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Vol. 11, No. 2, 2012
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honour and collective guilt

Tom Wells


Thomas Rodham is a graduate student who blogs on philosophy, politics and economics at The Philosopher's Beard.

Your country has probably done some very bad things. Perhaps recently, perhaps before you or even your parents were born. How do you feel about that? Does your present government have a duty to make amends for the bad things it has done, for example with apologies and reparations? Intuitively most people think so, but what kind of duty is that and what does it require from you as a citizen or subject?

The standard way of thinking about national responsibility for historic crimes is to reach for the model of criminal guilt. This has two parts: national identity in which we establish that the country standing before us is the same one that did the crime; and collective responsibility in which we establish that the people of a country can be jointly held accountable for their county's actions. Both are deeply problematic.

National identity presumes that a country, like a person, has an enduring individual identity over time. So even if all the people who were alive in the times of colonialism are gone, the actor remains the same. Just like you are supposed to be the same person now as the one with your name who played marbles as a child, so the actions of a country 'in its youth' are supposed to be the actions of the same country that stands before us now. Personal identity is philosophically controversial -- after all people do change significantly in all sorts of ways as they go through life. But the problem of national identity are more complex, because countries are corporate entities (similar to corporations). What really defines a country, like a company, are words not people: its name and constitution. That means that a country can be created, or dissolved, with the stroke of a pen. So, while historians can identify a particular country as responsible for some terrible atrocity, the real problem is to re-identify that country in the present. Is the Federal Republic of Germany really the same country that carried out the holocaust and turned eastern Europe into a bloodbath?

Collective responsibility is concerned with showing that a country's people are ultimately responsible for its actions and therefore guilty of its crimes. Of course not everyone agrees with, or even necessarily fully understands, what their country does. But nonetheless the country acts in their name and so, it may be argued, they gave it at least their implicit support. In a democracy this popular responsibility is formalized in the concept of collective self-government: we all agree that decisions made according to certain democratic procedures represent our collective will, even if our personal preference was otherwise. So when a democracy goes to war all its citizens are, in an extended sense, joint authors of that action. This condition won't be fully met by non-democracies -- i.e. most countries throughout history -- but one might suppose that it works by degrees. The central point is that whenever your country does something bad all its citizens are assumed to share responsibility for it, and if they want to argue otherwise the burden of proof is on them e.g. to show that they did everything possible to protest and resist.

But even if one accepts this, there are obvious difficulties in asserting that collective responsibility passes to present day citizens of the offending country. First if we go via citizenship we easily find demographic contradictions. The tiny minority of Armenians still living in modern Turkey would be considered co-responsible for the original genocide and would be required to contribute to making amends, for example by contributing to any reparations through general taxation, giving up property to returning descendants of survivors. Many countries have experienced large scale immigration in the past 50 years. For example more than a million people from the former British colony of India now live in Britain. Should they be co-responsible for apologizing and paying reparations for Britain's ghastly imperialist oppression, there and elsewhere? If we give up on citizenship and look to hold the actual descendants of citizens, who went along with odious regimes like Hitler's Germany, responsible then we may find that many now live in other countries. In any case, such a criterion of guilt by blood is something we strongly reject in other places: for example in civilized debate the claim that contemporary Jews are responsible for the death of Jesus is rightly considered both ridiculous and evil.

The model of criminal responsibility -- linking present citizens to past crimes by vaguely related actors via collective guilt - is a complete failure. And yet we still have an intuition that we are still responsible -- somehow -- for the sins of our countries. Can that intuition be rescued and worked out?

I think so. But we must abandon the concept of guilt -- with its foundation in individual identity and strict causal chains of evidence. Instead I suggest considering the nation as something we imagine into being and whose honour we have reason to care about. This analysis not only provides reasons why we should feel national responsibility, but also explains much of our actual behaviour.

Nations are not individuals, nor are they a bunch of individuals stuck together. Following Benedict Anderson's famous definition, they should be understood as an invention of the modern world, communities imagined into being by their members where actual communities would be impossible. This concept of a nation goes beyond demographic, border, or constitutional consistency.

It also extends beyond the now. The past is present in your national identity as part of the web of meanings, stories and connections that make up the story of your nation. What is important here is that it is not our ancestors' actions that present us with criminal liability problems to consider. Rather it is the values their actions reveal that is the legacy we must deal with. It is we who are right now collectively imagining our country into being who are responsible for the past of our nation since it is part of the story we affirm. We are, in this understanding, not the passive recipients of our predecessors' mixed legacy but agents in that legacy.

But why would we care about the facts if the important thing is a nice story that suits us at this moment? Why should we acknowledge the bad as well as the good things our country has previously done? Here I turn to the concept of honour, and its negative correlate, shame. Honour is usually ignored in contemporary moral theorizing that focuses on the core liberal themes of justice (right) and harm (consequences) with respect to individuals. But honour seems particular relevant for analysing non-liberal moral issues, such as those that concern social norms and symbolic identity. Put simply, when we put on the dress of our national identity can we look ourselves in the mirror? Or must we look away in shame and horror?

This combined concept of national honour seems to me to meet our foundational intuitions while avoiding the problems of the guilt model. All contemporary citizens are presumed to be co-creators of our contemporary identity, albeit they don't share exactly the same vision. The continuity problem is resolved in that it is based on our own affirmation of the past, which becomes gradually attenuated as we go further back into history, rather than some unsupportable metaphysical identity claim. That means it can apply to all citizens without any question of 'blood guilt,' and even to minorities and immigrants who affirm membership of the same imagined community.

One of the interesting implications of this view is that it can go further than judgements of strict moral responsibility. For example, there is no necessity to find any perpetrators morally culpable for the acts we deplore. We may find the past behaviour of our country dishonourable even while acknowledging that by the moral standards of the past it was not so, and perhaps was even well-intended. Canada for example, surely one of the least blood-soaked nations of the world, pursued a deliberate policy of assimilation of its aboriginal citizens over some 150 years, including a residential school system that was designed to 'remove the Indian from the Indian' and replace it with the arts of modern civilization. In many respects a humanely inspired policy, by the standards of the time. But Canadians these days see this, and the residential school system in particular, as a national shame for which amends should be made. Canadians have chosen to make the issue a focus of political debate and action because such actions are not in keeping with the national identity they now affirm.

National honour may also explain why nations sometimes refuse to take responsibility for past crimes even in the face of overwhelming evidence. Contemporary Turkey and Japan for example refuse to take responsibility for the genocides attributed to these countries by contemporary accounts, surviving witnesses, and the overwhelming consensus of professional historians. Here, the national story is too strong: because it has no place for such dishonourable acts, those facts are just wished away.

It may seem that this example shows the vulnerability of a model of responsibility built upon imagination -- people can also imagine a way out of dishonour rather than admit the facts of history. But it also shows the power of the national honour model to both explain a nation's normative duties and to explain countries' actual behaviour (something lacking in the criminal guilt model). Once we understand what a nation is doing when it ducks its moral responsibility we are better placed to say how it could do better. In particular, it follows from this understanding that citizens should not only be motivated to want to honour their vision of their nation, but that they should want that honouring itself to be honourable. True honour cannot be bought or obtained with trickery -- that would be like a soldier lying to get a medal -- and in the same way true national honour is not compatible with deliberate self-deception. That self-deception will itself become part of one's national identity is almost never an issue until it is too late.

How should citizens see their duty to history? The relationship is primarily ethical though it has political consequences. The honourable duty of the patriotic citizen is to acknowledge the points where your nation's behaviour has fallen short of the standards one wishes it to embody. The American patriot can without contradiction celebrate the true nature of the American spirit in the mutual respect instantiated in the Thanksgiving story, while at the same time acknowledging the truth of America's moral failures with respect to its later treatment of aboriginal peoples. The one tells us what America should and can be, the other what America now must not be like. Immigrants and politically marginalized minorities may play a particularly important role in piercing the veil of complacency that often hangs over a nation's history, raising uncomfortable facts to national attention and pressing other citizens to acknowledge that true patriotism does not consist in the repetition of comfortable homilies but in a willingness to confront the hard truths. And there is no reason why this cannot also be applied to contemporary political debates: isn't torture un-American?

This analysis also suggests how criticism of other countries may proceed, through an appeal to their citizens' sense of honour rather than criminal guilt. The criminal guilt approach judges countries by external criteria which their governments and citizens may well reject and reaches simplistic binary conclusions about generally very complex matters -- either a country is completely guilty or not. We have already seen that when world public opinion judges a country guilty of some heinous crime (such as Japan for its genocidal occupation of China) that judgement can actually be counter-productive in putting the citizens of that country on the defensive as a point of national pride. This approach in contrast puts its arguments in terms that directly engage with a nation's sense of honour and challenges its citizens to look in the mirror of history and consider for themselves what honour requires.

National honour alone is not sufficient for justice. Indeed one must proceed with some caution for the honour system itself brings a risk of ethical narcissism -- of being overly concerned with how you feel as the basis for ethical judgements, to the exclusion of the suffering of others which motivated the project in the first place. Its most important role is in showing why we present citizens should care about what our country has done. But it is much weaker at telling us what we should do about it. Does Britain owe a special responsibility to help the development of her ex-colonies, even if other countries are in even greater need of assistance? Should all former colonies be considered equal victims, with Singapore and Australia on a par with Burma and Bangladesh? How can we -- should we? - use counterfactual analysis and accounting methods to add up the harms Britain was responsible for minus the benefits it brought in each case as the basis for calculating reparations? Apart from emphasizing the importance of symbolic actions of recognition and respect -- to be seen for example in Russia's recent parliamentary resolution acknowledging Stalin's massacre of Polish officers at Katyn -- the introduction of national honour offers no easy answers to that contested but essential aspect of national responsibility.


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