When should we feel guilt and collective guilt?

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.


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