The Responsibility of Public Intellectuals in Holding Governments to Account | The Diffusion of Responsibility in Bureaucracy | The Connection Between the Holocaust & Welfare Cuts | Dedicated to Hannah Arendt

The murder of Kitty Genovese is one of the most commonly used case studies for introducing the concept of the bystander effect in social psychology. It’s the story of how a young woman was sexually assaulted and murdered in front of numerous witnesses who failed to assist her, or even call the police. The story is usually exaggerated in order to make it a dramatic example that keeps new students more interested, nevertheless it is a real brutal example of the perceived diffusion of responsibility in action.

The diffusion of responsibility is the phenomena whereby one considers that one is less responsible for some action when others are present- they absorb some of the responsibility or another might even be perceived to take it all, for example in cases where an authority is present. The example of Miss Genovese’s death is complicated by how in such situations, people defer responsibility under the assumption that others will have already taken the moral action of becoming involved, they relegate their own status to that of a bystander, not one who is obligated to act, while nonetheless agreeing about what someone is obligated to do.

Another example of perceived diffusion of responsibility commonly introduced to students early in their study of social psychology is the infamous Milgram experiment. In that study, participants willingly commit actions they would normally consider to conflict with their personal morals because they are obeying an authority. The responsibility is not just diffused, it is completely deferred. Some, including Milgram, claimed that this psychosocial process of deferring responsibility contributed to the holocaust but such an argument implicitly agrees that responsibility really is deferred. Unlike the situations in which the bystander effect occurs, participants in Milgram’s experiment and the holocaust alike justified their actions not by becoming bystanders agreeing about an obligation of what to do but disagreeing about who is to do it; rather they feel obligated to simply follow the orders of the authority to which they believe responsibility for the action falls upon.

The perpetrators of the holocaust were not bystanders, but many indirectly participated and arguably condoned it through their inaction. And this is without mentioning the additional complexity of how many citizens of Nazi Germany knew of the brutality which was so shocking that when soldiers of the Soviet Union advancing into Poland reported it to the Western Allies, they could not believe it- extra complexity which is beyond the scope of the current essay.

The Holocaust remains paramount to sociological investigations of our modern world and cannot be thought of as some unprecedented historical exception. This would be a similar mistake to those committed by “Great Man” theorists whom attributing impossible amounts of history to human agency, disregard the determining forces of structure. Nevertheless, we cannot downplay the role of those tyrants who use their power to change structure in such a way as to make atrocities possible nor deny that we may inadvertently set up the conditions for tragedy when trying to do good.

Zygmunt Bauman, writing in the late ‘80s, argued that just as the holocaust should not be considered a historical exception, we should also avoid the temptation to lump it into other historical categories like genocide. The holocaust was not exceptional, but it was new. It was a product and failure of modern civilisation borne of social conditions that may still be ubiquitous again- the holocaust, industrial society turned to producing death instead of the cheap crap it does currently, is a sleeping monster in the garden of liberal democratic civilisation.

The main condition characterising this world of economies of scale potentially ready to pump out death at unimaginable levels is alienation. We are alienated from nature, from the products of our labour, but most importantly for this discussion, we are alienated from each other. One of the biggest enabling factors of the holocaust is the social distance between producers and products. It is this distance, which varies somewhat dependently without mirroring actual physical distance, that allows the modern human to relegate themselves to the role of bystander, or more often today, the role of spectator, in all spheres of modern life.

Returning to the problem of responsibility, we can begin to understand how the modern world seems so full of tragedies to which no one seems to be held accountable for. It seems that no one believes they are responsible and whenever tragedy occurs, we are relegated to the status of spectator viewing the clash of authorities deemed responsible trying to avoid accountability.

Healthcare professionals, such as doctors and nurses, are legally obligated to act in emergency situations by virtue of their having the knowledge and ability of what is needed to be done in them. Not acting in such situations calls their fitness to practice into question and in terms of responsibility and accountability, we are saying that they cannot be a bystander in emergency situations- their knowledge makes them responsible, the law means they are held accountable.

Today in Britain, there is mounting evidence that changes to the welfare state, mainly its being dismantled, have directly led to the deaths of thousands of sick, elderly, and disabled people. Yet, no one is being held accountable. If we apply the logic of responsibility as a result of knowledge and capacity, it becomes clear that either state actors need to be held to account for these deaths or the state has given up its role as ultimate guarantor of life in the advanced industrial societies.

For people with all sorts of political leanings, this problem is paradigmatic of the state of contemporary politics. No one can be held to account because no one can accept responsibility but by considering that responsibility is the result of knowledge about a problem and the power to solve it. The government is not only not the bystander it wants us to think it is, but it has the knowledge and power to act so is responsible nevertheless. Public intellectuals, including social scientists, need to reinforce this idea or things will never change and we similarly act as irresponsible deferrers of responsibility.

And, as Bauman and Milgram show, this isn’t just about pointing the finger to authorities, but calling out individual actors. Those individuals responsible for disability assessments that label dying people fit for work, cut their benefits, and might as well just kill those they assess, should be vilified until held to account. As an extreme example, but using the same logic, if we don’t hold these people to account, then the Nazis who “just drove the trains” are not culpable for their role in the holocaust.

The holocaust, although more extreme in scale and sheer brutality, seems relevant here because this problem of responsibility and accountability leads us to questions about how to dole out justice. One German Jew whom was fortunate enough to escape the holocaust to the US, and eventually become world renowned thinker, that wrote a lot about this problem was Hannah Arendt.

Arendt’s works are still read to this day and continue to have a significant influence on today’s thinking about politics, philosophy, and justice. Her ideas about the banality of evil obviously influenced Bauman’s ideas about bureaucratic machines, with their large social distances between decision makers and those the decisions effect, not unlike the distances between disability assessor decision makers and those their decisions effect, have the potential to enable terrible immoral acts.
Her ideas were particularly vivid in the paradigmatic Eichmann trials in which she wrote about how Eichmann, just the man who “ran the trains” and had probably never directly killed anyone, seemed like a relatively ordinary man. And therein lied part of the horror of the holocaust to her, the perpetrators of such a vast genocide that to include it under such a category, terrible as it already might be, would be to downplay it’s significance for human, and particularly Jewish, history. In reality, evil, the kind of evil that would herd millions into gas chambers, is not enacted by the cartoonish characters seen in Hollywood films, rather it can be done by anyone- even someone as non-distinct as an Eichmann who if not for knowing his face already we might be able to imagine in another life as something else banal like a librarian or even an actual train driver.

More terrifying perhaps, is how Bauman argues that social distances, things which are as prevalent as ever currently, largely influence the potential for this to happen rather than individuals. Moreover, Milgram shows that perhaps anyone, given sufficient reason to perceive a diffusion of responsibilty, might go from banal man on the street to banally evil Eichmann. Fortunately, and ironically for me as one who often abhors the hyper-individualism of present society, the solution is to promote a rather individualist ethics, alongside legislation that would protect those who would highlight when injustice isn’t seen because of social (and geographical) distances.

As mentioned earlier, healthcare professionals are legally obligated to act in emergency situations by virtue of their knowledge and capacity to act. I would suggest that, although many might already interpret that psychology lessons about the perceived diffusion of responsibility as a call to act against it where possible, teachers are encouraged to explicitly call upon people to, in not just emergency situations, remember the bystander effect and go against it. Again- their knowledge should by virtue give them that responsibility.

For the perceived diffusion of responsibility effects to truly disappear, it should be encouraged that all individuals act even at all times where any responsibility is perceived. Similarly, any processes that might discourage such behaviour should be done away with. For emergency health situations, we have “good samaritan laws” which protect people who give emergency first aid to members of the public protection from liability against unintended consequences of their attempts to help. There should be increased knowledge of whistleblower laws which protect the rights of those who go against possible bystander effects, compounded by fear, report injustice and misconduct. As in the social care sector, protections should take into account the good intentions of those who make reports- if a false report is made by mistake, no punishment should be given.

Returning to Arendt and the justice doled out to a man who reportedly “only ran the trains”, we return to the problem of what to do about those who are reported on for their unjust acts, that do not see themselves as having responsibility for them. Again, teaching individual responsibility is important, but ultimately, this remains a problem today when confounded by thinking about the problems of power limiting people’s ability to act freely, perhaps forcing them to act against their morals, and the problem of social distance and people truly not believing or understanding how their actions are responsible for immorality- perhaps this is often the case when thinking about disability assessor decision making.

Ultimately, the Jewish state found Eichmann guilty of war crimes. Eichmann may not have directly been responsible for killing the vast numbers of Jews the machine he was a part of did, but he knew what it was doing- he knew what he was doing. Do disability assessors know what they’re doing? With all of the social distances in modern society, do any of us really know what we’re doing?


This article is amended and the original is available here:

It is dedicated to Hannah Arendt who has recently had a book post-humously published: “Thinking Without a Bannister: Essays in Understanding”. The title described her way of thinking, letting thoughts take one off track, realising perhaps that we are not in thinking moving up towards anything in particular- the landings are our choice. As messy as this article remains in its second iteration, I hope it is informative, thought-provoking, and will encourage you too to reflect on your actions and inactions, where you think your responsibility lies, and where perceived diffusion of responsibility might be in effect in your life.

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