*Originally published on: https://philosophynow.org/issues/147/What_Is_Guilt
In his work, The Question of German Guilt (1947), the German existentialist philosopher Karl Jaspers attempted to resolve the impossible – understanding the conscious and systematic mass murder of Jews, Romani, homosexuals, political opponents, and other groups defined or perceived by the Nazi regime as ‘undesirable’ as well as being a direct threat to its totalitarian ideology of a ‘pure’ Aryan state.
In order to examine the Holocaust, Jaspers suggested a typology of guilt:
First, criminal guilt erupts as a result of violating ‘unequivocal’ or firmly established laws. A misdemeanor or a felony lends itself to the discovery and analysis of objective evidence while a court generally holds or has the jurisdiction for gathering the relevant facts in order to properly determine and adjudicate guilt.
Second, political guilt operates at the level of politicians and the complete body of the citizens. The actions of a state or of those acting as its ruling representatives can carry repercussions, and guilt, for all those who live under that state’s power.
Third, moral guilt involves the realm of one’s personal conscience. As Jaspers wrote, “Every deed remains subject to individual judgment.” Some people feel guilty about committing certain actions or deeds. Some simply do not.
Last, metaphysical guilt harkens back to an idea of violating or denigrating the universal solidarity among all human beings which easily transcends the confines of the self, family, or nation. These days one could easily extend this sense of solidarity to encompass all beings on our planet, thereby extending our metaphysical guilt. This is especially true in light of the overwhelming correlation between human activity and the systematic exploitation of animals, the biodiversity collapse, the overexploitation of natural resources, and the climate emergency.
We must all heed Jaspers’ words and warnings. Making nuanced distinctions between types or forms of guilt helps us to better understand ourselves, our relationships with others, and our sense of place and identity within the larger Universe.