving targets, is applied as a measure to 'teach' the workforce. Where corporate targets are achieved, however, rewards are carefully targeted to those perceived by management to have contributed, often disproportionately concentrated at senior management levels. The impact on morale of this practice is commonly ignored as it is not measurable on balance sheets.

In culture

The concept of collective responsibility is present in 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.

1959's Ben-Hur and 1983's prison drama Bad Boys depict collective responsibility and punishment. The play 'An Inspector Calls' by J.B Priestley also features the theme of collective responsibility throughout the investigation process.


In ethics, both methodological individualists and normative individualists question the validity of collective responsibility.

Methodological individualists challenge the very possibility of associating moral agency with groups, as distinct from their individual members, and normative individualists argue that collective responsibility violates principles of both individual responsibility and fairness. (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

Normally, only the individual actor can accrue culpability for actions that they freely cause. The notion of collective culpability seems to deny individual moral responsibility. Does collective responsibility make sense? 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, tribe, ethnic group, religion, or nation.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Collective responsibility" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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