Why an African perspective on humanity shows that the survivor …

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Sometimes people who survive a tragedy, such as a tsunami, report feeling guilty for living while innocent people close to them have perished. Likewise, I have had black professionals in post-apartheid South Africa who have told me that they feel guilty for leaving their townships or villages and having ‘made it’ while their elders neighbors still lived in poverty.

Is it appropriate to feel guilty under these circumstances?

I contend that while influential Western moral philosophies suggest survivor guilt is irrational, the African philosophical tradition has the resources to understand why it can be a virtue.

Survivor guilt is – roughly speaking – the experience of the emotion of guilt when not guilty. More specifically, it is feeling bad about yourself for your associates for having passed away (or having suffered serious harm), not having died (having been injured) with them, or not having saved them. , even if nothing has been done at all to contribute to their death (suffering).

Many survivors of large-scale tragedies for which they have no moral responsibility at all report feeling guilty. Consider the Jews who survived the Holocaust and the soldiers who escaped war with their lives. It was also common among Japanese people who survived a tsunami, as filmmaker Tatsuya Mori recounts:

Should he have felt this?

Is the survivor’s guilt unreasonable?

The default view among contemporary Western moral philosophies is that survivor guilt is generally unreasonable.

Utilitarianism, one of the two dominant ethical approaches in the West, argues that everything we do should be geared towards a better future for society. We have moral reasons to feel bad if and only if it is useful. So it would be natural for a utilitarian to say,

There will be no point in feeling guilty just for surviving; you should try to let it go.

The other influential Western ethic is Kantianism, basically the idea that we have to treat people with respect because of their ability to make reasoned decisions. When we abuse this ability, for example, by endangering others, then it would be appropriate to feel guilty or for others to censure us – that would be to treat ourselves and others as responsible agents of their actions.

However, when it comes to survivor guilt, most Kantians would say:

You haven’t done anything wrong and therefore you have nothing to blame yourself for.

As a contemporary Kantian says,

Strictly speaking, survivor guilt is not rational guilt, because surviving the Holocaust, or surviving a battle … is not usually because one person deliberately allowed another to take their place in evil. .

An expression of Ubuntu

We get a different and revealing view of the guilt of survivors if we adopt the perspective of Ubuntu, a Southern African ethic based on values ​​salient among the people who live in the region. As we know, an Ubuntu ethic often comes down to:

A person is a person through other people.

At the heart of this maxim is the idea that one must become a real person, or live in a truly human way, valuing community relationships with others, that is, taking care of their own. quality of life and sharing a way of life with them. . South African public intellectual GM Nkondo notes that followers of an Ubuntu philosophy are prone to:

express a commitment for the good of the community in which their identity was formed and a need to live their life as linked to that of their community.

Thus, the more a person we are, the more we sympathize with others, help them live better, identify with others and participate with them on an interdependent basis. Through many Ubuntu readings, although everyone has a dignity, those with whom we have already commune in this manner owe extra attention and dedication, hence the additional maxims of “family. first ”and“ charity begins at home ”.

Given this interpretation of Ubuntu, one might be more of a person feeling the guilt of the survivor as it is a manifestation of loyalty or solidarity. Survivor guilt typically arises when people we have identified with and lived with have died (or suffered); it does not normally occur when aliens in a remote part of the globe perish (or suffer). The survivor’s guilt is arguably an example of good character, an emotional expression of a person connected and committed to other members of his community.

As I have said elsewhere in an upcoming contribution to the International Encyclopedia of Ethics, survivor guilt is a way of experiencing negative feelings in accordance with the poor condition of others with whom one shares a sense of self. It is also a way of judging that one has not demonstrated excellence in helping them, even if one has not violated any duty and therefore has not done harm to them. It is also a way of recognizing that we did not share the same fate with them, whereas, in the words of another scientist,

the anguish of guilt, its sheer pain, is a way of sharing some of the bad luck.

The survivor’s guilt may be disproportionate, but this is true of any negative emotion. Consider someone who was not at all willing to feel the survivor’s guilt. Would it be appropriate to say of such a person that they didn’t really feel a sense of oneness with those who died or that they didn’t really care about them? If so, Ubuntu helps explain not only why survivor guilt is a recurring feature of the human condition, but also why it should be.

  • Tsunami
  • Philosophy
  • Utilitarianism
  • Holocaust
  • Kant
  • Ubuntu
  • African philosophy
  • Japanese
  • The guilt of the survivor
  • P&S
  • World Philosophy Day
  • Philosophy in Africa


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Steven L. Nielsen

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