Guilt often is assigned by social processes, such as a jury trial. In this case, it is more of a legal concept. Thus, the rulings of a jury that O.J. Simpson or Julius Rosenberg were “guilty” or “not innocent” are taken as an actual judgment by society. Accordingly, we then have to act against the condemned. Conversely, the rulings that such people are “not guilty” may not be so easily accepted, due to the asymmetry in the assumption that one is assumed innocent until proven guilty. In this case the judicial system prefers to take the risk of freeing a guilty party over convicting innocents.
Others, particularly those in the philosophical or religious camps, believe the origin of guilt comes from violating universal principles of right and wrong. In most instances, people who believe this also acknowledge that even though there is proper guilt from doing ‘wrong’ instead of doing ‘right,’ people endure all sorts of guilty feelings which do not stem from violating universal moral principles. Again, we see this in the legal arena. If a criminal shows guilt and remorse, he is said to have learned his lesson, and likely will receive a reduced sentence in court. This is especially true if the crime is “understandable;” for example, stealing food because of hunger. This latter example illustrates how empathy mitigates our tendency to punish the guilty. Lastly, empathy in the convicted theoretically reduces the likelihood that the guilty will re-offend.
Academia intellectualizes traditional or social process guilt and calls it other names, such as Collective Guilt or Collective Responsibility. Collective guilt is the unpleasant emotional reaction that results among a group of individuals when it is perceived that the group illegitimately harmed members of another group. It is often the result of sharing a social identity with others whose actions represent a threat to the positive polarity of that identity. Different intergroup inequalities can result in collective guilt, such as receiving unearned benefits and privileges or inflicting more extreme forms of harm on an outgroup (including genocide). Individuals are generally motivated to avoid collective guilt in order to maintain a positive social identity. There are many ways of decreasing collective guilt, such as denying harm or justifying actions. This probably functions in religious discrimination by one group to another. But, collective guilt can also lead to positive outcomes, such as promoting intergroup reconciliation and reducing negative attitudes towards the outgroup, especially if the outgroup is perceived as benign.
There are several causes of collective guilt; salient group identity, collective responsibility and perception of unjust ingroup actions. In order for an individual to experience collective guilt, he must identify himself as a part of the ingroup. This produces a perceptual shift from thinking of oneself in terms of “I” and “me” to “us” or “we.” Only when an individual is salient with the ingroup can he or she experience responsibility for the harmful actions of the group, past and present. In addition to ingroup salience, an individual will only feel collective guilt if he or she views the ingroup as responsible for the harmful actions done to the outgroup. For instance, racial inequality in the US can be described as either “black disadvantage” or “white privilege.” When the term “black disadvantage” is used to describe racial inequality, white participants feel less collectively responsible for the harm done to the outgroup, which lessened collective guilt. In comparison, when “white privilege” was used, white participants feel more collectively responsible for the harm done, which increased collective guilt.
One also finds collective guilt manifesting in Traditional or Cultural Guilt, such as found in Japanese, Korean and Ancient Greek societies, which are sometimes said to be “shame-based” rather than “guilt-based.”
“Successful guilt is the bane of society.”–Marguerite Osward