Dustin P. writes to me:
I would enjoy a blog post discussing under what circumstances you feel guilt, and how you respond. I am especially interested in instances where you feel a portion of some collective guilt – family actions, neighborhood failures, national politics.
I’ll focus on the social, collective, and intellectual sides of this problem, rather than my own (numerous) personal failings.
I feel the most guilt when eating the meat of intelligent animals raised under poor or tortured conditions. I am not opposed to all meat-eating per se, but most meat-eating in today’s America does not meet satisfactory moral standards. I still do it because I am not that good a person, at least not in this regard. I am struck by the title of the forthcoming book by Frans de Waal: Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?
I don’t feel so much collective guilt about the course of history. None from my Irish or Irish-American backgrounds, in part because I know very little about my ancestors. I also don’t feel personal guilt for earlier history, such as the genocide against Native Americans. I don’t feel responsible for it. Perhaps irrationally, I do feel some guilt for Americans being such world bullies, even when that is necessary or beneficial for the broader fate of civilization. I feel that indirectly I partake in that, if only by representing what are broadly American points of view in global settings, including on this blog.
I feel guilt for not giving more money to poor people, even though a) I probably give more than average to poor people, typically in Mexico, and b) I don’t hold an extreme Singerian view about our obligations in that regard. I still feel I am failing at the margin.
Overall it is possible that I treat guilt as many voters treat gasoline prices. I am perhaps overly bothered by fairly visible, repeated small transactions of a rather obvious salience.
So now, as a result of thinking about this blog post, I feel guilt about my guilt.
But only to a point. Furthermore guilt is often a substitute for action, rather than a spur to action, which gives me further reason to feel guilt about my guilt, though not in the right action-inducing way.