Collective, Corporate, and State Moral Responsibility

Recently, I completed a course on Collective, Corporate, and State Moral Responsibility.  The purpose of this post is to summarize my thoughts on the subject.  I will not provide detailed arguments in favor of these positions in this blog.

Before I begin, be advised that ‘collective’ is a formal word for ‘group’.  Examples of ‘collectives’ are: the people at a party, a sports team, a corporation, a family, or a State.   A ‘group’ whose commonalities are superficial and not based on any standing agreements or relationships is called an ‘aggregate’.  Examples of ‘aggregates’ are: people with red hair, people born in a particular country or with a particular background, or people who are left-handed.

A summary of my stances on a variety of issues is below.

Judgments of moral responsibility should be based off of actions rather than character.  People should be held morally responsible for actions which harm others.  If no one was harmed, then the action does not qualify for a test of morality.  Further, there are no thought crimes.  Attitudes and character might be used in evaluating the intent behind an action, but on their own, they are not sufficient conditions for judging moral responsibility.

Moral responsibility, whether praiseworthiness or blameworthiness, should be applied consistently.  For example, if we ascribe praise for an action based on a certain set of criteria, then when the conditions are met for a blameworthy action, we should also ascribe moral responsibility.  The most basic example, in a sense of causal responsibility, is that if we ascribe praise for a team winning based off of specific performance by a member of the team, then that member of the team should share equally in blame for a loss.

When analyzing an individual’s moral obligations and responsibilities in relation to a group such as a corporation or State, it is critical to consider the individual’s power and influence over the group.  If an individual attempted to challenge an immoral course of action, but did not have sufficient time, money, resources, and influence to affect the behavior of the group, they should be omitted from blame for the group’s actions.  It is not reasonable to expect disadvantaged individuals to overpower those that have more influence over the group.  Many disadvantaged individuals might be just getting by; it would not be reasonable to blame them for failing to form a counter-movement.

Individuals harmed by a collective, corporation, or State to which they are a member should not be held morally responsible for the actions of that particular collective, corporation, or State.  This can often be applied to instances in which disadvantaged groups are harmed by the policies or actions of influential groups which dominate the group behavior of a collective, corporation, or State.  The only exemption to this would be bizarre situations in which an individual willingly and knowingly supported the policies and practices which lead to the harm.

Cultural explanations for immoral group actions are not sufficient for assigning blame or moral responsibility.  Culture is reducible to behavior.  If someone speaks out against behavior leading to immoral policies or social practices as they occur, then that individual should not be held responsible for the morality of the ‘culture’.  We should judge moral responsibility for behavior and not simply for being perceived to be the member of a ‘culture’.

This is not an exhaustive listed.  However, it is a brief survey of my current thinking on the topic.  I will be happy to elaborate more on particular points if asked.


Philosophy is Practical

Recently, I received some flak from someone for taking a philosophy class.  Though I’m not working towards a philosophy degree, I’ve often found that philosophy courses are a good way to relate other areas of study.  Depending on the subject of the courses, a few philosophy courses can work as an effective way to bind together the knowledge from other areas of study.  At the very least, each philosophy course is an opportunity to develop and practice the following skills.

  • Thinking clearly and logically about a problem.
  • Evaluating a chain of reasoning for errors.
  • Dissecting and analyzing claims, arguments, and rhetoric.
  • Communicating a problem and solution in a clear manner.

Regardless of whether or not the specific subject matter of a philosophy course can ever be applied to work or living, these skills have value.  Further, knowledge for the sake of knowledge is worthwhile.  It’s up to the student to figure out how any course applies to their career or life.  Personally, I enjoy learning about these subjects while exercising these skills.  I’ve even used these skills while on the job.  Examples are listed below.

  • Documenting a problem and solution.
  • Moderating discussions in a meeting.
  • Thinking clearly about misinformed claims or feedback.
  • Challenging an idea in a meeting and clearly communicating an alternative idea or course of action.

There may be other ways to develop these skills.  However, if you love knowledge and have interest in the course material, why not study philosophy?

Science Sunday – 8/4/2013

So, I have decided that rather than passively reading science articles and then spamming them to social networking sites throughout the week, I will spend part of my Sunday morning enjoying a coffee, collecting links to articles, organizing articles by topic, and then summarizing my thoughts on the articles in a blog post.  Here we are!

First up, BBC News has an article about desert carbon farming with jatropha trees.

Supposed Carbon Farming Pros:

  • Jatropha biomass can be used to manufacture biokerosene.
  • Absorption of carbon from the atmosphere.
  • Increased habitability of desert areas.

Supposed Carbon Farming Cons:

  • Jatropha plantations will require irrigation with brackish water from desalination plants.
  • Jatropha biokerosene might emit more carbon than fossil fuels.
  • Toxic to grazing animals and humans (unless properly cooked).
  • Negative impact on food prices.
  • Marginalizes other people’s land to solve problems they didn’t cause.

Next up, the BBC has an article about an ocean microbe that has been used to create an antibiotic that attacks staph infections.

If in 1984, the United States House Committee on Science, Space and Technology said, “Get the director of Terminator in a sub-marine, have him explore the depths of the ocean, study life at the bottom, and bring back a treatment for staph infections.”, this would have been discovered decades ago.  But that didn’t, and wouldn’t, happen. But wouldn’t it be cool if it did?  OK.  That’s not how discovery happens.  No one could have predicted a new antibiotic could be developed from a marine microorganism found off the coast of California.

This is probably a good reason to preserve ocean habitats.  Biodiversity is important.  Also, if you don’t have one already, I hope this gives you an appreciation for divergent thinking and basic scientific research.  Watch this Carl Sagan video to learn more about the importance of basic scientific research.

This next article is pretty technical.  Scientists and engineers have developed a new technique for efficiently splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen.  Yep, it’s pretty technical.  If anything, this gives me some optimism for our energy future.  Do any engineers care to comment on this news?

Well, that’s it for this week, folks.  Alas, I am not a lawyer, MBA, doctor, engineer, astronaut, MBA senator.  Perhaps someone with more qualifications would like to weigh in on these subjects.

What do you think?  Leave a comment!

On Pop Mysticism

I’ve been thinking about Pop Mysticism as a result of listening to a recent Point of Inquiry podcast on the subject. I’ve found that popular books such as The Secret are nothing more than fluffy trash. These books present a kernel of wisdom or good advice smothered in a complicated mythology and then coated in a shiney shell. They are kind of like peanut M&Ms, except instead of chocolate you get a bunch of crap.


This post was originally written in 2008.  I pushed the Publish button on July 31, 2013.


Biology Talks: PZ Myers and Carl Zimmer

It was a busy week, so I didn’t have time to write individual posts for the events around Seattle. So here is a summary of what I happened to do last week.

I missed Richard Florida’s talk on the Importance of Place. [EDIT: It looks like a fellow Seattle Blogger covered Richard Florida’s talk.] If I had not already figured out that Seattle is cooler than my hometown in Indiana, I would have attended the talk. It certainly sounds like an interesting look at population studies. However, I decided to attend a talk by Carl Zimmer on his new book Microcosm. Town Hall Seattle had the following blurb:

E. coli, known to most of us for its deadly outbreaks, has actually played a pivotal role in the history of biology, and continues to lead the way in the search for life-saving drugs, clean fuel, and a deeper understanding of our own genetic makeup and the history of life. Award-winning science writer (The New York Times and Scientific American), Carl Zimmer, presents an enlightening biography of this humble germ in Microcosm: E. coli and the New Science of Life. Presented as part of the Seattle Science Lecture Series, with University Book Store.

This is the third time that I have attended a Town Hall event and ended up walking away with a signed book. I never would have thought that ecoli would be very interesting, but it turns out that it is used in bioengineering to produce human insulin, among other things. Carl also discussed a recent discovery about ecoli evolving to consume citrate.  [EDIT: Another blog had this to say.] I also had the opportunity to meet Alan Boyle from CosmicLog; he was interviewing Carl afterwards and I was invited to tag along for drinks with a small group.

Coincidentally, PZ Myers was in the audience of the Carl Zimmer talk.  I’m assuming the reason he wasn’t asked to leave was because security didn’t spot him.  He also assured me that he was not in town to egg the Discovery Institute.  He seemed to be a fairly mellow guy, which you might not have realized if you read his blog.  I later bumped into him at the Seattle Skeptics dinner where he was giving a presentation on the evolution of eyes.  His presentation was informative and amusing.  However, the material was rather dense for a nonbiologist — it would be great if he reworked his presentation into a small book. It also looks like someone has written up a blog about a similar article by PZ Myers.

It turns out that Science Blogs has chosen Carl Zimmer’s new book for its first book discussion. It sounds like an interesting read with lots of valuable information on biology. I will be participating in the discussion.

Public Service Announcement – Sunday, May 11, 2008

This is an ominous speech by Richard Dawkins about nature and rebelling against the selfish tendency that all organisms share.  The word “natural” has connotations of purity and goodness, but is this always true?

I found this sound clip at

Logic and Argumentation: Part 1 – Arguing with Attitude

Upon reflecting on the nature of logic and effective reasoning, I came to the conclusion that the tool kit of logical argumentation is dated and incomplete.

I propose the following fallacy: Argumentum ab cule.
Roughly translated as argument from the ass.

Considered with more modern colloqualisms, this could be interpreted as talking from one’s ass. In debate, this can be used to show, in a polite and scholarly manner, that your opponent is full of crap.

There is another fallacy that I propose: Argumentum ad cule.
This is roughly translated as argument to the ass.

Perhaps this falls more in line with the modern colloqualism of talking shit. Traditionally, this actually would be an ad hominem attack. There might be some overlap here, but sometimes our lexicon needs to be updated. Ad hominem needs to go.

Special thanks to Alicia for her continuing academic guidance and translating the phrases into Latin.