Collective Guilt: A Socratic Dialogue
By Bryan Caplan
Pericles: Have you seen the latest outrage our enemies have committed against us? We have to strike back.
Socrates: Strike back against whom?
Pericles: Our enemies, as I said.
Socrates: Right. But how will we pinpoint the enemies who perpetrated this heinous act?
Pericles: [sigh] That’s a fool’s errand. You never know which particular enemy carried out any particular dastardly deed.
Socrates: So we should punish some of our enemies for the actions of our other enemies?
Socrates: For example, if the Persians attack us, we might respond by attacking the Macedonians.
Pericles: No, no, no. If the Persians attack us, we have to respond by attacking the Persians.
Socrates: To do otherwise would be unjust?
Pericles: Indeed, unless those we attacked were in league with the Persians.
Socrates: Are all Persians in league with one another?
Pericles: What do you mean?
Socrates: Has each and every Persian freely sworn to join forces against us?
Pericles: That sounds most unlikely.
Socrates: Quite. And even if every adult Persian had indeed sworn such an oath, Persian infants and children would be incapable of such an oath?
Pericles: Yes, unless their infants and children are very unlike ours.
Socrates: So when we “strike back” against the Persians, how careful are we to spare those Persians who have not joined forces against us?
Pericles: Not careful at all, if you want the truth.
Socrates: When the Persians attack, you are careful not to respond by attacking the Macedonians.
Pericles: As already explained.
Socrates: It seems, then, that when our Persian enemies attack, we should be equally careful not to respond by attacking those Persians who remain our friends. Indeed, we should be equally careful not to respond by attacking neutral Persians who simply wish to mind their own business.
Pericles: Your approach would leave us powerless against evil. We can easily tell the difference between Persians and Macedonians. We can’t easily tell the difference between Persian enemies and Persian friends and neutrals.
Socrates: Is it so hard to tell the difference between a Persian child and a Persian adult?
Pericles: No, but it is hard to burn down a town full of Persian enemies without burning Persian friends and neutrals along with them.
Socrates: I see.
Pericles: Are we done?
Socrates: Not quite. Pericles, would you mind describing the Persians’ “latest outrage” against us?
Pericles: Not at all. The fiends came and burned down one of our towns. Everyone trapped within the city walls died horribly.
Socrates: A wicked deed, no doubt?
Pericles: No doubt.
Socrates: Suppose, though, that they were merely striking back against us for burning down one of their towns.
Pericles: That is not mere supposition. We burned down one of their towns last month.
Socrates: Could the Persians then invoke the same rationale as you? Could they not with justice say that they had to strike back against we Greeks, and that distinguishing Greek enemies from Greek friends and neutrals imposed an intolerable burden on them?
Pericles: The Persian fiends will say anything to justify their wickedness.
Socrates: Why, though, are Persians but not Greeks wicked for burning down entire towns?
Pericles: Our actions are retaliation; their actions are aggression.
Socrates: How does one tell the difference?
Pericles: Simple: The side that starts the fight is the aggressor.
Socrates: I presume, then, that you have exhaustively studied the history of the Greek-Persian conflict.
Pericles: Why bother? We can all see who’s in the right.
Socrates: I’m puzzled, Pericles. By your stated standard, it’s impossible to directly see who’s in the right.
Pericles: How so?
Socrates: Your standard is historical: Whoever started the conflict is the aggressor. You cannot answer this historical question by observing current behavior.
Pericles: So before anyone can retaliate, they have to carefully study history?
Socrates: Given your definition of “aggression,” I see no alternative.
Pericles: But who knows what such study would reveal? We might discover that it was in fact we Greeks who drew first blood.
Pericles: And if we discovered that, then we Greeks, not those Persians, would be the evil ones.
Pericles: But that would imply that it was not evil when that Persian army burned my mother, sister, and dear baby niece alive!
Socrates: By your own reasoning, that seems to follow.
Pericles: But… killing innocent children is just plain wrong. What difference does it make if a long-dead Greek killed a hapless Persian centuries ago?
Socrates: Or if a long-dead Persian killed a hapless Greek centuries ago?
Pericles: What are you saying?
Socrates: Like most people – Greeks, Persians, Macedonians, and more – you embrace a doctrine of collective guilt. You think it morally justified to punish groups of people even if many members of these groups have done nothing wrong.
Pericles: You could put it that way.
Socrates: Yet this doctrine of collective guilt implies something almost no one believes: a duty to undertake careful historical research prior to putative retaliation.
Pericles: Somewhat odd, I admit.
Socrates: Yes. The even odder implication, though, is that if the careful historical research reveals that we were the initial aggressors, Persians’ seemingly evil actions against personally blameless Greeks were justified.
Pericles: But that is impossible to believe.
Socrates: Indeed. And it is equally impossible to believe that if our enemies were the initial aggressors, Greeks’ seemingly evil actions against personally blameless Persians were justified. Despite its popularity, this doctrine of collective guilt goes against the conscience of all mankind.