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?