Philosophical Papers

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The Myth of Innocence: On Collective Responsibility and Collective Punishment

Torbjörn Tännsjö


Collectivities, just like individuals, exist, can act, bear responsibility for their acts and omissions, and be guilty. It sometimes makes sense to hold them responsible for what they do, or don't do, and to punish them for their misdeeds. With respect to many collectivities there is no practical purpose in holding them responsible, since there is no way that we can bring them to justice. But there are exceptions from this rule. In particular it is plausible to assume that sanctions against entire nations or peoples or populations living in open and democratic states may be an effective means to setting them straight where, collectively, they act wrongly. The best present example of this seems to be the Israelis.

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