Author (Your Name)

Allyson Rudolph, Colby College

Date of Award


Document Type

Honors Thesis (Open Access)


Colby College. Philosophy Dept.


Cheshire Calhoun


What is collective moral responsibility? And why should you care? The answer to the former, like any good philosophical question, is largely unresolved. Although writing on collective responsibility has flourished, particularly in the wake of the Holocaust, and despite the existence of an increasingly consistent bibliography of essential writings in the field, there is no definitive authority on the subject. Unlike individual moral responsibility, however, there is little consensus among the ranks. Many theories disclaim the existence or the possibility of collective moral responsibility—a group is just not the sort of thing that can ever be considered a morally responsible agent. No one, they claim, can present a coherent theory of group action that would allow collectives to be admitted into the moral realm. And that is why you should care about collective responsibility. You interact with collectives every day. You are part of groups, you act cooperatively, and you exist within a community. If it is possible to define “group” in a morally coherent way, wouldn’t you want to know? In this paper, I set out to do just that—define “group” in a way that allows for moral accountability. I begin by looking at moral responsibility broadly, setting out requisites for moral agency. In the first chapter, I will argue that moral responsibility requires causality, awareness, intention, and volition, and that moral responsibility may be meted out in degrees. Once the basic requirements for assigning moral responsibility are set out, I address three kinds of groups, and attempt to offer models for understanding the moral responsibility of each. I start with institutions—things like businesses and armies—and argue that an institution may be (and ought to be) considered a singular moral agent. From there I move to small groups of individuals united by a shared situation, which I call situational collections. Unable to construe situational collections as singular moral agents, I set out a model for understanding the actions of these groups in terms of shared cooperative activity and shared individual responsibility. Finally, I address issues like racism, in which group members are united by shared attitudes. I present a model for understanding these shared attitude communities in terms of blame: when blaming a shared attitude community, one is actually assessing the responsibility to the community itself, as well as the individual community members both because of the attitudes they hold and because of their complicity in creating an environment in which material harm or reasonable fear are likely. I conclude all of these discussions by arguing that there are actually a few models of collective responsibility that allow for groups to operate within the moral realm, but that the real ramification of admitting more members to the moral community is greater responsibility for individuals. Individuals within institutions ought to take responsibility for their own individual actions, and individuals outside of institutions should be vigilant in demanding that immoral institutions change their ways. Members of situational collections must consider their own individual moral responsibilities and work cooperatively to achieve a morally acceptable outcome. Persons who hold attitudes that contribute to harm must take responsibility for their beliefs in radical ways and engage in self-reflection and deep personal change. Each of the models of collective responsibility I present below is in many ways a call for personal reflection on individual interactions with groups and other moral actors.


collective moral responsibility, Social ethics, Moral and ethical aspects

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Philosophy Commons