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Guilt always a matter of degree


Guilt always a matter of degree

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If all the world hated you and believed you wicked, while your own conscience approved of you and absolved you from guilt, you would not be without friends.” – Charlotte Bronte

THE MOTHER OF THE CHILD who fell into the gorilla exhibit at the Cincinnati zoo, which resulted in the animal being killed to save the child, has repeatedly expressed remorse for the death of Harambe.

The guilt-mongers will have none of it, however, as such people always seem to lack the necessary empathy to put themselves in the shoes of others, to paraphrase Antoinette Connell in Tuesday’s DAILY NATION.

In a court of law, jurors can return one of only two verdicts: guilty or not guilty. Yet we know, surely, that in the real moral universe, guilt is always a matter of degree. Neat distinctions between the innocent and the guilty only exist in film and on television.

In the court of conscience, however, this obvious truth is often lost. We feel guilty and we wish that we did not, ignoring the possibility that perhaps it’s okay to carry some guilt and that feeling less rather than none is what we should aim for. For who could honestly say that they have behaved impeccably at all times? Just as pure evil is rare, no one is entirely innocent.

Indeed, the difference between those labelled as innocent and those labelled as guilty is often little more than luck. Many parents have inadvertently allowed their children to wander out of sight for a while, and they are not thought dreadful for such a momentary lapse.

But for the few unlucky enough to see their children hurt or killed at such times, guilt is dished out by others and often willingly taken on. The “innocent” should not be so self-righteous, and the “guilty” not so self-critical. Instead, both need to accept that they are human and fall short.

Perhaps the most overlooked aspect of guilt is that because we find it so natural to talk about feeling it, we forget that it involves a rational judgement as well as an emotion. The two do not always neatly coincide. We can believe we have done wrong, yet feel strangely guilt-free, or be weighed down with remorse for something that in calmer moments we know wasn’t our fault. It’s not always possible to make thought and feeling consistent in such cases.

What we can do is remember that what matters morally is how guilty we really are, not how guilty we feel. That should be our guide to what the only important consequence of quilt should be: what we do, if anything, to compensate for the damage we have done.