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  • The Collective Responsibility of Democratic Publics1
  • Avia Pasternak (bio)

Towards the end of her seminal work on the notion of representation Hanna Pitkin makes the following observation:

At the end of the Second World War and during the Nuremberg trials there was much speculation about the war guilt of the German people. [...] Many people might argue the responsibility of the German people even though a Nazi government was not representative. We might agree, however, that in the case of a representative government the responsibility would be more clear-cut.2

As Pitkin suggests in this quotation, there is a common underlying assumption, both in academic writings and in popular perceptions of democracy, that a people living under a democratic government is [End Page 99] ultimately responsible for that government's policies. The notion of responsibility can be interpreted in various ways in this context, but the interpretation which Pitkin points to, and which will be examined in this paper, is of collective moral responsibility (CMR): namely, the extent to which a people should be blamed (or praised) for the policies implemented by its government (I will elaborate on the meaning of CMR at a later stage). Consider for example the case of a democratic government that authorized the unjustifiable torture of prisoners of war. Once the political community acknowledges the wrongness of this policy, it should seek to identify individuals who share moral (and perhaps criminal) responsibility for the torture (e.g. the legal advisors who sanctioned the torture; the government officials who authorized it and so on). It is also a widely shared view that in such cases the government itself, as a corporate group, is morally responsible for the crimes it authorized. What Pitkin suggests in the quotation above is that, in addition to specific individuals and the government itself, the people in whose name the government acted is also morally responsible for the torture. This suggestion has potentially important implications: a people's moral responsibility for a bad policy will affect the way other agents in the world perceive and react to it (e.g. other political communities); and also the way in which its own members perceive their group and their membership in it. In light of these implications, the task of this paper is to answer the following question: under what circumstances can we plausibly argue that a democratic people is morally responsible for its government's policies?3

Before we can begin to answer this question, some conceptual clarifications are required. First, Pitkin uses the somewhat ambiguous notion of 'a people,' which covers a wide range of groups, from ethnic/ religious communities (e.g. 'the Jewish People') to political communities (e.g. 'the American People'). To avoid confusion, I adopt here a restricted interpretation of the notion, which includes only adult citizens who have the right to participate in the state's political processes.4 I will also use the term 'the public' to describe this group. Second, [End Page 100] this paper analyzes the CMR of a democratic public as a single group, rather than the shared moral responsibility of its members. Whether or not individual citizens also share responsibility for their government's policies is a separate question about which I will have very little to say here.

According to Pitkin the CMR of democratic peoples for their governments' policies is 'clear-cut,' at least relative to peoples who live under non-democratic rule. However, even if we focus our attention on democratic peoples, there are several important objections to the assertion that a public is morally responsible for a bad (or good) policy of its government. First, one can challenge the claim that groups, as opposed to individuals, are morally responsible agents. Second, one may accept the idea of CMR in principle, but argue that a democratic public in a modern liberal democracy is not the type of group that can be morally responsible for its actions. Finally, one may accept that democratic publics are morally responsible for their actions, but argue that the actions of a representative government are not necessarily those of the public, and that for that reason, the public is not obviously responsible for governmental policies...


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pp. 99-123
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