Why an African perspective on humanity shows that survivor’s guilt makes sense

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Why an African perspective on humanity shows that survivor’s guilt makes sense

Sometimes individuals who survive a tragedy, such as a tsunami, report feeling guilty that they lived while innocent people close to them perished. Similarly, I have had some black professionals in post-apartheid South Africa tell me they feel guilty for having left their townships or villages and “made it” while their former neighbours still live in poverty.

Is it appropriate to feel guilty in these circumstances?

I argue that while influential Western moral philosophies suggest that survivor’s guilt is irrational, the African philosophical tradition has the resources to make sense of why it can be a virtue.

Survivor’s guilt is – roughly speaking – experiencing the emotion of guilt despite not being guilty. More carefully, it is feeling bad about oneself for one’s associates having died (or undergone a serious harm), for not having died (been harmed) along with them, or for not having saved them, even though one did no wrong at all in contributing to their deaths (suffering).

Many survivors of large-scale tragedy for which they are not at all morally responsible report feeling guilty. Consider Jewish people who made it through the Holocaust, and soldiers who escaped war with their lives. It was also common among the Japanese who survived a tsunami, as recounted by filmmaker Tatsuya Mori:

On the day of the earthquake I was drinking beer with my friends in Roppongi. Thousands of people lost their lives, but I was drinking beer. I didn’t know what was happening at the time, but when I realised, I was ashamed. I felt guilty.

Should he have felt this way?

Is survivor’s guilt unreasonable?

The default view among contemporary Western moral philosophies is that survivor’s guilt is usually unreasonable.

Utilitarianism, one of the two dominant ethical approaches in the West, maintains that everything one does should be oriented towards making the future better for society. One has moral reason to feel bad if and only if doing so would be useful. So it would be natural for a utilitarian to say,

It will do no good to feel guilty merely for having survived; you should try to let it go.

The other influential Western ethic is Kantianism, roughly the view that we need to treat people with respect by virtue of their capacity to make reasoned decisions. Where we misuse that capacity, say, by wrongfully putting others in harm’s way, then it would be appropriate to feel guilty or for others to censure us – that would be to treat ourselves and others as agents who are responsible for their actions.

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

You did nothing wrong, and so have nothing to feel bad about.

As one contemporary Kantian puts it,

Strictly speaking, survivor guilt is not rational guilt, for surviving the Holocaust, or surviving battle… is not typically because a person has deliberately let another take his place in harm.

An expression of Ubuntu

We get a different, revealing view of survivor’s guilt if we take up the perspective of Ubuntu, a southern African ethic grounded on values salient among people who live in the region. As is well known, an Ubuntu ethic is often summed up by:

A person is a person through other persons.

Central to this maxim is the idea that one ought to become a real person, or to live in a genuinely human way, by prizing communal relationships with others – that is, by caring for their quality of life and sharing a way of life with them. The South African public intellectual G M Nkondo remarks that adherents to an Ubuntu philosophy are inclined to:

express commitment to the good of the community in which their identities were formed, and a need to experience their lives as bound up in that of their community.

So, one is more of a person, the more one sympathises with other people, helps them live better lives, identifies with others, and participates with them on an interdependent basis. By many readings of Ubuntu, although everyone has a dignity, those with whom we have already communed in these ways are owed extra attention and devotion, hence the additional maxims of “family first” and “charity begins at home”.

Given this interpretation of Ubuntu, one could be more of a person upon feeling survivor’s guilt insofar as it is a manifestation of loyalty or solidarity. Survivor’s guilt characteristically arises when people with whom one has identified and lived with have died (or suffered); it does not normally arise when strangers in a distant part of the globe perish (or suffer). Survivor’s guilt is arguably an instance of good character, an emotional expression of a person being bound up with, and committed to, others in her community.

As I have put it elsewhere in a forthcoming contribution to the International Encyclopedia of Ethics , survivor’s guilt is a way to experience negative feelings attuned to the bad condition of others with whom one shares a sense of self. It is also a way to judge that one has not exhibited the excellence of helping them, even if one violated no duty and hence did no wrong in respect of them. It is furthermore a way of acknowledging that one has not shared the same fate with them, while, in the words of another scholar,

the anguish of guilt, its sheer pain, is a way of sharing some of the ill fate.

Survivor’s guilt could be disproportionately severe, but that is true of any negative emotion. Consider someone who were not disposed to feel survivor’s guilt at all. Might it be apt to say of such a person that he did not really feel a sense of togetherness with those who died or that he did not really care about them? If so, then Ubuntu helps explain not merely why survivor’s guilt is a recurrent feature of the human condition, but also why it should be.

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