Collective Responsibility and Our Moral Compass

Allegory with a portrait of a Venetian senator (Allegory of the morality of earthly things), attributed to Tintoretto, 1585

It’s not easy to be further shocked these days when we are confronted with newspaper reports on: How up to 17 Christian missionaries, including five children, were kidnapped in the capital of Haiti while visiting an orphanage; the contents of a report estimating that 300,000 children in France were sexually abused within France’s Catholic church over the past 70 years; the ceremonies held in France commemorating the one year anniversary of the October 16, 2020, death of Samuel Paty, a teacher who was beheaded by an Islamist fanatic because he had allegedly shown his students Charlie Hebdo’s 2012 cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad in an unflattering manner. I assume that each of these stories shocks. Each story is well outside legal limits and a traditional moral compass.

While there is no scale of being shocked (outraged? appalled? offended? dismayed?) or a measurement of how out of alignment the traditional moral compass has become, what is one to think about people in a train who did nothing while witnessing a woman being sexually assaulted in the same railroad car? Eduardo Medina, in the New York Times, recently reported that: “As a woman was being raped while on a train near Philadelphia on Wednesday night, riders watched, failed to intervene and did not call 911, the authorities said.”

The head of the local police department, Timothy Bernhardt, was not sure of how many people were in the car at the time, but he was quoted as saying: “Collectively, they could have gotten together and done something. Anybody that was on that train,” he warned, “has to look in the mirror and ask why they didn’t interfere or why they didn’t do something.”

More than look in the mirror? Bernhardt would not speculate on what kind of punishment the bystanders could face. It would be “very difficult to bring charges” he said.

If criminal charges cannot be brought, what about moral charges? What will the bystanders see when and if they look in the moral mirror? Where was their individual and group moral compass?

The political philosopher Virginia Held wrote a fascinating article on this very subject. She asked: “Can a random collection of individuals be morally responsible?” Held’s major points are that because a group is random, people have no familial or ethnic allegiance to each other; they only share time and place. The randomness also means they have no decision-making capacity. In the first random definition, an attack on one person would not elicit a specific, emotional reaction from the others. In the second, because they have no decision-making power, bystanders would not quickly organize to overpower an attacker because of their greater number.

A somewhat similar incident took place in New York City years ago. New Yorkers of a certain age will remember the 1964 story of Kitty Genovese, a 28-year-old, who was stabbed outside her Queens apartment building late at night while over thirty people watched her struggle and heard her screams. They did nothing. Not one of them called the police or came to her aid.

Unlike the Genovese case, people in this latest incident were in the same train car when the victim was assaulted. They were not watching from an apartment window. Although the people in the train car were random, in Held’s sense, they were direct witnesses when the victim’s clothes were torn off and she was violated. Unlike the Genovese case, the train’s bystanders were in a face-to-face proximity with the victim. Although the exact number of passengers has not yet been established, there were not “dozens of people.”

As for the use of telephones by the passengers, a train official confirmed: “I can tell you people were holding their phone up in the direction of this woman being attacked.” There are conflicting reports if any of the passengers telephoned the police. The official did say there were “very few notifications” during the incident. What is clear is that not one of the passengers tried to act individually or to form a coalition to overcome the assailant.

Using Held’s general arguments, the train passengers can be held morally responsible for not acting because: 1) The woman was in obvious need of help; 2) The passengers could have helped her individually, either physically and/or by calling the police, or they could have helped her collectively by overcoming or stopping the assailant; 3) The passengers were in no obvious danger if they chose to help – no weapons in sight on the assailant – and their actions would have been clearly helpful; 4) No one among the group would have objected to anyone else’s helping.

In arguing that a random collection of individuals can be held morally responsible for non-action, Held says that: “when the action called for in a given situation is obvious to the reasonable person and when the expected outcome of the action is clearly favorable, a random collection of individuals may be held responsible for not taking collective action.”

“Obvious to the reasonable person” implies that reasonable people have the same sense of morality, the same moral compass. Held does not equate reasonable with rational. Reasonable, for her, has “an essential moral component.”

But what happens when what is reasonable is not shared? What happens when the moral compass does not function? A simple explanation for why a physical compass malfunctions is that the compass has become demagnetized. To fix it, instructions say, remove the needle and remagnetize it with a permanent magnet.

How to fix a moral compass? What to remove? And, most importantly, how to remagnetize people such as those in the railroad car? Where and what is our permanent magnet? If you say the church, mosque or synagogue, statistics show that fewer and fewer people attend services; there are fewer and fewer believers. And even so, the church, synagogue and mosque have their own moral resets to do.  A universally accepted institutional moral magnet no longer exists.

What happened in the railroad car is more than shocking. As Virginia Held argues; “a random collection of individuals may be held responsible for not taking collective action.” The recent train incident more than proves her point.

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.