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Moral Accountability

Moral Accountability Morality depends on the ability of an individual to choose between good and evil, thus, entailing freedom of the will and the moral responsibility of the individual for his actions. It is obvious this is so for the individual, but what about groups and governments? Do they have the ability to choose between good and evil, do they have free will and therefore are they subject to the same paradigms of morality as the individual or does an autonomous morality apply. What if we relate this concept of morality to a present day moral dilemma? Such as should the United States government fire cruise missiles at Serbian cities in order to force the government of Serbia to comply with NATO demands of withdrawal from Kosovo? What moral questions should be asked? Further yet, as we are members of a representative democracy, do the citizens bear any of the responsibility of the government’s actions? Am I responsible for the government I choose? Being that it is the actions of a governments we wish to question the morality of, we must know what the present justification for or against the launch of cruise missiles at Serbia and what the consequences of that decision would be. It can be conjectured that the “official rational” of the United States government in its decision to use cruise missiles on Serbia is based on cost/benefit analysis of what would be in the best interest of the nation and the worlda utilitarian morality. The Serbian government has invaded and seeks to undermine the sovereignty of Kosovo while using genocidal tactics to control the population. The US is acting on what it believes to be the greatest good for the greatest number.

But who is the government to place a market value on human life? Is it moral and does the government have the right to place such a value on human life? And who is responsible for their decision? The official utilitarian rationale of the United States government does place a market value on human life Kant writes: “Now morality is the condition under which alone a rational being can be an end in himself, for only thereby can he be a legislating member in the kingdom of ends”, survival of the individual in a group is the end. If we are to treat men otherwise, as a means to an end, we must make that a categorical imperative and we must treat it as if that action will be a universal law of nature laws to live by). Hence, to do harm to others, to place a market value on man, would be immoral since it would harm humanity. Likewise, it is immoral for the United States to sacrifice ten thousand lives in hope of saving more. It must be asked “what if everyone sacrificed ten thousand lives?”.

According to Kants theory of the Universal law, “We must be able to will that a maxim of our action become universal law, this is the canon for morally estimating any of our actions” (Kant). Perhaps it is a touch ironic that the very document the US was founded on reads: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” This, like Kant’s moral philosophy of “universal maxims,” proclaims that man has intrinsic absolute value. Yet, so quickly are we ready to disregard this declaration as our cost benefit analysis dictates. Slavery was abolished on the principle of the absolute value of man. Why should we disregard this now? Do we suspend the unalienable rights to life whenever it would be most prudent? The United States must ask itself whether it wishes to make a maxim of placing value on human life.

It must be remembered that by lowering the value of life of others, we at the same time lower our own value. Governments and institutions are composed of a completely different dynamic than that of the individual. This leaves man curious as to whether to obey the same set of morals. These moral issues lead to the question of whether or not a man is responsible for what his government does. I am inclined to believe that either philosopher would not think that the individual is fully responsible for the actions of his government so long as they do not participate in the government’s decision-making process. It is possible to argue that, if all individuals (regardless of country) are responsible for their government’s actions, then the ten thousand Serbians that are likely to killed by missile strike have warranted it, as they stepped outside the moral circle by allowing Milosevic to remain in power.

As Kant would see it they have left the kingdom of ends by breaking their promise to treat others humanly by allowing an inhumane leader to remain in power. So as a result they are responsible for the actions of their government. Similarly, in the United States, while a man may vote for a particular set of government officials, it is not possible to know all of their hidden agendas and responses to events in the future. Furthermore, if a man is a pacifist and votes for only pacifist government officials, but is out voted by the rest of the nation for government officials who opt for missile strikes when diplomacy fails, he cannot be held responsible. It can be argued that it is a mans duty to convince others that their beliefs were misguided and immoral.

But to do that supposes that people are rational and will listen to a rational argument instead of personal beliefs and to politicians who sound good. Story, most often, is more powerful than argument. The fact is that the majority most often cannot be convinced. The government of the United States is also a representative democracy and its citizens can only try to elect the most qualified leaders. Unlike a direct democracy, it is not the job of the people to make policy (only to check power). Voters choose leaders to make responsible and moral choices when creating policy.

Fundamentally, responsibility for firing missiles at targets in Serbia lays in the hands of those who will and can make the final decision to fire the missile and sacrifice lives. Just as we can not kill civilians in Serbia based on the actions of Slobodan Milosevic, a man, as an individual, holds little accountability for the decisions of individual human beings in power, especially if he did not elect those individuals into power. Those in power are human beings and influenced by many variables and, accordingly, they will make decisions as such. Ultimately, those who are morally responsible for the actions of government, are those in power– the actual individual or group who must make a decision. As they exercise their freewill in their actions and decisions, they too must bear the responsibility for their actions.

It is not so much that the government should act morally but that the individuals and groups with the power to act, should act morally. Still, we must wonder if a government has the same duty to act morally as would an individual. Perhaps the only manner in which governments and institutions are capable of acting is capable through cost/benefit analysis. Is a government capable of analyzing the situation that of the Indian execution in Bernard Williams essay, “Utilitarianism and Integrity”? While a single man may not be responsible for the actions of his government, he still does have a moral obligation to act morally in spite of the consequences. Man is accountable for his action or inaction in face of immoral government action.

Even if he is not successful in acting out of moral duty, a man cannot be accused of being immoral because of failure. Blame must be laid at the door of those who did knowingly, and out of free will, act immorally. Inaction against evil is evil. Even if a man has no prospect of changing the government’s missile policy toward Serbia, even if he can’t save ten thousand lives. The moral obligation to do what is in his power to convince family, friends, and all those that will listen that the government is acting immorally.

Though it may not be possible to convince the federal government to alter its policy, the obligation remains to let the government know that its actions are immoral, if only by a single e-mail to a congressman/woman. Inaction in the face of immorality is just as immoral as acting immoral. Success. Consequence. These are not the judgment of one’s immorality, it is the intention. The S.S. officer of Nazi Germany is guilty of his immoral crimes precisely because he followed immoral orders.

By not protesting the immorality of his orders the S.S. officer is immoral according to both Mill and Kant. A man is not accountable for the actions of his government, but does have the responsibility, an obligation or duty, to do what is moral even in the face of adversity and low probability of success. Directly affect lawmakers may not be possible but writing letter to congress and peaceful protesting are viable options. These protests and expressions of ideas are what this country was built on and allows us to discover for ourselves what is morally correct.

It is important that we become responsible for our decisions and accountable for their moral repercussions.