The distinction between doing and allowing that I mentioned in my last blog applies also to the question of the limits of responsibility. To be more exact, doing refers to acting oneself, allowing refers to not preventing that another person performs an action or that something happens, especially if one considers the action of the other person as wrong or what happens as harmful. Here I am interested only in allowing other person’s actions, not in happenings.
Then, in what cases is it so that one is morally required not to allow what another person does, because one thinks that the other person’s action is wrong? I think, but I am not sure, that it is hardly possible to make general rules for solving this problem and that one must decide from case to case. At least two things are important, I guess. When we have been in the position that we allowed someone to perform a wrong action, although we could have prevented the action, I think that we have a certain responsibility anyway. But how much? In the end, allowing is a very wide concept. Whether we allow someone to perform a wrong action depends for example on the risks we have to take in order to prevent it, or what the social or legal rules say about such cases. Not intervening can be a matter of cowardice or not being interested but it is also possible that by intervening we risk our life. And in each case it is possible to speak of allowing, if one gives it a wide meaning. In the first examples, I would say that a person that did not intervene is also guilty in a certain sense of the wrong action, for this person had, what I would call, a “reasonable” possibility to intervene, at least in a certain degree, even though he did not do it. In the last example, I wouldn’t talk of guilt in any sense, for in most cases it is not reasonable to risk one life (or being hurt) in order to prevent a wrong action. But there is much room for interpretation and judgement here, and much depends on the concrete situation.A second factor that may have an influence on collective responsibility is whether and how much a wrong action by another person is advantageous to you. If it brings you an advantage, it increases also the need for indemnity for the victims of the wrong action if you have a certain collective responsibility for the action concerned, for example, although you were not personally involved in the action concerned.