Monday, July 4, 2011

Appropriate feelings of guilt

'Appropriate' has come to mean something like 'right,' but crossed with 'politic' and 'nice.' So it's a very fudgy word, and the kind of thing that Orwell would have disliked. But it still is a word that we ought to be able to use, and it's hard to avoid it (and similar words, such as 'fitting') in questions of whether soldiers should feel guilt when they have caused harm without being morally to blame for it. Nancy Sherman discusses this question in The Stone, with particular reference to soldiers who accidentally injure or kill their fellow soldiers, concluding that:
The guilt that soldiers feel isn’t just morally expedient or species-adaptive. It is fitting because it gets right certain moral (or evaluative) features of a soldier’s world — that good soldiers depend on each other, come to love each other, and have duties to care and bring each other safely home. Philosophers, at least since the time of Kant, have called these “imperfect duties”: even in the best circumstances, we can’t perfectly fulfill them. And so, what duties to others need to make room for, even in a soldier’s life of service and sacrifice, are duties to self, of self-forgiveness and self-empathy. These are a part of full moral repair.
I'm not quite sure what she's saying here, but the idea seems to be that soldiers should feel guilty in these situations, as they naturally tend to anyway, but that they should also get over it, presumably because they are not morally guilty (in the cases Sherman is talking about) in any objective sense. That is, they feel guilty, and so are "subjectively guilty," but have not done anything morally wrong, even though they caused something bad to happen. For instance, they might have installed a faulty piece of equipment that later killed someone.

Consequentialism says that what they did was morally wrong, and this is both a reason to reject consequentialism and (given that people very often do feel such consequentialist guilt) to recognize that consequentialism reflects some of our deepest moral attitudes/intuitions/feelings/beliefs, albeit very imperfectly.  Perhaps what these soldiers feel ought to be (mere) regret, but what they actually feel (at least according to Sherman, and I'm sure she's right) is guilt. And, she argues, it is good that they do so. It shows their concern for their comrades. It shows their humanity, too, I think. But still, it's hard to say that someone should be crippled by guilt because of involvement in an accident. Hence Sherman's additional claim that these soldiers should forgive themselves. Which, of course, is easier said than done.

Her discussion makes me think of one of my former students, Shannon Meehan, who feels similar guilt for ordering an artillery strike on a building in Iraq that he thought contained armed insurgents but in fact contained an innocent family. They were all killed. It seems that the insurgents had deliberately set things up so that it looked as though explosive devices were being controlled from inside that house, perhaps as a distraction but quite possibly precisely in order to bring about the kind of guilt-inducing disaster that happened.

It seems to me that Shannon is not guilty, but, as Sherman suggests, it is probably a good thing that he feels guilty. As long as this does not continue to be a major burden for him for the rest of his life. I hope he can, if not forgive himself (that doesn't seem like quite the right idea), at least come to terms with what happened and what he did. This might be made harder by the weird thought that terrorists are (or might have been) trying to get inside his head to make him feel guilty, but that's just another reason to try to reduce the subjective guilt to something closer to regret. Consciously working to manage an appropriate feeling of guilt, though, might well feel immoral. The conscience should perhaps be left alone. But the feeling of guilt can hardly be ignored, nor can thoughts about what we have done and caused in the past. At least I don't think these things should be ignored. "Je ne regrette rien" always seems like a celebration of callousness to me.        

I suspect the timing of Sherman's piece may have to do with the 4th of July. Other notable anniversaries this weekend include Franz Kafka's birthday yesterday and this blog's anniversary the day before that. So it's a good time for some fireworks.

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