Saturday, August 24, 2019

Holly Lawford-Smith's "Not In Their Name"

Holly Lawford-Smith is a Senior Lecturer in Political Philosophy at the University of Melbourne. She obtained her BA and MA at the University of Otago, and her PhD at the Australian National University. Her first permanent position was at the University of Sheffield in the UK in 2012, and she moved back to Australia in 2017 to join the University of Melbourne. Her interests are in social philosophy broadly construed, with a particular focus on collective agency and collective responsibility and their applications to climate change and the ethics of consumption.

Lawford-Smith applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Not In Their Name: Are Citizens Culpable For Their States' Actions?, and reported the following:
The first three quarters of page 99 are the remainder of a section that introduces problems for thinking about the distribution of responsibility from a collective to its members. We think that collectives can be morally responsible for what they do -- Australia can be responsible for offshore processing of asylum-seekers. But we don't know what that means for those people who are 'members' of the collective 'Australia'. (There are really two questions here: who/what is Australia? And can responsibility be passed from Australia to its members). The last quarter of the page turns to the thought experiment that drives the conclusion that citizens are not responsible for what their states do. I suggest that in groups where the relations between members are strong enough, the costs of holding the collective responsible can be distributed to members in a range of different ways (equally, proportionally, randomly). The most important thing on the page is this sentence: "The question for the remainder of this part of the chapter is whether that is also the case when relations between members are weak". The thought experiment, and subsequent discussion, will show that it is not. And because relations between citizens are weak, the upshot of this is citizens cannot be distributed their state's collective responsibility.

I think the page 99 test works surprisingly well for my book! A thought experiment / case is a great way into a topic. So reading only the thought experiment and thinking about what your intuitions are would get you a long way into being interested in the topic of the book, which is collective responsibility as it applies particularly in the case of the state. In the thought experiment, a small group of people cause some damage to property, and three variations of the case manipulate what the relations between those people are. In one case they act as an organized group, in another they don't know each other and are organized by a mutual friend, and in yet another they each act independently and just happen to (together) produce certain effects. The question is whether there could be collective responsibility for what is caused in the second and third kinds of cases. I think there couldn't be, and that the relations between individuals in these cases have the same structure as the accounts of the state that include citizens as members. So I conclude that citizens don't have distributed collective responsibility for what the state does, even when it does it in their name.
Visit Holly Lawford-Smith's website.

--Marshal Zeringue