The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy informs us that "Moral responsibility is about human action and its intentions and consequences (Fisher 1999, Eshleman 2016). Generally speaking a person or a group of people is morally responsible when their voluntary actions have morally significant outcomes that would make it appropriate to blame or praise them." However, the question of moral responsibility is not as simple and straightforward as suggested by this definition. For instance, there is a serious and ongoing debate among philosophers about whether or not it is even possible to assign moral responsibility to a group.
In their article on Collective Responsibility, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy frames the debate in these terms: "Since this notion of collective responsibility makes groups, as distinct from their individual members, out to be moral agents, it has undergone a great deal of scrutiny in recent years by methodological and normative individualists alike. Methodological individualists challenge the very possibility of associating moral agency with groups, as distinct from their individual members, and normative individualists argue that collective responsibility violates principles of both individual responsibility and fairness. In response to these challenges, proponents of collective responsibility set out to show that collective responsibility, as well as group intentions, collective action, and group blameworthiness, are metaphysically possible and can be ascribed to agents fairly in at least some, if not all, cases."
In the 21st Century, we tend to divide ourselves into "Individualist" or "Collectivist" Cultures. In her article What is a Collectivist Culture?, Kendra Cherry observed that "Collectivism stresses the importance of the community, while individualism is focused on the rights and concerns of each person. Where unity and selflessness or altruism are valued traits in collectivist cultures, independence and personal identity are promoted in individualistic cultures." Within this framework, collectivism is generally viewed as prevailing in many Asian and African nations - while individualism is viewed as being the norm in Western Europe and the United States. Of course, even as lay people, most of us will recognize that these designations are not as well-defined and exclusive as they might appear at first glance. Even so, there is no denying that these designations are helpful in understanding why a concept like collective responsibility might not be readily accepted in a culture that glories in "rugged individualism."
Nevertheless, even as the debate rages among philosophers over whether or not moral responsibility should always be regarded as an individual enterprise, the Judeo-Christian Scriptures assign BOTH individual and collective responsibility for human actions and their consequences. In other words, the Bible is clearly of two minds on this subject! Don't think so? Let's take just a moment to review the Scriptural perspective on individual vs. collective responsibility.
First, it should be noted that the concept of individual responsibility/accountability is an early and constant theme in the Bible. From the record of the choices made by Adam and Eve in the book of Genesis, to the moral failures of Moses in the wilderness, and the many moral failings of Saul, David, Solomon, and the other kings of the Israelites, the record of individual moral failure in the writings known as the Old Testament is extensive. We also find a clear and unequivocal statement of personal responsibility in the writings of the prophet Ezekiel: "The person who sins is the one who will die. The child will not be punished for the parent’s sins, and the parent will not be punished for the child’s sins. Righteous people will be rewarded for their own righteous behavior, and wicked people will be punished for their own wickedness." (Ezekiel 18:20) Likewise, in the book of Isaiah, we read that the prophet was instructed to inform wicked individuals that they would be punished for their behavior. (Isaiah 3:11)
In the New Testament, we have the record of Christ instructing a wealthy young man to keep the commandments, give his wealth to the poor, and follow him. (Matthew 19:16-21) Likewise, in the Gospel of John, we read that Christ told the woman taken in adultery to "go and sin no more." (John 8:11) Moreover, we know that the essence of Christ's message was that individuals repent and believe the gospel. (Mark 1:15) Paul wrote to the saints of Thessalonica that anyone who wasn't willing to work shouldn't eat. (II Thessalonians 3:10) He also told Timothy that men should take responsibility for their own households. (I Timothy 5:8) Finally, in the book of Revelation, we are also informed that the one who overcomes will be rewarded. (Revelation 2:7, 17, and 3:21)
Nevertheless, the notion of collective responsibility also finds early and continuous support throughout the Bible. In the book of Genesis alone, we have the stories of the flood, the tower of Babel, and the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Moreover, in connection with the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, we have the framing of one of the strongest arguments against collective responsibility - the question of innocents among the guilty whole. In the eighteenth chapter of Genesis, we read that Abraham approached the Lord and said "Will you sweep away both the righteous and the wicked? Suppose you find fifty righteous people living there in the city—will you still sweep it away and not spare it for their sakes? Surely you wouldn’t do such a thing, destroying the righteous along with the wicked. Why, you would be treating the righteous and the wicked exactly the same! Surely you wouldn’t do that! Should not the Judge of all the earth do what is right?” (Verses 23-25)
The notion of collective responsibility is also apparent as the Israelites gathered at the base of Mount Sinai to form a covenant with their God. (Exodus 19-20) In these passages, individual sins in the form of disobedience to any of the ten commandments is shown to have the potential of becoming a collective sin when viewed from the perspective of the national covenant. Indeed, later, when Israel has violated the terms of the covenant, Scripture informs us that they have committed adultery against their husband (God)! (see Jeremiah 2 and 3) As a consequence, God decided to divorce Israel and punish them as a nation.
In the New Testament, Christ established a collective in the guise of an ekklesia or church. Likewise, we read that Peter invited a great assembly on the day of Pentecost to repent and be baptized (Acts 2:38) - both demands requiring individual action! Paul also wrote to the saints at Rome that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." (Romans 3:23) In his letter to the saints of Ephesus, Paul instructed husbands to love their wives "just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish." (Ephesians 5:25-27) Moreover, throughout the New Testament, Christ is portrayed as both a personal Savior and the Savior of the whole world. (I John 2:2, et al) Finally, just as the book of Revelation reveals that the one who overcomes will be rewarded, it also reveals that an individual entity named Satan has deceived the whole world. (Revelation 12:9)
Hence, we see that from a Scriptural perspective, BOTH individual and collective moral responsibility are seen as valid concepts. Indeed, very often they are portrayed in those writings as being complimentary and/or dependent upon each other! A beautiful example of this interplay between personal and collective responsibility is found in the parables of the Ten Virgins and the Sheep and the Goats (see Matthew 25) In both of those parables, the fate of the group and the individual is inextricably linked to the behavior of the individual.
So, what does all of this mean for a country of rugged individualists? It means that we shouldn't be so quick to dismiss notions of collective responsibility for our national sins (e.g. stealing land from Native Americans, slavery and racism, environmental destruction, and imperialism). It also means that we shouldn't be so quick to blame an entire group of people for the sins of a few. It should also make us all more cognizant of the fact that our individual actions can have a profound impact on others of our species and the wider world around us. Finally, we may want to be more open to the possibility that collective action is sometimes very moral and necessary (e.g. wearing a mask, getting a vaccine, etc.) In other words, we definitely have lessons to learn from these concepts of individual and collective responsibility!