Comparative Guilt?!

You can’t quantify guilt, can you?  It sounds like nonsense but we do it all the time.

Iron Cross in Africa

Iron Cross in Africa

I got to thinking about this after finishing Leiji Matsumoto’s Arcadia of My Youth manga, which is the 4th volume of his series of WWII stories.  Let me preface this by explaining that these stories are mostly told from the perspective of Japanese combatants, and the couple that aren’t focus on German soldiers, so the book is solidly oriented toward the Axis Powers.

In the last story (“Iron Cross in Africa”), a German pilot meets a British pilot and a French resistance fighter.  They decide on a truce for a day and end up bantering about the war.  The talk very quickly deteriorates into accusations of guilt toward each other’s countries’ histories.  See what you think of these arguments, and specifically of the weight (if any) that these actions elicit in your mind.



1. Auschwitz

The Brit kicks things off by expressing surprise (and disgust) that the German pilot is such a gentleman considering he is one of the henchmen of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi movement, which built the gas chambers at Auschwitz.

2. British Empire

The German counters with a long rant against the British Imperial record.  He starts off by saying that Brits are only affectionate toward dogs.  They have built their Empire on the blood of countless Africans and Asians.  Even the Spitfires and the Brits’ bodies themselves are the product of the blood and tears of colored peoples.

3. French Empire

The Frenchwoman preempts the German’s attack on France by suggesting that he use the examples of Algeria and French Indochina, the two most problematic French colonies.

The Brit ends it all with a quizzical look and the question: “So is this a battle of tainted nations?”


It would have been 10 times more interesting if Matsumoto had pencilled in a Japanese pilot but as things stand there’s still a lot of food for thought here.  The basic implication of the debate is that all 3 characters consider these national guilts as equivalent.

I’d be curious to see what other people think about this.  My gut feeling is to weigh Auschwitz as far more injurious and sinful than the other two examples, and I imagine that 99% of this blog’s readers would feel the same way, though I might be wrong.


Comparing the guilt of the British Empire and that of the French Empire is much less about feeling and more about education (or indoctrination?).  Despite being ethno-culturally Spanish, as the years have passed I’ve been more and more influenced by the Anglo-American perspective, and so what I’m more attuned to that view.  Specifically, as I see it there is a set evaluation of colonial rule prevalent in the Anglo-American sphere which runs like this:

Great Britain → a good colonial power, because it developed its colonies.

France → a bad colonial power, because it didn’t develop its colonies.

Spain → a terrible colonial power, because it actively harmed its colonies.

This year I’m systematically educating myself about Spain and Spanish history so I might have something more to say about this at some later point, but my initial question remains:

Can you even quantify guilt?

~ by Haloed Bane on July 8, 2009.

9 Responses to “Comparative Guilt?!”

  1. Yes, you can. The fact that people use guilt to take action (or not) means it has an underlying value. Discovering that value for everyone, at any given point, is a practical rather than theoretical problem.

    Once it’s quantified, though, what would people do with it? Would they prorate punishment based upon your remorse/guilt? Would the relationship be linear or exponential?

  2. Every experience of guilt is equivalent, but are all the sources and causes of that guilt on equal standing?

    Steve ruined Molly’s science experiment and now feels bad for what he did.

    Leigh pushed Roger into a ditch; Roger broke his leg and now cannot play in the state championship game. Leigh feels terrible about it.

    Shen lost his job, can’t pay the bills, killed his family and has tried to kill himself. He feels saddened and upset that he didn’t successfully end his own life, but thinks he had a very good reason to end the lives of his wife and kids.

    Two new questions: who committed the “worse” act? who should receive a harsher punishment (legally)?

    And if one wanted to think more about it, does Molly have a right to be as angry about her ruined science project as Roger is about his leg? Do they both have the right to be as devastated as Shen’s in-laws?

    (I apologize for the tangent).

  3. I think, in the more-or-less Protestant way of thinking which is the method for dealing with these questions that I’m most familiar with, you’re not meant to be able to quantify guilt. Any instance, however minor, of falling-short from perfection and you’re screwed.

    But of course you’re perfectly entitled to reply to that with something along the lines of ‘please don’t justify your answers with reference to circular systems of dogmatics’. And, as Chibinium says, we do quantify guilt all the time — the state has to, too, in court.

    I guess Bentham’s proposed ‘hedonic calculus’ might quantify guilt, or at least ‘unhappiness-caused’, or harm. But I don’t know if Benthamite utilitarianism recognises the existence of guilt, or the possibility that you can act wrongly rather than simply inefficiently.

    (Another problem is the idea of ‘tainted nations’. Can ‘tainted’ instruments still be serving a just cause?)

  4. 1 guilt unit = 1.5 non-physical pain units (i.e. unmet expectation leading to an upset, controlled to exclude life goals and the like)

    But how to deal with a ‘guilty pleasure?’

    Right now I’m watching Mobile Suit Victory Gundam, which is to watch miserable characters spiral downward into deeper misery just before they die, and that they die OFTEN over the course of a 50-ep anime.

    I take pleasure in this. How do I quantify my guilt?

  5. You can quantify almost anything. It seems by guilt you mean law rather than psychology term. The magnitude of crimes can be measured by selecting certain criteria. It is important to take into account several factors. Agreeing on the criteria and gathering support evidence may not be easy, but it is possible.

    Although Auschwitz was the largest concentration camp, it is important to remember many others.

  6. I’ll throw a few things based on your comments.

    1) The idea of linking the gravity of a crime to the guilt/remorse behind it, and making the punishment “equal” that guilt…well, that sounds like what a lot of people would consider “ideal justice”.

    2) The “Law” is a mechanism for regulating society, and I’m not interested in social regulation, so I wasn’t really thinking in legal terms at all in this post, just in terms of psychology, motivation, etc.

    3) Shen is to Leigh as Auschwitz is to Dresden..?

    4) Pleasurable guilt increases the blame, at least from an outsider’s perspective, but it decreases the guilt from an insider’s perspective (until afterwards, when you regret!)

    5) Criteria for quantifying guilt are of necessity arbitrary, aren’t they? Who’s to judge which criteria we should use??

  7. If you meant guilt in terms of psychology, then it is much easier to quantify – you can find many measures for various populations. One of the things we have to keep in mind is that some people feel much more guilty than others even though they should not have. On the other hand, some people don’t feel any guilt at all, and we have measures for that as well 🙂

  8. I’d point out that Germany’s colonial history is pretty dirty too (if not as dirty as Belgium’s Congo), and they didn’t really impose any ‘Pax Germanica’ or contribute massively to world economic growth or any extenuating factors like England.

    • No doubt but that British imperialism holds a unique place in European history. I think one way to look at it is that Britons were really good at it, period. The extenuating factors that you mention partly come out from superior methods instead of just different ends. What I mean is that I don’t believe that England had a fundamentally different goal in administering its colonies, and that this is what caused economic prosperity etc. I think Spain, to name one country (even Japan, say) often attempted these things but just lacked that finesse that the Brits had…

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