Tuesday, December 19, 2006

When guilt is a bad thing

Guilt can be a good thing, because at least to some extent, it keeps us in line. But I'm starting to wonder whether guilt can sometimes actually stand in the way of true morality.

Case in point: Apparently, Germans feel, on a cultural level, a lot of lingering guilt over the Halocaust. There's a great deal of sensitivity around things being "eugenic" (such as PGD technology, or abortion under various circumstances). It's hard to see at first why this wouldn't be a good thing. Well, my professor (who is Israeli) told about a conversation which occurred at a conference she attended in Germany. There was some dispute over the use of stem cells and at one point, one of the Israeli attendees half-jokingly said (paraphrase), "Well, how would you feel if there was a power outage at the lab where all the embryos are kept?" The German person reacted quite strongly and seriously, saying "Why, that would be like another Auchwitz!"

And I thought: OK, talk about NOT getting it. Not that I think the topic of stem cells is trivial. But wow - that it would be the same level of suffering, etc. as Auchwitz?? And then I realized: the commenter was concerned about the way Germany's past reflected on GERMANY, and not about how sad it was that any humans would do such things to one another. The insane overreaction was really a continuation of a self-centered mentality, just inverted.

It also occurred to me that this happens in the U.S. too with "white liberal guilt". So many white people are all about showing how culturally aware they are wrt other races. And even as I notice this, and can't stand to see people acting this way, I find myself sometimes falling into the same trap.

The question is - what motivates us to moral action, if not guilt? How can we escape the self-centered kind of guilt that at best is useless and at worst is destructive? What would I tell the German guy in the anecdote, had I been there? Whatever I say, if I want it to be effective, it would need to be anchored in... guilt, right?

So, I think it's really very tough. I'm inclined to think that the answer comes from thinking positively - i.e. let's find positive ways to move past our own human darkness. And to be aware of times when your own guilt is really just about YOU.