February 06, 2005

Collective Guilt

TalkLeft has a very interesting discussion on "collective guilt".

I do not like the concept, because it involves an inherent conflation between two very different things.

When an evil happens that is tied to a particular society, then yes, that society is collectively guilty of that evil.

However, to me, it is conceptually related to arguments of racial profiling. If I belong to a class of people where 20% of my class are guilty of something, that does not mean that I, individually, have a 20% likelihood of being guilty of it.

It is the practice of taking the existence of something that applies only to the group, and applying it to every individual member, that I disagree with. That is the conflation. If a group is collectively guilty of something, it does not mean that that guilt is to be equally distributed among every member of that group.

Germans who did nothing about the holocaust were of course "complicit" as a whole. But that does not mean a handpicked German who did nothing was complicit.

There were different levels of guilt on an individual level. There were many people who could have actually done something, and didn't. They were guilty. There were many others who were faced with the calculation of, "If I do something, it will make no difference, and I will die. If I don't do something, it will also make no difference, and I will not die." In that scenario, it is difficult to apply guilt to them for choosing life.

I realize that is a hindsight argument. But I also believe that in foresight, honestly believing that your actions will result in both death and no change, that it is rational to not act. I am not saying that is honorable. But it also does not rise to the level of "evil" or guilt.

In order to create any sort of change, critical mass to affect that change needs to be reached first. If your action alone does not cause that critical mass, then you basically throw that action away.

If your priority is actually to create critical mass, then your actions should be aligned with that objective, and should be fashioned in a sense to create the best chance of that critical mass happening.

I believe there were many people in Germany that had the power to prevent or limit the Holocaust. They did nothing; they are guilty. I also believe that there were many people who also had absolutely no power to change what was happening. They did nothing; they are not guilty. Yes, there was a collective guilt, but the concept is only valid in regards to the group itself. It should not be transferred upon any of the individuals if we know nothing their individuality beyond them being part of the group.

Many Germans did nothing, were unable to do anything, and were horrified about the actions their society was taking. I do not see them as guilty; I see them as victims.

Posted by Curt at February 6, 2005 01:23 PM