Murdoch’s Responsibilities and Distinct Consciousness

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.

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7 Responses to Murdoch’s Responsibilities and Distinct Consciousness

  1. Two thoughts.

    Across your examples, you continue to examine responsibility strictly in coercive terms… so A’s responsibility for B’s action rests on comments A made to B, instructing particular sets of behaviour. The level of nuance you add is that coercive links will include latent but important content, which hints in the direction of normative links but doesn’t actually go there. Normative responsibility is what we talk about when we say that somebody “fostered a culture of ___” which led to the actions.

    So, for example, if Murdoch was aware of other instances of sketchy behaviour but approved of them or didn’t interfere with them, he becomes responsible for future acts with similar character even if he was unaware of those acts, and even if he gave no relevant instruction whatsoever. He could have been away on vacation when the whole kidnapping story took place and was never even aware of the story, let alone the investigation, let alone the way it was carried out… and yet, insofar as he had contributed to an “anything goes” attitude among his employees, he would retain responsibility. This is why special responsibility is placed upon leaders, because their job is to create structures for other people to follow, and the effects of those structures allow us to evaluate their performance; were that not the case, nobody would be blaming Murdoch, and nor would he have so damn much money, because nobody would think he could be rewarded (or punished) for the operation of the company unless he was “responsible” for its outcomes due to the establishment and maintenance of structures which conditioned those outcomes.

    The sociologist in me is insisting that I also touch on the concept of mimetic isomorphism, but I don’t have a lot to say about it, and simply saying the word “mimesis” is probably sufficient to convey what I mean to any academics reading. For any lay around, though, the idea is that you could also be responsible for somebody else’s behaviour if it was modelled upon your own, even if you never directly encouraged it, and even if you were unaware of the modelling.

    Citation for anyone who wants to learn more about the theory I’m resting on, this is the starting point (it has evolved a bit since):
    DiMaggio, Paul J., and Walter W. Powell. 1983 “The Iron Cage Revisited: Institutional
    Isomorphism and Collective Rationality in Organizational Fields,” American Sociological
    Review, 48:147-160

    Other thought:
    You seem to be suggesting that we unconsciously define objects based on what they’re different from… I disagree, feeling that while this is a standard analytical approach when pressed to produce a definition, the internal process has more to do with evaluating similarity to a prototype than it does with evaluating boundary conditions. A chair is a chair because it’s similar to my concept of chair, not because it’s dissimilar to my concept of sofa.

    • lukeroelofs says:

      I think your first point is right and interesting – there are plenty of dimensions of responsibility! Though it’s not clear to me why one should be responsible for people who copy you in the absence of any awareness (peripheral or focal).

      On your second point, I think that prototypes are certainly involved, but that doesn’t rule out boundaries. I’d put it like this: because we have the concepts of sofa and stool, we wouldn’t call those items chairs when shown them; if we didn’t have those concepts, we probably would. So the possession of those two concepts changes our use of the concept chair, and our ideas about it’s extension. It seems natural to me to say that this makes my concept ‘chair’ slightly different. But then I’m not sure if that’s a substantive psychological claim, or just a definitional issue of how I draw the boundaries around ‘a concept’. hmm.

      • The “should” you use to seems refer exclusively to culpability, not responsibility in general. That is, you may be partially responsible for something because either your behaviour (even very indirectly) brought it about, or because you could have prevented it, but you’re only culpable if a reasonable person in your position would have predicted the likely linkage and sought to prevent it from taking place. Thus, whether or not one is culpable for something that took place becomes an area for argument in a court.

        In any case, it’s essential to focus upon the organisational role of the individual whose responsibility we’re assessing: higher standards are necessary when we’re dealing with people who had large amounts of power than when dealing with people toward the bottom of a hierarchy. Part of the CEO’s job is not just to instruct particular courses of action, but to put in place structures that will lead to positive outcomes. CEOs are therefore partially responsible for all outcomes, positive or negative, of the companies they run: had they designed the structures differently, the outcomes would have differed. To what extent this ought to result in punishment when bad stuff happens depends on some analysis of the reasonableness of the CEO’s choices… could the results have been predicted? Could they have been easily prevented?

        As for boundaries, I’m not sure you’ve made a case for boundaries so much as a wider range of prototypes, among which we’ll select which most closely fits the example we seek to categorise. Clusters of meaning and association, not firm delineations between homogeneous categories.

      • lukeroelofs says:

        Ah I see. Yes, I’m using ‘responsible’ in a more restricted way – though I would say that I’m talking about ‘moral responsibility’ rather than ‘causal responsibility’. I don’t think moral responsibility is as narrow as legal culpability, as might be decided in a court by a ‘reasonable person’ standard. For one thing, it can include good things, deserving moral praise, which you don’t go to court for. But also, courts 1) are often morally imperfect, 2) can’t address certain wrongs (like lying to a friend), and 3) require evidential standards that prevent them from dealing with very low or vague levels of responsibility.

        You’re right, though, that in some contexts very extensive realms of events can become part of someone’s moral responsibility when they ‘take responsibility’ for them, which positions of power typically involve doing.

        Regarding chairs and so forth, I don’t have a developed opinion but I think what I’d want to say here is that if “my concept ‘chair'” means “the set of psychological/neurophysiological facts about me that would determine which things I would apply the word ‘chair’ to under ideal circumstances”, then this will include certain facts that are also included in “my concept ‘sofa'” and “my concept ‘stool'”. That may be consistent with what you’re saying, but you deny “firm delineations” and I’m not sure what that means, since I never said anything was firm.

  2. The notion of the delineations as firm comes from the focus on boundaries rather than clusters. You’re right that even in a model focusing on boundaries, those boundaries may be fuzzy… and actually that’s a large part of why certain theorists reject the emphasis on boundaries in the first place, because it leads into analytically murky waters. Trying to create firm distinctions between things is doomed to fail as exceptions continually present themselves… so it saves a lot of time to instead define things based on their relationship to prototypes. As I recall there’s some experimental data to support that as being more in line with how our everyday cognition actually works anyway, but I don’t have the citation on this computer. My understanding is that pattern matching and interrelation are how we intuitively understand the world, and then boundaries are how we tend to define it when pressed. Thinking in that we seems natural, but only when we’re engaged in analysis.

    • lukeroelofs says:

      “comes from the focus on boundaries rather than clusters”
      I don’t think I focused on boundaries, I mentioned them in a post about a completely different topic. You seem to be objecting to any mention of boundaries, not to a disproportionate emphasis on them.

      Would it help if I dressed up the same idea in words like “relationality”, saying that each concept is involved in constituting the other concepts, they form a holistic interdependent web, etc.? 😛

  3. Pingback: Foucault and Breivik | Majestic Equality

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