Monday, September 15, 2008

Feeling guilt for what one hasn’t done

“There is such a thing as responsibility for things one has not done; one can be held liable for them. But there is no such thing as being or feeling guilty for things that happened without oneself actively participating in them” (Hannah Arendt, Responsibility and Judgment, Schocken Books, New York, 2003; p. 147).Sometimes a person we know did something bad, or a person of our group did something bad, and we did nothing to stop him or her doing it, even when we might have known that it would happen. Then we can feel guilty of the act. However, as Arendt explains, this is not right. For if you declare yourself guilty of something you didn’t personally, in the end everybody is guilty and that means that nobody is. Guilt is something personal for a personal act that one has done. It singles out, as Arendt says. However, this does not mean that we never have anything to do with what another person does. There is also a thing like responsibility, and actually that is what we mean in such cases. In order to distinguish this kind of responsibility from the responsibility for one’s own acts, one might call it “collective responsibility”, as Arendt does. Collective responsibility does not arise by being present on the place of the act but by having a relation to the actor. Being present when the act happens as such is not important. One knows the actor or belongs to the group of the actor, and it is this relation that is the reason that one is held responsible for the act or that one holds oneself responsible for it. However, one problem, which Arendt discusses only superficially, is when does one have a relation to a person and when not? It is true, some cases are clear, like in the case of an explicite group membership. Then one can escape possible collective responsibility only by leaving the group (a possibility that Arendt does discuss). But isn’t then there a kind of collective responsibility that goes back to the time that one still was a member of the group? And, on the other hand, aren’t we all citizens of the world in this time of globalisation? So, what are the limits of collective responsibility?

3 comments:

oldyrek said...

The feeling of guilty because of other's people behaviors is not right but I also ( like Arendt) see such cases whet it is justified conviction. When I feel guilty for I not stop some bad acts (and I suppose I could do it, it was possible)it's justified reaction but the reason is other.Here is delicate disparity. When I can stop somebody and didn't do this I participate but no personally. My guilt is less of acting to stop but no somebodies act' cause others had own will.
Questions about limits is as interesting as difficul. Why I should identity myself with whole european union, with each person from global village and bother about their acts.
In my opinion responsibility not reach so far but I imagine that for example americans can say europeans are... but is a stereotype. Some polish people participate in extermination of jewish society (generally they was forced to do it, they protect owns life), others to risk one's life to protect jews. I feel not guilty and I understand also that it not my merit. Now it happend that whole world is call to account for holocaust and must pay, germans are responsible: collective responsibility...It is right? realy contemporary germans are guilty. Following by Author : where are the limits?

HbdW said...

Although Arendt’s distinction between guilt and (collective) responsibility is useful, it is also too simple in some ways and in practice often difficult to apply. One of the problems is that Arendt, as far as I know, does not distinguish between doing and allowing. Most philosophers consider allowing also as an action, and so do I. Then one can be guilty because of a wrong action that another person does, even if one did not take part in it. However, this guilt does not refer to what the other person did, but one is guilty because one allowed what the other person did (on condition that one could do something in order to prevent it) and because allowing is also an action.
The same distinction between doing and allowing does also apply to the question of the limits of responsibility. When, for example, is one required not to allow what another person does? I think, but I am not sure, that it is hardly possible to make general rules in order to solve this problem and that one must decide from case to case.

oldyrek said...

you're right lack of reaction is some kind of acting, not phisycal action but mental. morality valuation takes into account also mental acting. I think that we can feel proud when our nationals does great things so why we shouldn't feel guilty, and shame? It depend on identity. We can be sorry but it's not ok remind ancestral's faults when we neither participate nor allow.
Could you write something more about your idea of general rules?
It's hard to imagine such rules.