We have been exploring the concept of what it means to rise for TEDxMileHigh’s upcoming event: Rise. We’ve considered why some people choose to rise to the occasion and others chose to sit on the sidelines. Now, it is time to consider everyone together. Find out if rising is an individual journey or if a group of people can all rise up together. 

Warning: The answer to this question gets philosophical and ethical very quickly. 

In my research for this article, I found myself deep in philosophy journals and academic papers. So, why even tackle this question? Because, like some friends I’ve had discussions with about the world as of late, we are frustrated. We follow the rules and wear masks. We educate ourselves on crises and are registered to vote. Yet, whenever I sit down to watch the news, or I look at any news outlet on my phone, we as a society are still struggling. 

At a time like this—amid a pandemic, social unrest, and overwhelming distrust of the government—the need for collective action is ever-present. Can we, as a society, really all rise up together and change the current direction of the world?

Rise Up Together: A Breakdown

According to a 2018 study by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, collective responsibility is the idea that an entire group of people (i.e. a corporation, a state, a social movement, etc.) can be held responsible all together for a certain outcome. Or, does the fault only fall upon certain individuals within the group? The concept raises the question, is it fair to hold the entire government of the U.S. accountable for the result, positive or negative, of a policy decision made by the President? Or does the blame fall squarely on the President?

Collective Responsibility

The study looked at the application of collective responsibility in five different types of groups.  The researchers found that collective responsibility was only applicable to one group: people who engage in shared intentions together. Shared intentions, as defined in the study, are, “individual intentions to perform a certain individual action provide each other agent with a sufficient reason for intending to engage in a certain individual action.” 

What does that mean? Consider a group of high schoolers covering their friend’s house in toilet paper. A classic. All of the friends agree that they are pulling this prank together. The fact that one friend, we’ll call him Tim, is busy covering the trees in toilet paper gives another friend in the group, Brad, the agency, or excuse, to do the same thing. Their reasoning? To pull an epic prank on one of their friends, duh. 

The fact that Tim is TP’ing the trees gives Brad and the rest of their friends an excuse to join in, and vice versa. Thus, we have a group of people who engage in shared intentions together. Therefore, they can be held collectively responsible for the said epic prank.

So, what the heck does all of this mean, and why should you care outside of highschool pranks? Let’s consider Jennifer Reich and her work in healthcare. More specifically, the problem of vaccine refusal.

Taking Collective Responsibility

Until this point, we have considered collective responsibility in terms of blameworthiness. In other words, who is to blame after something happens? 

Reich’s talk flips the script a little and begs the question, what if we took collective responsibility rather than blame individuals?

“Most of the best public health interventions and social programs were built on the assumption that we can do more together than we can do alone,” says Reich. 

Reich discusses how damaging it can be when we blame individuals for problems greater than TP’ing someone’s house. For example, when parents blame other parents when a child is sick. As a result, the parents begin to make decisions based on what they believe is best for their child, rather than the needs of the rest of the community. 

“Vaccines work best when everyone uses them,” explains Reich. But, if parents make the decision to vaccinate their child based on their beliefs of vaccines and distrust of public health advice, rather than the public good of herd immunity, vaccines become useless.

Still, So What?

The first step to solving a problem is admitting that there is one. As a society, we are so quick to hand out responsibility to individuals rather than take responsibility as a collective. 

White supremacy doesn’t only live in outwardly racist individuals, but in systems created by white people since the country’s founding. White people need to take responsibility as a collective for years of oppression before we can move forward as a nation. Rather than blame one single mother for her child’s illness that is preventable by vaccine, we should realize as a collective that our perspective on vaccines as an individual choice rather than a public need is misguided. 

Many of the short-comings of our society are not necessarily a single problem caused by one individual, but rather ideologies that are perpetuated by ignoring the responsibility we have as a collective. 

To answer my own question, yes, we can all rise up together and change the direction of the world. We can only do this if we all realize we each play a role in the collective. And, in that role, our actions give one another the excuse to take the same action. So, what action will you take?