The Mathematics of Responsibility

by Ran Prieur

February 7, 2002

Creative Commons License
[Edited December 12, 2012, mostly to reduce the spittle-flying.]

It's frustrating to be stuck in a world where I actually have to point this out, but what we call "responsibility" is not distributed by breaking up "full responsibility" and dividing it into parts. If you add up everyone's responsibility for something, it doesn't equal 100% -- it equals a billion percent if it has to, because any number of entities can be fully responsible for the same thing. Another way to say it is that our responsibilities can and do overlap. Another way to say it is that nobody's responsibility for anything excuses anybody else.

For example, Hitler is fully responsible for every particular murder in the Holocaust. But so is the actual person who did the murder, and every person in the chain of command, and the fanatically repressive Prussian culture, and maybe the victim, if there was a chance to see the murder coming and fight or flee.

I just pushed a hot button, but it's hot only because of our idea of "blame". I don't blame anyone for anything, because I understand that blame is stuck responsibility -- falsely packing it all in one place to block it from being traced where you don't want it traced.

For example, if a woman gets drunk and passes out at a frat party, and she gets raped, and I excuse the rapist by saying the woman should have known better, then I am blaming the victim. But if I hold the rapist fully responsible, and also hold the society that trained the rapist fully responsible, and also notice that the victim took a risk and had the power to choose otherwise, then I'm not blaming anyone -- I'm being honest and paying attention.

This gets even trickier when someone is punished for doing something good. The Raise The Fist website was recently shut down in a violent police raid. Some people said the author of the site should have known the police would come after him, and therefore that he was at fault. By the same logic, Jesus should have known he'd be crucified, and if you don't obey a system backed by violence, you deserve what you get.

We can step over this little trap by thinking clearly: We're talking about two different definitions of "responsibility." One means being a necessary part of causing something bad to happen; and the other refers to our moral need to do the right thing. It seems strange to us, but it's possible, even common, to be responsible in both ways with the same action, to knowingly invite something bad by doing good.

So in the first sense, the Raise The Fist author was responsible for the police raid -- and so were the police. And in the second sense, he was being courageous and responsible, by running his web site even though it was very likely to be attacked, and the system that attacked it was being irresponsible and cowardly.

It gets even trickier still, when we have to actively do the wrong thing to prevent something we fear. If you voted for the lesser of the two evils in the latest election, then you would have no chance in a really difficult test, like the scientific experiment where a monkey mother and her baby were put in a specially constructed cage, where the floor was heated until she had to stand on her baby and let it burn to death, or be burned to death herself. The Nazis built an entire society on this technique -- the Holocaust would have been impossible without the participation of millions of Jews, who carried themselves to their deaths with their own feet and energy, or even helped Nazis run the ghettos and camps, just so they could survive a little longer.

I know it's easy for me to sit in my cozy apartment and tell people in the middle of an insane mass murder what they should have done. If I were in their place, I would certainly have done just what they did, because if I was the sort to do the right thing even at the cost of my own life, then I would have been killed a long time before, and would not have survived to be in their place. Does this excuse them from responsibility for their choices? No!

If that's hard to take, look at this: Weren't the Nazis themselves in the same kind of situation as the Holocaust victims? They too had to go along with an evil system or be killed. They were different in that they felt good about supporting the evil system, but that's because they were broken under torture as infants and children by horrific German child-rearing practices, as Alice Miller documented in For Your Own Good, and they had to become sadistic, authoritarian, and emotionally detached to survive in their environment. Does this excuse them? No! But this understanding makes it easier for us to forgive them and look deeper, which we need to do if we're going to get anywhere.

Some of you want to draw lines and make categories: exploiter and exploited, criminal and victim, guilty and innocent, evil and good. Go ahead. It will only protect you for a little while from seeing the truth, that there are no lines, that there aren't even clear categories with a grey area between -- that it's all grey area, all the way in, all the way out, and we're all in it together.

The context that inspired this column is the idea, fashionable among radical intellectuals, that the ruling elite are the evil final cause of our troubles. I believe that the ruling system is a deeper cause, and that the elite are in one way more exploited, because the system owns not only their bodies but their souls. I crafted this column to prevent the strawman argument that interprets this perspective as the position that the elite have no choice.

We can see the same thing happening in contemporary arguments about foreign attacks on Americans. Any non-shallow exploration of the causes of this violence is shouted down on the grounds that it justifies the attacks or excuses whoever has already been blamed. Clearly something is striking terror in the hearts of these Americans -- and it's not foreign attacks.

If we keep blaming rulers and criminals, without asking how they got that way, we'll still be fighting the same stupid battles in a million years. Maybe that's the idea -- maybe some people like fighting these battles, or they need to keep fighting for fear of what they'll see when the dust settles. I want to get the fighting over so I can play and slack off, so I'm going to look deeper, to the society that applies overwhelming force to make people evil enough to keep it going, to the emotional and intellectual habits that underlie that society, to the origin of those habits, and so on...

An anthropologist once asked a native what the earth stands on. The native said, it's on the back of an elephant, and the elephant stands on the back of a turtle. And what does the turtle stand on? Another turtle. And that turtle? Another turtle. The anthropologist concluded, "It's turtles all the way down," and maybe we think that native is a fool. But I think he's wise and was trying to teach the Westerner something. What's foolish is the idea that there's a final cause, or a final truth, or a final anything. "Final" is just a command: Stop looking.

Or think of it this way: If we say that certain rulers are just evil and that's that, then we are trying to escape responsibility. We are denying our own power to choose to understand and forgive them, which doesn't help them much but helps us tremendously; and we are denying our power, even our obligation, to transform our society into one that doesn't produce such evil people. How can we do that? I have only a vague idea, but that's the road that's before us, and as Martin Luther King said, in the best ever definition of responsibility, we must go down that road, even if we go alone.