I will confess that I watch the implosion of the Murdoch empire with moderate glee. I especially enjoy the way that responsibility seems to creep upward along various chains of influence, implicating bosses, police, and politicians as well as individual reporters.
But the question of responsibility is somewhat philosophically fraught. For instance, here’s an article that argues that “It may well be true that Ms. Brooks and Mr. Murdoch never told anyone to hack into the cellphone of Milly Dowler…or even knew it had happened. But that doesn’t mean they weren’t responsible for it.”
In response, this article calls that idea “wildly impractical if not totally illogical“, and one might be forgiven a certain puzzlement even though the reasons the article goes on to give are transparently fallaciou (namely, because the example used concerns a much more serious wrong, there can’t be the same manner of responsibility involved).
Now, I have no idea what the facts are – who said what, and who thought what, etc. But it’s instructive to consider various possibilities, and ask on what grounds it is or would be appropriate to blame Brooks or Murdoch for the actions of their employees.
To frame the question, here’s three possible ways for a subordinate to do something wrong.
A: they’re explicitly told to, with literal words like “hack that 13-year-old’s damn phone”
B: they’re not told to at all, in any sense – they’re told “Luke, get me an essay by Friday” and they then decide to hack into a 13-year-old’s phone
C: they’re deliberately told to, but implicitly, but not explicitly – the superior says “find out everything you can about this kidnapped girl”, and it’s consciously understood by both of them that this means illegal invasions of privacy, if necessary
Now, what actually happened might have been any of these three. But I think the suggestion in Roger Martin’s article above is that there’s a fourth option:
D: they’re told to, but in such a way that neither they nor their superior consciously understands the instruction that way
This is puzzling. How can I give an instruction I’m not conscious of giving? That’s what I’ll try to analyse.
Consider a simple example. I tell someone ‘bring me a chair’. There’s a lot of ‘unconscious’ content here. For instance, I’m conscious of the concept ‘chair’ that I employ, but this concept packs in a lot: it means, roughly, something artificial (unlike a rock) which people sit on (unlike a table) designed for one person (unlike a sofa) and with a back (unlike a stool). I don’t think about how chairs differ from stools or sofas, those facts don’t appear in my mind distinctly, but they are crucial elements in what the concept ‘chair’ is, and I’m conscious of that concept. They contribute to its ‘shape’ in my mind.
I want to call these aspects of a though ‘peripherally conscious’, in contrast to what’s ‘focally conscious’, because they’re analogous to the way that although I don’t consciously identify or think about most of the colours and shapes in the periphery of my visual field, they are still part of what my visual experience is right now. They’re elements of the conscious experience, but are not distinctly conscious.
(Incidentally, I think this is also a major theme of the cognitive psychology of Early Modern rationalist philosophers like Spinoza or Descartes – the key distinction among thoughts is between the more ‘distinct’ and the more ‘confused’)
A more relevant example might be the instruction “find out everything you can about this kidnapped girl, and no messing about!”, where the phrase “messing about” covers a wide range of things, only some of which are distinctly or ‘focally’ conscious. It covers laziness, and wasting time by trying to verbally one-up other workers. It covers uptight personal codes like “never speak ill of the dead”, or not asking a juicy question out of sympathy for the person being asked. But crucially, it might also include not doing something because it would be illegal or immoral. It might include this as a form of ‘messing about’, placing something unimportant above one’s job, without distinctly thinking about this case at all – after all, when you say ‘fruit’, you don’t mentally go through every different thing that you would count as a fruit.
So my thought is that option D, above, is something like this: the illegal action in question is part of the superior’s peripheral consciousness, because it’s comprised in the full meaning of their instruction but isn’t distinctly, focally, conscious.
What would this imply, were it true? Does this make the superior ‘responsible’? On the one hand, you might say they’re not responsible, because they didn’t “know” what they were peripherally conscious of – nobody can scrutinise all of their thoughts all the time, on pain of infinite regress. That is, what’s not focally conscious is not conscious in the necessary sense for responsibility.
On the other hand, they were conscious of the instruction they gave, and they voluntarily intended that it be expressed and followed. If illegal phone-hacking was a part of that conscious thought, doesn’t that make it consciously intended? Moreover, aren’t people under some obligation to be sensitive to and careful about what they say and mean, and what it might imply?
I’m inclined to think this is a matter of degree. I’m less responsible for something in the periphery of my intention than for something at the ‘focus’, but still somewhat responsible, and more so more that element was ‘close to the surface’, easier to reflect on or bring into focus. This supports the idea that Brooks, Murdoch etc. are partially responsible – even if they didn’t distinctly know about the bribes etc., which is quite possible. But it also suggests that in general, any given person accrues a constant low level of responsibility for the unscrutinised import of their everyday thoughts and actions, a sort of karmic dirt that gets on your feet wherever you tread – which may be a reasonable, or an unreasonable, conclusion.