This concept of collective guilt, which was prominent in the societies of biblical times, is I think why the Bible writers themselves saw no moral problem with the events they describe. The writer(s) of Joshua did not see any moral issue with the Canaanite genocide nor does Paul see any moral objection to the condemnation of the entire race due to the sin of Adam. They seem oblivious to the moral concerns that plague Christian philosophers and apologists today with regard to these issues.
While the people of Bible times may have had no problem with the concept of collective guilt, we certainly do today. Why does it bother us but not the Bible writers? My opinion is that our moral sensibilities have evolved to a higher state. The Bible writers also saw nothing wrong with slavery, polygamy, the treatment of women as inferior, the execution of homosexuals, and etc. These things are recognized today by all civilized people as immoral practices.
H.D. Lewis wrote an article in 1948 entitled, Collective Responsibility (reprinted in Collective Responsibility: Five Decades of Debate in Theoretical and Applied Ethics, eds. Larry May and Stacey Hoffman ). He begins his essay with a very strong statement: If I were asked to put forth an ethical principle which I considered to be especially certain, it would be that no one can be responsible, in the properly ethical sense, for the conduct of another (p. 17).
He says that if we hold to collective responsibility, then we shall be directly implicated in one another's actions, and the praise or blame for them must fall upon us all without discrimination. This, in fact, is what many person do believe, and it is very hard to uphold any form of traditionalist theology on any other basis. Of late this has been very openly affirmed by noted theologians who, if they seem to do very great violence to common sense, have, at any rate, the courage and consistency to acknowledge the implications of their view, and do not seek to disguise them by half-hearted and confused formulations (pp. 17-18).
He goes on to say that the concept of collective responsibility is barbarous (p. 21).
Similarly, Gregory Mellema argues that the concept of collective guilt is a primitive belief. He writes:
One of the ways in which contemporary Western culture is often contrasted with "primitive cultures" is in the manner in which moral responsibility is conceived. People in some primitive cultures supposedly think in terms of entire tribes bearing responsibility for the violation of mores or breaking of taboos by one member of the tribe. This collective way of thinking about moral responsibility is based upon the idea of the guilt of one individual being transmitted to all members of a clan or tribe and is quite foreign to contemporary Western ways of thinking about moral responsibility. Also foreign to contemporary Western ways of thinking is the idea that responsibility can be eliminated by destroying a symbolic object such as a voodoo doll. People sometimes argue that collective conceptions of moral responsibility are associated with primitive or even superstitious approaches to morality and have no place in contemporary Western approaches to morality. They credit Western morality that it has managed to overcome these supposedly primitive and superstitious notions by thinking of responsibility in strictly individualist terms. ( Collective Responsibility ,, p. 2)
I think Lewis and Mellema are correct. It is a primitive and barbarous way of thinking to impute guilt to someone for the action of another. As R. S. Downie argues: Collectives do not have moral faults, since they don't make moral choices, and hence they cannot properly be ascribed moral responsibility. … For there to be moral responsibility there must be blameworthiness involving a morally faulty decision, and this can only occur at the individual level (May and Hoffmann, p. 49).
Much of the philosophical discussion of collective responsibility took place in an attempt to assess blame for the holocaust. Was the entire nation of Germany responsible for the evil enterprise or were only certain individuals within Germany responsible? Iris Young describes the debate:
. . . [Hannah] Arendt insists that moral and legal concepts such as guilt and blame should not be applied to entire groups or collectives. The paradigm case for her was Nazi Germany, about which she had debates with Karl Jaspers, among others, concerning the appropriateness of labeling the German people as a whole “guilty” for Nazi crimes. She insists that the concept of guilt (or innocence) applies strictly to individual deeds. Guilt loses its meaning if applied to a whole group or community related by association to a wrong. “Where all are guilty,” she says, “nobody is. Guilt, unlike responsibility, always singles out; it is strictly personal.” (“Collective…” p. 43) Twenty years earlier, in “Organized Guilt and University Responsibility,” Arendt expressed this thought in almost the same words; “Where all are guilty, nobody in the last instance can be judged.” (“Organized Guilt…”, p. 126) The point of locating guilt or leveling blame is precisely to single out: to say that this person, or these people, by virtue of what they have done, bear direct moral and often legal responsibility for a wrong or a crime. Others do not, because their actions have not done the deeds. The practice of blaming or finding guilty requires singling out some from others, and applying some sanction against them or requiring compensation from them. The application of moral and legal guilt in this sense becomes meaningless if we extend it to a whole collective which is associated with the crime or wrong by virtue of being in the same society and passively allowing it. Guilt loses its practical meaning if we say that everyone in the society, or a large portion of people, is guilty of crime or wrong committed in a society or in its name (Guilt versus Responsibility: A Reading and Partial Critique of Hannah Arendt, paper presented to the American Political Science Association, Washington, DC, September 2005, pp. 2-3)
I think it is possible to distinguish between collective responsibility and collective guilt. Responsibility for an action can be attributed to someone who did not directly commit the action, but guilt can only be ascribed to the one who did directly commit the action. For example, if my non-adult child were to vandalize my neighbor's property, I would have the responsibility to repair the damage. However, I would not be personally guilty for the action of my child and I could not be prosecuted for it. So, in that sense, I think it may be correct to say that as a white American living in the 21st century, I have some responsibility to try to repair the damage that was done by my ancestors holding slaves in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. However, I can not and should not be held personally guilty for their actions.
Therefore, if one were to assume the truth of the Bible and evangelical Christianity (which I do not), then one could possibly make the argument that all of mankind shares some responsiblity for trying to repair the damage done by Adam's sin and mitigate its effects, but that is entirely different than holding each individual human being personally guilty for what Adam is said to have done.
Thus, I think Christian philosophers and apologists are fighting an impossible battle in trying to justify things such as the Canaanite genocide or the traditional doctrine of original sin. These ideas made sense in a society that accepted the notion of collective guilt but they make no sense in our modern day. Thankfully, our moral sensibilities have evolved beyond those primitive concepts.