Collective Responsibility

 In Amor Mundi, pp. 43-50. Springer Netherlands, 1987.


Although I agree with what I think are the two main statements of Mr. Feinberg’s paper, I must admit that I had some difficulty with it. My agreement concerns his firm distinction between guilt and responsibility. “Collective responsibility,” he says, “is a special case of vicarious responsibility; and there can be no such thing as vicarious guilt.” In other words, there is such a thing as responsibility for things one has not done; one can be held liable for them. But there is no such thing as being or feeling guilty for things that happened without oneself actively participating in them. This is an important point, worth making loudly and clearly at a moment when so many good white liberals confess to guilt feelings with respect to the Negro question. I don’t know how many precedents there are in history for such misplaced feelings, but I do know that in post-War Germany, where similar problems arose with respect to what had been done by the Hitler regime to Jews, the cry “We are all guilty” that at first hearing sounded so very noble and tempting has actually only served to exculpate to a considerable degree those who actually were guilty. Where all are guilty, nobody is. Guilt, unlike responsibility, always singles out; it is strictly personal. It refers to an act, not to intentions or potentialities. It is only in a metaphorical sense that we can say we feel guilty for the sins of our fathers or our people or mankind, in short, for deeds we have not done, although the course of events may well make us pay for them.