Bearing the burden of the past

We were not actors in wrongs committed by our ancestors. But don’t we have some sort of responsibility for them?
Michael Casey | Jul 25 2010 | comment  

Australian Aborigines in custody, 1906How should we react to wrongs of our forebears? Should white Americans feel guilty for the disappearance of Native Americans or for black slavery? Should contemporary Germans feel guilty for Nazi atrocities? Should the British feel guilty for massacring Sikhs at Amritsar? Perhaps an Australian story can help throw some light on this question.

When I was a boy my father owned a farm in the Gippsland area of the Australian state of Victoria. Gippsland was one of the last corners of the south-east to be settled by Europeans, beginning in the 1840s. The farm was bounded by two rivers, and at the south of the property one river ran into the other forming a sandy point of land, and then flowed into a large lake.

The lake is named for the Duke of Wellington, but the spit at the confluence of the two rivers, known as Boney Point, is named for an altogether more inglorious reason. I remember my father telling me how, well into the 1960s, you could still find bones and bone fragments on this sandy point from a massacre of the local Aborigines, the Kurnai, which took place in 1840. The massacres of the Aborigines in Gippsland often occurred near water, to which the Kurnai were driven and then trapped. The massacre at Boney Point took place after a settler was killed and sheep were found with their legs broken. It is not clear how many Kurnai were killed at Boney Point, but four years afterwards, in 1844, a missionary found so many bones and skulls at this place that it could have been mistaken for a native burial ground (1). Like many places in frontier societies such as Australia and the United States, Gippsland too, in its own small way, “has been one of the dark places of the earth” (2).

The wretched fate of the Kurnai did not end with the massacres. Their population declined, mainly through the impact of disease and steep falls in fertility. The dispersal of families and the destruction of traditional life took a particular toll (3). The demoralisation of communities and the human dysfunction that followed, typically when alcohol or substance abuse were involved, have had especially horrible consequences. The world glimpsed an extreme instance of this when the most appalling and almost unbelievable reports of widespread child sexual assault and child neglect led the Australian federal government to assume control of Aboriginal settlements from the government of the Northern Territory in 2007.

The Australian writer Patrick Morgan argues that “we should tell the truth about the past, but not moralise about it, nor feel personally guilty” (4). I agree with this. There remains, however, the strange problem of feeling responsible for sufferings which we have not caused. Assertions of collective or inherited guilt are more often the products of political ideology than good moral reasoning, and I do not subscribe to the view that the crimes committed in the course of European settlement discredit everything that has followed, or cast an indelible shadow over the Australian achievement.

At the same time, the disaster that befell the Aboriginal population of Australia cannot be dismissed or minimised. While it is usually possible to identify those responsible for particular actions committed historically, historical events sometimes resemble forces of nature in the way that control over them—and responsibility for them—eludes us. But we cannot regard the sufferings that the Aboriginal people endured in the wake of the European settlement of Australia in the same way as those caused by an earthquake or cyclone, or argue that no one today need accept responsibility for their plight.

The feeling of responsibility for their situation worries us, even when responsibility is not strictly ours. When people speak of feeling guilty for the historic actions of their ancestors or country in which they themselves have taken no part either by act or omission, I suspect that they are attempting to articulate this feeling of responsibility and misnaming it.

Why do we feel responsible, even guilty, for the evil and suffering others have caused when have had no part in it? I think there are four reasons.

1. Concern for the good of others

Responsibility to justice faces backwards. It takes its orientation from what we have done and what we may owe others as a consequence. Responsibility to other goods, in contrast, faces forwards. It is oriented to seeking the good of other people, especially those who may need our help, by means that are good and which support other good things, in particular the realisation of human flourishing. Responsibility to justice is based on individual culpability. Responsibility to other goods is based on natural sociability which directs us to other people and requires us to realise our own good by seeking theirs.

2. Responsibility to justice

Those who have suffered injustice have a right to reparation. When the wrong-doers are no longer alive or otherwise unable to meet the demands of reparative justice, others who have had no part in the wrong-doing may have a duty to meet these demands (if they are not prevented from doing so by other primary moral obligations).

So there are times when the innocent may be required to assume responsibility not only in the course of attending to the good of those who have suffered historic wrongs, but also to address their right to justice.  A simple example is a compensation scheme for victims of crime. More often than not, a criminal who assaults or murders someone lacks the means to make any sort of financial reparation for what he has done to the victim and his family. Criminal compensation schemes are an attempt on behalf of the community to address what is owed to the victim in justice, even though taxpayers are completely innocent of the wrong-doing he has suffered. This is different from what innocent people may owe to the victim in charity.  

3. Seeing ourselves in the sufferer, and in the perpetrator

One of the natural emotions we feel before the sufferings of others is horror that such things could happen—or be done—to another human being. We can also feel ashamed of the sufferings that other people cause, ashamed at how far another person can fall, either in degrading themselves or causing suffering and degradation to others. Identifying with the sufferer is normal and estimable, but we also need to acknowledge those moments when we can see ourselves in the perpetrators of violence and the atrocity makers.

Obviously there are some—men for whom violence is a way of life, people who enjoy torture or domination, and psychopathic criminals—whose interior life is so alien to that of most normal people that no inkling of self-recognition with them is possible. But the strange way in which even normal or everyday levels of anxiety and frustration can distort our responses and make us do hateful things allows us to sense the horrors of which we too might be capable in situations of greater stress, and particularly in situations involving violence or the threat of violence.

Fear and anger – not least when driven by resentment – are highly labile emotions. They can turn on a dime. We can think that we are sure of ourselves in our decency and moderation and the reassuring assumption that we would simply not be capable of certain things. But as Conrad observes, being sure of himself “is the last thing a man ought to be sure of” (5). If that is all we are sure of then we are sure of nothing.

4. Restoring the right order of things after it has been violated

It is interesting to consider the relationship between feeling responsible for people who are suffering because of the wrong-doing of others, and the feeling of responsibility that arises when we have caused suffering or harm to others blamelessly. A textbook example is the driver who, while observing the rules of the road and concentrating on his driving, is unable to stop his car in time when a child runs on out in front of him. The driver did not intend to kill the child and did not contribute to her death by recklessness or negligence. Strictly speaking he has no moral responsibility for her death at all.

But if he is a normal human being this is not how he feels. He will accuse himself of killing her and if asked to put a name to the form of responsibility he feels, he will most likely choose the word guilt.

In thinking about this particular form of the feeling of responsibility the Australian philosopher Hayden Ramsay has employed the concept of piacularity, which is discussed by Adam Smith in TheTheory of Moral Sentiments (1759). Smith described piacularity as follows:

As, in the ancient heathen religion, that holy ground which had been consecrated to some god, was not to be trod upon, but upon solemn and necessary occasions, and the man who had even ignorantly violated it, became piacular from that moment… so by the wisdom of Nature, the happiness of every innocent man is… not to be wantonly trod upon, without requiring some expiation, some atonement in proportion to the greatness of the undersigned violation. (6)

The person who is piacular is not culpable. He feels responsible when responsibility is not strictly his to feel, and he feels this because despite his innocence he has nevertheless violated something sacred. He needs to make expiation for what he has done, even though he has done it blamelessly.

It does not make sense to apply the concepts of atonement and expiation beyond those individuals who are directly responsible, wittingly or unwittingly, for the violation of another person. For this reason, piacularity excludes the idea of collective or inherited guilt. At the same time, however, I think piacularity illuminates what ideas of collective or inherited guilt are attempting to explain. For when we are confronted with the violation of other human beings we feel compelled to assume responsibility for them.

The violation of the sacred cannot leave us unmoved – even or perhaps especially when we have had no part in the violation which has been committed. We cannot atone for what others have done, nor should we seek to do so. Only the culpable – or the piacular – need to make atonement. But it is a mark of being fully human to assume responsibility for those who have been violated and to make their good our own.

The feeling of responsibility as I have tried to describe it needs to be clearly distinguished from the concept of guilt, and we need to be particularly alert to the manipulation of moral sentiments for political and ideological purposes. Deepening our understanding of what responsibility entails is a useful antidote to this, and this is one reason why I think the feeling of responsibility is so important. First and foremost, it requires us to take responsibility for ourselves.

In July 2008, the Colombian politician Íngrid Betancourt was liberated from three years of captivity by rebels. Asked about the degradations she endured, she replied: “The only thing to say about that is that we all have a duty to watch ourselves. I felt there were temptations to let yourself go towards diabolical behaviour… I think you need tremendous spirituality to stop yourself falling into the abyss” (7).

We need to keep two things in mind in asking whether we are responsible for historical evils: the evil of which we are each only too capable in both mundane and extraordinary circumstances; and the need to maintain a steady commitment to the good of others. In this we can see that the purpose of the feeling of responsibility is to save us from the abyss which is always at our feet.  

Michael Casey is a sociologist on the staff of the Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, and Adjunct Professor in the School of Philosophy and Theology at the University of Notre Dame Australia. This is an edited version of an article which was first published in Quadrant in November 2008.


(1) Patrick Morgan, “Gippsland Settlers and the Kurnai Dead”, Quadrant 48:10 (October 2004).

(2) Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness (1902), (Penguin, Harmondsworth: 1973) 7.

(3) Ibid.

(4) Ibid.  

(5) Joseph Conrad, Nostromo (1904), (Oxford University Press, Oxford: 1984), 310.

(6) Adam Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments, 2, 3.3 Cited in Hayden Ramsay, “Insensitivity”, Heythrop Journal 158 (2007) 546-60, at 557.

(7) “Freed hostage Betancourt spent three years in chains”, Straits Times, 4 July 2008.

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