07 October 2011

from Lawrence, Sunday PhiloMadrid meeting: Collective Guilt (2 essays)

Dear Friends,
This Sunday we are discussing: Collective Guilt.
We are also lucky because Simon has sent us a short essay about his topic. I also wrote a few
paragraphs and although I did not read Simon's essay before I finished mine, we seem to coincide on
some ideas.
In the meantime don't forget that Ignacio and friends are now meeting at Triskel Tavern (San Vicente
Ferrer 3) on Thursday at 7:30pm.
Take care

Hello Lawrence,
This Sunday we will discuss "Collective Guilt". I was influenced by the previous topic suggestion,
"How our actions affect others", to choose an "ethical" topic, perhaps getting wider
participation......all opinions being equal.
I have become curious recently about what we mean with statements like:
"The banks are guilty of causing the crisis".
"The ........(fill the gap with a country) are guilty of starting the war and should be made to pay".
"We are all guilty for overspending". etc
To discuss "Collective Guilt" it might be thought that we must analyse the concept of "Guilt", but I
am reluctant to widen the topic in this way.
A reductionist analysis - e.g. guilt as manifestation of socialisation, guilt as a sum of
neurological stimulae in the brain, etc - adds little or nothing to our everyday use of the word.
Guilt, guilty are basic concepts in social life, law etc.
Let's keep to an "everyday" understanding. We all experience and assign guilt on a daily basis. One
could say people "import" and "export" guilt regularly.
(Like countries, some are net importers and some net exporters !)
Example: we are waiting 30 minutes in the plane on the runway at Barajas.
When the 2 latecomers arrive we stare at them....at least, I do. We feel they are guilty ! We want
them to feel they are guilty !
As they are 2, this seems to be a case of "collective guilt".
(One side track here: I take an "atomistic" view. In "Collective, or Group, guilt" I take it to mean
that all the individual members are guilty, not that some conceptual entity "The Group" is guilty,
but its members are innocent.)
Is it ever reasonable to assign "guilt" to a group ? Or accept "guilt" if we belong to some groups ?
Starting at the general end:
- Are the British/Spanish guilty of the crimes committed as "imperialists" ?
Which ones ? It does not seem likely that guilt is inherited but what happens if you are
unintentionally benefit from past (or present) injustices ?
- If we look at atrocities in World War II should we blame a nation, or active participants, or
particular parts of the armed forces, or only individuals ?
What are the criteria ? Active participation ? Benefits ? Closeness in time and place ? Collusion ?
Intentionality ? in this case, of the group or the individual ?
What does the law say ? Isn't simple membership of ETA a crime? The "Conspiracy" laws in the UK seem
to go in the same direction.
Can we make sense of this ? If we give up and go to the bar early will we be collectively guilty of
negligence ?
See you on Sunday,

Collective guilt
Does the guilt culture need a big rethink or does it still have a purpose in our society?
The issue is not whether to stop chasing those who do wrong but rather how to stop or minimise wrong
doing. However it has long been accepted that in any equitable system there will always be a
minority who will cheat. Thus, one might question the very idea that wrong doing can be eliminated
or reduced.
Nevertheless there is a fundamental issue about guilt that we must first address. Is guilt a means
to pursue wrong doers or a means to stop wrong doing? The obvious answer is both. But is that really
the case?
I would argue that in real life most of us are more interested in not being harmed than in how
others feel. Indeed society is prepared to lock up wrong doers irrespective if they feel guilty or
not. Indeed I would go so far as to say that those who are more concerned that people feel guilty
rather than in being secure either live a charmed life or making a living out the guilt culture, or
And this is why I asked the question whether the guilt culture needs rethinking. It seems that the
feeling of guilt has not made much difference to our safety. Crime and wrong doing are still every
hour occurrence.
So how does this fit with our theme of collective guilt?
It seems to me that there are two kinds of collective guilt: a guilt that a group feels for itself
and a guilt that is imposed on a group by others.
But like personal guilt the cause of collective guilt is always the infringement of some moral law.
Of course, the first issue here is what constitutes a moral law? And secondly, how can we ascribe
guilt to a collective group if moral transgression requires an intentional act based on free will?
But going back to the two kinds of collective guilt it is worth observing that there are very few
instances of collective guilt being felt by a group of itself. I am sure that there are quite a few
instances but the one we most remember is of course the collective guilt felt by West Germany after
the war or maybe by a sizable group of white people in South Africans.
But if we take the German guilt, we do not find say the Japanese going out of their way to feel
collective guilt for the part they played during the Second World War.
On the other hand the issue of collective guilt in some societies is just non existent: for example,
the Russians for the pogroms or the genocide by Stalin.
As for imposed collective guilt we can find many examples or attempts to impose a collective guilt
on a society. Some would apply collective guilt on the British for the destruction of Dresden. Many
apply collective guilt on Israel for their policies towards the Palestinians. Maybe one of the worst
infringements of a moral law was the rape and pillage of Africa by Europeans, not to mention all the
other continents.
My point about the relevance of guilt, whether the purpose of guilt is to make someone or some group
feel guilty or to change or prevent bad behaviour? Since the Second World War there have been many
genocides. Some have passed unnoticed and some have resulted in individuals being held to account
for their actions.
But the bottom line is still the fact that genocides have happened since the Second World War, are
going on now and will certainly continue in the future. So what's the point of collective guilt if
it seems to have no effect on how we behave towards each other? It seems that some societies are
prepared to infringe moral laws irrespective of whether they feel collective and others are prepared
to learn from past mistakes, probably irrespective of whether they feel collective guilt or not.
Maybe guilt and collective guilt in particular, was never meant to change the way we behave, but
rather to establish some moral or maybe some quasi legal authority over the other community.
This will certainly confer an advantage to one group over another group. So maybe guilt is one of
those primitive and primordial instincts that we have been employing over the millennia to cause or
protect ourselves against others and at the same time give us some sort of advantage over those we
deem guilty of transgression.
But there is also another interpretation of guilt including collective guilt. Rather than having the
function of conferring an advantage over others, it is signal or warning for us that a particular
person or group are dangerous -maybe unsocial- and we should therefore deal with this group with
caution, if at all. So maybe the primary purpose of guilt is not to demand remorse or punishment,
but rather to signal our own weakness in the situation. Because we do not have the means or the
courage to stop people from transgressing a moral law, we label such transgressions with guilt.
Maybe the linguistic purpose of guilt is basically to insult those we deem hostile, instead of
calling ourselves moral cowards. After all when we (society) do catch someone and overpower them, we
have no compunction is causing them harm by putting them in prison or take away their life,
irrespective of whether they are guilty or not.
So to defend my point, will China experience or have collective guilt imposed on her for its
questionable dealings in Africa for pure economic gains? Admittedly the way China exploits Africa is
not the same as the Europeans did centuries ago, but nevertheless it is exploitation of a modern kind.
The chances are that collective guilt on China won't be imposed any time soon, in the same way that
Europe today only pays lip service to collective guilt about Africa. In both cases the people of
Africa are practically powerless when these economic powers or their local representatives pillage
the continent with impunity.
But if guilt is no better than a warning sign, and has the function of an insult at best as a result
of moral weakness, where does this leave the whole edifice of our morality that depends so much on
guilt, remorse and punishment?
Indeed, is morality a product of human weakness or a product of rational agency?
Take care

from Lawrence, Sunday PhiloMadrid meeting: Collective Guilt (2 essays)

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