Bryan Caplan  

Collective Guilt: A Socratic Dialogue

Why Have Kids? More on Last's ... Must Default Be Avoided at All...
Pericles: Have you seen the latest outrage our enemies have committed against us?  We have to strike back.

Strike back against whom?

Pericles: Our enemies, as I said.

Right.  But how will we pinpoint the enemies who perpetrated this heinous act?

Pericles: [sigh] That's a fool's errand.  You never know which particular enemy carried out any particular dastardly deed.

So we should punish some of our enemies for the actions of our other enemies?

Pericles: Exactly.

For example, if the Persians attack us, we might respond by attacking the Macedonians.

Pericles: No, no, no.  If the Persians attack us, we have to respond by attacking the Persians.

To do otherwise would be unjust?

Pericles: Indeed, unless those we attacked were in league with the Persians.

Are all Persians in league with one another?

Pericles: What do you mean?

Has each and every Persian freely sworn to join forces against us?  

Pericles: That sounds most unlikely.

Quite.  And even if every adult Persian had indeed sworn such an oath, Persian infants and children would be incapable of such an oath?

Pericles: Yes, unless their infants and children are very unlike ours. 

So when we "strike back" against the Persians, how careful are we to spare those Persians who have not joined forces against us?

Pericles: Not careful at all, if you want the truth.

When the Persians attack, you are careful not to respond by attacking the Macedonians. 

Pericles: As already explained.

It seems, then, that when our Persian enemies attack, we should be equally careful not to respond by attacking those Persians who remain our friends.  Indeed, we should be equally careful not to respond by attacking neutral Persians who simply wish to mind their own business.

Pericles: Your approach would leave us powerless against evil.  We can easily tell the difference between Persians and Macedonians.  We can't easily tell the difference between Persian enemies and Persian friends and neutrals.

Is it so hard to tell the difference between a Persian child and a Persian adult?

Pericles: No, but it is hard to burn down a town full of Persian enemies without burning Persian friends and neutrals along with them.

I see.

Pericles: Are we done?

Not quite.  Pericles, would you mind describing the Persians' "latest outrage" against us?

Pericles: Not at all.  The fiends came and burned down one of our towns.  Everyone trapped within the city walls died horribly.

A wicked deed, no doubt?

Pericles: No doubt.

Suppose, though, that they were merely striking back against us for burning down one of their towns.

Pericles: That is not mere supposition.  We burned down one of their towns last month.

Could the Persians then invoke the same rationale as you?  Could they not with justice say that they had to strike back against we Greeks, and that distinguishing Greek enemies from Greek friends and neutrals imposed an intolerable burden on them?

Pericles: The Persian fiends will say anything to justify their wickedness.

Why, though, are Persians but not Greeks wicked for burning down entire towns?

Pericles: Our actions are retaliation; their actions are aggression.

How does one tell the difference?

Pericles: Simple: The side that starts the fight is the aggressor.

Socrates: I presume, then, that you have exhaustively studied the history of the Greek-Persian conflict.

Pericles: Why bother?  We can all see who's in the right.

I'm puzzled, Pericles.  By your stated standard, it's impossible to directly see who's in the right.

Pericles: How so?

Your standard is historical: Whoever started the conflict is the aggressor.  You cannot answer this historical question by observing current behavior.

Pericles: So before anyone can retaliate, they have to carefully study history?

Given your definition of "aggression," I see no alternative.

Pericles: But who knows what such study would reveal?  We might discover that it was in fact we Greeks who drew first blood.


Pericles: And if we discovered that, then we Greeks, not those Persians, would be the evil ones.


Pericles: But that would imply that it was not evil when that Persian army burned my mother, sister, and dear baby niece alive!

Socrates: By your own reasoning, that seems to follow.

Pericles: But... killing innocent children is just plain wrong.  What difference does it make if a long-dead Greek killed a hapless Persian centuries ago?

Socrates: Or if a long-dead Persian killed a hapless Greek centuries ago?

Pericles: What are you saying?

Socrates: Like most people - Greeks, Persians, Macedonians, and more - you embrace a doctrine of collective guilt.  You think it morally justified to punish groups of people even if many members of these groups have done nothing wrong.

Pericles: You could put it that way.

Socrates: Yet this doctrine of collective guilt implies something almost no one believes: a duty to undertake careful historical research prior to putative retaliation.

Pericles: Somewhat odd, I admit.

Socrates: Yes.  The even odder implication, though, is that if the careful historical research reveals that we were the initial aggressors, Persians' seemingly evil actions against personally blameless Greeks were justified.

Pericles: But that is impossible to believe.

Socrates: Indeed.  And it is equally impossible to believe that if our enemies were the initial aggressors, Greeks' seemingly evil actions against personally blameless Persians were justified.  Despite its popularity, this doctrine of collective guilt goes against the conscience of all mankind.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (19 to date)
James Oswald writes:

Power is it's own justification. When you are in command of a powerful army, you don't need to explain your actions to anyone, least of all silly philosophers.

Ted Levy writes:

Those years studying philosophy were not wasted, I see...brilliant piece, Bryan.

Jeff writes:

Clausewitz would say that Socrates is courting disaster:

Now, philanthropists may easily imagine there is a skillful method of disarming and overcoming an enemy without causing great bloodshed, and that this is the proper tendency of the art of War. However plausible this may appear, still it is an error which must be extirpated; for in such dangerous things as war, the errors which proceed from a spirit of benevolence are just the worst. As the use of physical power to the utmost extent by no means excludes the co-operation of the intelligence, it follows that he who uses force unsparingly, without reference to the quantity of bloodshed, must obtain a superiority if his adversary does not act likewise. By such means the former dictates the law to the latter, and both proceed to extremities, to which the only limitations are those imposed by the amount of counteracting force on each side.
MikeP writes:

Pericles: You misunderstand, Socrates. We do not destroy towns to punish Persia. We destroy towns to reduce Persia's capacity to attack us. It would not reduce Persia's offensive capacity one whit to destroy a Macedonian town. What a silly thought! But if Persia occupies Macedonia, you bet we would destroy a Macedonian town if it reduces Persia's capacity of war.

Socrates: Well, okay... Try to be careful not to turn friends into enemies.

Pericles: Maybe Bryan Caplan will have better luck changing our strategy.

Trespassers W writes:

Pericles: Well, you can't make an omelet without drone-killing a few kids. QED.

Andy writes:

Similar to what other commenters above have said, suppose Socrates convinces Pericles that the Greeks should NOT retaliate and that they are able to convince the Greek government and armies are swayed by their collective argument. Rather than retaliating, they should do what? Send a strongly worded letter declaring the inhumanity of the Persians actions?

What if the Persians burn another city to the ground? Another letter?
And another city?
My question is how many cities do the Persians get to burn before Greece is morally justified in responding?

Eric Falkenstein writes:

Well, tit-for-tat suggest forgiveness is optimal presuming you have a rational opponent. Yet, if they had not yet granted forgiveness by now, isn't it safe to assume they are not rational, so you are making concessions that won't be perceived as you think? Maybe if you impose more costs on them, they won't have the resources to hurt you for a long time, and by then they will have other priorities?

Desmond Gorven writes:

In the presence of co-ercive government from which the governed person may not divest by selling his share of "public" assets and dissociate simply and without forcibly imposed penalty, there is a practical problem for both the neutral person, and the would-be defender of lives and property. This practical problem disappears when all association is truly voluntary (when departing "citizens" can take some reserve bank gold with them). If you have children, will you voluntarily be co-citizen with a child-killer?

Ted Levy writes:

Re Mike P:

Pericles: You misunderstand, Socrates. We do not destroy towns to punish Persia. We destroy towns to reduce Persia's capacity to attack us.
Socrates: Interesting. That's exactly what the Persians said was their justification last time they attacked us.

Jason Kakazu writes:

I don't find this socratic dialog persuasive. Although a belief in collective guilt could be the primary factor driving popular approval of military action this is assumed, not proven. As MikeP has indicated there could be more than one reason why a nation might engage in military action.

Is the dialog simply intended to be an argument in the form of "If you believe in collective guilt this is why you shouldn't..." ? I suppose I could interpret the intent of the dialog this way but I'm hesitant to do so as that would be incongruent with my initial impression.

The way in which the dialog is presented, combined with the omission of other factors that may be relevant, leave me with perception that this is primarily a moral message meant to play on the emotions. Maybe this is a failing on my part but when a emotional appeal is used to promote a policy prescription my natural instinct is to dismiss it. Bryan is an insightful poster on many topics though so perhaps I'm missing something?

James Oswald writes:

One thing this article does imply is that assassination is a far better tool than war. If you can pick out the exact people who wronged you and kill just them, that would be morally far superior to killing random people in the country they live in. A war against a democratic state needs to convince the median voter that it's not a good idea to mess with you. A war against a dictator only needs to convince the dictator to leave you alone. This is one of the reasons why semi-democratic states like Rome and Greece were such dangerous foes to trifle with in the ancient world. They kept fighting long after a similarly sized monarchy would have given up.

Tom E. Snyder writes:

This dialogue needs to be turned into an Xtranormal cartoon. (Let me know when it is and I'll share it.)

Chris Whited writes:

But what does it say about the conflict itself? What were the reasons for the conflict? Actions are actions, and in war, responses are handed out against actions and responses of enemies. If we're merely talking about Dresden for Dresden then this would be a more real world argument. but if we're talking more about, as it's been stated in a previous comment, war capacity or the combination, then that's a different matter.

it's an interesting exchange in order to put forth a GENERAL LINE OF LOGIC. Then again, I would have to know the grand story behind the war or isolated events in order to know better the story.

Steve Brecher writes:
...strike back against we Greeks...
Socrates would never have said this. He would have said "us Greeks" -- in Greek, of course.
MikeP writes:

He would have said "us Greeks" -- in Greek, of course.

"εμάς τους Έλληνες"

Demosthenes writes:

Most Pericles I know would have no problem with attacking Macedonia as well.

Darin Johnson writes:

Sometimes I think libertarians forget that not everybody thinks like a libertarian. To the extent that being "Greek" or "Persian" means something to the people who live there, they see themselves, at least to some degree, not as individuals who happen to live in Greece or Persia, but as members of a tribe. Maybe they shouldn't, but that tendency is firmly implanted in human nature.

If my brother hits me, it's relatively easy for me to forgive him. But I'm not sure that idea scales up to the level of a country.

There actually are, believe it or not!, conflicts where both sides believe that the other is the aggressor. Rather than wishing it weren't so and that the true aggressor would simply admit fault, it seems more helpful to start with the assumption that these conflicts exist and go from there.

I hate to drag out the WWII example, but I'm quite sure that some Germans/Japanese believed that they were retaliating for past wrongs. And I'm also quite sure that some Germans/Japanese believed that their countries were acting wrongly. Now what?

John B. writes:

This is silly. The real Pericles might pretend to be this naive if speaking to the general public, but truthful answers would be along these lines:

We assume the Persian rulers are as rational as we are. We believe that nations wage war when their rulers see a bigger benefit to a war than the cost of war. Of course, we and they calculate risks and probabilities when calculating those costs and benefits.

The audience for our actions is the Persian rulers. We want to let them know two things: first, that if they leave us alone, we will leave them alone; second, that if they hurt us, we will hurt them. It's an iterated game and that's how we play it.

We kill people and burn cities because that hurts the rulers by reducing their incomes and weakening their support from their public. Further, this is a signal that if they attack, not only we will resist, but this is how good we would be a resisting. Our army and navy can be seen to be fierce and strong.

All that posturing about revenge for Greek babies is just rhetoric to get our public to be more willing to support us with their taxes and their lives.

Please note that considerations of "innocent" don't enter into this. That's a feeling we have because inside our city there is a legal code based on a moral code. Between nations there is no legality, there is only power and pragmatism.

If we let our "in the city" feelings about morality drive our actions, we will sometimes take actions which are not the best ones tactically or strategically (c.f. the movie "Saving Private Ryan"). Then we will be more likely to lose the long-term struggle with Persia in which we are currently engaged.

Jeff writes:

What John B. said. The dialog is childish and silly. People don't decide when and where to go to war, their leaders do. The leaders did not get where they are by being stupid, and the considerations in the dialog are relevant to them only to the extent that they are effective as propaganda. What leaders care about is power. As John B. says, retaliatory attacks are not about morality, they are aimed at changing the opponent's cost-benefit calculations.

What Socrates should be talking about is this: how do we set things up such that even when bad actors obtain political power, they can't do too much harm? Madison and Hamilton understood that this was neither easy nor simple.

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