Moral responsibility – by Robert Higgs

I’m sharing the contents of this facebook post by Robert Higgs. It has some insights about culpability for crimes that I think is useful in any discourse about justice. The words that follow are his words not mine.


Commentary on some of my recent posts about moral responsibility — as between policy makers and policy actors, for example — leads me to suspect that some people are still confusing explanation and moral appraisal.

For example, young people were indoctrinated to believe what U.S. officials told them about the threat to the USA posed by communists in Vietnam (via domino effects, blah, blah, blah). Hence they went, either after enlistment or after being drafted, to Vietnam, where they joined in killing vast numbers of “the enemy,” most of them civilians who posed no threat, direct or indirect, to Americans in America. To understand why these Americans acted as they did, we can tell the story of how they were indoctrinated by parents, schools, the news media, government officials, and so forth and how social pressures of various kinds were put on them to implement the U.S. government’s mayhem in southeast Asia.

But understanding their actions is a separate matter from morally appraising it. Should they be blamed for the murders and destruction they carried out? I say, yes, because whatever the pressures and indoctrination to which people are exposed, they remain morally responsible for their actions. Murder is not transformed into blameless action merely because the perpetrators had been socially conditioned to think so. To suppose otherwise is to enter the realm of complete moral relativity, where nothing is evil unless people are well informed as to the distinctions between good and evil. This is the world in which a 12 year old Cambodian boy who helped to murder people for having an education or wearing eye glasses has done no evil, because his actions must be appraised in the light of his indoctrination. This is the world in which SS troops did no evil because the Nazi regime had indoctrinated them in the belief that Jews were vermin that threatened the very existence of the German people. And so forth.

Is there not a level of evil from which we may expect people to shrink regardless of their indoctrination and the social pressures placed on them? If not, the world is doomed to the triumph of evil en mass, because we know that political leaders urging people to commit great evils will always seek and often attain power.

(P.S. Back in the 1960s, I and millions of others were were not taken in by the indoctrination and did not join in the mayhem despite being subject to the same social pressures to do so. Is it too much to expect that others at the time ought to have appraised the immorality of the war as we did? Is it asking too much that we hold people morally accountable for not asking more questions or getting more information before going off to a distant land to kill strangers by the millions?)


1 Comment

  1. Hrvatski Noahid

    I agree that people remain morally responsible for their actions whatever the pressures and indoctrination to which they are exposed. We follow the 7 Laws. And we have huge social pressures not to do so.

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