Individual and Collective Responsibility

In Zachary J. Goldberg (ed.), Reflections on Ethics and Responsibility: Essays in Honor of Peter A. French. Springer. pp. 1-20 (2017)
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Building on Peter French’s important work, this chapter draws three distinctions that arise in the context of attributions of moral responsibility, understood as the extent to which an agent is blameworthy or praiseworthy. First, the subject of an attribution of responsibility may be an individual agent or a collective agent. Second, the object of the responsibility attribution may be an individual action (or consequence) or a collective action (or consequence). The third distinction concerns the temporal dimension of the responsibility attribution. Sometimes responsibility for an action is attributed to an agent at the time of the action. At other times responsibility for an action is attributed to an agent sometime after the action has taken place. Taken together, these three binary distinctions yield eight types of responsibility attribution. It is argued that a collective agent’s responsibility for a past collective act is properly understood on the same theoretical model as is an individual’s responsibility for a past individual act. While most assume that responsibility over time is a straightforward matter of identity over time, it is argued that instead this is a matter of psychological or attitudinal connectedness. The possibility is considered that this relation also grounds attributions involving an asymmetry between subject and object, such as individual responsibility for past collective action, but a skeptical worry is raised that such attributions entail an unpalatable form of moral luck and should therefore be rejected.
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