Christopher Kutz on Complicity

Yesterday, I went to the National Institutes of Health to hear Chris Kutz discuss his book, entitled Complicity: Ethics and Law for a Collective Age. Kutz sets himself the following problem. As a matter of common sense, I assume that “I am accountable for a harm only if what I have done made a difference to that harm’s occurrence.” I also assume that “I am accountable for a harm’s occurrence only if I could control its occurrence, by producing or preventing it.” We are raised to make these two assumptions. Unfortunately, we may belong to groups that do very serious harms, yet each member of the group can rightly say, “I made no difference to the outcome, and I couldn’t control what happened.” In these cases–which probably create the bulk of the world’s evils–no one is responsible or accountable for the wrong.

The case that we discussed most deeply yesterday was the firebombing of Dresden by allied forces during World War II, which probably caused 35,000 civilian deaths in one night and did nothing to advance the Allied victory over Nazism. The firestorm (which sucked oxygen out of the air and caused civilians in shelters to die of asphyxiation) was caused by bombs from 1,000 airplanes. Eight thousand crewmen flew in those planes, and “many thousands further were involved in planning and support.” Exactly the same number of deaths would have occurred if 999 bombers had flown instead of 1,000. Thus each crewman or ground-support person can rightly say, “I made no difference, and I had no control over the outcome.”

Indeed, because these people were not causally responsible as individuals, I think that no one should accuse them of homicide. But they do have a deep and permanent moral connection to the Dresden firestorm, unlike someone who was home in Iowa at the time. This moral connection requires actions and attitudes on their part: for instance, regret, memory, confession, self-scrutiny, and perhaps active support for peace with post-War Germany. We should consider as morally defective anyone who says, “I was part of a group that killed 35,000 civilians for no military purpose, but I had no effect on the numbers killed, so I don’t care what happened.”

At the most general level, Kutz argues that “I am accountable for what others do when I intentionally participate in the wrong they do or the harm they cause. I am accountable for the harm or wrong we do together, independently of the actual difference I make.” This “complicity principle” conflicts with the common-sense principles of “individual difference” and “individual control” that I mentioned earlier. The conflict is the main subject of Complicity.

The difficulties, which Kutz handles very skillfully, arise when it’s not clear whether a person is an intentional participant in a group. It’s one thing when I voluntarily join a defined and formal body. For example, if I choose to buy stock in a company whose negligence kills people, that is my problem (morally), even if I had no reason to know about the company’s behavior. But there are many harder cases. For instance, everyone drives too quickly on the Washington Beltway, resulting in at least one death/day. But each average driver does not make the roads any more dangerous than they would be without him. In fact, if you slowed down, that would make the Beltway modestly more dangerous. Are you complicit in unnecessary deaths if you drive to work at 70 mph?

Or what about a journalist traveling with a military unit in Iraq? If the unit kills a civilian, is the reporter part of the group and therefore subject to moral scrutiny for the death? Does it matter whether the journalist is “embedded”? Does it matter whether she comes from one of the Coalition countries? I am not assuming that being responsible for killing a civilian implies some severe punishment or censure–there is a war on, and civilian casualties may be unavoidable. But those involved in the killing morally owe an account, and ought to feel emotions such as deep regret. Do these obligations also apply to an embedded reporter who is present at the event?

Since a critical review by John Gardner is currently the top result when one searches for “Christopher Kutz [and] Complicity” on Google, I want to address a mistake in that review. Contrary to what Gardner says, Kutz acknowledges that a person owes special kinds of accountability when he is directly and causally responsible for a harm, whether or not he acts as part of a group. Complicity is an additional layer of responsibility that arises only in virtue of our participation in a group that does something wrong, regardless of whether we affect the outcome.

Complicity is clear, precise, well organized, original, and morally challenging. I must disclose that I know the author very well; nevertheless, I can report that this book is prized by philosophers working on problems of collective responsibility.

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1 Response to Christopher Kutz on Complicity

  1. why should we care about the quality of press coverage?

    [This is a slightly edited version of a mini-essay from my personal blog, which attracted a useful comment by Jay Rosen.] There’s a very hot debate about the quality of reporting about Iraq. I think the first step is to…

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