What Is Guilt?
Philosophy Now|December 2021 / January 2022
Farah Abdessamad wonders if it is a function of responsibility.
Farah Abdessamad

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:

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