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  • Liberal Collectivism:The Korean Challenge to Liberal Individualism
  • Sungmoon Kim (bio)

On April 16, 2005, a 14-year old Korean girl named Lee was arrested on the charge of patricide. Her father, an alcoholic, had been beating his ill parents and Lee, his only child, over the past decade. Lee's mother, sick of the husband's drunken rowdiness and frequent violence, ran away when Lee was just over three months old, and had not been heard from since. On the day of the incident, Lee's father, drunk, was beating his elderly parents as well as Lee, who was trying to hold him back. So afraid of the father, who was running amuck while wielding a kitchen knife, Lee took hold of his hands, and as he flailed about trying to get free, she strangled him with a necktie. It is reported that while Lee was attempting to hold her father from beating her grandparents, she called 112 (the police emergency number) twice for help. The police found Lee's father unconscious and carried him to the hospital, where he soon died. Lee immediately confessed her deed, and did not resist as she was arrested on the charge of patricide. In addition, though widely perceived as unnecessary,1 the 14-year-old was sent to an adult criminal jail. (According to the Korean Criminal Law, a person above 14 is legally liable for punishment.)

After Lee's case was publicized in the news media, it soon drew heated attention from many Koreans, and, surprisingly, the public discourse was drawn to discovering who was truly responsible for Lee's action and what should be done collectively to resolve this particular case. What is quite puzzling is that no one seemed to perceive Lee as the only responsible actor for the incident. But if she alone was not responsible for her actions, who else could be? What is notable, though, is that Koreans reframed an otherwise individual, domestic, and apparently private issue as a collective, public, and essentially sociopolitical question by transferring—albeit partly—the source of responsibility from the person who committed the crime to that of the collectivity. That is to say, Koreans created a collective moral responsibility, or "uri-responsibility," to supplement Lee's individual moral responsibility or (criminal) guilt.

In light of liberal individualism that predicates a directly causal notion of responsibility, however, the Korean search for a collective moral responsibility would denote the Koreans' lack of liberal moral/legal sensibility because, besides an arbitrary transference of responsibility from the individual to the collective, the very idea of "collective moral responsibility" is self-contradictory. In liberal individualism that draws a vivid line between individuality and collectivity, moral responsibility is the other side of the same coin of the free agent's moral autonomy. And, in liberalism's "moral individualism," it is moral autonomy that provides the very philosophical and criminal-legal foundation for an agentic individual's fundamental legal and political right since a sense of (criminal) guilt represents ex post facto the moment of choice to act otherwise. Hence at the heart of liberal individualism is the nexus of "crime-guilty-responsibility." Here freedom refers solely to an individual's freedom (i.e. autonomy), and it is presented in pure legal terms, making the political essentially the legal.2

From a standpoint of liberal individualism (its moral and political-legal philosophy), Lee is nothing but a serious breaker of the social contract; her crime reveals the misuse of her moral (and by extension) political freedom and thereupon the forfeit of a legal right that she would otherwise have entertained. As Hegel argued, since personality has "legal recognition and validity in civil society, wrongdoing [let alone murder] now becomes an infringement, not merely of what is subjectively infinite, but of the universal thing," the action is seen as "a danger to society."3 Considering the universalist implications of the crime in liberal individualism, Lee's punishment is logically (say, legal-philosophically) inevitable in order to restitute the once disrupted liberal-legal order of Korean civil society. Or, on the flip side, it could be demanded that she be let go of on the basis of her inner...


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pp. 54-59
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