Four quotations bearing on choice and responsibility

by Chris Bertram on December 23, 2003

Jackie D from Au Currant has a “quote of the day”: picked up from “Norman Geras”: who gets it from “some columnist in the Jerusalem Post”: :

bq. [I]t’s about time we all stop treating Iraqis, and Arabs generally, as anything but what they are: Human beings, capable of making rational choices, who, _like the rest of us_ [emphasis added CB], are accountable for their own successes, their own failures, and their own fates.

On a plausible reading “like the rest of us” looks like a weasel phrase here: on the one hand appearing to stretch out the hand of a common humanity but with a wave of that same hand dismissing the very different conditions under which that human life gets lived. I wish I had a view about responsiblity, agency, choice, blame and so on that I was satisfied with. I don’t. But that view would have to satisfy at least two conditions: first, it would have to treat our fellow humans has having the capacity for free choice and second it would have to take a realistic view about the obstacles to their actualizing, developing, and exercising that capacity. If I lived (as I do) under conditions that are relatively propitious for that actualization, development and exercise, then I would hesitate before using phrases such as “like the rest of us” about those who have grown up under dictatorships and in much tougher material circumstances than I have.

The Jerusalem post quotation put me in mind of three others:

First, from Karl Marx:

bq. Men make their own history, but not of their own free will; not under circumstances they themselves have chosen but under the given and inherited circumstances with which they are directly confronted. ( _The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte_ )

We might add, that sometimes they make their history under circumstances that others have chosen for them.

Next from John Rawls, discussing, especially, the responsiblity of Japanese and German civilians and soldiers for the conduct of their governments:

bq. In the conduct of war, well-ordered peoples must carefully distinguish three groups: the outlaw state’s leaders and officials, its soldiers, and its civilian population. The reason why a well-ordered people must distinguish between an outlaw state’s leaders and its civilan population is as follows: since the outlaw state is not well-ordered, the civilian members of the society cannot be those who organized and brought on the war. This was done by the leaders and officials, assisted by other elites who control and staff the state apparatus. They are responsible; they willed the war; and, for doing that, they are criminals. But the civilian population, often kept in ignorance and swayed by state propaganda, is not responsible. This is so even if some civilians knew better yet were enthusiastic for the war…..As for soldiers of the outlaw state, leaving aside the upper ranks of the officer class, they, like civilians, are not responsible for their state’s war. For soldiers are often conscripted and in other ways forced into war; they are coercively indoctrinated in martial virtues; and their patriotism is often cruelly exploited. ( _The Law of Peoples_ , pp. 94–5)

And finally from Jon Elster, qualifying the view that citizens of democracies should be held responsible for their material condition:

bq. In any society there will be individuals who for idiosyncratic reasons are deaf to incentives and, in more serious cases, have to be supported by the state. In a society with fair background conditions the support would, however, not be offered as compensation; and the supported individuals would, like the mentally ill, be more or less randomly distributed across all social groups. Most contemporary societies do not approach this condition. They contain large groups whose members are systematically prevented, by poverty, and lack of employment opportunities, from developing the mental attitude of holding themselves responsible for their actions. To treat them as if the background conditions were just, telling them that they have only themselves to blame for their failure, would be a massive piece of bad faith. ( _Solomonic Judgements_ , p. 212)



GrimReaper 12.23.03 at 1:53 pm

“They contain large groups whose members are systematically prevented, by poverty, and lack of employment opportunities, from developing the mental attitude of holding themselves responsible for their actions.”
Tripe. Poverty does not make people mentally deficient.


Rv. Agnos 12.23.03 at 1:57 pm

In the old days, upon seeing a convict led to the gallows, it was common to state, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”

That was not just a cliche, but a belief that anyone, given difficult conditions, would become a criminal.

This “moral luck”, however, was never seen to remove the blame from the perpetrators. It is in no way inconsistent to say I am moral, you are immoral, but if we had been switched at birth I would be immoral, too.

Look at the boy in Virginia who was convicted for the sniper killings. Does anyone doubt that he was “made bad” by his accomplice? No. Neither is there any doubt (among the jurors, at least), that the boy, having been made bad, should be punished for his badness.

Context may be important for mitigation, but not for overall moral direction. A person speaking out against Inter-racial Marriage will seem like a big Racist today, but only as a mainstream racist, suitable for public office, 40 years ago. The same goes for opponents of gay rights today compared to those same opponents 40 years from now.

I have no problems morally condemning opponents of gay rights today, even as I understand that their opposition stems from being steeped in American society.

Similarly, we can recognize that Arabs are human and subject to moral condemnation when, for example, they cheer the deaths of innocent Americans, while understanding that, but for the grace of God, I’d be cheering right along side of them. Their conditions may potentially mitigate their warped worldview, but never eliminate it.


Mikhel 12.23.03 at 2:52 pm

If one follows the link long enough, we get some more of the story:

[O]ne has to wonder whether humiliation is really such a terrible thing if the sight of a bedraggled and meek Saddam being manhandled by a US Army doctor brought Iraqis into the streets to honk their horns and fire their guns in the air. It caused women to faint for joy. It caused one Iraqi to exclaim: “I don’t know what to say… I am confused… no… I am very happy… I am very happy… I am very happy… I am very happy… I am very happy… I am very happy… I am very happy… I am very happy… I am very happy….” And so on.
[I]t’s about time we all stop treating Iraqis, and Arabs generally, as anything but what they are: Human beings, capable of making rational choices, who, like the rest of us, are accountable for their own successes, their own failures, and their own fates.

Via Normblog.

Does anyone see a way to take the link in another context? Taken to be a present judgement, the author may well be saying that it’s about time. As in, leave these people alone — it’s their time.

For the moment, though, I’ll take it as a past-judgement statement; ie, the author is saying that we ought reverse our judgement of them as being ‘unlike’ us, in their failures (as a cohesive group) and success (in the same). Are the great mass of western peoples any more responsible for the success of the west, than the great mass of Arabs are for the failures of modern Arabic nations?


Jimbo 12.23.03 at 3:21 pm

Some excellent mediations on the extraordinary problem of the free will/autonomy assumptions: On the one hand, they’re morally and ethically appropriate and necessary, on the other hand, without qualification they lead to a crude, simplistic and reactionary politics.

I always like to keep in mind that there is some theoretically possible future that would likely lead to my committing some horrible crime. The response to this troubling possibility is to take advantage of the opportunities I’ve had in my life to develop a sense of perspective and moral sharpness to make sure the possible futures that would lead to such an event are as minimal as possible.


Mikhel 12.23.03 at 3:40 pm

Alexis De Tocqueville:

Providence has not created mankind entirely independant or entirely free. It is true that, around every man a fatal circle is traced, beyond which he cannot pass; but within the wide verge of that circle he is powerful and free; as it is with man, so it is with communities. The nations of our time cannot prevent the condition of men from becoming equal; but it depends upon themselves whether the principle of equality is to lead them to servitude or freedom, to knowledge or barbarism, to prosperity or wretchedness.


Matthew 12.23.03 at 3:59 pm

Great quotes, and very interesting comment rv_agnos (reverend agnostic?)


Bob 12.23.03 at 4:58 pm

On actualization, try on liberty, equality and headscarves at:


John Isbell 12.23.03 at 5:13 pm

I for my part always welcome an article pointing out that Arabs are human. It reminds me of articles pointing out that women and blacks and Jews are human, just like us.
And now I’ll point out that the authors of that piece are human just like the rest of us. I feel a bit sorry for them, you know, but check out my tolerance.


Chris Bertram 12.23.03 at 5:28 pm

Mikhel’s point above that the quote from the J Post is more benign in context is a fair one. The same should be said about context in which Norman G presents it on his blog. So I may have been precipitate in reading it in the way I did.

I thought about just taking the post down. But given there’s a point I wanted to make and that I don’t want to falsify the blogospherical record (as it were) I’m leaving it in place with a small edit to qualify the attribution of intention.


Tracy 12.23.03 at 8:17 pm

That some people grow up under averse conditions, that incline them to act in violent ways, does not necessarily mean that they should be held less accountable for their actions.

Steven Pinker gave this example, in the Blank Slate. We are all agreed that rape is evil and completely wrong. Say it is proved that 1% of the population is more inclined to rape for genetic reasons. That does not mean that they should not be punished for rape. Instead it means that the punishment for rape for them should be much more severe, in the hope of providing a stronger offsetting force to deter them from raping (this of course ignores a lot of argument about what can deter crime in fact).

Ditto, people who grow up under situations where it is difficult to act rationally, maybe therefore should have much higher demands held on them to act rationally. Especially when not acting rationally leads to murder and other such horrible things.

For reasons that are no fault of my own, I have a speech impediment. To learn to cope with it, and to communicate accurately, I had to spend much longer learning to speak, being corrected, etc, etc. Were my parents and teachers wrong in insisting on such efforts?


John Isbell 12.23.03 at 9:04 pm

Tracy: “Instead it means that the punishment for rape for them should be much more severe, in the hope of providing a stronger offsetting force to deter them from raping.”
Boy am I glad of two things:
1. You are not determining law in any country AFAIK.
2. This is the internet and I will probably never meet you.


Greg Hunter 12.23.03 at 10:51 pm

The responsibility of society’s citizens was of great interest to me, especially the thoughts concerning soldiers. The effects of returning soldiers from wars that had “no meaning” or were “in the eyes of the soldier” not what they thought the country should be doing have had a large impact on the country.

Mr. McVeigh came home from the Gulf War and came to the conclusion that the Federal Employees at the Alfred P. Murrah building were “collateral damage” in his quest to take out the personnel responsible for Waco and Ruby Ridge. I assume that those in the Federal Government, while not in a specific capacity responsible for the perceived infractions, they were deemed culpable by the mere fact that they chose to work for the Government. “The one bad apple theory.”

We will see if the soldiers returning from Iraq deem whether there “patriotism was cruelly exploited”.


Mark 12.24.03 at 3:17 pm

Most of “those who have grown up under dictatorships and in much tougher material circumstances” do not become suicide bombers. Clearly there is a role for individual variations and free will in addition to social conditions. The middle class, educated backgrounds of many of the 9/11 perpetrators should substantially dispel the myth that poor social conditions are responsible for the phenomenon we’re experiencing. Our inability to understand this extremism has us clinging to a “poverty and humiliation” theory that makes sense to us but is disproven by the empirical evidence. Things that make sense but remain unproven are probably not true.


chris bertram 12.24.03 at 10:48 pm

As so often, I find myself puzzled by comments to posts. For example, it is hard to see how the last comment connects in any way to the thought expressed in my original post. For the record, though, I happen to agree that those who commit atrocious acts should be held responsible for them.


Mikhel 12.25.03 at 4:37 pm

Chris —

You seemed to be implying in the original post that we should not hold Arabs responsible for the decrepitude of their society. That is, it is not their fault, but rather the fault of their leaders and so forth. My question was this: to what extent are the people in the Western World (or economically successful states) responsible for the strength of their nations?

I think there’s a good argument for saying there is some partial allocation of responsibility on citizenry for the state of their society. Even though I think you incorrectly interpreted the original intent of the message, I don’t think your reading of the message in your original sense was correct; I’m not sure I agree with you on the ‘judgement’. My nit concerns this phrase,

I would hesitate before using phrases such as “like the rest of us” about those who have grown up under dictatorships and in much tougher material circumstances than I have.

My intent is not to claim that general Arabia is entirely responsible for its current situation relative to modernized nations, but that the general population can be given some of that blame. That’s why I thought the De Tocqueville quote rather relevant: socities — as with people — have a general free will, a space of movement within a ‘holy line’. If we are to not judge one society by saying they have had tougher environmental conditions than a more advanced society, to what extent do we justify the more advanced society as having been the product of anything other than blind luck, nature’s chance, and an inconsiderate lottery?

Merry effin.


back40 12.25.03 at 4:56 pm

Several researchers have shown that malnutrition increases aggression. Comparative material circumstances aren’t relevant but absolute circumstances can be when they are so poor that there is inadequate nutrition.

Other environmental factors, certain chemicals, can have a similar effect. Natural and urban environments high in certain metals also increase aggression.

When ‘material circumstances’ means inadequate nutrition or exposure to pollutants then diminished responsibility can sensibly be argued. Societies and cultures can be held responsible for individual and group character – envy and spite do not excuse violence – but we should also recognize that truly inadequate material circumstances warp the human mind and alter behavior.


Dan Simon 12.26.03 at 5:13 am

Not so fast, Chris. Your posting criticized the view that the same standards of political morality should be used to judge both the inhabitants of Western democracies and people living in very different political circumstances. You now concede that the editorial on which you based your posting was in fact asserting something quite different: that people living in very different political circumstances often develop a political morality quite similar to the average Westerner’s (e.g., hatred of oppression and tyranny). But you claim that your original point still stands.

I would argue, though, that the editorial’s assertion powerfully undermines your position. After all, if Iraqis can recognize the value of freedom from oppression and tyranny, despite their having known nothing else for many decades, then perhaps they can be expected to recognize the evil of complicity in oppression and tyranny, as well.

The real problem with both points of view, of course, is that they treat the establishment of a non-monstrous government as a self-evident consequence of a certain base level of moral decency among the populace. More likely, there are many societies the world over where the population is largely enthusiastic about ethically upright government, but the “technology”–if I may use that word–of democratic self-governance has not penetrated deeply enough for its practices to take hold. It seems wrong to blame such countries for the monstrous governments they haven’t the skills to oust.

On the other hand, there are surely some societies that have the capacity to embrace democracy and tolerance, yet choose en masse–as did, say, Germany in 1933, and perhaps Algeria in 1992–to regress to dictatorship and savage brutality. In those cases, I would argue, it is quite legitimate to hold the population of the nation, in that time, to be in some sense morally accountable.


Tracy 12.26.03 at 9:22 am

John –

I am baffled as to why you think that it is dangerous to want to set the punishment for rape so high that no one would commit it. What, in my argument, has shocked you so much?

I am not talking about punishing people who are so insane that they commit murder under the sincere belief that someone is actually trying to kill them. Is that what has shocked you? I am talking about punishing people who, for environmental or genetic or whatever else reasons, are somewhat more inclined to commit crimes but could be deterred if they perceive the costs to be higher than the benefits.

And of course, there are various arguments as to why courts should not have the power to set incredibly high punishments, e.g. a rapist might murder their victim to lower their chances of punishment. But that does not address Pinker’s argument – that if it is proved that some people, due to factors outside their control, are more likely to commit crimes then it follows the punishment should be higher, not lower.

What would you do if it was proved that 1% of the population was considerably more likely to rape due to genetic factors? Lock anyone with the wrong genes, before they’d committed any crime? Decide society just had to live with this increased risk?

Comments on this entry are closed.