PHILOMADRID

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Sunday, January 15, 2006

Guilt

Guilt

There is this object in the sky that we see and feel every
day, that travels above us. It creates a lot of light which
changes colour from deep red to practically white, but if we
look directly at this object, it can blind us or at least
can cause us serious damage. During certain periods of the
year it creates a great deal of heat which can be fatal at
certain times when experienced in certain places. However,
this heat can be very pleasant when we feel it....and so on
and so forth. Of course, we all know that I am describing a
star..........You thought I was describing the Sun; how
unfortunate.

The advantage of naming things and experiences is that we
replace a long and ambiguous description with a word or, in
some cases, with a group of words. Not only is this more
efficient use of language, but is less likely to lead to
ambiguities. Thus, if I said, ''The sun is shining bright
today,'' you would know what I mean. The unfortunate thing
about this naming game is that it can easily lead to
restrictions on how we think about things. Of course, stars
and the sun are fairly predictable so our thinking is not
really that limited. However, take the following examples,
"The London fog" or "The rain in Spain," the one that falls
mainly on the plain. In the first case it was smog and not
fog and in the second example we wish that the rain did
fall. The names we give these phenomena can also influence
the way we think about them. Fog is romantic, smog kills
people. Guilt is one of those words with its meaning so
engrained in our culture and language that it is very
difficult for us to change our views on it. This is
unfortunate.

If we had to prepare a specifications sheet for guilt it
would look something like this: an unpleasant emotional
feeling that affects our thinking and our behaviour. This
feeling is usually the result of an act, and its
consequences. Sometimes, the feeling is also the result of
inaction rather than action. Guilt can be felt by a person
without any prompting from others, but in many cases it is
ascribed by others. Sometimes, it is also ascribed to whole
groups of people rather than individuals. Usually, our acts
transgress some given law or rules. The most influential
feature of guilt is that it is usually associated with
punishment or, at the very least, condemnation. The
underlying rationale for guilt is to change the behaviour of
people. People have to stop behaving in such a way that
hurts or injures others. For example, we do not want people
to be selfish.

An anomaly about guilt is that people sometimes have a
feeling of guilt when they have no cause to be so, whereas
in other cases people don't feel any guilt when they have a
really good cause to be. A case of feeling guilty when none
seems to exist is concentration camp survivor guilt. People
who survived the Nazi concentration camps, and more recently
the camps during the war in the ex-Yugoslavia, feel a sense
of guilt for having survived whilst their family and friends
died in the camps. Similar feelings are felt by soldiers
after combat or survivors of disasters or accidents. This
form of guilt challenges our intellect because we all
recognise that these people have no cause to feel guilty
especially after what happened to them; yet they do.

An equally challenging form of guilt is collective guilt.
How can a group feel guilty? Guilt is a personal feeling.
Moreover, how can a group be guilty of things which they
were not responsible for in the context of history. Post war
Germany is a modern example of collective guilt which today
does not make sense given that those responsible for the war
have mostly passed away now. In the case of collective guilt
of a nation, an element of political manipulation is
sometimes involved. The humbling of Germany, can be quite
useful for some countries in the context of international
politics. Japan's history in China or the slave trade
conducted by some European countries in Africa are other
cases where collective guilt applies.

Some try to understand guilt from an evolutionary position.
The evolutionary model of guilt suggests that we feel guilt
as a means to make amends with the group for any discretions
we might have committed. This means giving a signal to the
group that we are prepared to amend our behaviour and that
we allow the group some say in changing our future
behaviour. We are signalling to the group that we are not
selfish after all. Failure to give this message to the group
might result in being ostracised from the group and could
well mean death after finding ourselves alone to deal with
the world at large. So, although there is nothing
immediately in it for us if we feel guilt, it is worth our
while to do so. On the evolutionary model, we stand to gain
more than if we feel guilty for any indiscretions. It is
quite telling that the evolutionary model of guilt has a lot
in common with altruism. With altruism, we are faced with
acts or behaviour, if you like, where there is nothing
directly in it for us, but, nevertheless, it is still worth
our while to be altruistic.

Accepting that the above outline description of the
evolutionary model is very rough and ready, we can still
identify some of its drawbacks. For example, it does not
explain why we should bother with protecting guilty
behaviour when we can just reproduce to select honesty and
altruistic behaviour. Why give the guilty a second chance,
when we can selectively choose the honest? Furthermore,
those who transgress the laws can still be grouped together,
away from the honest ones, and hence they can reproduce and
evolve as a separate group. In fact, this was tried in the
past and the result is Australia, which is not bad going.
Thirdly, the fact that guilt is wide spread within society,
as much as altruism, suggests that guilt has a more
important function than just amending or manipulating
behaviour.

Guilt, as we know it, is very much linked to religious
beliefs, legal justice and some moral systems. You would
have noticed that in the specifications I did not include
the idea of restitution from guilt. The idea that there is a
way of getting back to the status quo before we were guilty
of something. If I feel guilty for having joined the
resistance instead of staying with my mother (Sartre's
example), the fact still remains that I have this guilt
feeling in me irrespective of whether I am justified or not
for what I chose to do (my observation). The idea of
restitution to the status quo before the guilt event, is
only found in these human made systems. If I feel guilty for
not having stayed with my mother nothing can change this
fact, nothing can change my feelings and nothing can restore
the status quo. This natural feeling of guilt is
mono-directional. We can learn to live with it, but we
cannot go back to a situation before guilt manifested itself
in us.

Nevertheless, the idea of restitution is a very powerful
tool in the hands of those who lead these human
institutions. The power of restitution is that we can really
manipulate the behaviour of people by offering them the
opportunity to go back to the status quo. The power of
forgiveness and the feeling of being accepted back into the
community is very important for us given that we are by
nature social creatures. The ritual of confession and the
sacrament of penance in the Catholic church are very good
examples of the power of restitution, and management of
guilt for that matter. Furthermore, this restitution does
not cost those in authority anything because they appeal to
some higher authority for their power. Thus, the inquisition
did not punish people in their own name (although in reality
they did), but in the name of God. A judge does not send
someone to the electric chair because they feel like it, but
because the law demands such a sentence. All things being
equal, the judge or the inquisitor need not feel guilty for
their sentencing; they might not like it, but not feel
guilty. Hence, the administrators of institutions that
manage guilt for us have a form of immunity against guilt
itself. Let's face it, if judges were to feel guilty for
sentencing someone to jail, justice would come to a halt.

This immunity, therefore, is quite legitimate in the normal
course of events, but what about situations when the
institutions abuse their power. For example, we all know the
inquisition did abuse its powers and many innocent people
have been punished for crimes they did not commit. The
misuse of the power of guilt need not even be the result of
wicked intent or incompetence. However, the side effect of
this immunity from guilt means that the administrators of
guilt do not necessarily feel obliged to changed their
profession behaviour. Of course, in a society that is
governed by the principles of law and order, one hopes that
mistakes are very few and rectifiable, besides having
effective checks and balances.

Contrary to natural guilt, where restitution does not seem
to apply because facts are facts, and it is a matter of
personal conscience, institutional guilt, for a better term,
has a monopoly on the whole infrastructure of guilt. These
institutions have mechanisms to establish the law, complex
systems to find the facts, a system to identify agents who
are responsible for transgressions, methods to punish people
and finally the authority if restitution. Is it possible,
however, that these institutions have a very short horizon
perspective that is detrimental to the very idea that guilt
is a means of changing behaviour?

Take for example the criminal courts, they are there to
judge (by whatever justification) whether someone is guilty
of a criminal act and to punish them. But a criminal court
does not judge whether the police commissioner should have
had more police officers on the beat thus making it
difficult for burglars to operate. Criminal courts do not
judge whether the minister of finance is spending enough
money on social investments. Basically, these institutions
do not go behind the transgression or the source of guilt to
discover what made someone behave the way they did. They are
more backward looking than forward looking institutions.

In a way this is an unfair criticism of these institutions.
In the case of the courts their function is clearly set out
by parliaments or a constitution. This is their function,
this is their job, so its unfair to criticise these
institutions for things they are not responsible for.
Moreover, these institutions are not only concerned with
responsibility and punishment. Religion, for example, guides
us on how to be good to ourselves, how to perform acts of
charity and altruism. The courts are responsible for
safeguarding our property rights and human rights.

However, this incapacity to look forward and change things
determines not only how the institutions themselves behave,
but how they really affect society in general. Finding,
people to blame becomes the modus operandi of these
institutions. This blame culture detracts us away from what
guilt ought to be: a means to change behaviours and, I
suggest, the causes of these unacceptable behaviours.

The ultimate failure of the blame culture is in the use of
capital punishment. Capital punishment does not work, we all
know that, the supporters of capital punishment know that,
and nature knows that as well. If capital punishment worked
incidents of murder would be unheard of today. The first
problem with those who advocate capital punishment is that
they assume people go around rationalising the consequences
of their actions before murdering someone. It's as if the
bank robber takes a few minutes to think about the
consequences of shooting the cashier before pulling the
trigger. Finding what causes people to murder in the first
place, and try and do something about it, is, in my opinion,
more important than simply putting people behind bars.

Coming closer to situations we are more familiar with, using
guilt to fuel the blame culture leads to what is sometimes
referred to as defensive management and defensive medicine.
In the field of employment some managers instead of giving
feedback and encouraging good professional practices they
busy themselves with finding mistakes of their subordinates.
They spend more time trying to find fault with their
subordinates than in fixing their management style. We are
all familiar with the result of such management practices.
The first people to suffer the consequences of defensive
management are the employees themselves who can go through
some really stressful time The next victim of this bad
management style are the shareholders, if the company is a
private concern, or the tax payer if it's a public sector
department. Employees, who are more concerned with avoiding
blame and punishment, cannot be focused on the client or the
integrity of the organisation. So, instead of providing a
service to customers or citizens, these employees try to
protect themselves against an unprofessional management
style.

Equally unacceptable is defensive medicine. Luckily, this is
not as wide spread as defensive management, but there are
enough people working hard at it. Basically, defensive
medicine leads medical professionals to concentrate more in
not being sued than caring for the patient. The results are
usually patients having either to undergo unnecessary
treatment or, worse still, get no treatment at all.
Moreover, medical services become very costly and/or
inefficient because institutions become more bureaucratic,
unnecessary treatment adds to costs and delays and, on a
personal level, insurance cover cost carers even more. This
means that medical services are either priced out of the
reach of most people or add a serious burden to the public
finances. Which ever is the case, the patient suffers.

To balance the scenario about defensive management and
defensive medicine one must take into consideration the
issue of accountability. Just because defensive practices
lead to some very serious anomalies and injustices, this
does not mean that people should not be accountable for
their actions. The problem with defensive practices is that
they put blame and punishment as the objective of
accountability instead of fixing problems and improving
services. Of course, it is one thing to hold people
accountable for their carelessness or unprofessional
behaviour and another to identify the limits of what is
acceptable risk taking. The issues involved are not easy to
solve and some might even be beyond an acceptable solution.

Accountability, brings us back to the theme of the
institutions going behind the facts to find our what
happened and what caused the situation in the first place.
This means that accountability is different from
responsibility, because, in my opinion accountability means
giving reasons for one actions, whereas responsibility means
that one accepts that one behaved in a certain way. Everyone
involved in professional practices, for example, should be
accountable and not just those who transgress. It is not
enough that the burglar is caught, but that the authorities
are really providing law and order. It is not enough that a
manager identifies mistakes made by his staff, but also
whether management is providing the right policies and
support. I don't think that the blame culture is compatible
with accountability.

This is why, in my opinion, guilt is one of those words that
has become a victim of the sometime blinkered naming game.
Its meaning is too much linked to the blame culture as
opposed to let's-learn-from-our-mistakes culture.

Take care

Lawrence

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