Responsibility Absolution in Society

Recently – mostly due to conversation I’ve witnessed over the internet – I’ve become really interested in certain situations of responsibility absolution in society. The particular case which sparked my curiosity was a post my friend shared to Facebook:

Source: Capitalism Kills, Facebook Page

Obviously as a vegan and environmentally conscious consumer, this immediately struck a wrong chord with me (it comes off as one-dimensional, rash, and defensive), but it got me wondering about when we ought to be adopting this sort of mentality and when we shouldn’t.

Certainly there are situations in which it would be wrong to hold someone morally responsible for participating in wrongdoings, but it also seems wrong to uncritically absolve people of their wrongdoings when, despite external factors pushing or influencing them to act in ways that are wrong, they do have some control over their actions. I think the line is a hard one to toe.

Some other social phenomena which have prompted similar worries:

  • Controlling toxic traits such that they don’t manifest in other relationships. For example, depression often manifests itself via a need for isolation, and oftentimes those with depression will abruptly cut off relationships with those around them. But for us to excuse this type (and similar kinds) of behavior simply because it stems from a mental illness suggests the troubling conclusion that people with depression or anxiety (and potentially other mental illnesses/disorders) can get away with, well, being shitty.
  • Distancing yourself from bigoted or harmful ideals you were raised with/around. We often excuse certain groups of people for holding morally incorrect views (e.g. those which are racist, sexist, or homophobic) because “they don’t know any better” or “that’s how they were raised”, but is this really an appropriate reason to excuse someone? Should we not expect some level of autonomous thinking and critical self-reflection from people, regardless of the circumstances they grew up in?
  • Conscious consumerism in general. The influence of a bad capitalist economic system cannot be ignored; big companies and those in the very top financial bracket play the biggest role in the wrong resulting from consumerism. But it seems wrong to completely absolve the average consumer of any responsibility for directly participating in and contributing to wrongdoings – whether it be buying meat and dairy or paying for tickets to SeaWorld or a circus which involves wild animals or buying from a store which uses sweatshops – especially if they have the option not to.

In all cases, there is something about the agent’s situation outside of their control which makes them more inclined to act in wrong ways, yet there is still some significant degree of autonomy. Given that, I think it would be, in a sense, dehumanizing not to hold them responsible (to some degree) for their actions. To treat a person as though they have no agency, as though what they do does not merit our serious consideration, is to hold them to a standard lower than they deserve.

Again, I think the line between taking into account circumstances which prompt agents to act in wrong ways and recognizing that their choices were still made with some level of autonomy is a thin one, but I believe it exists. We should not be absolving agents of all responsibility for their actions in these sorts of situations.

The question, then, is what a principled approach to determining how much responsibility (and thus, how much blame) to attribute to the agent would look like.

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