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Hannah Arendt – Collective responsibility

December 23, 2014

“When Napoleon Bonaparte became the ruler of France, he said: I assume responsibility for everything France has done from the time of Charlemagne to the terror of Robespierre. In other words, he said, all this was done in my name to the extent that I am a member of this nation and the representative of this body politic. In this sense, we are always held responsible for the sins of our fathers as we reap the rewards of their merits; but we are of course not guilty of their misdeeds, either morally or legally, nor can we ascribe their deeds to our own merits. …

[N]o moral, individual and personal, standards of conduct will ever be able to excuse us from collective responsibility. This vicarious responsibility for things we have not done, this taking upon ourselves the consequences for things we are entirely innocent of, is the price we pay for the fact that we live our lives not by ourselves but among our fellow men, and that the faculty of action which, after all, is the political faculty par excellence, can be actualized only in one of the many and manifold forms of human community.”

(from ‘Collective Responsibility’ [1968], published in Responsibility and Judgment)

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