On Responsibility

As a talking point around the UK riots and looting, Fabian ben Israel has contributed this section of his MA thesis.

Types of Responsibility

In this section we discuss the different categories of attributions of responsibility. Each category has its own distinctive nature. We do not argue that we have found all the potential categories there are, only that our distinction is useful for the purpose of analyzing media reports on violence. The following categories of attributions are discerned:

evil intent, where the relevant factor is individual or group characteristics or motivation; societal, where the relevant factor is a kind of system failure that pressures individuals; punitive, where the relevant factor is of retaliation or deterrence against misbehavior; and advocacy, where the responsibility is attributed to those who advocate violent means or do not condemn violence in public.Our model is a further elaboration on Ross and Staines (1973) and Iyengar (1991) typologies. The former made a distinction between two main types of causal attributions of responsibility for a social problem: personal/individualistic versus situational/societal. Iyengar also added punitive attributions. We identified and added a fourth type: advocacy of violence. Following we will see the first type of attribution: evil intent.


Evil Intent

AttributionsThis attribution is typical in the Judeo-Christian tradition, where responsibility is said to fall on an individual who has sinned or transgressed an agreed norm. The individual, because he has a “soul”, “free will” or a “conscience”, is personally responsible and can be punished for his transgression. The Judeo-Christian tradition influenced the development of the Western ethics of individualized justice by which one presumes that control over one’s actions and hence responsibility for them lies with the actor (Howard 1984). In common law, the deeds of the individual agent are his interventions in the natural process. Nature, and actions caused by nature cannot be subjected to trial, since nature is not human. The situation is conceived as passive, and the agent as external to it (Donagan 1979). For example, even if the wind – a natural phenomenon – was responsible for fanning a fire that burned the woods, the person who lit the original spark is still the one who stands trial, not the wind. This means that men are responsible for their own actions.

In addition, in the example above, it is important when establishing the degree of moral responsibility to know the motivation of the accused: if he wanted to cause a fire (higher degree of culpability) or not, and it was a result of negligence (lower degree). In the first case, it is said that the person acted with evil intent. Evil intent or mens rea, is a concept in Anglo-American law that means “the intention or knowledge of wrongdoing that constitutes part of a crime” according to The Concise Oxford English Dictionary. Negligence is the failure of a person to act differently, when he can foresee the potential negative consequences of his actions. Negligence also involves a degree of moral responsibility, although lower than evil intent. Finally, if the actions of the person are a necessary element in the spread of the fire, but the person did not act with evil intent nor with negligence, the person cannot be held morally responsible.

When the actions of an individual or a group of individuals are mentioned in media accounts as one of the causes for violence in an asymmetrical conflict, there is always an accusation of moral responsibility. An attribution of responsibility to an individualin practice may involve a charge of evil intent or of negligence. To simplify, unless it is explicitly argued as negligence, we call it an evil intent attribution.

Evil intent is an important clue to identify allocation of blame in a text. Let us see an example of an attribution of responsibility to an individual where evil intent is made explicit. An editorial in the New York Times of March 5, 1996 wrote: “As the architects of these savage attacks no doubt hoped, the spasm of terror has nearly ruptured Israel’s plans for peace with the P.L.O.” (italics added). Here it is made clear that responsibility for violence falls on the individuals that planned and executed the suicide bombings. They hoped for the consequence. They did it on purpose. Evil intent is explicit and it is very clear who is to blame.

In an asymmetrical conflict, many individuals and groups can be charged with acting with evil intent: both from the weaker side and from the stronger side. However, we think that attributions of evil intent to the stronger side are best represented as societal attributions (which we will see in the next section) rather than evil intent. Due to the fact that they are the stronger side, their actions are said not only to cause violence, but are seen as affecting significantly the structure of the system. We think that the gain in coherence and simplicity in the model is worth the potential validity issues (which we will discuss in the next chapter).

In summary, attributing the causes of violence to specific individuals and their motivations is called an attribution of evil intent and allocates blame to the weaker antagonist.

Although evil intent and individual responsibility are pillars of how we understand morality, it cannot explain social facts in the sense given by Durkheim7. Society, or the political system in which we live, can create constraints or pressure on individual actions, and thus cause some or most of them to behave in a particular way. We may consider that behavior immoral but it could be a product of an immoral system or societal norms. To accuse the system then results in a societal attribution of responsibility. In an asymmetrical system, the weaker side acts against a political system that it considers unjust. The media may also agree with this evaluation – although not necessarily with the means the weaker side uses – and blame the system for the violence. In the next section we analyze how to identify societal attributions of responsibility.




This type of attribution of responsibility emphasizes causes external to the individual.8 In societal attributions of responsibility, blame is disassociated from the individual and placed instead on some perceived failure of the system or the society. The actions of the individual are said not to have actually their origins in him, but on something external: the conditions in which he lives. It is these conditions that are presented as being morally responsible, and the real cause of his purely “reactive” actions.

We find the historical roots of this type of argument in the Modern Age. Non-religious public questioning of the ills of society became possible in this age, and it made societal attributions of responsibility very common. Karl Marx was one of the first to argue about morality in this manner. According to Eugene Kamenka, Marx believed that “as long as man cannot be himself, as long as man is forced to play out a role cast for him by the [capitalist] system, he cannot become the subject of ethics. His moralities are not expressions of his humanity, but reactions to his (inhuman) condition; individuals are not ethically culpable because their actions are not free, they are forced upon them by the conditions of their life” (Kamenka 1969: 21). From a Marxist point of view, stealing is a product of “poverty”, not of thieves; throwing a rock against a policeman is caused by “oppression”; and we need to blame the “occupation” for the fact that a person attaches to himself explosives and kills innocent people in a crowded market. Following this logic, crime is a purely reactive product of the conditions experienced by the person who transgressed. The criminal cannot be blamed; the conditions are to blame.

Antonio Gramsci used this type of attribution when in 1921 an anarchist bombed the Diana Theater in Milan. “[Gramsci] expressed his own horror for the gesture in itself, practically attributing the moral responsibility for it to the capitalist system that has elevated this type of horror to a natural form of its functioning.” (Wagner-Pacifi 1986: 284). Capitalism “produces”

bombings in theaters hence the bombers cannot be held morally responsible. Frantz Fanon extended this argument from capitalism to colonialism. He thought that violence was an omnipresent structural force in colonialist societies. The foreigner, by its mere presence, was exercising violence on the natives. To be white was to oppress, and the violence of the natives was only a (celebrated) reaction to the system (Fanon 1967). Other common examples of societal attributions occur when people blame racism, poverty, unemployment, urbanization, modernization, immigration, defective housing, substandard education, sex discrimination or oppression for violence or other social problems (Ross and Staines 1973; Franks 2006). Johan Galtung (1981) in a UNESCO report has grouped these societal failures (denial of basic material needs [poverty], human rights [repression] and “higher needs” [alienation] by a state to its inhabitants) under the notion of structural violence, and by doing so, has contributed to granting widespread international legitimacy to this type of attributions of responsibility.It is interesting to note that some scholars of Law agree somewhat with this type of argument. They find grounds for reducing blame and punishment to an offender when they believe that society has failed to provide him with adequate economic and social opportunities (Von Hirsch and Ashworth 2005). While there is empirical evidence that, for example, reducing poverty helps reduce crime, the defect of this type of attribution of responsibility is the opposite to that encountered in attributions of evil intent: what makes two individuals raised under the same societal influences behave differently? Not every poor man is a thief, not every person who feels oppressed becomes a suicide bomber. In extreme cases, in Marxist theory for example, there is no room for individual morality at all.

In spite of these issues, the use of societal attributions for social problems is very common in political debate. Journalists and scholars ask the public to look at things in “context” and to understand the root causes of violence. This is usually a euphemism for societal attributions and “structural violence” and the deflection of blame away from the transgressors. 38

In summary, societal attributions of responsibility allocate blame for violence in external pressures that make individual morality irrelevant. Marxist and radical thought is fond of making this type of attributions since they conceive of the political system under capitalism as oppressive. Some scholars agree with this standpoint and consider that there is something called “structural violence” which precedes and by its existence justifies purely reactive violence. We can see that societal attributions of responsibility are commonly used to deflect blame from the individual towards the system, and need to be included in our model.

In asymmetrical conflicts, the stronger side is responsible for supporting the political system, or status quo in society. The perception is that authorities keep the system working against the desires of the weaker antagonist. Blaming “failures” on the system, i.e. making societal attributions of responsibility, therefore, allocates blame to the stronger antagonist.

In the next section we analyze a third type of attributions of responsibility: punitive.



AttributionsIyengar developed the notion of punitive attributions (Iyengar 1991). Punitive attributions are statements that argue that: a) lack of punishment is responsible for people resorting to violence, or, b) more punishment against offenders is needed to end violence. People who argue for punitiveness demand a firm hand and harsh actions against criminals. Using these types of attributions is common in individuals with right-wing views.

It might seem at first that punitive attributions blame the stronger side – as in “the government does not enforce the law” – or the political system – as in “the laws are too permissive”. But in the context of an asymmetrical conflict, punitive attributions are usually argued by people who have hostile views of the weaker antagonist, not of the stronger. When a journalist argues that terrorism takes place because the army doesn’t carry out a wide military operation, the goal is not to blame the stronger antagonist for the violence, since a stronger reactive, purely defensive violence is implicitly or explicitly demanded from them. The blame for the violence is still attributed to the weaker side, it deserves more punishment. The stronger side is only exercising its right to self-defense.

An example of a punitive attribution of responsibility is found in an editorial in the Israeli newspaper the Jerusalem Post where it is argued that “The current jihad against us is being fueled by the perception that Israel is blocked from taking decisive action to defend itself” (Jerusalem Post, editorial page, September 10, 2003). It is obvious that the ultimate responsibility for the violence is attributed to the Palestinians, since the proposed solution in the same editorial is to “kill as many of the Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders as possible, as quickly as possible, while minimizing collateral damage, but not letting that damage stop us.”

Again, there is a sound logic in keeping apart punitive attributions from societal attributions. The argument that crime should be fought by “raising living standards for everyone” is a clear instance of a societal attribution. It would be a mistake to group people who put forward that argument together with those who claim that crime should be fought by “changing the laws to allow longer sentences for criminals”. That is the difference between punitive attributions (the individual should be forced to abandon violence) and societal attributions (society must change to benefit and persuade the individual to abandon violence).9 In summary, in asymmetrical conflicts, punitive attributions of responsibility blame the weaker antagonist.