How responsible are we for decisions being made over our heads or behind our backs? Two important factors seem to be our power to affect them and our knowledge of their consequences.
Picture a ship.
It is full of people, but like most ships, those people do not have equal say on where the ship goes.
Suppose the ship is now steering straight into disaster: an iceberg, say. Obviously, the people responsible for the ship’s impending doom are those in charge of steering it – the captain, the navigator, and whoever else is at the helm with them and might sway them and save the ship and all of the people on it.
But what if the other people on the ship, say its paying passengers, are able to see the iceberg? What if, moreover, they are able to march up to the helm and yell at the damned captain that the ship must change course, immediately?
Compared to, say, a slave galley, on which most of the people are literally chained into place and unable to even see where they are being forced to take themselves, there is a clear moral difference. In the more Titanic-esque scenario, where the passengers are free to move around, and able to see the danger with their own eyes, they are not utterly passive victims like the oar-slaves on that galley.
Now suppose it’s not an iceberg. In fact, the ship’s passengers are in no danger. Instead, they are about to be accomplices to a terrible crime against others. Perhaps the ship is headed right into a school of endangered whales, and it is mating season, and they are about to break up the poor whales just as they were about to get it on, endangering the very survival of their species.
Here the blame is less easy to assign, especially assuming none of the humans involved are even aware of the harm they are about to do.
But what if there is a marine biologist on board, frantically warning them?
Clearly, in situations like these, where a social formation is involved in causing harm to itself or to others, there are a few factors involved in how we would assign blame and responsibility.
One is the distribution of power: free passengers are more culpable than enslaved rowers, those at the helm more culpable than their passengers. Another factor is the accessibility of knowledge: accidentally causing harm (or unknowingly failing to prevent it) is clearly a different matter from knowing and doing it anyway (or knowing and doing nothing).
I have a few different real-world situations in mind here.
One is the demonstrations in Germany against coronavirus mitigation measures: some powerful actors in these movements are intentionally endangering public health and promoting a white supremacist agenda, while many participants merely play the useful idiot. Yet everyone involved is able, if they were willing, to see the harm they are participating in. Nobody involved is entirely innocent, ignorant or passive as they may be.
Another situation is Israel’s apartheid regime over Palestinians. Israelis are by no means all equally empowered to do something about it, nor is everyone fully exposed to the reality of what they are participating in. At the same time, most Israelis are able to at least protest what is being done, practically all Israelis are exposed to at least some of the harm – and there is that shrill, frantic, overexcited marine biologist on the deck: the radical fringe insisting on bringing knowledge of the harm being done into the public perception.
Just by making that knowledge more accessible, activists increase everyone else’s culpability. This might be one of the reasons why everyone else hates them. (This applies to a lot of other situations as well, of course – think of the exuberantly toxic hate against Greta Thunberg.)
At the same time, this is only a matter of degree: anyone on that ship can quite easily find out what is going on in the water. Most can mount some form of protest against it. Hence, everyone is already culpable to some degree – though of course a few key figures are vastly more culpable than most, and the least empowered members of society, those with the least access to power and knowledge, are hardly culpable at all.
And so our ships plow onwards, towards disaster. Whether or not we want to, and whether or not we know it.