Saturday, February 7, 2009

Accountability Defenses

One of the hardest things any of us can do is to admit something we’ve done wrong, especially something with a huge impact on a lot of people. If the admission itself has negative consequences, we may go to great lengths to avoid it, or at least soften the blow. And this assumes that we even recognize and accept the wrongness of what we did.

High-profile examples are plentiful. The Bush administration lied, killed, tortured, and made it easy for corporations to steal and ruin the environment. A large peanut company ignored evidence of salmonella poisoning, leading to sickness and death. Tobacco and oil companies sowed doubt about evidence that their products were toxic to people and the planet, respectively.

In such circumstances individuals may hide their responsibility behind policy, precedent, or ambiguity. Policy assigns responsibility to the organization rather than the individual (“I was just following orders” or “there’s no law against it”). Precedent dilutes blame (“someone else did it, so I assumed it was okay”). Ambiguity provides an argument that the action wasn’t even wrong (“no one can say for sure that the infraction occurred”). Without these defenses, people (or corporations, which are legally people) can be forced to come to terms with what they have done (accountability); and steps can be taken to repair the damage and discourage others from doing the same – or worse.

It is in everyone’s best interest to remove the defenses against accountability. The policy defense can be taken away by making better ones (or at least having society impose requirements on them, through laws). The precedent defense can be removed by providing a mechanism for accountability to be retroactive and universally applicable. The ambiguity defense is best eliminated by assuming guilt, rather than innocence, within a specified range of error in observation.

If we all genuinely wanted to maximize the positive effects and limit the negative effects of our behavior on others, present and future, these measures would be useful but not necessary. No matter how good our intentions, none of us is omniscient or omnipotent and are therefore bound to flounder in this effort at some point. We are also inclined to escape pain, psychological and otherwise, sometimes to the extent of creating delusions wherein we are always right. Society has a great stake in helping everyone overcome obstacles to accountability, so we should accept such help wherever we can.

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