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Virginia Held and the Problem of Innate Morality

Simon P. Oswitch

I. Virginia Held‟s essay “Moral Responsibility and Collective Action” argues that moral responsibility can be attributed to collective groups of persons. The essay is concerned with the actions of Charlie Company—the 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry of the U.S. Army— with respect to their involvement in the slaughter of Vietnamese civilians at the hamlet of My Lai 4 on March 16, 1968. Ultimately, Held will claim that there is a moral imperative central to all “reasonable” persons that will forbid the killing of innocent beings. Thus, groups—and in certain cases, random groups (i.e., groups comprised of persons who “find themselves together by the accidents of history”1 )—can be held accountable for acting (or not acting) in specific ways. Central to Held‟s discussion is the critical facet of “reasonable beings;” as stated, Held appears to be assuming that human beings are reasonable and that reason, in this sense, implies specific types of moral awareness. Her philosophical lineage for this hypothesis is Plato via Kant; as is well known, these two thinkers were firmly committed to an innate moral sense intimately allied with rationality. However, it is this aspect of Held‟s essay which I deem problematic. There is no argument for this perspective—rather, she assumes that it is a self-evident fact. Without such argument, how can she be assured that persons embody such an essence? A further complication is that she doesn‟t truly take into account the “reason” governing war-time (as opposed to peace-time) situations—especially the predicament with which American troops in Vietnam were confronted (i.e., guerilla warfare). Such unanswered questions do not bode well for her eventual thesis—they pose serious problems with respect to the tenability of such a position. My aim is to first clarify and exposit key points of Held‟s essay and then address the above- mentioned problems. What I hope to evidence from such criticisms are the difficulties associated with positing a moral imperative—especially one which lacks clear justification or support. II. Held‟s discussion begins with a contrast between the way armed forces are “normally structured… their command structure (is) rigidly (defined by) relations of command and obedience between person”2 —and that of the men of Charlie Company at My Lai who could have “stopped” or “curbed” the massacre mainly because the victims were unarmed and did not pose resistance. In such a scenario, the troops would have been “acting as an unorganized group of individual persons”3 —a random collection.


Virg inia Held, “Moral Responsibility and Collective Action” in Individual and Collective Responsibility: Massacre at My Lai, ed. Peter A. French (Schenkman Publishing Co mpany, 1972), p. 105. 2 Ibid., p. 104. 3 Ibid., p. 105.

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The question then is if random groupings can be held accountable for not taking collective action; Held‟s answer will be affirmative. However, before she responds to this question, Held states that some “preliminary assumptions” need to be mentioned: (1) The difference between random and organized grouping of persons. Within the former, persons are, again, grouped together by an “accident of histo ry;” thus, they have “no specifiable method for deciding to act.”4 The latter group is distinguished by its location as well other characteristics that delimit its membership from other persons.”5 However, the major difference is that the organized group possesses a “decision method for action”—a method agreed upon previously by members of the group. (2) It is pragmatically impossible to reduce questions of responsibility to individual members of groups. It would be untenable to list, for example, all of the members of the Democratic Party responsible for nominating a certain candidate. (3) There is a distinction between responsibility for an action and moral responsibility for an action. In regard to the former, an individual must “be aware of the nature of the action, in the sense that he is not doing A in the belief that he is doing B and it requires that the judgment “He could have done something else” be valid of the action he has performed.”6 Contrastingly, a person is morally responsible for an action if they are aware of the moral nature of the act—i.e., the actor must understand “the moral import of the kind of action of which it is an instance or as the moral value of the consequences it may produce.”7 To illustrate the distinction, Held employs an example of a person throwing an explosive device into an open window which results in the death of a child. Though the person may not have foreseen this particular result, the actor is morally accountable because of the ever-present risk of death or injury associated with this type of device. Thus, the moral nature of the act is evident due to anticipated possibilities. However, if a person rings a doorbell and the action results in an explosion which kills someone, the actor is responsible for pressing the bell but not morally responsible for the killing because the likelihood of such foreknowledge would be virtually nil. (4) The requirements for responsibility and moral responsibility can be applied to collectives—just as they were applied to individuals. Thus, for example, we can hold Dow Chemical morally responsible for manufacturing napalm because they have prior knowledge that the chemical is not “edible gelatin.” (5) The actions of collectives are subject to moral judgments: “Brown University ought to admit more black students... (or)... the U.S. should not bomb North Vietnam.”8 4 5 6 7 8

Ibid., p. 105. Ibid., p. 105. Ibid., p. 106. Ibid., pp. 106-107. Ibid., p. 108.

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(6) The reductionist thesis that the “ascribing of responsibilities to collectivities can always be ascribed… to individuals who compose the collectivity”9 can be rejected on the following grounds: (a) One can boycott products from Dow Chemical because they manufacture napalm, and yet “have no need for further judgment concerning which corporation executives did what in connection with the action.”10 (b) A person considering joining the Democratic Party can make moral judgments about actions committed by the party end yet “reject as impossible a reductionist program for such judgments.”11 (c) Reductionist demands should also be rejected “in principle”; because a person is a citizen of the United States, it does not follow that the person is responsible for all actions committed by the United States government. At this point, Held returns to the question of moral responsibility and random collections. III. She poses this question: “(A)re (there) requirements that can ever be met for a random collection of individuals to be substituted for group G in a valid judgment that “G is morally responsible for A (or non-A),” or “G ought (ought not) to have done A (or non-A)?”12 Her response begins with the observation that random collections of persons are capable of acting—though any such actions are distinguished from those performed by organized groups. As stated, the main difference is that organized groups possess a decision method for acting whilst random groups lack such a “procedure.”13 Thus, with respect to moral action, Held concedes that only in “special circumstances” can a random group be “aware of the moral nature of an act”; a “normal” collection of persons would, for example, be able to foresee the eventual death of a person who is being repeatedly shot—regardless of who specifically committed the act. Held then surmises that a “parallel point” can be made with respect to attributing responsibility to random collections for not taking action that should prevent certain 9

Ibid., p. 108. Ibid., p. 108. 11 Ibid., pp. 108-109. 12 Ibid., p. 110. 13 Held‟s discussion centers upon actions which can only be taken by random groups; she admits that due to the difference between random and organized groups (i.e., decision methods) the actions of random groups may not be able to consistently satisfy her requirements fo r moral action. Yet, she feels random groups can, in special circu mstances, be held accountable for act ing or not acting as such. 10

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happenings. However, as stated, responsibility can only be assigned under unique or special circumstances. Held‟s discussion of what constitutes “special circumstances” is “confined… (to) a given situation... obvious to the reasonable person….”14 If an occurrence is “not obvious to the reasonable person… a random collection may not be held responsible for failing to perform the action in question, but, in some cases, a random collection may be held responsible for not forming into an organized group capable of deciding which action to take.”15 To highlight this point, she offers three scenarios: (1) Seven “apparently normal persons” are together in a subway car. The persons are not sitting together and do not know each other. Suddenly, the second smallest of the persons pushes the smallest person to the floor and begins to beat and strangle him. The other five passengers do not interfere for ten minutes and the smallest person dies. We can attribute moral responsibility to this group because they (1) could have foreseen the possible outcome and (2) didn‟t act singularly or in unison to prevent the killing. With such mitigating factors as (1) the slight physical stature of the assailant and (2) the small size of the group (if they acted together, group confusion would not have been a factor), Held believes that it is “obvious” what action should have been taken: “A collection of persons ought to try to prevent one of its members from being beaten and strangled.”16 Following this example, Held explains what she means by “reasonable” as opposed to “rational.” The latter has come to be defined as “efficiently self- interested in the impressive and well developed literature of game theory and decision processes. “Reasonable,” in contrast, has a better chance of retaining an essential moral component…”17 I mention this distinction because of the importance Held attaches to the term “reasonable” in regard to my eventual critique of her thesis. (2) Five persons are in an old European train. One of the persons, a doctor, goes for a walk in the train‟s corridor and leaves his satchel on his seat. When he is gone, a man in the compartment begins to have convulsions, and in a frantic search for air, lurches against the door which opens... he falls out and is killed.”18 Upon returning, the doctor informs the remaining passengers that they should have held the man down and administered a special medicine which was present inside of his satchel. This random group cannot be held morally responsible because it is not reasonable for them to have knowledge that a person in convulsions would lurch toward the door or that there was medicine on board that could have aided the person. (3) Three pedestrians who do not know one another are walking along an isolated street when a small building collapses. Inside the building a man is trapped and calls out for help—the three persons respond. The pedestrians observe that the man is severely 14 15 16 17 18

Held, op. cit., p. 111. Ibid., p. 111. Ibid., p. 112. Ibid., p. 113. Ibid., p. 113.

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bleeding from a leg injury and is in need of immediate attention. Though they realize a tourniquet needs to be applied, they cannot agree upon the proper way to remove three beams which lie atop the man and prevent their assistance. While they disagree as to which beam should first be removed the man bleeds to death. Though it was reasonably obvious that the tourniquet needed to be applied—and thus the beams removed—it wasn‟t apparent which beam should be removed first. However, Held argues, “any one of the three proposed actions would be better than no action”19 and thus the random group would he held morally accountable for failing to adopt a decision method that could have saved the man‟s life. From here, Held recounts and clarifies the distinction between a random and an organized group of persons. The latter has a method for deciding to act: “…it has officials who can act in its name,… a voting procedure to arrive at its decisions or customary procedures to guide its actions.”20 When a group possesses such a method for deciding action a random group is transformed into an organized group. Another distinction Held makes between an organized and a random group is that in the case of the latter moral responsibility is distributive—i.e., each member of the group is morally accountable for acting (or not acting) in a certain way. However, the “proportion” of responsibility assigned can vary with respect to the actions of a particular member. Her reasoning: “If a random collection can be represented as a set equivalent, say, to M & N & Q, then if R is morally responsible, we seem to be able to conclude that M is morally responsible, N is morally responsible, and Q is morally responsible.”21 In contrast, if these persons formed an organized group “the group could not be adequately represented as equivalent simply to M & N & Q, because its depiction would have to include the decision method by which the members act as a group and the distribution of moral responsibility over such a combination would not seen plausible.”22 At this point Held returns to the actions of Charlie Company at My Lai. She quotes at length investigative journalist Seymour Hersh‟s reconstructed account of March 16: (1) Fifteen to twenty Vietnamese women and children were shot in the head while crying and praying in a temple where incense was burning. The children were said be “little” whilst the women were described as “old.” (2) Vietnamese families were shot inside of their homes as well as outside of doorways (3) Vietnamese attempting to escape were rounded up, crammed into bunkers (built for protection) and live grenades lobbed inside.

19 20 21 22

Ibid., p. 114. Ibid., p. 114. Ibid., p. 115. Ibid., p. 115.

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(4) Grenades were thrown into ditches where Vietnamese women lay huddled with children beneath them. Children surviving the blast—and old enough to walk away—were shot by Lt. Calley. 23 (5) A Vietnamese farmer reported the rape of a woman by soldiers after they had killed her children; also, it was reported that a thirteen- year-old girl was raped before being killed. (6) In November 1969, United States Army investigators reached the “barren” My Lai area and found mass graves at three different sites; they also discovered a large ditch full of bodies. All told, it was estimated that between 450-500 persons—mostly women, children and old men—were killed and then buried. Held admits that “ignorance, frustration, and the desire for revenge for the killing suffered by their own men”24 was a major factor in Charlie Company‟s massacre; also, the “general level of brutality and criminality in American military practice in Vietnam makes clear that not all responsibility rests with the individuals doing the shooting….”25 However, Held unquestioningly states that the troops at My Lai were morally accountable for their actions and/or lack thereof: … to act in disregard of valid moral judgments against domestic murder remains unjustifiable for angry individuals with impulses to kill relatives or strangers, no matter the level of the crime rate. In circumstances where it is obvious to the reasonable person that an action is called for to try to stop such unjustified killing we would seem to be able to hold a random collection of individuals morally responsible for failing to take such action. To act in disregard of valid moral judgments which at the very least forbid the deliberate, avoidable, and militarily unnecessary killing of unarmed and unresisting persons, including children, remains unjustifiable, no matter the conditions of war. When it is obvious to the reasonable person that attempting to stop such killing is called for in a given situation, we would seem to be able to conclude that random collection of individuals are to be considered morally responsible for failing to make such an attempt. 26 Thus, Held remarks that the appropriate question to ask of any random collection confronted with such killing “is not „did you take part but rather what did you do to stop the slaughter?‟”27 23

In 1971, Lt . William Calley was found responsible for ordering the My Lai massacre and convicted on 22 counts of premeditated murder. Though given life imprisonment, the sentence was shortened to 10 years; he served 3½ years under house arrest at Ft. Benning before his conviction was overturned in 1974. 24 Ibid., p. 116. 25 Ibid., pp. 116-117. 26 Ibid., p. 117. 27 Ibid., p. 118.

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IV. As evident throughout Held‟s essay, the crucial factor in the attributing of moral responsibility is action deemed obvious to reasonable beings. This is clear in her statement in the long quotation above; it is also present in other areas (see footnotes 7, 14, 15, 17 and the three scenarios, pp. 113-115). Her entire thesis is dependent upon this conception of human nature and yet, as stated at the outset, she fails to offer an argument to support this supposition. She assumes that human beings are, in fact, “reasonable” and that reasonableness is intimately allied with a moral sensibility that would (or should) prevent the killing of innocent beings. I would therefore register the following objections: (1) What objective evidence can Held refer to in the support of such a thesis? That is, if we grant that persons are able to reason (i.e., deduce, induce) how can we be certain that this ability “retains an essential moral component?” Such a claim is not obvious especially in the light of notable atrocities in the twentieth century. The Nazi bureaucracy epitomized the concrete embodiment of reason (one does not murder as many innocent persons in such a relatively brief period of time without great forethought and planning), though one could hardly attribute to that collective group the kind of moral sense Held describes. Also, the vast incongruity of the Nazi soldier being a “good” family man whilst simultaneously a killer of innocent beings throws great doubt upon a reason/morality connection; if morality is innate, one could hardly switch it on and off as many Nazis were known to do. And what of SS doctors such as Joseph Mengele, the infamous “Angel of Death?” In this instance we are confronted with a man of science (perhaps the epitome of reason) performing barbaric “experiments” on innocent beings (including children—i.e., the “studies” on twins, etc.). A clear and obvious link between reason/morality? I would not concur. (2) The Heart of Darkness problem. In Joseph Conrad‟s 1899 novel, we learn of the actions of “Mr. Kurtz”—a highly educated, European intellectual who leaves for the wilds of Africa to oversee a trading post. While in the jungle, Kurtz eventually abandons the mainstream morality of European society and eagerly participates in acts of great barbarity and savagery (i.e., indiscriminate killings, collecting human skulls, etc.). The point in this example is though “reasonableness” may seem apparent in the confines of one‟s own society, when persons find themselves within a radically different environment (an environment where methods of, for example, survival are markedly different from those previously accustomed to—i.e., gathering food; fending off enemies, etc.) the previously recognized moral maxims could be abandoned. This is what happens to Kurtz and can also occur in wartime situations. As David Cooper makes clear in his essay “Responsibility and the System,” U.S. military policies in Vietnam— “free fire zones; the high body count policy; the bombing of villages of minimal importance; the use of men as human mine-sweeps; deportation of civilians into appalling concentration camps (and)

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the use of frightful weapons”28 —were all instances of an ethic completely at odds with what a civilized society would deem “normal” or “reasonable.” And yet this is the ethic that often governs warfare, especially, guerrilla warfare. It isn‟t difficult to moralize, as Held does when one is a member of a society that isn‟t directly engaged in a war (that is, when the war is geographically occurring elsewhere); but one should be wary of prescribing an ethic where, for example, survival rules radically differ. However (and this relates to my first criticism), though one might respond that the men of Charlie Company were not in immanent danger at My Lai, Held‟s failure to justify the reason/morality claim can be employed to possibly explain the soldiers actions: if there is no argument for innate morality, how can we be sure humans embody this conduct-guiding, juridical trait? (3) The belief that though “ignorance, frustration, and the desire for revenge” helped motivate the My Lai killings, reason should have held sway (i.e., acting in “disregard of valid moral judgments”) begs the question because o f the mere assertion that reason and morality are linked. Though Held privileges reason over such aforementioned irrational emotions, her unsupported thesis results in this fairly obvious fallacy. She attempts to hold the soldiers accountable for that which she herself has not accounted. Such, at least, are some of the objections that can be raised in response to Held‟s thesis: the lack of argument for a moral imperative presents a significant problem with respect to the attributing of moral responsibility. Though Held may not be alone in such an omission, her repeated insistence upon the moral benchmark of “reasonable beings” inevitably provokes this response. Thus, before constructing theories of responsibility such a problem must be addressed; if not, on what grounds should the thesis be accepted as correct?


David Cooper, “Responsibility and the System” in Individual and Collective Responsibility: Massacre at My Lai. ed. Peter A. French (Schenkman Publishing Co mpany, 1972), pp. 97-98.

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Bibliography Cooper, David. “Responsibility and the System.” In Individual and Collective Responsibility: Massacre at My Lai. ed. Peter A. French. Rochester, Vt.: Schenkman Publishing Company, 1972. Held, Virginia. “Responsibility and the System.” In Individual and Collective Responsibility: Massacre at My Lai. ed. Peter A. French. Rochester, Vt.: Schenkman Publishing Company, 1972. .

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Virginia Held and the Problem of Innate Morality  

A critique of Held's assertion that persons are innately moral in regard to the My Lai massacre

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