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Here is an example from my own experience. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, I lived in Urbana, Illinois, which is contiguous and, in effect, continuous with the town of Champaign, Illinois. During that period, a young woman named Bonnie Blair who had grown up in Champaign won a record number of gold medals in the Olympic games. On each occasion when she won a medal, the people of Champaign held their heads a little higher. They felt the kind of pride that C imagines a Finn might feel on hearing the first performance of Sibelius’s fifth. Blair, they imagined, had bestowed honor on them, justifying their sense of personal pride. The grounds for pride varied, of course, depending on the degree of exclusivity of the relevant shared collective identity. In the innermost concentric circle were those who had actually been her neighbors or schoolmates as she was growing up. They were assumed to have the strongest grounds for pride. Within the next, larger circle were those who were longtime residents of Champaign, though even those who had moved there quite recently felt they were entitled to a certain degree of pride as well. Then came residents of the state of Illinois, then Midwesterners, then all Americans, millions of whom congratulated themselves on Blair’s victories.
If, as C’s view suggests, the residents of Champaign had genuine grounds for pride in Blair’s achievements, it seems that others ought, on those same grounds, to have admired them, and perhaps even praised them, for sharing in her glory. For admiration and praise are what is called for from others when there are objective grounds for pride in one’s own accomplishments. And they are also called for when pride in the accomplishments of others is justified in uncontroversial ways. Thus, Blair’s coach was entitled to feel pride in her achievement, as were her parents, whose encouragement and sacrifices for the sake of her training contributed to her success. And the grounds for the pride that these people deservedly felt also justified the admiration and praise of others, which they naturally elicited. Yet I had no reason to think better of my barber after Blair won her medals than I had thought of him before. Nor did I have any reason to think less well of him after a local man, who was known to neither of us, committed a murder.
That my barber rejoiced in being a resident of Champaign, which made him a bearer of the same collective identity as both Blair and the murderer, failed to give him a share in either the former’s triumphs or the latter’s depravity.
When C has his imagined Finn reflect that “one of us” has composed a transcendent symphony, the collective to which “us” refers is essentially arbitrary. C himself unguardedly raises the question why “us” should pick out only Finns rather than all human beings. It could in fact refer to the members of any group to which Sibelius belonged, such as all Finns, Finns whose first language is Swedish, people who are or are destined to become completely bald, people who have had throat cancer, or, as C acknowledges, members of the human species. Yet for the individual members of most such groups, there seems to be no reason for pride in the fact that one of them wrote that symphony. There are two reasons for this. One is that we naturally feel pride only when the unifying collective identity is one to which many of the members attribute significance. Bald people do not take pride in Sibelius’s fifth because being bald is not a significant ground of collective identification. More importantly, none of the collectives I mentioned, not even the nation of Finns, enables their members to claim that “we composed that symphony,” or even that “we are a people who compose great symphonies.” Perhaps it is the appropriateness of the collective subject “we” that C is groping for as the criterion of rational collective pride or shame, and mistakenly thinks he has located in mere collective identity. For the acts of some members of a collective to be a legitimate basis for pride or shame on the part of the other members, the collective must be of a certain type, and the acts must have been done in a way that connects them with the collective. It might be true, for example, that while Finns have no basis for pride in Sibelius’s fifth because there is no sense in which it is their creation, Americans nevertheless have grounds for shame in the Bush administration’s acts of torture because their relation to those acts makes it reasonable to claim that they together constitute a nation that tortures its captive enemies. If so, the challenge is to identify the relations between Americans in general and the Bush administration and its immediate agents of torture that make that claim reasonable. More generally, what are the properties of a collective, and the conditions of individual action, that are sufficient for an act by some members of a collective to be a ground or occasion for pride, shame, or guilt on the part of the collective as a whole?
3 The Collective as Irreducible Bearer of Guilt or Shame I will offer a few suggestions about this but before I do it may be helpful to distinguish explicitly between two ways in which properties might be “collectivized.” According to one view, relations within a collective may be such that when some of the members act wrongly in certain ways, responsibility for their wrongdoing extends to other members of the collective – perhaps to all of them – in a way that makes them individually guilty or shames them as individuals. I will discuss this way in which shame or guilt might be collectivized in the next section. In this section I will consider a different possibility. On this view, when some members of a collective act in a way that satisfies certain conditions, their act constitutes an act of the collective as a whole. When this is the case, and the act is wrong, all the members of the collective may be said to share the guilt and shame for the act. Yet this is compatible with its being the case that for any individual member of the collective, there are no grounds for personal shame or guilt, for that individual may be in no way personally responsible or culpable for the wrongful collective act.
This view has been articulated by Margaret Gilbert, one of the foremost writers on the nature of collectives and collective action. Her account is important for our purposes not only because it articulates the second of these two ways in which shame and guilt may be collectivized, but also because it elucidates the connection between collective responsibility and the appropriateness of attributing an act or its outcome to a collective subject, so that it makes sense (as it does not in the case of the composing of Sibelius’s
fifth symphony) to say that “we” did it. Gilbert writes:
precisely, I am part of the agent that did it… Whereas I am the subject of my action, I am part of the subject of our action. …If we did this bad thing, as opposed to this or that person doing it, we may bear moral guilt with respect to the doing of it. If we bear guilt, the guilt in question is, precisely, ours. Not mine, nor mine and yours, but ours, ours together.
Perhaps it may then be referred to as collective guilt. This guilt will be participated in, or shared, by all of us, in our capacity as members of “us.” …Different members can still bear different degrees of personal guilt in relation to what they understand to be “our” act. Some members might have done all they could to stop it, others may have been blamelessly ignorant of it, whereas some may have put all their efforts into its performance. It is clear enough where the personal guilt lies when this is so.
Gilbert refers here to guilt, but all she says applies equally, with relevant changes, to shame (and pride, which contrasts with both guilt and shame). As I noted earlier, in cases of wrongdoing, the agent’s shame may be nothing more – though also nothing less – than the public face of guilt.
Although this conception of collective guilt or shame as entirely distinct from personal guilt or shame is interesting, it is problematic in various ways. Suppose, for example, that one is a member of a collective that has acted wrongly in a way that makes one’s claim that “we have acted wrongly” true. And suppose further that one bears not only one’s share of the collective shame but that one also has grounds for personal shame. How might one experience the two forms of shame? Should the collective shame simply intensify one’s feelings of shame? Or should the two forms of shame be phenomenologically distinguishable?
Although Gilbert claims that “a feeling of guilt can be an appropriate response for the member of a plural subject [her slightly technical notion of a collective] that bears guilt,” this is actually doubtfully consistent with her understanding of collective guilt.
What is distinctive of her account of collective guilt is precisely that guilt can be a property of a collective of which an individual is a member without being a property of that individual – that is, the collective can be guilty when the individual is entirely blameless. The guilt is fully collectivized: “not mine, nor mine and yours, but…ours together” – that is, it belongs to the collective as an entity distinct from the sum of its members. One can, as Gilbert does, appeal to the idea that one can be innocent qua individual but guilty qua member of the collective – or, as she puts it, that guilt can attach to “the self-as-group-member or [to] the group-insofar-as-it-exists-in-my-person, rather than [to] me personally.” But I can make no sense of that, as no one seems to be composed of these distinct entities. One is either guilty, so that one deserves punishment, ought to feel shame, and so forth, or one is not. There seems to be no way to punish “the group-insofar-as-it-exists-in-my-person” without inflicting the same harm on “my person” – that is, on “me personally.” What I think Gilbert ought to say is that if it is the collective that is guilty, and not the individual member, then it is the collective that ought to feel shame. If the collective can be guilty even though the individual member is blameless, then it should be appropriate for the collective to feel shame even though it would be irrational for the individually guiltless member to do so. Sturdy common sense might intervene here to protest that collectives cannot have feelings. That may be so but if we can make no sense of the idea of a collective feeling shame then it is hard to see how we can make sense of other collective psychological states that writers such as Gilbert and C take to be unproblematic – for example, the notion of a collective desire, a collective belief, or a collective intention.
While issues concerning the feeling of shame are of philosophical interest, they are of comparatively little moral significance. Our feelings are unreliable guides in matters of morality. The shame or guilt one feels may be appropriate or inappropriate, rational or irrational. If we wish to act morally, we must ask whether our feelings, either individual or collective, are justified; and to determine whether they are, only thinking will help.
But the question whether it is the individual or the collective that has grounds for having certain feelings does suggest parallel questions that are of considerable moral and practical significance. For example, do the grounds for attributing collective guilt or shame to us make any individual member of the collective morally liable to defensive or preventive action as a means of sparing further potential victims from torture? Do these grounds for guilt or shame confer on any individuals a moral obligation to make reparations to former victims? Do they make any individuals liable to punishment?
Suppose that one is personally implicated in a collective practice of torture in a way that makes one personally guilty and thus liable to punishment. But one is also a member of the collective that is guilty. Are individual guilt and collective guilt additive, so that the punishment one receives for one’s personal guilt ought to be increased by an additional amount corresponding to one’s share of the collective guilt? If collective shares are determinable, they are presumably equal, but are they also – for example – proportional to the size of the collective? That is, is one’s share of the collective guilt larger, so that one deserves more punishment, if the number of individuals who compose the collective is smaller? If, for example, there are only a hundred of us in the collective, are our individual shares of the collective guilt larger than they would be if there were a million of us to share the same total of collective guilt?
Gilbert claims, probably wisely, that “there is no way of breaking down collective guilt into quantifiable shares.” But if that is true, collective guilt seems irrelevant to such practical concerns as punishment and reparation, unless, for example, one can discover a way of punishing a collective that does not necessarily involve the punishment of any of its individual members. For if individual members are punished, their individual punishments must be proportionate to their guilt, and Gilbert is denying that their share of the collective guilt can be measured. On these assumptions, proportionate punishment of individuals for collective guilt is necessarily impossible, since there is no way to calibrate punishments so that they are proportionate in relation to guilt that cannot be measured.