Friday, October 10, 2008

Doing and allowing

Arendt defended, as we have seen, that a person can be guilty only of something he or she has actually done. So, a person can be held individually responsible for his or her own action. However, as Arendt also defended, we can have a collective responsibility for what we haven’t done, but what has been done by a member of our group. This difference between guilt (individual responsibility) and collective responsibility is useful, but in some ways and in practice it is often difficult to apply. On the one hand, how can we be held (collectively) responsible for something if we could have no influence at all on what other persons of our group did? It is a hot question as examples in politics show (the holocaust, Srebrenica). On the other hand, not having done an action does not automatically mean that we cannot be guilty of what happened. As far as I know, Arendt does not distinguish between doing and allowing. Most philosophers (including me) consider allowing also as an action. Then we can be guilty because of a wrong action that another person does, even if we did not take part in it. However, this guilt does not refer to the fact that the other person did something bad, but to the fact that we were in the situation that we could have prevented it: we can be guilty because we allowed what the another person did (on condition that we could do something in order to prevent it and that it was reasonable that we did; otherwise we cannot speak of allowance) and because allowing is also an action.

2 comments:

Alexis said...

I agree that allowing is also an action. At the same time, if our
interference would make no difference, then, of course, it is pointless.

I read both this blog post and the most recent one, Henk, and, although I agree that oft-times it would not be reasonable to prevent an action that would cause our death, at the same time, we should be brave enough that we are at least *willing* to put our
lives at risk. Do you agree with this?

I will read your posts again and
may make more comments as they come
to mind.

Best,
Alexis

HbdW said...

Hello Alexis,
Thank you for your thoughtful reaction. Of course, if interference makes no difference, it has no sense to interfere, but that's true for any action, independent of the situation where we have to make the choice between doing or allowing.
There are situations that one simply risks one's life, deliberately or without thinking. For example, a man has fallen into the canal and I cannot swim. Should I spring into the water? Some people do and succeed to save the victim. That's bravery and there is nothing against it. But if I had not sprung, nobody would have reproached me for not springing, for we do not think that it is reasonable for someone to spring into the water, if s/he cannot swim, although we expect that s/he looks for other means to save the person in the water. If the person could not be saved and I did my best to prevent it but I did not spring into the water, I do not need to feel guilty and I am not responsible for it.
Best wishes,
Henk