March 2008
Journal of International Political Theory;Mar2008, Vol. 4 Issue 1, p72
Academic Journal
This article explores the ways in which we hold participants in dispersed practices to ethical account for the accumulated consequences of their individual actions over time. This ‘holding to account’ is quite different to that found within centralised practices such as a state or a corporation. In the case of a state, for example, we hold presidents, prime ministers (and others) to account in terms of well understood norms of ethical behaviour internal to the practice. For example, we might accuse them of corruption. In such cases an actor is criticised for failing to adhere to a well understood ethical norm. In dispersed practices, the holding to account is different. Here the allegation is that the participants, through adhering to the ethical norms inherent in the practice, are collectively bringing about an unethical result. Through their doing the ethically right thing, they are bringing about a wrong. Marx's analysis of capitalism can be understood in this way. In the normal day to day activity in a capitalist system, individual buyers and sellers are not doing anything ethically wrong, but the accumulated outcome of their individual actions is ethically (on Marx's analysis) unacceptable. The wrongdoing arises from a failure to understand the structural consequences of the operation of the practice over time. It also arises from a failure to understand and act on the political possibilities of transformation that exist within the practices in question.


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