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Is the group responsible for the individual's crime? Collective sanctions have ancient roots, and are used more widely today than is often realized. But are they ethical? And do they work?

The Pakistani Army not long ago gave tribal elders near the Afghan border a choice: Either turn over 72 men wanted for sheltering Al Qaeda members, or soldiers would demolish houses in their town. Holding a group responsible for the actions of its members is not a new idea. Consider the pitcher who retaliates for a beanball thrown at one of his teammates by throwing at the next batter he faces. Or the granchmother evicted from public housing because her grandson sold drugs from their apartment. Or the class that loses the privilege of eating off school grounds because one student got into trouble.

In each case, people were threatened or punished not for their own actions but for their failure to control the actions of others. Some recent legal scholarship defends this approach.

"Group members might be punished not because they are deemed collectively responsible for wrongdoing," Daryl J. Levinson, who teaches law at New York University, wrote last November, "but simply because they are in an advantageous position to identify, monitor, and control responsible individuals, and can be motivated by the threat of sanctions to do so."


Others accept the utility of such sanctions but question their morality.

"It's possible to say that tribes are supposed to help the government," says George P. Fletcher, a law professor at Columbia University in New York. "It doesn't follow that you can threaten mass destruction as a method of coercing the tribe. It doesn't follow from collective guilt that you can impose collective punishment."

The main objection to collective sanctions put forward by legal scholars and philosophers is that moral responsibility should rest with the individual, not the family, tribe, or nation.

But those who defend such sanctions say that there is often little difference, in terms of responsibility, between someone who acts wrongfully--commits a crime, say--and a person around him who fails to stop the crime, warn others about it, or report it afterward. "It's not so obvious to me that the people who bear the burden of many of these punishments are truly innocent," says Levinson.

Collective sanctions have ancient roots. Two examples in the Bible are the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and blood feuds. Modern examples are international sanctions, like those imposed by the United Nations against Iraq in the 1990s. And war itself may be seen as a collective sanction. In justifying the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, for example, President Bush offered its leaders essentially the same choice given the Pakistani tribal elders. "The Taliban will hand over the terrorists," a statement issued by the White House warned, "or they will share their fate."

The legal system often imposes liability on groups for the actions of individuals; corporate liability is the classic example. Collective liability is occasionally imposed in criminal cases, too. Co conspirators can be held liable for crimes committed by their allies in the conspiracy. Sometimes the failure to inform authorities of a crime is characterized as the obstruction of justice.


Defenders concede that there are moral objections to many group sanctions, but say the problem is not with the concept but with its application.

Collective sanctions, Levinson says, are neither more nor less likely to be unfair or immoral than individual ones. Both depend on societal judgments about what actions deserve to be punished, and how severely.

But do they work? Referring to Israel's actions in the occupied territories, Fletcher writes: "There is not much evidence that the violent reprisals on the West Bank have had much of a deterrent impact on terrorists and suicide bombers." On the other hand, the Pakistani tribal elders turned over most of the men being sought.

If there is a problem with collective sanctions, says Saul Levmore, dean of the University of Chicago Law School, it is that they may be applied unfairly to the powerless or unpopular. The Pakistani Army, he suggests, should perhaps not be trusted with such a powerful weapon.

"If we recoil at the idea of collective responsibility," he says, "it's because we're afraid the village is out of the political mainstream. The government never says it's going to do this in downtown Kabul, where the rich guys live."



* Have you ever been part of a group that was punished for the illegal or irresponsible actions of one of its members? If so, do you think the punishment was fair?

* Do you agree with the actions of the Pakistani army in their pursuit of members of Al Qaeda?


To help students understand the ethical questions that arise when an entire group is held responsible for the actions of one of its members.


CRITICAL THINKING: Place the ethical questions in students' frame of reference. Note the example of the class that is denied off-school eating privileges because one student got in trouble. Ask students what measure the class might employ to ensure that no one person acts in such a way as to land them all in trouble. Be sure students explain how their strategies might work. Do people act responsibly because they wish to avoid the disapproval of the group?

ROLE-PLAY/DISCUSSION: Ask students to suppose that they are police or school officials and must decide what action to take against those who violate laws or other rules. Present the following situations, have students vote, and then explain why they voted as they did.

* Three underage students are riding in a car. The driver, who has been drinking alcohol, loses control and hits another car. Should all three be punished for the accident or only the driver?

What if it was later learned that the passengers had asked the driver not to drink?

* A student is caught cheating on a test. It later comes out that two other students knew the first was cheating. Should all three face punishment?

What if it is later learned that the cheater threatened the other students not to inform on him?

* Four teens are visiting a mall. After the group leaves the mall, one teen reveals that she stole a scarf. If the thief is later caught, should the other three face punishment for not telling on her?

What if it is later learned that the others feel sorry for the thief because she comes from a poor home and is often teased about her clothing?

* After a game, two students fight while others look on. Should the bystanders be disciplined for failing to stop the fight?

What if it is later learned that the fight was started by a student from another school who hit their friend?

Adam Liptak is the national legal correspondent for The New York Times.
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Title Annotation:Ethics
Author:Liptak, Adam
Publication:New York Times Upfront
Date:May 10, 2004
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