Saturday, April 30, 2011

Guilt and Modernity

Wilfred McClay pens an article at First Things on the role that guilt has come to play in our social economy. He also talks about the related matters of forgiveness and victimhood and the interplay among the three of them. It's a very insightful piece as these few excerpts will attest:
We live in an age in which being nonjudgmental in our dealings with others is increasingly viewed as part and parcel of being a civilized person, the only truly generous and humane stance. But without the exercise of moral judgment there can be no meaningful forgiveness, as surely as there cannot be mercy without a prior commitment to justice, or charity without a prior respect for private property.

The famous admonition from Tuesdays with Morrie that we should “Forgive everybody everything” is perhaps appealing as a psychological instruction, but it is appalling as a general dictum. It resembles the child’s dream that every day should be Christmas.

So excessive is this propensity for guilt, particularly in the developed nations of the Western world, that the French writer Pascal Bruckner, in a courageous and utterly brilliant recent study called The Tyranny of Guilt, has identified the problem as “Western masochism.” The lingering presence of “the old notion of original sin, the ancient poison of damnation,” Bruckner argues, holds even secular philosophers and sociologists captive to its logic, so that “the more [they] proclaim themselves to be agnostic, atheists, and free-thinkers, the more they take us back to the religious beliefs they are challenging.” As a consequence, most of modern Western thought is little more than a “mechanical denunciation of the West,” in which “remorse has ceased to be connected with precise historical circumstances” and has instead become “a dogma, a spiritual commodity, almost a form of currency,” manifested in the nonstop “duty of repentance.”

Notwithstanding all claims about our living in a post-Christian world devoid of censorious public morality, we in fact live in a world that carries around an enormous and growing burden of guilt, and yearns to be free of it. About this, Bruckner could not have been more right. And that burden is ever looking for an opportunity to discharge itself. Indeed, it is impossible to exaggerate how many of the deeds of individual men and women can be traced back to the powerful and inextinguishable need of human beings to feel morally justified, to feel themselves to be “right with the world.”

The explanation [for the contemporary fixation on victimhood] is traceable to the extraordinary weight of guilt in our time, the pervasive need to find innocence through moral absolution, to discharge one’s moral burden.... Making a claim to the status of certified victim, or to identification with victims, however, offers itself as a substitute means by which the moral burden of sin can be shifted and one’s innocence affirmed.

[C]laiming victim status is the sole sure means left of absolving oneself and securing one’s sense of fundamental moral innocence.

When one is a certifiable victim, one is released from moral responsibility, since a victim is someone who, by definition, is not responsible for his condition but can point to another who is responsible.

But victimhood at its most potent promises not only release from responsibility but an ability to displace that responsibility onto others. As a victim, one can project onto another person, the victimizer or oppressor, any feelings of guilt he might harbor and, in projecting that guilt, lift it off his own shoulders. The designated oppressor plays the role of scapegoat, on whose head the sin comes to rest, and who pays the price for it. By contrast, in appropriating the status of victim, or identifying oneself with victims, one can experience a profound sense of moral release, of recovered innocence. It is no wonder that this should have become so common a gambit in our time, so effectively does it deal with the problem of guilt.
There are many more fine insights into the modern psyche in McClay's piece. It's worth the time it takes to read.

It is strange that the more secular we become the more obsessed we've become with imputing guilt for all sorts of offenses, yet how can a secular person believe there really is such a thing as guilt? If there is no God then there is no objective moral law, and if there's no moral law there can be no violation of the law and thus no guilt. If we're merely the product of time and chance there's nothing that's wrong, there are only things we've been programmed to do by our genes and/or our environment. If our behavior is not free but in fact the outworking of such forces, forces over which we exercise no conscious control, then how can we be guilty of anything?

Guilt implies responsibility, but in a Godless world where determinism reigns there is no one to whom we are responsible and no room for responsibility, at least in a moral sense, in any event.

Modern man wants to live as if God doesn't exist, but in order to do so he has to take irrational leaps of faith such as believing that people are guilty even though his secular metaphysics rules out the reality of guilt. Then the secular man, after pronouncing his guilty verdict on greedy corporations and Wall Street bankers and those who oppressed Native-Americans, African-Americans, women, gays and so on, turns around and says that it's the believer in God who has abandoned reason.