Guilt (ethics)

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The term guilt is used in ethics in different contexts:

  • Guilty of harming the well-understood interests of others,
  • "to be in debt" to someone else out of gratitude or because of a promise,
  • Guilt / innocence as a moral evaluation category ( guilt in life),
  • Guilt means in the moral sense a violation of the conscience,
  • In the legal sense, guilt means a violation of the law as well as the law.

Linguistic predominant - also according to literary-philosophical equivalents - three conceptual understandings:

  • Guilt as something "ought",
  • Guilt as the act in the meaning of a started and finished process with the naming of the person responsible for the act,
  • Guilt as the result brought about by the act.

Guilt as responsibility

Blame the state following described is called: if someone for a violation of a by moral , ethical - moral or legal value proposition set standard charge is. For example, this can be the intentional violation of a prohibition ( e.g. theft ) or the negligent violation of a prohibition ( e.g. negligent homicide ). As a rule, it is assumed that only one person is responsible for their guilt and that the guilt of others cannot be attributed to them. The inheritance of guilt and the responsibility of a group for the guilt of others ( collective guilt , clan liability ) are often rejected. Guilt is therefore very personal.

As a prerequisite for guilt, it is usually assumed that the guilty party had the option to refrain from the act that is poorly defined. In philosophy , guilty capacity is therefore often attributed to freedom of will . According to the theory of determinism , which, in retrospect, sees human actions as being based on inherent and environmental determinants, in the absence of human ability to freely choose between good and evil, the guilt principle has lost its ground. Philosophers and other scientists disagree on the philosophical questions of what exactly is meant by a “free decision” and whether the human being - based on the respective conception of freedom - is “free”. Traditionally, determinism has been viewed as incompatible with free will; Today, however, based on David Hume, there are significantly more compatibilists than incompatibilists.

Relatively well-known compatibilists in German-speaking countries are Peter Bieri and Michael Pauen , in the USA prominent philosophers such as Harry Frankfurt , Daniel C. Dennett and Richard Rorty . These philosophers find it useful to ascribe responsibility and guilt in a deterministic world (and only in a deterministic one), as well as to punish people who do not adhere to social moral rules.

The incompatibilists argue that the deterministic doctrine does indeed affirm the possibility of holding perpetrators accountable (this can be based, for example, on a social contract that contains the agreement to treat each other as free and responsible), but it does agree incompatible with free will. Therefore they deny society's right to punishment (wrongdoing) and consider it appropriate only to treat the perpetrator and to protect society from such persons (for example through preventive detention).

The normative concept of guilt and the psychological concept of guilt are represented:

  • According to the normative concept of guilt, guilt consists in the evaluation of an intentional or negligent unethical act. The evaluation is based on the criterion of avoidability of unethical behavior. In addition to the concept that guilt is accusable of willful action, is also
  • represent the concept of psychological guilt. This sees guilt in the personal relationship of the person to his action. According to the psychological concept of guilt, guilt is based on the categories of knowledge / ignorance or wanting / unwillingness of ethically disapproved behavior. This concept of guilt is not so subtle because it ignores considerations such as moral maturity, discernment, the motives for certain actions, and ethical dilemmas for evaluating guilt.

Even if one assumes that people are not defenselessly exposed to their impulses because of their ability to align their behavior with socially and ethically binding values ​​and norms, it is often difficult to decide who is to blame for an action. If one takes the normative concept of guilt as a basis, one must consider whether:

  • the person has the moral maturity or some other qualification (for example no impairment of consciousness) necessary to recognize his duty and to act on this insight;
  • ethically disapproved behavior arises from an ethically blameworthy disposition. In order to determine which disposition speaks from the action, the following can be taken into account:
    • the gravity of the breach of ethical duty as a measure of disapproval;
    • ethical indifference or even hostility towards ethical behavior, malice and ruthlessness; on the other hand, it must be considered whether and when the erroneous assumption of circumstances which would in principle allow disapproved behavior to be carried out by way of exception, would remove the disapproval;
    • an extraordinary motivational situation, which, for example, has disrupted the formation of wills due to the concrete current endangerment of one's own essential interests (own life, health and freedom) or essential interests of close people or as a result of confusion, fear or horror ( asthenic affects ), so that a decision for the ethical What is required is no longer reasonable and therefore unethical behavior can no longer be criticized;
  • At the time of the act, there was knowledge of a prohibition, the prohibition was considered invalid or the person acting misinterpreted the prohibition in such a way that he considered ethically disapproved behavior to be blameless (see also error of prohibition ). When assessing guilt, it must also be considered whether the acting person can benefit from a lack of awareness of wrongdoing or whether he rather has to tense his conscience as far as possible in order to recognize what is ethically required in order to gain the insight into doing wrong;
  • what is ethically required cannot be determined due to an ethical dilemma .

Generally there is the idea that a balance of the debt could be achieved by the guilty repentance and atonement does, reparation does, the crime of the guilty avenged is ( retaliation ) or the guilty blame awarded is. The Talion principle is still alive in many societies . After atonement, reparation, retribution, or forgiveness, the guilt is extinguished.

If a person is not guilty of an offense, he is innocent or, in legal diction, ' innocent '.

The perpetrator of conviction is a special problem . It is questionable whether ethical duties which are not obeyed from the inclination of the respective person, i.e. are laid out in the conscience of the same (conscience duties), can be ultimately binding at all. If the convictions of the perpetrator and the ethical obligations defined by the community conflict , the problem of ultimate bindingness must also be viewed against the background of freedom of conscience .

Guilt as a moral duty

A completely different concept of guilt is encountered in the case of moral duties or considerations that have to be taken. The disruption of justice does not occur here because of a wrongdoer's attitude towards ethical requirements, which leads to an impairment of the rights, legal interests or well-understood interests of others, but is based on a performance or a promise on the one hand and regularly expected gratitude on the other (see also Grober Ingratitude ). Then the beneficiary of this act is in debt to the perpetrator - it is said that one is indebted to someone. This debt is repaid with an appropriate consideration.

Lifestyle Guilt and Moral Evaluation

Guilt and innocence are also sometimes used to denote fundamental moral depravity and perfection. In Christianity, for example, one speaks of original sin , which denotes a pervasive tendency to turn away from God and turn to evil.

Guilt can be described from a psychological point of view as an unconscious staging symptom for creating or maintaining boundaries. Pathologically, it can express itself, among other things, as a “weapon” of guilt, in taboos , in the rejection of responsibility, in the abuse of the internalized feelings of guilt ( shame ) of others.

Feelings of guilt can be suppressed , i.e. the person himself or herself not aware of them, for example when they remind of a trauma (murder from affect). Another possibility of repression is rationalization , i.e. finding arguments for why one was not guilty, but this hardly suppresses the feelings of guilt that have been split off. They act subconsciously elsewhere.

The guilty of conduct as a legal term was important for jurisprudence in Germany from 1933 to 1945. Under the very arbitrary accusation of an - unspecific - guilty of conduct, the criminal justice system of the National Socialism imposed heavy sentences. (See also unlawful space .)

Cultural studies

Guilt identities can be culturally and socially extremely divergent, and can be differentiated and legitimized. In contact with people socialized with different guilts, this can lead to considerable conflicts if they are ignorant of the should, must or can rules. In Europe, the left hand greets from the heart and has positive connotations. In other countries it is the "dirty" hand; whoever gives it is an insult. In the diplomatic service or in business and private international contacts, it is useful to know the diverging guilt traps.

A soldier who kills with impunity in war is found guilty of the same act in peacetime - a temporary or situational guilt assessment. Guilt can be described as a construct , i.e. an agreement on the content, time and space of people and their institutions. In this sense, rule violations are communicative indicators that aim at new rule agreements ( guidelines , norms ) and thus demand new guilt norms.

In international law one can currently experience that the previous state agreements no longer apply in the fight against terrorism because the terrorists (more or less and verifiably) operate statelessly in order to pursue their goals. That, in turn, seems to legitimize some of the states affected by terrorism and their governments in the (symbiotic?) " Countertransference ", depriving justice by means of guilt and atonement and thus also the terrorists of the constitutional basis of the citizen and the state . This creates an (apparently) free space if, on another level, this state denies the institutions of a world jurisdiction the legitimation of the judiciary. This raises the question of a new (different?, Further?) Guilt.

It gets complicated when the definition of “terrorist” is demanded in this sense . In some states, there are former “ freedom fighters ” who have been accused of being “terrorists” by the previous rulers. These became "freedom fighters" because the rulers abused power in their eyes, so made themselves guilty.

See also Wurmser's psychodynamic explanations about mutual accusation of blame by states as legitimation of (possible) acts of war in order to enforce internal or extra-state interests through this tactic (momentarily pursued between the People's Republic of China and Japan ).

Guilt as learned fear in the absence of any reason

In his culture-critical monograph Beyond Guilt and Justice , the German-American philosopher Walter Arnold Kaufmann attributes the feeling of guilt exclusively to the fear of punishment. To illustrate this, Kaufmann refers to a passage from Kafka's letter to the father , which describes how the father makes all the preparations to corporally punish his son, but then fails to do so at the last moment. Kafka compares the resulting feeling with that of someone who was almost hanged and who found out about his pardon at the last moment and “suffered from it all his life”; Because from the "many times when, according to your clearly shown opinion, I would have deserved a beating, but had narrowly escaped them by your grace", according to Kafka, a "great sense of guilt" accumulates.

In the course of his further explanations, Kaufmann develops and proves the theory that feelings of guilt are learned in childhood when parents and comparable authorities pronounce prohibitions without comprehensible justifications and threaten with punishment if they are not followed. For Kaufmann, the content of the feeling of guilt is mainly the fear of punishment in view of the violation of an accidental commandment. This explains, among other things, why some people are guilty of insignificant little things, while others commit the greatest crimes with a clear conscience. Kaufmann calls feelings of guilt a “contagious disease that damages those infected and endangers those who live near them. The release from guilt heralds the dawn of autonomy. "

See also


Specialist literature, historical reviews, essays, psychological and ethical studies
  • Anita Eckstaedt: National Socialism in the "Second Generation". Psychoanalysis of bondage relationships. 2nd Edition. Suhrkamp, ​​1996, ISBN 3-518-28626-9 .
  • Michel Foucault : Madness and Society. Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 1973, ISBN 3-518-27639-5 .
  • Michel Foucault: Monitoring and Punishing. The birth of the prison. Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 1994, ISBN 3-518-38771-5 .
  • Michel Foucault: The will to know. Sexuality and Truth 1. Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 1983, ISBN 3-518-28316-2 .
  • Hanna-Barbara Gerl-Falkovitz: Forgiveness of the Unforgivable? - Excursions into landscapes of guilt, remorse and forgiveness. 2nd supplementary edition. Text & Dialog, Dresden 2013, ISBN 978-3-943897-01-2 .
  • Ralph Giordano : The second guilt or the burden of being German. Rasch and Röhring, Hamburg 1987, ISBN 3-89136-145-9 .
  • Ludger Honnefelder : What should I do, who do I want to be? Berlin University Press 2007, ISBN 978-3-940432-05-6 .
  • Christian Kreuz: The concept of »guilt« in the First World War and in the Weimar Republic. Linguistic research on an explosive subject Hempen-Verlag, Hildesheim, ISBN 978-3-944312-30-9 . ([ Online])
  • Rupert Lay : The new honesty. Values ​​for our future. Co-author: Ulf Posé. Campus-Verlag, Frankfurt am Main 2006, ISBN 3-593-37924-4 .
  • Regine Lockot: Remembering and working through. On the history of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy under National Socialism. Fischer, Frankfurt am Main 1985, ISBN 3-596-23852-8 .
  • Tilmann Moser : literary criticism as a witch hunt. Ulla Berkéwicz and her novel “Angels are black and white”. A polemic. Piper, Munich 1994, ISBN 3-492-11918-2 .
  • Tilmann Moser: Beware of touch. About sexualization, division, the Nazi legacy and Stasi fear. Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 1992, ISBN 3-518-38644-1 .
  • TP Schirrmacher: Shame and guilt culture. In: Professorenforum - Journal. 2002, Vol. 3, No. 3.
  • Rita Stiens: Illness as a Weapon. How to fight back against emotional blackmail. Econ & List, Munich 1999, ISBN 3-612-26574-1 .
  • Sin - guilt - forgiveness. Special issue of the journal Lebendige Seelsorge. 1/2007.
  • Walter Kargl: Critique of the principle of guilt. Campus Verlag, Frankfurt am Main 1982, ISBN 3-593-33180-2 .
  • Mirko Schiefelbein: Guilt. Category, competence and principle (PDF; 3.7 MB), Jena 2009.
  • Wolfgang Trauth: Central psychological principles of organization and regulation and the psychoanalytic understanding of defense and regulation - basic psychoanalytic research. In: Journal for psychoanalytic psychotherapy. Special issue 1, vol. 19, Psychoanalytischer Verlag, Munich 1997, ISBN 3-931672-00-X .
Literary processing

Individual evidence

  1. Ludger Honnefelder: What should I do, who do I want to be? Berlin University Press 2007, ISBN 978-3-940432-05-6 , pp. 89 f.
  2. Léon Wurmser : The Mask of Shame . 3. Edition. Springer, Berlin [a. a.] 1998, ISBN 3-540-63324-3 , p. 51 ff.
  3. ^ W. Kaufmann: Beyond guilt and justice. Hoffmann and Campe / Critical Science, Hamburg 1974, p. 97.