Denys Kiryukhin


Starting with Aristotle, in philosophy, the problem of imputability (from Latin imputatio—“ascribing responsibility”) was considered exclusively as an individual responsibility, i.e. in the context of a human subject and his/her actions, in particular, whether they were committed by his/her free choice or involuntarily. As Immanuel Kant pointed out, only a free action can be imputed, that is, the one committed consciously and voluntarily. In this respect, it seems incompatible with justice Iris Young’s idea that “people can be responsible without being guilty,” which opens the door to speaking of collective responsibility. But in fact, by separating responsibility from guilt, Young was only seeking to overcome the deadlock in which the liberal tradition found itself unable to resolve the problem of collective responsibility for atrocities committed in the twentieth century, for example, by the Nazi regime. At the Nuremberg Tribunal, U.S. Chief Prosecutor Robert H. Jackson rightly pointed out that crimes are always committed only by people, not by states. But not all those who were loyal to the regime committed specific crimes. And in this case, can we talk about their responsibility? If we stand on the position of Kant, — no.

It is worth recalling Oliver Hirschbiegel’s film “The Downfall,” based on the memoirs of former Hitler’s secretary Traudl Junge and which recounts the last days of the Third Reich. The director ended it with a documentary interview in which Junge confesses that thanks to the Nuremberg Trials she became aware of terrible things about the Nazi crimes. At the time, Junge was very shaken, but she saw no connection between them and her past, and she was glad that she could not blame herself of anything because she knew nothing about those crimes. But one day she came across a memorial plaque on Franz Josef Strasse that was honoring a girl named Sophia Scholl, who had been born the same year as Junge, and the year she took a job with Hitler, Scholl was executed for her participation in an anti-fascist organization. “It was only at that moment that I realized,” Junge says, “that youth was no excuse and that if one only wanted to, one could make sense of everything.” In other words, Traudl Junge, who had not personally committed any crimes, realized her own responsibility for the crimes of the regime she had served to. This sense of responsibility is based on the awareness of her complicity with the Nazi regime, complicity by the very fact that she did not oppose it.

Responsibility can often be ascribed not only on the basis of personal or collective activity, but also on the basis of an individual’s (self-)identification with a particular regime of injustice, or because one enjoys the benefits of belonging to that regime. In other words, the basis for ascribing responsibility to an individual may not be his/her free will to act in one way or another (this is how Kant’s liberal paradigm views responsibility), but individual’s actions as a member of a particular community, which are aimed at reproducing certain social practices (such as the practices of distributing social benefits that are unjust) and/or at maintaining certain ethos (as in the case of an individual’s membership in radical religious or political organizations).

Although Kant and, nowadays, John Rawls argue in favor of a rather limited understanding of responsibility, the liberal tradition they represent contains an important suspicion of the possibility of collective responsibility. And such suspicion may in fact serve as a good warning against injustice.


For the design, we used an element of the picture by Aleksandr Bakanov “Danko” (1973; source).