Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Finding the Blame in Survivor Guilt (by guest blogger Justin Tiwald)

On many standard accounts of the moral feelings, guilt is distinguished from other kinds of self-inflicted anguish by a belief in one's own culpability. I feel guilty when I believe I played a self-preventable causal role in bringing about a wrong state of affairs. Without this belief, my feeling might be better described as regret, shame, or embarrassment.

The phenomenon of survivor guilt throws something of a monkey wrench in this view. Survivors of fatal plane crashes often report feeling guilty about their survival, especially when it seems like a matter of luck that they lived and others didn't. Many survivors admit that they couldn't have done anything to prevent the crash, but they describe their feelings as guilt all the same. Are they right to do so?

One response is to say that such survivors are mistaken, or that the guilt they feel is of a different kind than the thief's or the murderer's. Another response is to attribute their guilt to a hidden or unconscious belief in their own culpability. I'm not satisfied with either of these answers. The lesson I take from survivor guilt is that we should characterize the cognitive elements of guilt in a broader and more textured way. What makes self-imposed anguish an instance of guilt isn't the belief that one is culpably wrong, but rather the entire family of reactions associated with that belief. And here's the key move: we can have these characteristic reactions to the belief without the belief itself.

When we think ourselves responsible for something we judge to be wrong, we typically respond in a number of ways. If I steal the laptop computer that I've always wanted, the laptop will quickly lose its luster for me. Even if I resolve not to atone for my wrong, I will nevertheless find myself imagining various ways of atoning. Similarly, survivors report that living feels like a shameful burden rather than a stroke of good fortune. They often think that they owe something to the dead or their families, and even report that they feel like better people once they find ways of making amends.

We don't always need the belief in our own culpable wrongness in order to motivate these stereotypical reactions. In fact we have a readily identifiable set of psychological mechanisms--conscience--that routinely replicates such reactions without that underlying belief. For example, conscience is often more responsive to the brute fact of human or animal suffering than to careful considerations of moral principles or calculations of consequences. We'd hope, of course, that our consciences would be more responsive to our considered judgments than this, but this isn't usually the case. I think the same tendency to bypass judgments of culpable wrongness is at work when someone feels guilty about being the sole survivor of a fatal accident. Faced with a traumatic event, judgments of responsibility go out the window.

So guilt is better distinguished by the thoughts and tendencies characteristic of someone who believes herself culpably wrong, and not helpfully distinguished by the belief in culpable wrongness itself. Our mistake is in thinking we can't have the latter without the former, which is a mistake that the psychology of conscience can easily correct. I wouldn't be surprised if we could tell a similar story about indignation, shame, or any of a number of other moral feelings.

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