Thursday, 12 April 2012

National Responsibility for Historic Crimes: It's a Matter of Honour

Your country has probably done some very bad things. Perhaps recently, perhaps before you or even your parents were born. How do you feel about that? Does your present government have a duty to make amends for the bad things it has done, for example with apologies and reparations? Intuitively most people think so, but what kind of duty is that and what does it require from you as a citizen or subject? And how can you get other countries to admit that they have done wrong?

The standard way of thinking about national responsibility for historic crimes employs the best worked out model we have for coping with violations of justice: criminal law. The criminal law model is concerned with establishing the guilt of an accused party. When applied to these cases it has two special requirements: national identity in which we establish that the country standing before us is the same one that did the crime; and collective responsibility in which we establish that the people of a country can be jointly held accountable for their county's actions. Both are deeply problematic.

National identity presumes that a country, like a person, has an enduring individual identity over time. So even if all the people who were alive in the times of colonialism are gone, the actor remains the same. Just as you are supposed to be the same person now as the one with your name who played marbles as a child, so the actions of a country 'in its youth' are supposed to be the actions of the same country that stands before us now. Yet although historians may readily identify a particular country as responsible for some terrible atrocity, re-identifying that country in the present is far from straightforward. Is the Federal Republic of Germany really the same country that carried out the holocaust and turned eastern Europe into a bloodbath?

Personal identity is philosophically controversial - after all people do change significantly as they go through life in all sorts of ways. But the problem for national identity seems much more significant, because countries are corporate entities (similar to corporations). That means that they are supposed to survive changes in their components, like the people who happen to live in them and their ethnicity; the politicians who run them; the religions that are popular; where the borders run; and so on. Of course these are relevant to the character of the country (including its criminal character), but they are not constitutive of its identity in the strict sense. What really defines a country, like a company, are words not people: its name and constitution. That means that a country can be created, or dissolved, with the stroke of a pen, and when this happens criminal liabilities can no longer be assigned.

Collective responsibility is concerned with showing that a country's people are ultimately responsible for its actions and therefore guilty of its crimes. Of course not everyone agrees with, or even necessarily fully understands, what their country does. But nonetheless the country acts in their name and so, it may be argued, they give it at least their implicit support. In a democracy this popular responsibility is fomalised in the concept of collective self-government: we all agree that decisions made according to certain democratic procedures represent our collective will, even if our personal preference was otherwise. So when a democracy goes to war all its citizens are, in an extended sense, joint authors of that action. This condition won't be fully met by non-democracies - i.e. most countries throughout history - but one might suppose that it works by degrees. The central point is that whenever a country does something bad all its citizens are assumed to share responsibility for it, and if they want to argue otherwise the burden of proof is on them to show for example that they did everything possible to protest and resist it.

But even if one accepts this, there are obvious difficulties in asserting that collective responsibility passes to the present day citizens of an offending country. First if we go via citizenship we easily find demographic contradictions. The tiny minority of Armenians still living in modern Turkey would be considered co-responsible for the original genocide and would be required to contribute to making amends, for example by being taxed to pay for any reparations; giving up property to returning descendants of survivors; etc. Many countries have experienced large scale immigration in the past 50 years. For example more than a million people originating from the former British colony of India now live in Britain. Should they be co-responsible for apologising and paying reparations for Britain's ghastly imperialist oppression, there and elsewhere? (For that matter, should they receive a share of the compensation, on the basis of collective victimhood?)

Second, if we give up on citizenship and try to hold responsible the actual descendants of citizens who went along with odious regimes like Hitler's Germany, then we may run into the technical problem  that many now live in other countries. That brings out the problematic character of taking the state out of the equation and trying to hold people directly accountable for the sins of their ancestors: it comes down to 'guilt by blood', a principle that we strongly reject in other places. For example in civilised debate the claim that contemporary Jews are responsible for the death of Jesus is rightly considered both ridiculous and evil.

The model of criminal responsibility - linking present citizens to past crimes by vaguely related corporate actors via collective guilt - is a failure. And yet we still have an intuition that we are responsible - somehow - for the past sins of our countries. Can that intuition be rescued and worked out?

I think so. But we must abandon the concept of guilt - with its foundation in individual identity and strict causal chains of evidence (the criminal law model). Instead I suggest considering the nation as something we imagine into being and whose honour we have reason to care about. This perspective not only provides reasons why we should feel national responsibility, but also explains much about our actual behaviour.

Nations are not corporate individuals (countries), nor are they a bunch of individuals stuck together by some kind of social contract. Following Benedict Anderson's famous definition, nations should be understood as an invention of the modern world, communities imagined into being by their members. Imagination is required because nations are too large to form actual communities where everyone knows everyone else (like Aristotle's ideal city states). This concept of a nation goes beyond demographic, geographic, or constitutional consistency.

It also extends beyond the now. The past is present in your national identity as part of the web of meanings, stories, relationships, and events that make up the story of your nation. What is important here is that our ancestors' actions do not present us with criminal liability problems to consider. Rather, it is the values their actions reveal that is the legacy we must deal with. We who are right now collectively imagining our nation into being are the ones who determine what role the past should play in our story. We get to decide which values from that past to endorse and affirm, and which to reject and despise. We are, in this understanding, not the passive recipients of our predecessors' mixed legacy but agents in determining what it means for us.

But why would we care about the facts if the important thing is a nice story that suits us at this moment? Why should we acknowledge the bad as well as the good things our country has previously done? Here I turn to the concept of honour, and its negative correlate, shame (whose role in moral reasoning and moral change has recently been emphasised by Kwame Anthony Appiah). Honour is usually ignored in contemporary moral theorising, which focuses on the core liberal themes of justice (right) and harm (consequences) with respect to individuals. But honour seems particular relevant for analysing moral issues that fall outside those liberal themes, such as those concerning social norms and symbolic identity. Put simply, when we put on the dress of our national identity can we look ourselves in the mirror? Or must we look away in shame and horror?

This combined concept of national honour seems to me to meet our foundational intuitions while avoiding the problems of the criminal guilt model. All contemporary citizens are presumed to be co-creators of our contemporary identity, albeit they don't share exactly the same vision. The continuity problem is resolved in that it is based on our own affirmation of our history, which naturally becomes gradually attenuated as we go further back into the past, rather than some unsupportable metaphysical identity claim. That means it can apply to all citizens without any question of 'blood guilt', and even to minorities and immigrants who affirm membership of the same imagined community.

One of the interesting implications of this view is that it can go further than judgements of strict moral responsibility can. For example, there is no necessity to find any perpetrators morally culpable for the acts we deplore. We may find the past behaviour of our country dishonourable even while acknowledging that by the moral standards of the past it was not so, and perhaps was even well-intended. Canada for example, surely one of the least blood-soaked nations of the world, pursued a deliberate policy of assimilation of its aboriginal citizens over some 150 years, including a residential school system that was designed to 'remove the Indian from the Indian' and replace it with the arts of modern civilisation. In many respects a humanely inspired policy, by the standards of the time. But Canadians these days see this, and the residential school system in particular, as a national shame for which amends should be made. Canadians have chosen to make the issue a focus for political debate and action because the values underlying such policies are not in keeping with the national identity they now affirm.

National honour may also explain why nations sometimes refuse to take responsibility for past crimes even in the face of overwhelming evidence. Contemporary Turkey and Japan for example refuse to take responsibility for the genocides attributed to these countries by contemporary accounts, surviving witnesses, and the overwhelming consensus of professional historians. Here, the national story is too strong: because it has no place for such dishonourable acts, those facts are just wished away.

It may seem that such examples show the vulnerability of a model of responsibility built upon imagination - people can also imagine a way out of dishonour rather than admit the facts of history. But it also shows the power of the national honour model to explain both how nations can and should act (morality) and also why they often don't behave in that way (psychology). Once we understand what a nation is doing when it ducks its moral responsibility we are better placed to say how it could do better. In particular, it follows from this understanding that citizens should not only be motivated to want to honour their vision of their nation, but that they should want that honouring itself to be honourable. True honour cannot be bought or obtained with trickery - that would be like a soldier lying to get a medal - and in the same way true national honour is not compatible with deliberate self-deception. That dishonourable self-deception will itself become part of one's national identity, a corrosive presence in the national psyche like the portrait of Dorian Gray haunting his life from the attic.

How should citizens see their duty to history? The relationship is primarily ethical though it has political consequences. The honourable duty of the patriotic citizen is to acknowledge the points where your nation's behaviour has fallen short of the standards one wishes it to embody. The American patriot can without contradiction celebrate the true nature of the American spirit in the mutual respect instantiated in the Thanksgiving story, while at the same time acknowledging the truth of America's moral failures with respect to its later treatment of aboriginal peoples. The one tells us what America should and can be, the other what America now must not be like. Immigrants and politically marginalised minorities may play a particularly important role in piercing the veil of complacency that often hangs over a nation's history, raising uncomfortable facts to national attention and pressing other citizens to acknowledge that true patriotism does not consist in the repetition of comfortable homilies but in a willingness to confront hard truths. And there is no reason why this cannot also be applied to contemporary political debates: isn't torture unAmerican?

This analysis also suggests how criticism of other countries may proceed, through an appeal to their citizens' sense of honour rather than assigning criminal guilt. The criminal guilt approach judges countries by external criteria which their governments and citizens may well reject, and reaches simplistic binary conclusions about generally very complex matters - either a country is completely guilty or not. We have already seen that when world public opinion judges a country guilty of some heinous crime (such as Japan for its genocidal occupation of China) that judgement can actually be counter-productive in putting the citizens of that country on the defensive as a point of national pride. This approach in contrast puts its arguments in terms that directly engage with a nation's sense of honour and challenges its citizens to look in the mirror of history and consider for themselves what honour requires.

National honour alone is not sufficient for justice. Indeed one must proceed with some caution for this perspective brings a risk of ethical narcissism - of being overly concerned with how you feel as the basis for ethical judgements, to the exclusion of the suffering of others which motivated the project in the first place. Its most important role is in showing why we present citizens should care about what our country has done. But it is much weaker at telling us what we should do about it. Does Britain have a special responsibility to help the development of her ex-colonies, even if other countries are in much greater need of assistance? Should all her former colonies be considered equal victims, with Singapore and Australia on a par with Burma and Bangladesh? How can we - should we? - use counterfactual analysis and accounting methods as the basis for calculating reparations (by adding up the harms Britain was responsible for minus the benefits it brought in each case)? Apart from emphasising the importance of symbolic actions of recognition and respect (to be seen for example in Russia's recent parliamentary resolution acknowledging Stalin's massacre of Polish officers at Katyn) the introduction of national honour offers no easy answers to that contested but essential aspect of national responsibility.

Note: An earlier version of this essay was published on the ABC religion and ethics site


  1. Marvelously written. Although these principles mostly apply to states and governments which are somewhat responsive to their public opinion but still I will try to apply these principles in painting a sketch of Pakistan at my Blog. Many thanks for such an excellent analysis.

  2. Thanks for the excellent post.

    I wonder if discussion of this subject relies on an implicit assumption of national homogeneity? Perhaps the concept of national honour will be understood in different ways depending on the background of the citizen, with people invested more or less in the honour of the nations they reside in, were born in, have ties to, and so on. Moreover, is honour not potentially as anachronistic as guilt when applied to past actions?

  3. Thanks, Nauman, for that kind praise.

    Paul, it does indeed depend upon some assumption of national homogeneity - our traditional idea of the politically achieved nation state (a political philosophy position now a bit out of fashion). Though it does not depend on national homogeneity over time (dropping that aspect of identity theory is my main negative claim), it still assumes that citizens of a modern country, including say Pakistani-Britons, generally feel somewhat invested in their British identity. Enough to feel a sense of honour at Britain's achievements and a sense of shame at its failings, in and beyond the Indian sub-continent. Enough to argue about and discuss those things. That may be unrealistic. I do think that how recent immigrants feel about their adopted country will be different from citizens who have never experienced anything different, perhaps in positive ways, perhaps not.

    As with my Canadian example, there is certainly something anachronistic about judging the past by our present standards, but I start from the intuition that this is what we want to do, and, given that, honour seems a more flexible concept for doing so than guilt.

  4. I tend to try and view this issue by using the same arguments that I make for inequality. I don't think that richer people should give back to society because they have harmed, or are responsible for the condition of those less fortunate, but because it's the humane and just thing to do. Similarly, I'm unconvinced that any special obligation exists to help out another country simply because my nation has harmed it in the past, but there still exists a more general obligation to help all those who are suffering.

    This leads to the slightly counter-intuitive idea that we have no more reason to give aid to a country that we have wronged previously and one we haven't, if they are now in similar circumstances, replacing it with a more general notion of responsibility.

    1. The responsibility to atone and the responsibility to do good seem quite distinct. It may well be that we decide that although we should make symbolic apologies to countries we have wronged, and rewrite our history books, etc. to entrench the moral lessons, atonement is not the right criterion to use for directing our development aid budgets. Given that our aid resources are scarce, we might say the fairest thing is to allocate it on the basis only of greatest need (humanitarian criterion), or only on the basis of greatest efficiency (utilitarian criterion - equalise the marginal contribution to human well-being of each dollar spent).

      Note however, that if we take the latter course then aid spending will be biased towards better governed countries (that are most responsible and effective in spending money). It may also be that those countries in which we can make the greatest impact will be those with whom we have had a colonial relationship, because of the cultural and insitutional familiarity that created.

  5. "The model of criminal responsibility - linking present citizens to past crimes by vaguely related actors via collective guilt - is a complete failure. And yet we still have an intuition that we are still responsible - somehow - for the past sins of our countries. Can that intuition be rescued and worked out? I think so. But we must abandon the concept of guilt - with its foundation in individual identity and strict causal chains of evidence..."

    Complete failure? No. It depends on quite how immediate the collective guilt claim is.

    Thus, for example, the war criminal gangsters who a mere 1000 weeks ago led a lot of the ethnic cleansing in the Balkans looted huge numbers of Bosnian homes and sold on the black market in Serbia and elsewhere the TVs and other things they stole. The huge numbers of people who bought these things reasonably can be taken as at least suspecting where they had come from - these are small territories. So are they not directly implicated in the immediate crimes, if only by studied inaction?

    Likewise a large number of Serbs voted for Milosevic or other extremists - how to take account of that fact now?

    Take the Katyn Massacres. The current Russian elite refuse to be held accountable for crimes committed by the Soviet Union, yet also refuse to open the archives fully as if they see it as their responsibility to 'protect' Soviet honour. Something not legally right here, going beyond mere 'honour', important an ideas as that is.

    Finally, you did not mention the idea of 'restitution'. If
    one category of people (say 'whites') have had the chance down the years to benefit from the compound interest wealth effects of enslaving anothger category (say 'blacks'), is it not something more than honour that says that by virtue of their existing wealth now those descendants of whites are directly implicated in the original wrongs?

    Obviously we treat these issues as having some de facto 'Statute of Limitations' on them. It seems ridiculous to demand compensation for English massacres of French noblemen killed at Agincourt, as it was just a very long time ago and values were quite different. We have 'moved on'.

    But in (say) Poland there are about 1m people still alive who directly or indirectly were involved in Nazi labour camps, and millions more who had relatives murdered at Katyn - their fate and their sense of justice is literally a live issue.

    So on the whole whereas I agree with the sense of what you are trying to argue, I find the distinction you draw puts too much emphasis on Honour and not enough on Justice. That said, by developing arguments based on Honour the way might become open for rather more Justice, if those states deemed responsible enough for appalling misdeeds in the not-too-distant past see an end to the legal claims against them.

    1. Thanks for these insightful comments. Please bear in mind that I was addressing the question not, 'What does justice require?', but rather, 'Why should present citizens of a country feel a sense of responsibility for the historic sins of their country?'

      I sometimes think we reach for 'justice' too often to solve all our problems. The trouble is that the concept of justice is much better at identifying violations (like murder) than at determining what should be done about them to make things right. The main model we have for fixing injustice is the legal treatment of crimes by individuals, and that is often inappropriate [previously]

      In the real world there are more justice claims than can be met. For example, colonialism basically consisted of a bunch of thugs stealing stuff from poor people. While that might have made a few of the thugs rich, the long term destruction these extractive institutions created in the colonial economy did far more damage. An honest account of the damage the British did to India would probably run into multiples of global GDP (hundreds of trillions of dollars). Claims can also conflict. So, while it is true that the British imperial regime oppressed many people in India, it is also true that a great many Indians were oppressed by the existing local institutions (women, lower castes, religious minorities, etc) and might have considered the British institutions an improvement.

  6. See also this where I draw on the theme of this piece somewhat:


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