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Individual Responsibility and Guilt

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Susan Neiman is a philosopher who has written well-regarded books on Kant and on the problem of evil. Last year she published a book with an unusual title: Learning From the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil. Neiman lives in Berlin and directs the Einstein Forum. She is interested in how Germans deal with ...

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Susan Neiman is a philosopher who has written well-regarded books on Kant and on the problem of evil. Last year she published a book with an unusual title: Learning From the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil. Neiman lives in Berlin and directs the Einstein Forum. She is interested in how Germans deal with the crimes of the Nazi era. In her opinion, Germans after World War II ended were largely defensive, refusing to own up to their guilt. Nowadays, though, things are better. German youth feel appropriately guilty, though much work remains to be done.

Matters have so much improved in Germany, she contends, that Americans who live in the South can learn from the way the German youth accept guilt for the past and seek atonement. Southerners need to acknowledge guilt for slavery, segregation, and lynching. To help them do so, Neiman spent time in Mississippi and participated in another discussion forum.

As we’ll see, the book contains a number of controversial historical claims about both Germany and the American South. I’m not going to assess these here. Instead, I’m going to use her book to help bring out an important moral principle that goes against her way of thinking. This principle is that moral guilt is individual, not collective. You bear guilt only for your own bad acts.

The Welsh philosopher H.D. Lewis gives an excellent account of this principle in a classic article, “Collective Responsibility,” published in the British journal Philosophy in February 1948. In that article, Lewis says:

If I were asked to put forward an ethical principle which I considered to be especially certain, it would be that no one can be responsible, in the properly ethical sense, for the conduct of another. Responsibility belongs essentially to the individual.

Explaining why he is so convinced of this principle, Lewis says:

We cannot answer for one another or share each other’s guilt (or merit), for that would imply that we could become directly worse (or better) persons morally by what others elect to do—and that seems plainly preposterous.

Lewis wrote his article over seventy years before Neiman’s book came out, but it’s almost as if he had her in mind. She thinks that Germans must take responsibility for the crimes of the Nazi era, even if they did not themselves commit these crimes. The key concept in the book is a long German word: “Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung—working-off-the-past…meant confronting parents and teachers and calling their authority rotten” (pp. 7–8). After the war, many Germans refused this confrontation. Instead, they said that the Nuremberg Trials were “victor’s justice.” They pointed to Allied war crimes, such as the firebombing of Dresden. They wondered whether Hitler’s crimes exceeded those of Stalin.

Neiman condemns the comparison of Hitler to Stalin. In the Historians’ Debate (Historikerstreit), which began in West Germany in 1986,

the conservative historian and Heidegger student Ernst Nolte…charged that all of Hitler’s crimes, and the misdemeanors as well, were a reaction to Stalin, whom Hitler had imitated….Habermas, [Rudolf] Augstein, and many others insisted that any comparison between those crimes and the crimes of the Nazis was morally illegitimate….Nazi crimes are incomparable to any others, and any attempt to compare them is an attempt to get the Germans off the hook. (pp. 86–87)

As I mentioned above, I’m not going to discuss Neiman’s historical claims. Those who want to compare Hitler and Stalin should read Ralph Raico’s outstanding essay “Nazifying the Germans” in his Great Wars and Great Leaders.

I’d like instead to ask the following question, which returns us to H.D. Lewis’s essay. Suppose that Neiman is right about the unique evil of Hitler and the Nazis. Why do Germans who did not commit crimes have a moral duty to “work off” the past? To make the question more pointed, suppose a German born after the war finds out that his father or grandfather committed crimes. Why does this taint him as well, so that he needs to atone for this sordid past by denouncing his family and engaging in breast-beating discussions and demonstrations? The young German has done nothing wrong and is not responsible for the crimes of others. Of course, he should not become a Nazi, but this is so because he ought not to embrace morally wrong views. It is not a matter of his relation to the crimes of other people.

Lewis’s point that moral responsibility is not collective applies also to the American South. Neiman thinks that white Southerners need to “work off” the past as well. Because some of their ancestors owned slaves and enforced racial segregation, they are morally responsible. They must not seek to excuse the crimes of their ancestors. In particular, people must acknowledge that slavery was the main cause of the Civil War:

Very simple truths, like the fact that the Civil War was fought over slavery, need to be reestablished again and again. Descendants of Confederate soldiers have self-serving reasons for denying that their ancestors fought and fell in service to a criminal enterprise. It’s natural to defend the honor of your forbears….He fought for states’ rights. States’ rights to do what? (p. 316)

Once more, I don’t propose to discuss Neiman’s account of war origins, though the notion of an Official Truth is disturbing. Again, she holds that responsibility is collective rather than individual, and this leads to her claims about the duties of white Southerners. If we adopt Lewis’s principle, things look different. No one should own slaves, but if your ancestors did, this does not generate a moral obligation to atone for the past.

Neiman is aware of the view that moral responsibility is individual rather than collective, but she regards this as an expression of “neoliberalism.” You would not expect anything else from someone who looks with nostalgia on the demise of communist East Germany.

David Gordon
David Gordon (born 1948) is an American libertarian philosopher and intellectual historian influenced by Rothbardian views of economics. Peter J. Boettke, in his Reason Foundation "Reason Papers," Issue No. 19, Fall 1994, describes Gordon as "a philosopher and intellectual historian who is deeply influenced by the Rothbardian strand of economics." He is a senior fellow at the Ludwig von Mises Institute and editor of The Mises Review.

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