Negative responsibility

By fmiren | Real World Assets | 28 Aug 2023

Having responsibility for actions you haven’t done but could have.

The idea of responsibility is familiar to us. To be responsible means to be accountable for one’s actions. To have responsibility for some action implies to be accountable for its direct effects. For example, you are responsible for how good or bad a human being your kid will be in the future. Therefore, you bear full responsibility for the parenthood; and it is our responsibility as adults to cultivate a good human being.

The concept of negative responsibility goes one step further. It claims that one has responsibility not only on actions but also on inaction. Bernard Williams, one of the leading figures in philosophical ethics in the second half of the twentieth century, argues that everyone bears the same responsibility both for indirect and direct effects of his actions. As Steve Fuller put it, negative responsibility is the “responsibility for what one does not do but could have done.” The idea of negative responsibility is important because it doesn’t suffice to deter oneself from acting purposefully to cause harm; you also bear responsibility for inaction if you fail to prevent evil when others do it. Edmund Burke, an English political philosopher epitomized the idea with the following quote attributed to him: “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”

There have been many cases of moral failures of negative responsibility in history. One of the most (in)famous and most recent cases is Nazi Germany. Adolf Eichmann was a person responsible for sending Jews to concentration camps during World War II. When he was brought to Israel to stand trial in the 1960s, Eichmann claimed that he hadn’t had any responsibility for what he did because he was only doing what Nazi Germany’s leadership commanded. What the Eichmann trial made it clear was that failures of negative responsibility often comes from just not asking questions and trusting the leadership.

Hanna Arendt coined the phrase “the banality of evil” in her “Eichmann in Jerusalem” describing the trial. Can a person do evil things without himself being evil? According to Arendt, Eichmann was a “terrifyingly normal” person. He did evil things without evil intentions, without himself being evil.

Reverse Eichmann

However, there is a more insidious, “bottom-up” version of negative responsibility, which Fuller refers to as “Reverse Eichmann”. It is the cases when information is passed to the next chain of command, and the senior management fails to attentively assess the information instead relying on their subordinates. The famous case if the role of intelligence services in the Iraq War. Though weapons of mass destructions were the pretext to declare war on Iraq, none were found in the country. Hearings by the special committees in both the US Congress and the UK parliament revealed that surveillance materials, such as aerial photographs had been interpreted to give insights for the next upper link in the chain up to Colin Powell. This is not unlike the game of “Chinese whisper” where an image of alleged weapons of mass destruction distorted to the point where it became the reason for the war when it reached the highest link in the chain of command, US Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Colin Powell

This upstream version of the failure of negative responsibility is more interesting than the Eichman case itself in that here the senior leadership of two powerful countries failed to do their job properly. Since neither the US nor the UK had been attacked by Iraq, their leaders had more time to challenge their subordinates and question the soundness of the evidence passed to them. But this is not what happened. The reason why I think this version of moral bankruptcy is more deleterious than the former one is that in Iraq case George Bush’s and Tony Blair’s not being demanding enough with their intelligence services could have made a significant difference by not killing as many people as were killed in the upcoming war. While in the Nazi Germany Eichmann’s asking questions of the higher command wouldn’t have saved the lives of Jews, as Eichmann himself claimed. Now, this doesn’t justify Eichmann as I have already mentioned — trust cannot be an excuse. The main point is that when you powerful enough to demand better evidence but fail to do so, the impact of your inaction could be much more pernicious. That is the failure of negative responsibility in the “reverse Eichmann” cases is more significant.

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commodity trader interested in crypto & writing about it

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