Capt. Adrian Bonenberger, head of a unit in Afghanistan, pondered those questions recently as he thought about Specialist Jeremiah Pulaski, who was killed by police in the wake of a deadly bar fight shortly after he returned home. Back in Afghanistan, Pulaski had saved Bonenberger’s life twice on one day, but when Pulaski needed help, Bonenberger couldn’t be there for him: “When he was in trouble, he was alone,” Captain Bonenberger said. “When we were in trouble, he was there for us.
I know it’s not rational or reasonable. There’s nothing logical about it. But I feel responsible.”
But how unreasonable is that feeling? Subjective guilt, associated with this sense of responsibility, is thought to be irrational because one feels guilty despite the fact that he knows he has done nothing wrong. Objective or rational guilt, by contrast—guilt that is “fitting” to one’s actions—accurately tracks real wrongdoing or culpability: guilt is appropriate because one acted to deliberately harm someone, or could have prevented harm and did not.
Blameworthiness, here, depends on the idea that a person could have done something other than he did. And so he is held responsible or accountable, by himself or others.
But as Bonenberger’s remarks make clear, we often take responsibility in a way that goes beyond what we can reasonably be held responsible for. And we feel the guilt that comes with that sense of responsibility. Nietzsche is the modern philosopher who well understood this phenomenon: “Das schlechte Gewissen,” (literally, “bad conscience”)—his term for the consciousness of guilt where one has done no wrong, doesn’t grow in the soil where we would most expect it, he argued, such as in prisons where there are actually “guilty” parties who should feel remorse for wrongdoing.
In “The Genealogy of Morals,” he appeals to an earlier philosopher, Spinoza, for support: “The bite of conscience,” writes Spinoza in the “Ethics,” has to do with an “offense” where “something has gone unexpectedly wrong.” As Nietzsche adds, it is not really a case of “I ought not to have done that.” But what then is it a case of? Part of the reasonableness of survivor guilt (and in a sense, its “fittingness”) is that it tracks a moral significance that is broader than moral action. Who I am, in terms of my character and relationships, and not just what I do, matters morally.
Of course, character is expressed in action, and when we don’t “walk the walk,” we are lacking; but it is also expressed in emotions and attitudes. Aristotle3 in his “Nicomachean Ethics” insists on the point: “virtue is concerned with emotions and actions;” to have good character is to “hit the mean”4 with respect to both. Moreover, many of the feelings that express character are not about what one has done or should have done, but rather about what one cares deeply about. Though Aristotle doesn’t himself talk about guilt, it is the emotion that best expresses that conflict—the desire or obligation to help frustrated by the inability, through no fault of one’s