by Antonio Pineda
“That which has happened is a warning. To forget it is guilt. It must be continually remembered. It was possible for this to happen, and it remains possible for it to happen again at any minute. Only in knowledge can it be prevented.”
The above quote by Karl Jaspers, a German philosopher, used on the BBC programme The Nazis: a Warning from History, refers to the World War II and its atrocities. Married to a Jew, Karl Jaspers “strongly opposed totalitarian despotism and warned about the increasing tendency towards technocracy, or a regime that regarded humans as mere instruments of science or ideological goals” (Wikipedia). He was also distrustful of majoritarian democracy.
Jaspers’ writings have contributed greatly to international efforts to highlight justice and protect human rights, particularly after World War II. One of his best known contributions is a short book called Die Schuldfrage (The Guilt Question) and in it, he distinguished between four types of guilt.
First, there’s criminal guilt which refers to those who committed explicit crimes. Then there’s political guilt which involves and wrongdoings of politicians and implicates the citizens of a state for “having to bear the consequences of the deeds of the state whose power governs [them] and under whose order [they] live”.
Third is moral guilt. This emphasises that every individual is morally responsible for his deeds, including the execution of political and military orders. It would never be right to say “orders are orders” because “jurisdiction rests with my conscience, and in communication with my friends and intimates who lovingly concerned about my soul”.
The fourth, metaphysical guilt, is the most profound. Jaspers proposes that we should feel shame when we do nothing when others, no matter who they are, are threatened. Metaphysical guilt can therefore be described as an abstract responsibility shared among all those who failed to...