What does guilt in absentia mean

No guilt without responsibility. - But for what can, for what should and for what do people want to take responsibility today? And what does it mean to be responsible for others?

Anyone who still speaks of guilt and atonement today becomes suspicious. And not only because Fyodor Dostoyevsky's famous novel, which made this formula an almost everyday phrase, can now be found under the title "Crime and Punishment". Beyond the question of which translation is more appropriate to the Russian original, this conceptual shift expresses a changed attitude towards the problems associated with it. Crime and punishment: This refers to the norms and laws of a society, for the violation or violation of which a graduated system of sanctions is provided. Both what is considered criminal activity in a society and the way in which it should be reacted to can be modified, overturned, reformed, redefined at any time. Much of what was considered a crime decades ago, or at least morally offensive, is widely accepted today; much of what was normal decades ago is now considered reprehensible.


But when there is talk of guilt and atonement, it is not just about violated laws and the sanctioning options provided for them. Guilt is about more and different things than socially unacceptable behavior. Guilt: That can mean anything that you are guilty of in terms of authorship. But guilt can also mean what you owe someone else, what you have to repay, figuratively and literally. Nietzsche had already pointed out that the concept of duty, that the moral ought, has its origin in economic debt: someone has the right to reclaim something that he has given me. It is my duty to comply with this demand. Whoever is in debt owes someone something, and he takes on further debt if he cannot pay that debt. This also applies in a figurative sense, for example when it is said that “society” owes something to a certain group of people. But guilt can also mean that we can become guilty of someone by impairing their life or their chances in life. One can take guilt upon oneself in many ways, intentionally and unintentionally; and it is one of the great insights of the Greek tragedy - think of King Oedipus - that man can also become guiltless without being guilty.

Ultimately, the question of guilt is about the extent to which a person must be understood as the author of his actions, for which he can answer in front of others and himself. Therefore atonement also means more than just the payment of a debt or the punishment that is imposed on someone for a debt that has not been paid or for undesirable behavior. Atonement is not only in a formal relationship to an act - in that an appropriate range of punishment is established, for example - but in a substantive one: How can we react after something has been done and this act has been recognized as wrong and reprehensible? How can you answer the question "Why did you do that?" still be answered?

The question of guilt and atonement is fundamentally about responsibility. The answer lies in the concept of responsibility. And every answer implies a question. Responsibility in a very original sense means being able to answer a question asked - or more precisely: having to answer. Where, for whatever reason, a question cannot or may not be asked, there is no responsibility. Responsibility always requires a questioner and a respondent. People who blatantly take on responsibility without having been asked should therefore be treated with caution. Conversely, however, one should also be careful not to demand responsibility from someone who either cannot be asked or does not dare to ask. So who bears responsibility, who can demand responsibility, who can take responsibility for whom and under what conditions?

Modern people, especially enlightened and self-critical Europeans, seem to like to take responsibility. In other words, he feels responsible for a lot, actually for almost everything. Whether it's the world climate or the war in Iraq, the language problems of migrants or the conditions in Central Africa, whether it's about the education of girls or the violence of boys, the lungs of smokers or the girth of adolescents The conflicts in Ukraine or celibacy in the Catholic Church, about the happiness of the few and the misery of the many - the responsibility, it seems, lies with the self-critical person. He takes the blame for everything - if not as a person, then at least as a participant in a culture that is allegedly guilty and from which he distances himself again by naming its guilt. Whoever ascribes responsibility for whatever to the school system, the media, society or the West has usually dispensed with this responsibility. Modern man is downright a responsible artist and debt shifting strategist.


Anyone who generously relieves others of their responsibility in this way, however, denies them being able to take responsibility for themselves. Indeed, anyone suspected of having the wrong political view was to blame aggressive young people, poorly integrated Muslims or students with learning difficulties for their own situation. No, the responsibility always lies elsewhere, never with the actors. If there are problems with immigrants, there is no “welcoming culture”; if young jihadists from London or Vienna to Iraq to behead unbelievers, there were insufficient offers for integration; if young people riot at the train station, they had a difficult childhood; If someone gambled away his wealth on the stock exchange, he was badly advised; if someone fails at school, the teachers were a disaster; if too few women study technical physics, society has failed. What is the will of the individual actually true in such a world of postponed responsibility?

So do we already live after the end of responsibility? A fundamental prerequisite for the attribution of responsibility is freedom, self-confidence and self-determination of an action. People who, for whatever reason, find themselves in a state of bondage and immaturity cannot take on any or only a graduated form of responsibility. That is also the reason why someone who wants to rid himself of his responsibility for his actions will do everything possible to assert his bondage for the time of his action or in general. As a rule, this means delegating responsibility to someone else - to the impulse that was overpowering, to the intoxicant that was ingested, to the order given by the superior, to the constraint that allowed no alternative the traumatic experiences of early childhood, which now no longer allowed any other option, to the society that put him in this predicament, or straight to our brain, which has already made a decision all by itself without asking us.

However plausible, understandable and comprehensible we may find such assertions in a specific case: We have to be clear that the moment we accept such explanations, we must also assume that the agent is not free. He ceases to be a sovereign and equal partner in conversation and action for us, who could answer our questions. We can only behave caring, paternalistic, therapeutic, protectionistic, defensive or ignorant towards such a person.

To be the author of our own actions and therefore to be responsible for them does not only mean to be “culpable” in a legal sense, that is, to bear the consequences of this action; it also means to be able to react to this action in retrospect and to deal with the question of how good or bad this action was. The philosopher Max Scheler pointed out that humans are the beings that can repent. Actions cannot be undone; but one can regret it. Repentance is not an empty gesture, not a ritualized language formula, but the late realization that it would have been better not to have done something. This repentance not only opens up the scope for various forms of atonement, but also the possibility of doing things differently, if possible better, in the future.

People who are talked out of feeling remorseful by persuading them that they could never have acted otherwise are also deprived of the opportunity to rethink and change their actions. It is only “unrepentant guilt”, according to Scheler, that affects the future as “that determining and binding force” which is often claimed as something “unchangeable”; Repentance, on the other hand, creates new opportunities for action. In this context belongs the everyday psychological assumption that feelings of guilt are generally persuaded to manipulate people as an instrument of oppression. This may well be the case in some cases; but that someone feels guilty does not mean that they are generally innocent. However, it must be admitted that a consequence of any discharge of responsibility will be the absence of feelings of guilt.

One question is under what conditions we are responsible for our own actions and to whom we are responsible for this. The other question is about the conditions under which we want or have to take responsibility for the actions of other people. The "responsible persons", who are repeatedly addressed in politics and in social life, are not responsible for their actions, but through these actions they are responsible for the life and possibilities of other people's lives. What can this mean? The assumption of responsibility has a very specific requirement: power. Only where there is a balance of power can someone take responsibility for others, because power means doing things that seriously affect other people. Anyone who does not have the power to do something that someone else is at the mercy of cannot accept responsibility for it. The unmatched sentence comes from the late antique Stoic Epictetus: "One is in our power, the other is not." Only where something is in our power does the talk of freedom and responsibility make sense; only where other people are subject to our power does this power give me responsibility for these people.


In general, only individuals can act responsibly. But individuals are not responsible for everything that happens. There are also the responsibilities of organizations, collectives, institutions, societies that obey their own dynamic. But where is the line between what falls within the area of ​​responsibility of the people and what has to be delegated to institutions of whatever kind? We live, as the saying goes, in an age of individualization. However, individualization generally means the increasing shifting of responsibility into the area of ​​the individual. Much of what is currently being negotiated under keywords such as privatization, personal responsibility or autonomization follows this principle. Responsibilities that previously lay with the organized society, were perceived and controlled in a representative manner, are now delegated to the individual.

Where the individual has the power and the opportunity to take on these tasks, this does in fact mean an increase in freedom. The delegation of responsibility to individuals therefore only makes sense where they are in a position or are placed in them to exercise the necessary power. It is therefore objectively cynical to equip people with responsibility where they have no way of realizing it. Finding the right measure in the allocation of responsibilities is an immense challenge at a time when traditional allocation schemes have faltered. To what extent are we - who is "we"? - For example, actually responsible for a fair distribution of the world's goods, for an intact nature and for a future worth living in? Who is to blame for those threatening developments that we euphemistically call climate change? The single driver? The industry? A society obsessed with mobility? The question of authorship and the associated responsibility is, especially in the field of ecology, synonymous with the question: Who will suffer from it? Who will pay for the follow-up costs? Who will we owe because it was our fault? And who will take responsibility for setting the course, for example in the field of biomedical technologies, the consequences of which will only be felt in years or decades?

When the philosopher Hans Jonas presented his “Ethics for Technological Civilization” under the title “The Responsibility Principle” in 1979, many believed that the principle was in fact found that could ensure the continued existence of the human species on this planet. Because the imperative derived from this principle of responsibility was for Hans Jonas: "Act in such a way that the effects of your actions are compatible with the permanence of real human life on earth."

With this imperative, Hans Jonas tried to make the future itself, nature and the unborn generations the subject of our area of ​​responsibility. However, none of these candidates has the power to hold us accountable - neither the future, nor the unborn generations, nor nature can enter into a fight for responsibility with us. The principle of responsibility can only be understood as a self-imposed duty out of insight and care - or it can be forced upon us by people who plausibly and with power appear as representatives of the future, nature, animals and the unborn generations and speak on their behalf can. But how do the lawyers of the future know what future generations really want? It is not an imposed but an assumed responsibility, which, like every presumption, has its dubious sides.


However, the formulation of the imperative of responsibility by Hans Jonas draws our attention to another problem: He spoke of the "permanence of real human life" as the guideline for our responsible behavior. But what is real human life? The forms and conditions in which people have lived, at least to date, do not allow a clear conclusion that there could be a worldwide consensus on what should characterize this authenticity. The dramatic developments in the field of medicine and biotechnology - to which Hans Jonas' reflections were directed - also ensure that we are asked this question in ever new ways. Are embryos already real human life? Will genetically modified or technically optimized people still be real human life? Or does the irrepressible urge to research, combined with the goal of gaining technical control over birth and death and the genetic, physical and psychological makeup of humans, really belong to the authenticity of human life? The risks we are currently taking with this research and its industrial applications are considerable. It remains to be seen whether and before whom we will ever be responsible for this.

Those who shy away from power should not speak of responsibility. Anyone who wants us to be held responsible for what we do must have the power to force us to answer questions. Conversely, if we want someone to be responsible for what they do, we must be able to force them to answer our questions. Where we have the claim to be free beings, we should not look to others for responsibility for what we do. Wherever there is a need to take responsibility for others, this should be done neither out of sheer greed for power on the part of some, nor out of sheer convenience on the part of the other; Above all, one should make sure that one does not take over responsibility when taking on responsibility. But wherever responsibility for others is voluntarily assumed with a great gesture, we should be more than careful.


The tutelage of people by instances that suggest that they only want their best by denying them the ability to make decisions themselves and to stand up for their consequences not only infantilize people. Not only do they curtail his freedom, they also take away his dignity. Anyone who learns from childhood that never he, but always others can be held responsible for their own behavior, will not only be tied to these childhood legs.He is then also dependent on the fact that responsibility is taken for him. He remains the object of caring, preventive, controlling and therapeutic procedures, even and especially when one constantly speaks of personal responsibility. Responsibility presupposes freedom. And freedom always implies risk. Also that for self-harm. Responsibility also includes personal responsibility. And personal responsibility includes the opportunity to act that others may find irresponsible. But then you should also have the strength and the courage to stand up for it - with all the consequences. It was precisely this form of responsibility that was at stake where there was once talk of guilt and atonement.

Konrad Paul Liessmann is a professor at the Institute for Philosophy at the University of Vienna. This text is the manuscript of the lecture that the author gave at the opening of the 18th Philosophicum Lech on September 18, 2014 in Lech am Arlberg.