Survivor guilt

Philosophical Studies 180 (9):2707-2726 (2023)
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Abstract

We often feel survivor guilt when the very circumstances that harm others leave us unscathed. Although survivor guilt is both commonplace and intelligible, it raises a puzzle for the standard philosophical account of guilt, according to which people feel guilt only when they take themselves to be morally blameworthy. The standard account implies that survivor guilt is uniformly unfitting, as people are not blameworthy simply for having fared better than others. In this paper, we offer a rival account of guilt, the relational account of guilt, which makes sense of survivor guilt and other forms of guilt without self-blame while preserving the intelligibility of guilt about culpable wrongdoing. According to this account, guilt involves the feeling of being unable to justify ourselves to others, and we lack self-justification when we (however blamelessly) stand on the positive side of an undesirable asymmetry with them. When someone survives something that those around her do not, the disparity in outcome constitutes an asymmetry that is often undesirable, because it arises from luck or violates a requirement of solidarity. Thus, survivor guilt is often fitting.

Author Profiles

Jordan MacKenzie
Virginia Tech
Michael Zhao
University of Notre Dame

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