Imagine a gathering where a woman is to be stoned to death. 100 people attend the gathering, each carrying a stone the size of their palm. They each throw a stone at the woman. The woman dies after the 80th throw. You were one of the participants at the gathering and threw the 50th stone during the stoning.
There are three questions to be asked from this thought experiment:
1: How much was your contribution to the woman’s death?
2: Would you have made a difference by not throwing the stone?
3: What degree of responsibility do you have for the woman’s death?
The answer to question 1 could be 1/80th of the contribution, since you are one of the 80 people who threw the stone, and it took exactly 80 throws to cause the woman to die. Some may want to disbute this degree of contribution because there were 100 people attending. For example, if you did not attend, the other 19 people at the gathering would have finished the job (unless all of them threw their stone and missed their target, but the probability of this would be quite low).
The answer to question assists in answering question 2. Technically, your absence would make no difference in the woman’s fate. We could think up extreme possibilities, like the other 19 missing their mark, but most of us would assume that the woman’s fate is sealed. This is regardless of whether you throw your stone.
Nonetheless, this knowledge seems to not help us with our intuitions regarding question 3. If I were the person who threw the stone, I would feel a degree of responsibility for the woman’s death. And pointing out the facts mentioned above would not give me much consolation. Furthermore, I would not look at my responsibility in terms of ‘I am 1/80th responsible for this woman’s death’. My reaction would be ‘we are responsible for this woman’s death’.
This reaction is consistent with a collective view on moral responsibility. Whereas, a purely individualist view would have trouble claiming moral responsibility from the thought experiment. Regarding ethical theory, the only kind of ethical theorists that would have potential trouble with this would be consequentialists. This is because virtue ethicists (act in ways someone with good character would) and deontologists (follow moral rules regardless of consequences) can argue that the act was wrong, even though failing to do the act would not produce better consequences. Nonetheless, consequentialists may be able to produce arguments that protesting the stoning may cause others to realise the cruel practice, therefore would, at least eventually, produce better consequences. Hence, when we as individuals within a collective group produce a bad outcome, appealing to the small or non existent impact from us not participating does not absolve us from moral responsibility.
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