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«1 Shame and Guilt In Waiting for the Barbarians, one of Coetzee’s finest novels, forces of an unnamed imperial power torture not only ...»

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According to C, this is a matter of considerable importance: “the object, not just for Americans of conscience but for individual Westerners in general, must be to find ways to save one’s honour.” (41) (Here he repeats the mistake of thinking that shame is transmitted by bare collective identity. While I have suggested that Americans may be implicated via the institutions that connect them to their government and its acts, there are no comparable institutional structures capable of implicating Westerners in general.) C surveys some of the means by which we might save our honor but finds most of them wanting. “Mere symbolic actions,” such as “pronouncing aloud the words ‘I abhor the leaders of my country and dissociate myself from them’ – will certainly not be enough.” (40) What, then, would be enough? C has only one suggestion of which he is entirely confident. “Suicide would save one’s honour, and perhaps there have already been honour suicides among Americans that one does not hear of.” Thus, “if today I heard that some American had committed suicide rather than live in disgrace, I would fully understand.” (40 & 43) I have no idea how seriously Coetzee would have his readers take this suggestion. I hope there are no earnest and idealistic young Americans who in a moment of anguish over their government’s action have taken it seriously enough to act on it. For even if there are institutional connections between ordinary Americans and their government that make it rational for them to feel personal shame over its deeds, to suggest that it might be desirable, meritorious, noble, or even morally necessary for them to kill themselves is to attribute vastly disproportionate significance to the grounds for shame. What would killing oneself accomplish? What would it be other than a “mere symbolic action,” which C dismisses as not enough? I suspect that C’s answer, if only he could have stayed around for another chapter to answer challenges, would have been couched in the religious idiom in which much of his discussion of torture is expressed. He would have said that Americans have been morally stained, tainted, contaminated, or defiled, and that in consequence their souls require radical purgation or purification. But like so many of religion’s contributions to moral thought, this obsession with the state of one’s own soul is a pernicious corruption. A hypothetical example will show where it leads.

Suppose that an American of conscience, to borrow C’s term, is in a position to prevent CIA agents acting under presidential authorization from torturing 10 captives who have been designated as “unlawful combatants.” Alternatively, he can, as chance would have it, prevent agents of the Iranian government from torturing 20 Iranian citizens accused of disloyalty, subversion, or something of that sort. But he cannot prevent both;

he must choose. According to the view espoused by C, his own moral purity and honor are at stake in the action of the CIA agents, whereas there is nothing to connect him to the action of the Iranian agents that would give him grounds for shame. If he is to save his honor, he must prevent the torture of 10 by CIA agents rather than the torture of 20 by Iranian agents. Yet that would be perverse. It is not in fact what morality requires.

This does not show that there is no more reason to prevent wrongdoing by those to whom one is specially related than there is to prevent equivalent wrongdoing by others.

If the American’s choice were between preventing CIA agents from torturing 10 innocent people and preventing Iranian agents from inflicting equivalent tortures on 10 different innocent people, many of us think that he would have a reason to prevent the tortures by the CIA. Even so, that reason might not be that he would be shamed or dishonored by the acts of the CIA but not by the acts of the Iranians. It might instead be that because of his special relation to the CIA agents – the relation of fellow-citizenship – he has stronger reason to prevent what would be bad for them than to prevent what would be equally bad for Iranians. On the plausible assumption that it is bad for a person to act in a way that is egregiously immoral, it follows that the American would have stronger reason to prevent his fellow citizens from acting immorally than he would have to prevent the same number of Iranians from acting in the same immoral way.

But even if the reason why the American ought to prevent CIA agents rather than Iranian agents from torturing 10 innocent people is that this is what is required in order to avoid personal shame and dishonor, a further variant of the example suggests, to me at least, that the avoidance of shame and dishonor that one would otherwise incur, not through one’s own action but only through one’s association with others, is a comparatively insignificant aim. If the American could either prevent the CIA agents from torturing 10 people or prevent Iranian agents from inflicting equivalent tortures on 11, it would, in my view, be inexcusably egotistical to suppose that one should allow the torture of an additional person just to “save one’s honor.” Although Diary of a Bad Year contains C’s essays in Strong Opinions, it does not include the acknowledgments section of that book. If it did, it could not allow C to say what Coetzee says of those who offered him advice on the writing of Diary of a Bad Year: “For what I have made of their advice I alone am responsible.” (231) For if some of the opinions (other than those about collective shame) articulated in Strong Opinions are wrong, C would have to think that his friends who had offered him advice would share responsibility for the book’s mistakes, and would be shamed by them, not only because they had given him bad advice but also by virtue of their being his friends. That Coetzee does not implicate his own friends and advisors in this way offers grounds for hope that C has kept some of his strong opinions to himself rather than passing them on to his creator.

See, for example, J. David Velleman, “The Genesis of Shame,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 30 (2001): 27-52; and Martha C. Nussbaum, Hiding From Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), esp. chapter 4.

For an account of the way in which torture is an especially egregious subversion of the victim’s humanity, see David Sussman, “What’s Wrong With Torture?” Philosophy and Public Affairs 33 (2005): 1-33.

J.M. Coetzee, Diary of a Bad Year (New York: Viking, 2007). All parenthetical page references in the text are to this book.

Nussbaum is among those who deny that shame requires publicity. See Hiding From Humanity, p. 205.

Thomas L. Friedman, “Calling All Pakistanis,” New York Times, December 3, 2008.

Margaret Gilbert, “Group Wrongs and Guilt Feelings,” The Journal of Ethics 1 (1997):

65-84, p. 76. (Italics in the original.) Ibid., p. 83. (Italics in the original.) Ibid., p. 80.

This is not to deny that there may be second-order reasons for having certain feelings.

If people’s having certain feelings would have good consequences, there might be reason to cultivate those feelings even if they were otherwise unjustified. Suppose, for example, that Finns would be more likely to support the musical arts, thereby making it more likely that other Finns will compose great symphonies, if they take pride in the work of Finnish composers. In that case it might be good to encourage their otherwise irrational pride in Sibelius’s fifth.

One prominent legal theorist, George Fletcher, argues that collective guilt actually mitigates individual guilt. See his Romantics at War: Glory and Guilt in the Age of Terrorism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), chapter 8. For criticism of this view, see Jeff McMahan, “Collective Crime and Collective Punishment,” Criminal Justice Ethics (Winter/Spring 2008): 4-12.

Ibid., p. 81. (Italics in the original.) Philip Pettit has recently shown that there can be cases in which, even though every person who participates in a collective decision-making procedure may vote against a certain course of action, their other inputs may nevertheless commit the collective to the exact course of action that they have all individually rejected. In such a case, the collective may do wrong without any individual being guilty or having acted wrongly. I think that in such a case there is no justification for collective punishment as a matter of retribution. If it is necessary to take action against the collective to prevent or to deter further collective wrongdoing, or to coerce the collective to compensate the victims of its action, the justification for such action must be that all the members of the collective are liable to accept their share of the burden by virtue of having voluntarily participated in a decision-making procedure that had the potential to result in wrongful collective action even when no individual participant wanted that result. See Philip Pettit, “Responsibility Incorporated,” Ethics 117 (2007): 171-201.

I am grateful to the editors for penetrating written comments on an earlier draft of this essay, and to Ruth Chang, Shelly Kagan, Frances Kamm, and Larry Temkin for extraordinarily helpful discussion. Special thanks to my dear friends Agi and Bosko Zivaljevic for keeping me well supplied with Coetzee’s books, and especially for ensuring that he always wrote a new one in time for my birthday. Finally, my criticisms of the views of one of his characters should not be understood as criticisms of Coetzee as a novelist. Of all living novelists whose work I know, Coetzee is in my view the best.



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