Author: Seumas Miller

Members of terrorist groups, such as Al Qaeda and Islamic State (IS) are individually morally responsible for their individual acts of terrorists, such as suicide bombings, murdering pedestrians by driving vehicles into them, and so. However, in some instances members of these groups act collectively and apparently, therefore, ought to be held collectively morally responsible for their actions. Consider, for instance, the team of hijackers who propelled planes into the World Trade Centre on the 11th September 2001 or the genocidal attack on Yazidis in Iraq in 2014 by members of IS armed forces in which thousands were slaughtered. Naturally, a single IS murderer can be held individually morally responsible for those murders that he committed but is he not in addition, and jointly with the other IS terrorists, responsible for the attempted genocide or elimination of the Yazidis (including by recourse to forced conversion and enslavement)? At any rate, in this paper the purpose is to get clarity on the notion of collective responsibility in play when claims such as the above ones are made. Moreover, it is not simply a matter of the collective moral responsibility of terrorists for their collective actions but also of the collective responsibility of the members of security agencies and, indeed, ordinary citizens to combat terrorism. How is the notion of collective moral responsibility to be understood as it applies to counter-terrorism?

1         Collective Moral Responsibility as Joint Moral Responsibility

My suggestion is that collective moral responsibility can be regarded as a species of joint responsibility, or at least one central kind of collective moral responsibility can be so regarded. I note in passing that the conception of collective responsibility as joint responsibility stands in contrast with the two other prevailing views that I have criticised elsewhere: collectivism and atomism (as I refer to them).

Collectivism holds that collective responsibility attaches to the group per se. Thus to ascribe collective moral responsibility to IS for the genocidal attack on the Yazidis is to attach responsibility to the collective entity, IS, per se. Accordingly, collectivism is, I suggest, a species of individualism, albeit one that operates at the macro or collective level. Collectivism ascribes moral responsibility for the genocide to IS per se (and not merely to individual members of IS personnel for their murders). However, in so doing it admits supra-human collective entities such as IS which (somewhat mysteriously) bear moral responsibility (and, therefore, the associated psychological states) and which have the potential to get (respectively) the individual terrorist members of IS off the moral hook. Potentially at least, IS is morally responsible for the genocide but none of its leaders, terrorist-combatants etc. have any moral responsibility for the genocide but each only has responsibility for the murder that he committed.

Atomism operates exclusively at the micro or individual human actor level and holds that collective responsibility is simply aggregate individual responsibility. Thus to ascribe collective moral responsibility to IS for the genocidal attack on the Yazidis is to attach responsibility to each IS member for his individual murder(s) and aggregate these individual murderers. On this view to claim that IS is collectively responsible for the genocidal attack is equivalent to claiming that one IS terrorist is responsible for murdering this Yazidi, a second IS terrorist for murdering that Yazidi, and so on for all the individual acts of murder. The weakness of atomism is that it does not seem to be able to accommodate the full range of cases in which we pre-theoretically ascribe collective moral responsibility. For example, in our IS example, while each of the IS terrorists is individually responsible for the murders he committed, none of these individuals is individually responsible for the genocide, i.e. the totality of murders. But in ascribing responsibility to IS for the genocide or, at least, genocidal attack, we seem to be doing something above and beyond simply ascribing individual moral responsibility to each of IS terrorists who murdered someone, and aggregating these. The moral responsibility of IS for the genocide seems to be more that the set of individual responsibilities.

If collective responsibility is to be understood in terms of joint responsibility we need an analysis of joint action. Roughly speaking, two or more individuals perform a joint action if each of them intentionally performs an individual action, but does so in the true belief that in so doing they will jointly realise an end which each of them has. Having an end in this sense is a mental state in the head of one or more individuals, but it is neither a desire not an intention. However, it is an end that is not realised by one individual acting alone. Accordingly, I refer to such ends as collective ends. For example, the terrorists who hijacked American Airlines flight 11 and crashed the plane into the North Tower of the World Trade Centre in New York performed a joint action. At least one terrorist operated the controls of the plane, while another navigated, and the remaining terrorists, by violence and the threat of violence, prevented the cabin crew and passengers from intervening. Each performed a contributory action, or actions, in the service of the collective end of crashing the plane into the building and killing passengers, office workers and themselves.

We need to be precise about what agents who perform morally significant joint actions are collectively morally responsible for. Other things being equal, each agent who intentionally performs a morally significant individual action has individual moral responsibility for the action. So in the case of a morally significant joint action, each agent is individually morally responsible for performing his contributory action, and the other agents are not morally responsible for his individual contributory action. So in our IS example, each terrorist who murdered a Yazidi is indeed morally responsible for doing so. But, in addition, the contributing agents are collectively morally responsible for the outcome or collective end of their various contributory actions. To say that they are collectively morally responsible for bringing about this (collective) end is just to say that they are jointly morally responsible for it. So each agent is individually morally responsible for realising this (collective) end, but conditionally on the others being individually morally responsible for realising it as well. So in the World Trade Centre example, one terrorist  might be individually morally responsible for navigating the plane, a second terrorist individually morally responsible for piloting the plane into the building, and a fourth and fifth terrorist for using and threatening to use violence to prevent the cabin crew and passengers from intervening. However, the members of this terrorist team are jointly morally responsible for the destroying the plane and building, and for killing the passengers and office workers.

Notice that the ascription of collective responsibility in joint action involves: (a) a causal contribution from each of the individuals jointly being ascribed responsibility; (b) each individual having an intention to perform his or her contributory action; and (c) each individual having as an end or goal the outcome causally produced by their jointly performed actions.

Now let us consider collective moral responsibility for actions that arise in the context of the actions of large groups and organisations. Consider IS. It considers of leaders, terrorist-combatants, financiers, media personnel and so on. The actions of the members of IS are interdependent to a greater or lesser extent in virtue of the collective end(s) that they pursue, such as establishing and maintaining the so-called caliphate in Iraq and Syria (in the first instance). Naturally, this interdependence is far more complex than simple cases of joint action, given the existence of an hierarchical organisation with various sub-organisations units, and its more loosely structured extensions. Moreover, the contribution of each individual to the outcome is far more various, and in general quite insignificant, given the large numbers of people involved.

At this point the notion of, what I have elsewhere termed, a layered structure of joint actions needs to be introduced.[1] Suppose a number of ‘actions’ are performed in order to realise some collective end. Call the resulting joint action a level two joint action. Suppose, in addition, that each of the component individual ‘actions’ of this level two joint ‘action’, is itself – at least in part – a joint action with a second set of component individual actions. And suppose the member actions of this second set have the performance of this level two ‘action’ as their collective end. Call the joint action composed of the members of this second set of actions a level one joint action. An illustration of the notion of a layered structure of joint actions is in fact an armed force fighting a battle. At level one we have a number of joint actions. The pilots of (say) the US squadron of planes conduct an airstrike on an IS position in Raqqa in Syria, and members of (say) the SDF (Syrian Defence Forces) move forward on the ground, killing IS combatants and taking the position. So there are two level one joint actions. Now, each of these two (level one) joint actions is itself describable as an individual action performed (respectively) by the different military groups, namely, the action of bombing the position, and the action of overrunning and occupying the position. However, each of these ‘individual’ actions is part of a larger joint action directed to the collective end of winning the battle against IS. For each of these individual attacks on the position is part of a larger plan coordinated by the US and SDF commands et al. So these ‘individual’ actions constitute a level two joint action directed to the collective end of winning the battle.

Accordingly, if all, or most, of the individual actions of the members of the US airforce squadron and of the SDF ground forces were performed in accordance with collective ends, and the performance of each of the resulting level one joint actions were themselves performed in accordance with the collective end of winning the battle, then, at least in principle, we could ascribe joint moral responsibility for winning the battle to the individual pilots of the US air force and to the individual members of the SDF.

At any rate, the upshot of this discussion is that agents involved in complex cooperative enterprises, such as large organisations, can, at least in principle, be ascribed collective or joint responsibility for the outcomes aimed at by those enterprises. This conclusion depends on the possibility of analysing these enterprises in terms of layered structures of joint action. Such structures involve: (a) a possibly indirect and minor causal contribution from each of the individuals jointly being ascribed responsibility; (b) each individual having an intention to perform his or her contributory action; and (c) each individual having as an ultimate end or goal the outcome causally produced by their jointly performed actions.

2         Chains of Institutional and Moral Responsibility

Institutional responsibility is a species of responsibility and contrasts, perhaps most obviously, with moral responsibility. Private Jones might be morally responsible for failing to assist a hungry civilian without being institutionally responsible for his failing. Equally, Private Smith might be institutionally responsible for seeing to it that his boots are polished but we might baulk at regarding this as a moral responsibility. Moreover, responsibility can be used in a backward or a forwarding looking sense. An example of the former sense is: “Jones is responsible for his dead passenger since he failed to stop at the checkpoint.” An example of the latter sense is “The mechanic is responsible for seeing to it that the brakes in the vehicle are fixed.”

Responsibility needs to be distinguished from blameworthiness/praiseworthiness, on the one hand, and accountability, on the other. If an infantryman performs his task of target practice on the firing range to an acceptable standard, but not to a high standard, then he is responsible for having completed his task; but he is presumably neither praiseworthy nor blameworthy. Evidently, therefore, praiseworthiness and blameworthiness presuppose responsibility, but should not be equated with it. Again, responsibility should not be confused with accountability. The infantryman is responsible for achieving a certain level of competence with his weapon, but accountable for his performance to (say) his supervising officer. That is, the supervisor might be tasked with monitoring and assessing his performance and, if necessary, intervening in the case of poor performance by retraining or even disciplining him.

The notion of institutional responsibility, including but not restricted to legal responsibility, presupposes some notion of an institution. Our concern here is with institutions that are also organizations and/or systems of organizations. Institutions consist in part of institutional roles defined in terms of tasks and these roles are structured in terms of relationships of authority. Institutional role structures vary greatly. Compare, for example, the hierarchical top-down structure of military organizations with the flat democratic structures typical of amateur sporting clubs.

Evidently individual role occupants are individually institutionally responsible for at least some of their actions and omissions. For example, a police officer might be individually institutionally responsible for seeing to it that a suspect is arrested in accordance with due process (responsibility in the forward looking sense). Moreover, if the officer fails to comply with due process then he is individually responsible for not having so complied (backward looking sense) and this failure attaches to him qua institutional role occupant.

Again, an institutional role occupant in a position of authority over another (e.g. the supervisor in relation to the infantryman) might have an individual institutional responsibility (forward looking sense) to see to it that her subordinate performs the tasks definitive of the subordinate’s role. Moreover, if the subordinate consistently fails to perform the tasks in question, and his superior (the supervisor) fails to intervene, then the supervisor is individually responsible (backward looking sense) for seeing to it that subordinate does his job and this failure attaches to the supervisor qua institutional role occupant. On the other hand, a number of institutional role occupants might be collectively institutionally responsible for some outcome. The paradigmatic cases here are ones of joint action; actions involving cooperation between institutional actors to achieve some outcome.

If the occupants of an institutional role (or roles) have an institutionally determined obligation to perform some joint action then those individuals are collectively institutionally responsible for its performance. Consider the collective institutional responsibility of the members of the Fire Department of New York City to put out fires in high rise buildings in New York. Here there is a joint institutional obligation to realise the collective end of the joint action in question. In addition, there is a set of derived individual obligations; each of the participating individuals has an individual obligation to perform his/her contributory action. (The derivation of these individual obligations relies on the fact that if each performs his/her contributory action then it is probable that the collective end will be realised.)

The joint institutional obligation is a composite obligation consisting of the obligation each of us has to perform a certain specified action in order to realise that end. More precisely, I have the obligation to realise a collective end by means of doing some action, believing you to have performed some other action for that self-same end. The point about joint obligations is that they are not be discharged by one person acting alone.

Notice that typically agents involved in an institutional joint action will discharge their respective individual institutional obligations and their joint institutional obligation by the performance of one and the same set of individual actions. For example, if each of the members of an anti-terrorist task force performs his individual duties having as an end the locating of a terrorist cell then, given favourable conditions, the task force will locate the cell. But one can imagine an investigating agent who recognises his individual institutional obligation, but not his jointly held obligation to realise the collective end in question. This investigator might have an overriding individual end to get himself promoted; but the head of the task force might be ahead of him in the queue of those to be promoted. So the investigator does not have locating the cell as a collective end. Accordingly, while he ensures that he discharges his individual obligation to (say) interview a particular suspect, the investigator is less assiduous than he might otherwise be because he wants the task force to fail to locate the cell.

Let us now turn directly to the matter of collective moral responsibility and counter-terrorism. Let us consider a counter-terrorist police operations involving a surveillance team, firearms officers and a commander and take the shooting of Charles de Menezes by police in London in 2005 as our scenario to work with. Jean Charles de Menezes was an innocent person wrongly suspected by police of being a terrorist suicide bomber who was killed by police in a London underground station. The police believed that he was a mortal threat to the passengers in the station and to themselves.

While the events that terminated in Mr de Menezes’ death involved a number of what might at this point be referred to as mistakes or errors of judgement on the part of police, I will focus on just three: (1) the failure of the surveillance team in relation to determining whether or not Mr de Menezes was the terrorist suspect Hussain Osman and, in particular, clearly communicating to their commander, Commander Dick, that Mr de Menezes was or was not Mr Osman, or that they did not know or were otherwise uncertain of their subject’s identity; (2) the failure on the part of Commander Dick to see to it that Mr de Menezes was challenged and stopped at some point after leaving Scotia Road, but prior to his entering the underground railway station, that is, at a location which would not have compromised the surveillance operation at Scotia Road, and in a manner that would not have required killing him (he being at most a threat to himself, the arresting officers and, perhaps, one or two passers-by); (3) the failure on the part of the two officers who shot Mr de Menezes each to provide himself with adequate grounds for believing that they were shooting dead a suicide bomber who was at the time in question a mortal threat to the train passengers; after all, the person shot dead was merely a suspected suicide bomber and one in relation to whom the firearms officers had no clear evidence that he was carrying a bomb—because the operation had not been declared by Commander Dick to be a Kratos operation and they did not at any point perceive a bomb or were otherwise provided with good evidence that the suspect was carrying a bomb. In referring to these failures as mistakes or—especially in the case of Commander Dick and the firearms officers— errors of judgement, I am not implying any specific moral failing on the part of the police; whether or not there was a moral failure is a matter to be determined. Certainly, as stated above, there was no intention to kill an innocent person; indeed, police actions were carried out with the intention to save innocent lives. Moreover, obviously the police did not foresee that an innocent life would be taken.

Institutional arrangements such as the one in question—in which there is a separation of sequentially performed roles and associated responsibilities (e.g., between members of the surveillance team and the firearms officers), but nevertheless a common further end, or collective end (e.g., prevention of a suicide bombing)—involve what I have referred to elsewhere as a “chain of institutional and moral responsibility.”[2] In chains of institutional and moral responsibility: (1) each participant aims at the collective end constitutive and distinctive of their particular institutional role (e.g., that of member of the surveillance team); (2) the occupants of any given constitutive role (the links in the chain) perform their role-based actions sequentially with the actions of the occupants of the other roles (e.g., the actions of the surveillance team are performed prior to actions of the firearms officers), and (3) in doing so, all the participants aim (or should be aiming) at a collective end (e.g., preventing the suicide bombing) that is an end further to those constitutive  and distinctive of their particular roles. Moreover, all the participants (at least, in principle) share in the collective responsibility for the realization of this end (or the failure to realize this end, as the case may be).

The first point is that, as noted already, collective moral responsibility for an outcome is consistent with individual moral responsibility for individual actions that are in part constitutive of some joint action, omission, or outcome. As we have seen, the individual members of the surveillance team were collectively (jointly) morally responsible for failing to clearly communicate to the control room whether or not Menezes was Osman—or that they were uncertain in this regard. Moreover, Commander Dick is morally responsible for failing to see to it that fire arms officers were in place to stop de Menezes prior to his entering the underground station. Finally, the two firearms officers were collectively (jointly) morally responsible for failing to provide themselves with good and decisive evidence for the proposition that Menezes was a suicide bomber and a mortal threat to the train passengers. Here I stress that these failures all had mitigating factors.

The second point is that each of these failures was a necessary condition for the outcome; that is, the outcome that may be described as the killing of an innocent person. This second point gives rise to the question of whether the members of the surveillance team, Commander Dick, and the firearms officers are collectively morally responsible for that outcome, albeit none individually intended the outcome and none individually foresaw the outcome. I suggest that, notwithstanding that the failure of each might have been a necessary condition for the outcome, this causal chain was not accompanied by a collective end (so there was no joint action or intentional joint omission). Moreover, the members of the group did not, as a group, foresee the outcome; indeed, not even one of these individuals foresaw the outcome.

Could the members of the group reasonably have foreseen that the consequences of their actions would be the killing by police of an innocent person, bearing in mind that they had, and ought to have had, as part of their collective end to avoid taking innocent life? Surely not all of them, or even most of them, could reasonably have foreseen this outcome. For example, the members of the surveillance team could not reasonably have foreseen that that an innocent person would be killed. Accordingly, the members of the team of police officers in question—members of the surveillance team, Commander Dick, and the two firearms officers—were not collectively morally responsible for the death of an innocent person, Jean Charles de Menezes. Were the members of some subset of the team of police officers collectively morally responsible for the death of Menezes? The most obvious candidates for members of such a subset are the two firearms officers, since they did the shooting. Presumably, they were collectively morally responsible for shooting Menezes dead, albeit, for the reasons given above, neither was morally culpable. However, the theoretical point to be made here is that they were only one link (the final link) in the chain of institutional and moral responsibility. So this collective moral responsibility of the two firearms officers does not embrace the other police involved in the death of Menezes.

Notwithstanding the conclusion that the members of the team of police officers were not collectively morally responsible for killing Menezes, it could still be argued that they were collectively morally – and institutionally – responsible for failing to ensure that an innocent person was not killed. After all, the members of the team had—as they ought to have had—the morally significant institutionally determined collective end of avoiding or, at least, minimizing loss of innocent life. This collective end was achievable, but in fact it was not achieved. Moreover, each (or, at least most, of the police officers apparently failed in respect of some or other of his or her institutional and moral duties, and did so in a manner that contributed to the failure to realize this collective end—the avoidance of loss of innocent life. In this respect, the members of the surveillance team, Commander Dick, and the two firearms were collectively morally responsible, albeit not morally culpable. I further suggest that each had a share in this collective responsibility; that is, each was partially responsible jointly with the others, but none was fully morally responsible.

[1] Seumas Miller Social Action: A Teleological Account (Cambridge University Press, 2001) Chapter 5.

[2] Seumas Miller, “Police Detectives, Criminal Investigations and Collective Moral Responsibility,” Criminal Justice Ethics 33, no. 1 (2014): 21–39.