When a mob boss tells three of his underlings to commit a murder, and then the three underlings commit the murder, is the mob boss culpable? Most people would say yes, even though he himself did not commit the murder, because he is the boss. But isn’t it possible for the three underlings to have just ignored the bosses orders and done nothing, in which case he would have just been talking? No, most people would say, because the underlings did commit the murder and they have entered into a hierarchical relationship with the boss where they are obligated to follow his orders.
This example, which can be expanded to the case of places like Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany, or down to the case of an older sibling telling his younger sibling to hit another kid. Stalin and Hitler were rarely, if ever, directly responsible for pulling the trigger on the gun that killed the millions who died during their reigns; the older sibling didn’t actually hit the other child. So, why do we humans believe them to have moral culpability?
H.D. Lewis in his essay Collective Responsibility (1948) said that “… no one can be responsible, in the properly ethical sense, for the conduct of another. Responsibility belongs essentially to the individual.” By this he means that, for instance (using my own hypothetical, not Lewis’s) the train operator charged with sending the Jews to Auschwitz would not be responsible for the actual deaths of the Jews. We might be able to charge the train operator with the horrid conditions of the train ride, but he would be morally exempt from the parts that he didn’t actually play a role in, including the mass deaths.
On the other side of the spectrum is Karl Jaspers, who said:
There exists a solidarity among men as human beings that makes each co-responsible for every wrong and every injustice in the world, especially for crimes committed in his presence or with his knowledge. If I fail to do whatever I can to prevent them, I too am guilty.
What both of these ways of looking at complicity fail to take into account is any consideration of what influence human relationships have on the commander-underling hierarchy. Gregory Mellema says in Complicity and Moral Accountability:
[Christopher Kutz’s] own account is [of complicity] is based upon the idea that responding to harm is warranted at least in part by the preexisting relations among individuals. Only within the context of relationships between persons do the responses of accountability have meaning and value. In this way the accountability of an individual for what he or she has done must take into account his or her relationships with others.
But, what does it mean for people to be in a relationship? When it comes to family it has to do with genetic ties. With friends it’s shared interests and consistent communication. But when it comes to something more impersonal, such as the president or dictator and their ministers, a general and his officers, a manager or CEO and their employees, a criminal boss and their underlings, or an online ‘influencer’ and their followers, what is the nature of this relationship?
The first aspect one would likely pick out is that these relationships are hierarchical rather than equal. The person further up the hierarchy has power over those below. But in what way do they have power? I’m reminded of the riddle from the show Game of Thrones where Varys and Tyrion talk about what power means:
Varys: Power is a curious thing my lord. Are you fond of riddles?
Tyrion: Why? Am I about to hear one?
Varys: Three great men sit in a room, a king, a priest and a rich man. Between them stands a common sell-sword. Each great man bids the sell-sword kill the other two. Who lives, who dies?
Tyrion: Depends on the sell-sword.
Varys: Does it? He has neither crown nor gold nor favor with the gods.
Tyrion: He has a sword, the power of life and death.
Varys: But if it’s swordsmen who rule, why do we pretend Kings hold all the power? When Ned Stark lost his head, who was truly responsible? [King] Joffrey? The executioner? Or something else?
Tyrion: I’ve decided I don’t like riddles.
Varys: Power resides where men believe it resides. It’s a trick, a shadow on the wall, and a very small man can cast a very large shadow.
Hierarchies – and relationships in general – exist only in the minds of people. The Government or The Corporation don’t actually exist. They’re relationships between individuals. Heuristics used by the brains of animals that evolved to be social in order to maintain social cohesion – it would be much less efficient if every decision a country made needed to be hashed out until it was unanimous. Instead, nations have one person or a group of people whose commands are carried out with the actually perpetrators having some of the moral accountability lifted.
Of course, these relationships aren’t all one way – the person higher up in a hierarchy isn’t the only one who benefits from the relationship. This is where we might be able to bring back the idea of collective responsibility. This, I think, is where the relationship of, say, a manager and their employees differs from that of an Instagram influencer and their followers. The employee benefits from the relationship with the manager – and therefore from carrying out commands – whereas the follower gains no benefit from doing as the influencer says to their followers as a whole. This is why I think an influencer praising or encouraging harm over their online platform is still within the realm of free speech, whereas a business manager (or general, or mob boss, etc.) ordering employees to commit harmful acts makes them morally (and legally) culpable. The employee stands to benefit from following the order, meaning there is a quid pro quo understanding in the relationship.
In the case of the riddle from Game of Thrones above, the sell-sword is going to listen to whoever he thinks he stands to benefit most from. That’s why he will enter into that particular relationship over the other two. Just like in economic praxeology, agents are going to engage in behavior they see as personally beneficial – I buy your pen for a dollar because I value the pen more than my dollar and you value my dollar more than your pen. In the case of hierarchical relationships, I value what your leadership can get me over what I can get alone and you value my services more than keeping all the proceeds of your desired actions for yourself. Thus, while the relationship exists only within the minds of the individuals, the expectation of mutual benefit means that orders will be predictably followed, which means the one giving orders is also morally culpable.