On the Responsibility of Rulers, and the Ruled
We all make bad decisions sometimes. Usually these bad decisions have minor consequences. Maybe you took a wrong turn in traffic and got stuck somewhere. Maybe you decided to eat fast food several days in a row and got stuck somewhere else. Most of our bad decisions really only effect ourselves. Sometimes, though, people make bad decisions that affect other people and precipitate many years of follow-up problems. “Why did you prosecute that innocent person? Why did you send that sick person away? What made you think it was OK to steal from others and enrich yourself?”
All decisions, good and bad, start out theoretical. They are ethereal, and exist only as ideas. For decisions to become real they require people to carry them out. When asked why they did something bad, most people will say they were just following orders. Perhaps it is more common today to hear someone say they were just following policy, but the meaning is the same. Policies are made by the people in charge as much as orders are. Most people are ruled. Whether by a boss or a by a monarch, it makes no difference.
So, then, if your boss asks you to do something wrong, and you do it, who is really responsible for that wrong action? If a king tells you to enslave/torture/exploit others, and you go ahead and do that, are you blameless or should you be blamed?
If a citizen of the United States commits a crime, is the President responsible? Is their local congressperson responsible? Or, is the citizen responsible for his or her own actions?
Are rulers really responsible for all of the actions of their subjects? Did Queen Victoria really support enslaving distant people? More importantly, could Queen Victoria have supported slavery if none of her subjects were actually willing to go out and do the enslaving?
It is always convenient to blame moral failures on more powerful people. Powerful people certainly appear to make a lot of bad decisions. Powerful people sure create a lot of unworkable policies. But the decisions and policies of the powerful, good and bad, are nothing without regular folks to carry them out.
Why should a soldier who commits war crimes be any less responsible than the general who told him to do it? Why should the banker who gave out predatory loans be any less responsible than the corporate structure that encouraged that behavior?
You might say those lower on the power ladder are just looking out for themselves, and I would say you are absolutely correct. Those lower people are just looking out for themselves. This is the definition of selfishness, which is generally considered a bad thing, even in today’s backwards world.
But you can’t refuse an order, or you might get fired! You can’t stand up to the king, or you might lose your head!
Following bad orders and looking out for yourself is a great way to be a successful person, and a decent way to remain a safe person. But if you want to be a good person, then you have to look out for others and take responsibility for yourself.
If we could all take responsibility for our actions, thoughts, conditions, etc., then there would be no need for rulers at all. Sadly, I suspect there are a lot of people out there who like doing bad things. Especially when they can justify them. “I stole food from that child because my child was starving!I destroyed that country because my country told me to.”
Certain people like doing bad things, especially when they can blame someone else for it. Which is worse, to be the dictator that orders people into the gas chambers, or the lowly subordinate who actually pulls the lever?
Are we responsible for our own actions, or are the people in charge of us responsible for out actions? I guess the answer depends on what kind of person you are, and on what kind of person you want to be?