Monday, June 20, 2016

Responsibility for what someone else does



The readers of my blog last week may think that it’s a strange view that there are actually no pure individual intentions and actions. How can this be so if most of the time it’s the agent who decides to act here and now? However, just after I had finished the draft of that blog I read in Julian Baggini’s Freedom Regained (London: Granta, 2015) a passage that clearly illustrates what I mean. Therefore, let me quote a big part of it. But first a remark: I had thought out the mainline of this blog already before the Orlando club shooting took place, so it’s mere chance that in the quotation such a shooting is used as an example.
Here is the quote from Baggini, pp. 201-2:

“[In] the shootings ... at Virginia Tech in April 2007[,] Seung-Hui [Cho] killed thirty-two people and injured seventeen others before committing suicide, in [what was then] the worst massacre by a lone gunman in US history. The reaction of Hong Sung Pyo, a sixty-five-year-old textile executive in Seoul, was typical of many Koreans. ‘We don’t expect Koreans to shoot people, so we feel very ashamed and also worried.’ It was this sense of shame that led the South Korean ambassador to the US to fast for thirty-two days, one for each of the murdered victims.
Many Americans were baffled by this, but every expert on South Korea ... had the same explanation. ‘It’s a notion of collective responsibility’, said Mike Breen, author of The Koreans. “I can smell a collective sense of guilt,’ said Lim Jie-Hyun, a history professor at Hanyang University in Seoul. ‘There is confusion [in Korea] between individual responsibility and national responsibility.’ As [Tamler] Sommers concludes, ‘Koreans did not merely feel shame for the act of the Virginia Tech killer, they felt responsible. They wished to apologise and atone for the act.’
The psychologist Richard Nisbett has assembled an impressive array of evidence which suggests that deep cultural differences like these do actually change the way people think. In particular, the very idea of who performs an action differs across cultures. ‘For Westerners,’ writes Nisbett, ‘it is the self that does the acting; for Easterners, action is something that is undertaken in concert with others or that is the consequence of the self operating in a field of forces.’ This means that easterners have a sense of ‘collective agency’ largely absent in the West.”

So far my quotation from Baggini. I think that especially what Richard Nisbett says about the self clarifies my idea that there are no pure individual intentions and actions. No individual grows up by his or her own. A new child is born is educated by the parents and explicitly or implicitly also by others in his or her environment, like teachers, family, neighbours and actually everybody in his/her field of life. When the baby has grown to maturity, the once little child has developed a self. This self has a lone side and a collective side. The lone side is what the now grown-up person makes an independent agent, a person who makes his/her own choices from what s/he has learned – consciously or unconsciously; I am aware that much happens unconsciously within us –. The collective side is what someone has borrowed from other people and makes this person connected to the “field” around him/her. It makes that person Dutch or American; a father or a mother; a man or a woman in the sense of Simone de Beauvoir; an expert in a profession; and so on. It makes that someone at the same time is not only an individual agent but also a social agent in the sense explained in my last blog. Westerners tend to see an agent as a self, so to see the lone, individual side of the agent. “Tend”, for not always they do, for why else should parents feel ashamed for the evil their adult children do? Easterners tend to look at the collectivity an agent belongs to, so the collective side of the agent. Therefore they often feel ashamed for what a group member does. Every acting person has both sides. That’s why there are no pure intentions and actions and why it needs not be bizarre to feel guilt and shame sometimes for what others have done. Even more, sometimes it can be strange not to do so, for – ending with a quotation from Baggini (p. 203) –: “Given what we know about the importance of nature and nurture, for example, isn’t it actually unreasonable to hold the individual and the individual alone responsible for all the bad things they do?”

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