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What Is Guilt?

Farah Abdessamad wonders if it is a function of responsibility.

One Saturday late morning I came across the loud brunch crowd around Gramercy in New York. After the eerily empty streets of last year, queues were forming again and people seemingly rushed to congregate on pavements under blooming trees. The mood was one of euphoria mixed with tapas and mimosas. Behind my two-layered mask, I continued my way home.

Like preserved mammoth flesh peeking through melting permafrost, the scale of what we’ve experienced is slowly unveiling itself as we grapple with collective and individual trauma, loss, prolonged anxiety, and depression. Yet if we are privileged in the West to begin to see a light at the end of the long coronavirus tunnel – unlike the majority of countries, which do not have access to enough vaccine despite recent moves – still the urgency of climate change hasn’t deflated, nor is systemic racism quite vanquished. The time of crises isn’t over. So my conscience is even now not yet entirely clear. I keep in mind not only the more than thirty thousand New Yorkers who died as a result of COVID-19, but also the chants of the Black Lives Matter protests, and so much more.

Like many others, I’ve experienced guilt more than once since March 2020. I faced my own guilt when I couldn’t be by my father’s side in France; I wondered if I had honored my friendships (no); or my values (on good days); and if I hadn’t rubbed anyone the wrong way as fatigue settled (more than once). I felt guilty, too, for all the care-free international trips I used to go on, and for everything I could no longer take for granted, and for other little, petty things I’m not quite ready to confess.

In The Question of German Guilt (1947), the German existentialist Karl Jaspers attempted to tackle the apparently impossible – understanding the conscious and systematic mass murder of Jews, Roma, homosexuals, political opponents and other groups defined by the Nazi regime as ‘undesirable’ and a threat to its totalitarian view of a ‘pure’ Aryan state.

Genocide is an extreme form of suffering and atrocity and it warrants an equally profound guilt. But Jaspers’ ideas, just like Hannah Arendt’s portrayal of the banality of evil, stay relevant to understanding in guilt a range of situations which are less extreme, more everyday.

To examine the Holocaust, Jaspers suggested a typology of guilt:

First, criminal guilt erupts as a result of violating ‘unequivocal’ laws. A felony lends itself to objective evidence; and a court generally holds jurisdiction for gathering the facts and adjudicating guilt.

Second, political guilt operates at the level of politicians and the body of the citizens. The actions of a state or of those acting as its representatives can carry repercussions, and guilt, for all those who live under that state’s power.

Third, moral guilt evokes the jurisdiction of personal conscience. As Jaspers wrote, “Every deed remains subject to individual judgment.”

Last, metaphysical guilt harks back to an idea of transgressing the universal solidarity between human beings which transcends the confines of the self, family, or nation. Nowadays one could extend this solidarity to encompass all beings and our planet, and so extend our metaphysical guilt, in light of the correlation between human activity and the systematic exploitation of animals, the biodiversity collapse, the overexploitation of natural resources, and the climate emergency.

I find myself subject to the latter three types of guilt.

What is Guilt?
What is Guilt? by Cecilia Mou, 2021
Image © Cecilia Mou 2021. To see more art, please Instagram her at @mouceciliaart

Guilt & Responsibility

It’s easy to understand that not everyone will experience, or choose to lean into, a consciousness of guilt. In his analysis of the guilt surrounding the Holocaust, Jaspers also reviewed possible excuses and self-justifications. For instance, there’s the temptation to hide behind determinism, the idea that ‘things were meant to happen this way anyway’, and in this way deny one’s own responsibility.

Responsibility itself arises from being held accountable – legally or morally, or, more crucially, upon bearing duties to various groups. Guilt is a function of responsibility – you can only rightly be guilty if you’re in some way responsible for wrongdoing – but it is also reliant upon awareness, which is to say, a person needs to genuinely realize or acknowledge both their agency and their wrongdoing to feel guilty.

Back in Philosophy Now Issue 56, another German philosopher, Hans Lenk, further characterized responsibility as both relational – one is responsible to someone for something (and one might add, in the face of, with regards to, within the framework of something) – and attributional – someone assumes responsibility or is designated as responsible.

Responsibility also questions intentionality and causality. Who is responsible for the coronavirus outbreak? A Wuhan lab? Infected individuals not taking sufficient precautions? Governments failing to swiftly and equitably deliver critical supplies and PPE? Social media companies for allowing the proliferation of fake news and other conspiracy theories? Or more widely, the well-documented commercialization of wildlife, which ultimately unleashes interspecies viruses? Similarly for the murder of George Floyd: who was responsible? The policeman Derek Chauvin, who on 20th April 2021 was found guilty of Floyd’s murder? His patrol colleagues who did not intervene? A wider police institution with a reported history of racial profiling? Or the unresolved, perverse, and toxic legacies of slavery which continue to run deep through the US? Unless we examine these different layers of attribution and their inherent web of interconnectedness in many significant cases, justice will remain inadequate and recovery flawed. Against moral misdemeanours, first comes truth, then reparations.

The French philosopher Paul Ricœur insists on the fragility of responsibility, which is “perishable through natural weakness and… threatened under the blows of historical violence” (The Hermeneutics of Action, 1996). Ricœur, a noted theorist of history, memory, and forgetfulness, proposed that historically, responsibility had shifted from a narrow juridical concept (derived from an early association with the Latin verb ‘to impute’, when referring to a book of balance sheets, essentially as a metaphor for an account of a life), to a more embracing, and yet perhaps more polarizing, notion of morality.

We tend to examine responsibility through the lens of retrospection, just as I did when confronted with a newfound expression of ‘normal’ on a weekend stroll which left me wondering about the results of the year’s compounded sufferings. Remembering Jaspers’ categorization of types of guilt can help us carve a path towards positive, self-affirming forms of responsibility, in order to reinvigorate our will and actions. As Jaspers wrote, “Everybody is responsible for the way he is governed” – but ‘government’ can go beyond the political sphere to incorporate personal ethics, too.

What change would emerge if we also considered prospective responsibility, that is to say, saw the present in the light in the future and what future generations might justly say of our deeds, individual or collective? If one chooses accountability, duty, and bearing responsibility, then living the ‘consciousness of guilt’ that Jaspers describes can be a transformative and healthy incarnation of self-awareness.

Is there still space for metaphysical guilt or responsibility in the atomized, polarized, individual-pleasure-seeking society of today? As celebrations increasingly animate the balconies and rooftops of my surrounding post-virus buildings into the evening, I hear the impatience of people wanting to turn a fresh, new page, away from lockdowns, social distancing, and related restrictions. But for those still grieving, the party lights remain dimmed, even more so for those still struggling.

© Farah Abdessamad 2021

Farah Abdessamad is an essayist and critic based in New York City.

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