Responsibility, crime and terrorism

by Chris Bertram on October 13, 2003

Those interminable debates about whether criminals are to blame for their crimes or whether we should look to their circumstances are now repackaged as a standoff between those who want to hold terrorists responsible for their atrocities and those who look to root causes. The right answer, of course, is “both”. But here’s a simple and plausible model, entirely a priori , to help us to think about things.

Imagine a population who vary in their susceptibility to pressure. We can call the property in which they vary “virtue”. Some are so virtuous that no matter what the pressure, they never perform an evil act. Some are so vicious that even if the pressure is negative, they do vile things just for the hell of it. Most people are in between (since virtue is normally distributed). As pressure—caused by poverty, social dislocation, military occupation, whatever—rises, more and more of the population switch, given their underlying propensities, from virtuous to vicious actions.

When they perform those vicious actions, whatever the pressure, they should be held responsible. But we also want to say something about politicians (and others) who increase or decrease the pressure. Deliberately increasing the pressure—perhaps so as to attract political support from fearful voters—should also be something that gives rise to an ascription of responsibility.

Now it might seem odd to say that both the pressure increaser and the perpetrator are morally responsible for a vicious action. Or it might seem exculpatory to make that move since it might seem to reduce the perpetrator’s responsibility to the extent to which it accepts the pressurizer’s. But, happily, the mathematics of moral responsibility isn’t like that: two people can both be 100 per cent responsible for the same crime.

If you doubt that, consider the case of the drowning child whom ten swimmers—of which you are one—are well-placed to save. If the child drowns through your inaction are you only 1/10th responsible? If there had been 10 more would-be rescuers, would your responsibility have decreased proportionately? Clearly not: you are, in each case, completely responsible for the child’s death (and so is each of your fellow bystanders).

Obviously, there can be degrees of responsibility for crimes or acts of terrorism. The crucial point is, I think, that those degrees needn’t sum to 1 or to any other particular figure. And in blaming the perpetrators we needn’t be afraid to assign however much responsibility is due to those who produce the circumstances in which they perpetrate.



Matt Weiner 10.13.03 at 4:59 pm

Excellent, Chris. This is something that’s long bothered me.
I think another good example is egging someone on. If you’re thinking of committing some crime, and I urge you to do it, then I bear some (not 100%) moral responsibility for your crime, but you still bear 100% responsibility.


Tall 10.13.03 at 5:24 pm

So are you saying that the government, which represents us, Who we put and keep in power, are as responsible for all the deaths in Sept. 11th,the war in Iraq, and continued warfare across the globe? We are responsible for allowing ourselves to allow this inexcusable governments part in
deliberately making this world as horrible and oppressive a place for a huge number of people, all so that they can maintain their power, and to live in comfort. I think we should apply ourselves to take the right and the responsibility to make this a democracy, where every voice is heard but they speak as a group. If we all can make this
world as horrible and oppressive as it is, I think we have the ability, and responsibility
to make it as equal and responsible as possible.




Norman Geras 10.13.03 at 5:28 pm

It’s an elegant demonstration of the point, Chris: the point, that is, about ‘the mathematics of moral responsibility’. But there’s another point here; it’s not about the moral responsibility of the direct participants, but about the reactions and judgements of those who debate this.

Adapt the swimmer example. One drowning child, ten potential rescuers. Now suppose an ultra-rich guy standing at the side of the pool offering hefty rewards to the swimmers if they don’t save the child. And, as it turns out, none of them does. Now imagine a group from the ‘chattering classes’ (used for short, not pejoratively) who only blame the rich guy; or who in effect only blame him, by mumbling a quick remark about the badness of the swimmers’ reaction and then devoting whole paragraphs and indeed lengthy articles to the awfulness of what the rich guy did; or by treating his conduct as somehow more really the key factor in the drowning than what the swimmers all did – or in fact didn’t.


Chris 10.13.03 at 5:36 pm

Tall: No, I’m not saying that.


J. Ellenberg 10.13.03 at 5:46 pm

At the risk of wandering into an area far outside my expertise–Norman, what if the ultra-rich guy also had a gun and, instead of offering money for not rescuing the child, promises to kill whoever rescues the child (but after the rescue, so the rescue would still take effect?)

Something’s funny here; on the one hand, either way the rich guy is offering the swimmers a big reward (either money or not being killed) for not rescuing the child. But the two situations feel rather different, right? Maybe because the “pressure” imposed here is such that that the vicious act of not rescuing the child becomes the apparently less vicious act of not sacrificing one’s own life to rescue the child.

I imagine there’s something to be worked out about which acts, under what circumstances, have different viciousness under different pressures; this is relevant to Chris’s original question, right?


Chris 10.13.03 at 5:47 pm

Norm, I know where you’re coming from here. And I agree with you that when the Guardian goes on at length about, say, Ariel Sharon and merely makes a few ritualistic mumbles about what suicide bombers do, that speaks volumes about the attitudes of the journalist concerned.

But I don’t think your adaptation to make that point is a felicitous one. Sadly, the indifferent swimmers, the bystanders who let bad things happen are not all that newsworthy. A rich person who paid people to be indifferent would be acting in a pretty extraordinary fashion and for such an event to be written about at length wouldn’t IMHO display great moral perversity on the part of the writers.


Norman Geras 10.13.03 at 6:02 pm

Chris, I agree, the example’s a bit bizarre. But it was aimed at illuminating a single point: that what’s currently at issue in arguments of this kind is more than just the mathematics of the responsibility of participants; it’s also about the uneven way in which responsibility gets ascribed – and whereby some participants are effectively exonerated who shouldn’t be.

J.E., I think the threat of death takes the blame away from the swimmers, though not everyone would think so. In any case, many swimmers who, under threat of death, didn’t go to the child’s rescue, would feel guilty afterwards, whether you judge them as being blameworthy or not. See, for example, what Primo Levi (in If This Is A Man and The Drowned and the Saved) and others have said about the sequel after standing by, powerless, to public hangings in the death camps.


pathos 10.13.03 at 6:43 pm

While Chris is absolutely right in the abstract, the problem, I think, comes in looking at the “reasons” for the terrorist attacks.

Problem A is when the “reason” is just whatever your pet cause is, e.g., “They attacked us because we wouldn’t sign the Kyoto Protocols,” which is simply false. The fact that there was so much of that in the months after September 11 showed various interest groups “using” 9/11 to do what they were doing already. This is the smaller issue, however.

Problem B is, I think, more interesting. Let’s say They attacked Us because they oppose some combination of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, financial support to Israel, increased globalization, pressure to increase freedoms (both social and economic) in repressive areas.

Let’s say that, after “looking at the circumstances,” we conclude that all those things They attacked Us for are actually GOOD things. I believe a common Conservative viewpoint is that “They attacked us because they hate our freedoms.” That strikes me as a reasonable conclusion. Some American policies certainly hindered third world growth (just as similar European policies did), but it is America that is hated.

So, we re-examined the circumstances, and concluded We are right and They are wrong. Now what?


Matt 10.13.03 at 7:17 pm

Getting back to Chris’s original post:
If one wishes to reduce the output of crime from a system like the one described, one could either decrease the pressure or increase the population’s virtue.
(Does your thought experiment allow for fluctuations of virtue, or must we consider it intrinsic?)
The neo-con flavor of the “root cause” argument is that the political status quo in the Mideast not only includes pressure on the hypothetical population, but a political and civic environment that has sapped the polis of its virtue.


terri 10.13.03 at 7:50 pm

If one of the ten swimmers saves the child but I don’t does that mean I didn’t have a prior moral duty? If the child dies and I didn’t do anything because I thought with good reason that someone else would come to their rescue does that make me morally responsible? Or them?

Not claiming that this accurately describes the terrorism case but plausibly, where there is a collective action problem in which the one party believes the other should act first, and vice versa and the terrible event happens, how is moral responsibility distributed?


Matt Weiner 10.13.03 at 8:54 pm

I’m not trying to draw any specific conclusions about who’s responsible for any terrorist attacks, and I don’t think Chris is either. The point is to say that it is possible to agree that terrorists are fully responsible for their actions without short-circuiting discussion of how our actions may lead to increases or decreases in incidences of terror.
pathos, if we conclude that we are Right, then we shouldn’t allow terrorism to deter us from the right course of action. Still, this may not be true of every course of action that tends to increase terrorism, and those actions may be evaluated in part by their impact on terrorism.


terri 10.13.03 at 9:01 pm

If I wouldn’t have committed a crime had you not egged me, then why shouldn’t moral responsibility be a zero-sum game?


Sniffy McNickes 10.13.03 at 9:05 pm

I don’t get why people are obsessing about “terrorism”. Sure, if someone, say, crashed an aircraft into a building, that can be called terrorism.

If someone fails to save someone who can’t swim, they’re defined as “a bad person”, and there are already legal mechanisms for being “bad”.

Sure, perhaps being bad in the context of promoting a train of thought might be dangerous.

One might give some thought to those evil terrorists that built a framework that became the US.


markus 10.13.03 at 9:55 pm

unrelated (IMO) to the original post, I’d like to add two effects found in research on altruism (relevant to the swimmer example)
– collective ignorance, that is everybody assumes that there is not really a problem because the others are not acting
– diffusion of responsibility, that is everybody feels the others are more competent, or in more favourable circumstances than they themselves.

Which is why you should both cry for specific help (help me to do X) and address a specific person (you there with the green jacket) to increase the likelihood of being helped when in need.


pathos 10.13.03 at 10:29 pm

“pathos, if we conclude that we are Right, then we shouldn’t allow terrorism to deter us from the right course of action. Still, this may not be true of every course of action that tends to increase terrorism, and those actions may be evaluated in part by their impact on terrorism.”

Of course, the action is either “Right” or “Wrong”, independent of whether it “causes” terrorism. An action doesn’t become wrong (or even more wrong) just because it increases global terrorism.

That’s why I think it is appropriate to dissociate the two discussions (Right Action and Dealing With Terrorism). By linking the discussions, the implication is that somehow terrorism makes Wrong American actions worse, but that is simply not the case.


Matt Weiner 10.13.03 at 11:01 pm

“Of course, the action is either “Right” or “Wrong”, independent of whether it “causes” terrorism. An action doesn’t become wrong (or even more wrong) just because it increases global terrorism.”

I can’t agree. Any actor should consider the consequences of his actions. I think that immediate unilateral withdrawal from Afghanistan* would be wrong because of its consequences for the Afghanis, and more wrong because it would increase global terrorism. Also, there are some actions that are more or less morally neutral–if one of those actions will have the effect of increasing terrorism, then it is wrong to do it knowingly.
I’ll emphasize this again–none of this excuses terrorists from one jot or tittle of moral responsibility, but nor does it excuse policymakers from considering the likely consequence of their actions.
*which no one is proposing.


dsquared 10.14.03 at 12:46 pm

How about the following case:

Alice brings her baby to a swimming pool and then doesn’t supervise it.

Bob puts the baby’s favourite toy right at the end of the diving board.

Carol is the lifeguard and doesn’t see the little tyke crawling out to reach it.

Dave pushes Emma so she trips over …

… and knocks the board, so it shakes the baby into the pool.

Fred distracts Carol by talking to her about moral equivalence, so she doesn’t notice what’s going on.

Gertrude, Harry and Irina are playing about in the pool and don’t rescue the drowning baby.

Finally, Jack declaims from the rooftops that the Guardian are “sickening” and “odious” when they publish an editorial saying that “although it was entirely appropriate for Carol to go to jail, we should consider that the whole situation would never have arisen if Alice had looked after the baby properly”.

What should Crooked Timber’s editorial line be in this case?


Iain J Coleman 10.14.03 at 4:20 pm

Following up Norman’s example, there is of course a context in which a public discourse which concentrates on the rich guy’s culpability is appropriate. That’s when the rich guy is an elected politician, offering taxpayer’s money to the swimmers.

There are two reasons for this:

1) Having democratically authorised him to act on our behalf, we share some of the culpability for his actions. We share no culpability for the swimmers’ actions

2) In practice, substantial public outcry from the electorate may be effective in convincing the rich guy to stop behaving in that way – after all, he doesn’t want to be voted out. Public outcry will be less effective against the swimmers.


Eve Garrard 10.14.03 at 6:12 pm

It would be interesting to unpack some of the assumptions in this example, wouldn’t it? We’re using passive bystanding swimmers, who fail to save a life, to reveal something about the moral responsibility of terrorists; a rich man offering obnoxious inducements is representing the root-cause social conditions which foment terrorism. Aren’t there already a bunch of judgements about moral responsibility implicitly in play here? If we alter the metaphors, we might find our intuitions lining up rather differently.


Chris 10.14.03 at 6:37 pm

Eve, I’ll just speak to the swimmers, since the rich man is not in my original piece. The purpose of invoking them is _not_ to say anything directly about terrorism, but rather to establish a general proposition about responsibility. Namely, that to attribute responsibility to one person does not necessarily diminish the responsibility to another.

That proposition licenses the claim made earlier in the post that we can blame _both_ a terrorist and a politician who intentionally generates the conditions in which terrorism is committed, without our blaming one having the effect of letting the other off the hook.

Clearly there’s more to be said about the intentional generation of conditions, whether the merely knowing generation of them is similarly blameworthy etc etc.


Antoni Jaume 10.14.03 at 8:46 pm

Let’s see another way to put the situation: A child goes to the beach to play swimming. There are some adults who know to swim, and others who don’t. There is a “rich individual” who knows who can swim or not. He call the swimmers one by one to work for him at a private aquatic park as lifesavers, if any swimmers says anything about the child playin in the waves, the “rich individual” point to the rest of the people there saying that surely some of them will be able to take care of any problem. If the child drown, who is guilty?



Eve Garrard 10.15.03 at 9:33 am

Chris, I understand your point, but I’m not sure it makes much difference to the argument. If the swimmers example is significantly different from the terrorism case, why should we suppose that conclusions from the former about whether responsibility is zero-sum will carry over to the latter? And passive failure to save is surely significantly different from active intentional killing. The most the swimmers case could establish is that responsiblity attributions needn’t be zero-sum; it couldn’t show that they can’t be.

In fact it’s not hard to think of a terrorism case which looks as if they are. Suppose we have an innocent stranger and a search-and-destroy party of 10 soldiers, wondering whether to shoot him. And a figure in the shadows (bloated capitalist/political commissar/mullah from the madrassas – take your pick) keeps telling the soldiers that the stranger carries a deadly bacillus, he’s a poison in the body politic, he’ll kill us all, etc etc. The more evidence the shadowy figure offers, the more it’s not irrational for the soldiers to believe him, and hence to have a reason to kill. This is a case where it looks as if the greater the responsibility of the shadowy figure, the less is that of the soldiers – it’s zero-sum.

As a matter of fact I think that many responsibility attributions aren’t zero-sum; but this can’t be easily established as a general point from selected cases. And isn’t it politically (even if not philosophically) interesting to see what examples we’re inclined to think are relevant to our understanding of terrorism?


Chris 10.15.03 at 9:53 am

Eve: You write “The most the swimmers case could establish is that responsibility attributions needn’t be zero-sum; it couldn’t show that they can’t be.”

Indeed. But I think that a lot of polemical writing on the subject proceeds on the assumption that responsibility attribution _must_ be zero sum and that therefore any attention to circumstances, shadowy figures etc etc is of necessity exculpatory. That’s the assumption I was concerned to upset. I don’t at all mind substantive argument for or against zero summing in particular cases. I do mind the tacit assumption that such argument is redundant. So I think we agree with one another.


Eve Garrard 10.15.03 at 10:08 am

Chris, I’m happy to agree that substantive argument about responsibility attributions in particular cases is *never* redundant!

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