Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Mirror image guilt

In this The Stone article by Nancy Sherman, she discusses the nature of survivor guilt. That's when someone feels guilty about surviving an event where someone else dies. It is common in plane crash victims and survivors of wars. Sherman's examples are from US soldiers.

I don't think this topic is all that interesting. A similar topic was touched on in Bernard Williams' famous article on moral luck. Williams' example is that of a truck driver that hits a child who jumps into the road. the driver can't stop in time and ends up killing the child. Clearly he is not at fault. But he feels guilty.

This is an example where guilt is inappropriate in some sense but we also feel that the driver should feel some guilt for hitting the child despite the fact that he is not to blame. There is something defective about someone that doesn't feel any of this inappropriate guilt which seems paradoxical. At once, the guilt is inappropriate but we feel it out to be felt by those in that situation.

In my view, it is far more philosophically interesting had Sherman dealt with the topic of appropriate guilt from soldiers. She barely even mentions the fact that often, soldier should feel guilt for participation in an unjust war or occupation but nevertheless feels no qualms about it. This phenomena is far more common and far more morally relevant in my opinion. I think the reason why so many soldier who participate in unjust wars do not think deeply about the moral implecations of their actions not only their conduct in war but in going to war and feel no appropriate feelings upon such reflections is that we have blindly accepted the myth that all soldiers on the battlefield are moral equals. That is, all have the right to attack and kill each other so long it's all within the principles set by jus in bello. That is how international law and just war theory commonly see it. But war's moral principles should not deviate from common moral principles such as self-defense and not all soldiers are on equal moral footing. Some may be permitted and even 0bligated to kill while others are not.

Because of this myth, soldiers do not feel appropriate guilt about being in war, killing enemies, civilians or helping people to kill or occupy. They feel they are given an excuse and can abandon accountability and accepting that lie by not holding them accountable makes one complicit in fostering that belief. Jeff McMahon exploded that myth in his book Killing in War (also see some of his papers on his academic site).

Notice however, the mirror image between survivor guilt (and Williams' example) compared to that of guilt from participating in an unjust war or occupation by a soldier. Whereas in the former case, in some sense, the guilt is inappropriate but people still experience it while in the later case people ought to feel guilt (it's appropriate) but don't. Furthermore, we typically think there is something wrong when they don't feel guilt despite the fact that it is inappropriate (though maybe we shouldn't) in the Williams example but we typically don't think there is something wrong with a soldier participating in an unjust war (though maybe we should) . That was an odd little asymmetry I noticed.