This is the last of a six-part series of articles on guilt, emphasizing specific examples, and how to deal with them. Written by a psychologist.
Bigger causes of guilt require greater perspective, but not any more effort to find a third standard. For example, there are various methods of reducing collective guilt. One of these methods is to deny an ingroup’s deleterious actions or results. “It really isn’t so bad.” By denying the ingroup’s harmful actions, or downplaying the severity of the harm, the effect of collective guilt is lessened. Gangs routinely ignore the violence they perpetrate on one another in the service of maintaining gang “integrity.” If an individual or group can neglect to observe the harm caused by their actions, either consciously or unconsciously, the involved parties will not feel collective guilt. So, if the gang “does a drive by,” then pays no attention to the aftermath, “justice is served” (with no ambivalence, no guilt).
Another way to reduce collective guilt is to deny responsibility, pleading the group’s actions were just. If a person does not feel that the ingroup is responsible for the harm caused by actions, collective guilt will be lessened. This works well if one identifies with the group and minimizes his or her own individual actions. However, if a person believes that only individuals are responsible for their own actions, and not a collective group, then they cannot deny the existence of collective responsibility, thereby they as individuals will feel some guilt. This is individual rationalization when it works, guilt when it fails to separate the person from the group.
Another is to focus on positive aspects caused by the harmful action. “Look at the good that came out of that.” If the individual believes that there were just reasons for the harm inflicted, collective guilt is likely to be reduced. Outgroup dehumanization is one effective means towards justifying the ingroup’s actions. For instance, an individual or group may choose to focus on the benefits of high levels of factory production and consumption, and not on its harmful effects on the environment. Rebellion upsets the control of dictatorships, resulting in presumably better forms of government. Union bargaining escalates costs (dues, meetings), but is not something an individual will necessarily suffer much from, so there results greater good for all—shorter work hours, greater hourly wages, more vacations, all in the service of justifying the Union’s action.
Again, in the literature, there are more academic and intellectual approaches to dealing with guilt. Guilt can sometimes be remedied by punishment (a common action advised or required in many legal and moral codes); forgiveness (see the next ebook by this title by this author); making amends (reparation--legal--or acts of reparation); sincerity, as in displaying remorse (confession to clergy) or restorative justice (paying pennance for a crime). Regarding the latter, law does not usually accept the agent's self-punishment, but some ancient codes made allowances for this. In ancient Athens, the accused could propose his own remedy, which could, in fact, be a reward, while the accuser proposed another consequence. The jury usually chose something in-between. This forced the accused to effectively bet on his support in the community, as Socrates did when he proposed "room and board in the town hall" as his fate. He lost, and drank hemlock, as advised by his accuser.