The Guilty and the Responsible

by Chris Horner

Where all are guilty, no one is; confessions of collective guilt are the best possible safeguard against the discovery of culprits, and the very magnitude of the crime the best excuse for doing nothing. – Hannah Arendt.

The quotation from Arendt is often thought to apply to the aftermath of the events of 1939-45, of the Nazi atrocities, especially, of course, the Holocaust. In fact, although it is fair to say it was considerations of that sort that prompted her into thinking about guilt and responsibility, she was very aware of the problematic nature of claims of collective guilt in the post war era. The question is about culpability: the way we ought to think about guilt. She rejected the idea that there is a kind of collective guilt, say of a whole nation (in 1945 the German people, and presumably their helpers in the occupied countries, of whom there were too many). We can widen the question to include Allied war crimes, which generally went unpunished. And of course, pressingly, we turn our gaze to our world and its burden of historical and ongoing crime and oppression. 

Arendt rejected collective guilt in part because it tends to blur the difference between the specific actions for which actors need to be held to account, and the vague sense that guilt is shared. Guilt here is being seen in two senses: in the legal sense  (X is guilty of a crime) and the feeling of guilt (X feels guilty). Arendt wants to separate them, partly to keep the sense that some are the actors who need to be held to account for actions but also for another important reason, which links to her more general concerns about the difference between politics and morality.

We need to distinguish between two concepts that are often associated: guilt and responsibility. The two concepts do go together, of course. We hold a person guilty of a crime if we regard them as responsible for committing it: that is why we don’t treat the mentally unfit in the same way we do people who know what they are doing is wrong. This applies to the minor and trivial as well as the unspeakably terrible. So Bob steals a bike and he is guilty of it, because he did it, knowingly. And Adolf Eichmann is guilty because he knowingly took part in the Holocaust – he is responsible for what he did. If I did neither of these things, then I am not responsible in this sense and not guilty. But can I be responsible for things I did not do? Read more »