Either it's Moral or ''Taint

An Exploration and Application of Moral Taint

Moral Taint in the context of 21st Century Ethics

“Taint is best understood as determined not only by what we do but also who we choose to be.

Given that this society has become increasingly globalized, it is not surprising that recently more consideration has been given to the idea of collective responsibility. Every individual is affected to some extent by his or her membership (voluntary or required) in certain groups (e.g. gender, race, education, etc) and thus, it is beneficial to explore the relations of the individual to these connections in terms of ethical behavior, morally required action, and expected emotive involvement. This paper will examine the idea of moral taint as it relates to collective responsibility, several alternative views, and some implications of this concept-such as metaphysical guilt. Finally, the concept of moral taint will be applied to a pending lawsuit regarding whether reparations ought to be given to the descendants of American slaves.

One of the most evident characteristics of contemporary culture is the tendency to think individualistically, particularly in terms of moral responsibility. In Ancient Greece and other cultures, to be responsible was construed somewhat differently than it is currently viewed. In ancient times when one member of the family performed a morally reprehensible action, the entire family, and possibly some close friends, felt and were seen as polluted simply because of that one person’s action. This idea of moral pollution or contamination, which is synonymous with “moral taint,” has a common analogue in the 20th century as well. It has been documented that many Germans feel contaminated because of the actions of their Nazi countrymen even when they themselves performed no such atrocities-they were merely both members of the same people group. But is this a proper response to the monstrosities that were perpetuated by their fellow countrymen?

For the purposes of this paper, let us say that to say that some individual or group is responsible is to say that the individual or group is accountable and liable. Let us also say that to hold someone responsible is to require an explanation for actions apparently contrary to established criteria and to compel them to make rectification for consequences of actions contrary to the criteria for behavior. Furthermore, let us also say that if someone is responsible for, they have an obligation, or they have brought about some circumstance. Lastly guilt is one’s response to toward the awareness and agreement that one has done something for which he or she is responsible and/or ought to be held responsible because of an obligation.

It is also necessary to understand what a collective is and what its relation is to the idea of moral responsibility. A collective is a group of people bound together by something held in common. A collective (as an entity) can be held responsible. A collective’s being responsible for the results of an action entails that the collective’s conduct played a significant role in causing those results. That a collective can be held responsible is not to be disputed in this paper, but the purpose of this paper is to examine the issue of whether or not an individual who is not a member of a specific (relatively narrow) collective, but only closely related to it (e.g. a German, but not a Nazi) ought also to be held responsible in some manner. The person is not morally guilty, but they are certainly affected in some manner, as many historical and current social practices seem to indicate. Is there an alternative to moral guilt in this context? Could moral taint be the concept we are looking for?

There are three basic positions as to the nature of moral taint and being held responsible. Anthony Appiah holds that only one’s moral integrity, or the society’s view of that individual’s moral status, is affected when one is associated with a harm but is not a member of the specific collective which is responsible for the harm. For Appiah, an individual merely associated with a collective is in no way responsible for the harms done to other people and ought not be held responsible (Mellema Collective Responsibility 72). Gregory Mellema says that taint is virtually identical to moral guilt. Mellema’s position suggests that association is enough to attribute responsibility (Mellema Collective Responsibility 72). This view is at the other end of the spectrum from Appiah’s account. Larry May (and the late Karl Jaspers) hold the middle ground, calling moral taint “metaphysical guilt,” a term which will be defined shortly. All three of the positions involve the idea of moral taint. They are distinct in that the first position says that one who is tainted is neither morally guilty nor responsible. In the second position, the tainted individual is morally guilty as well as responsible. This final position suggests that one is not morally guilty but metaphysically guilty and a type of responsibility, which shall be termed ‘solidarity responsibility,’ flows from that. An in-depth explanation of why this position is preferred to the others is outside of the scope of this paper.

There are two main concepts that contribute to an explanation of metaphysical guilt: solidarity and social existentialism. Metaphysical guilt implies that one has obligations to other people-these obligations arise by virtue of human solidarity. For the purposes of this paper, solidarity requires humans identifying each other as humans without regard to various differences between individuals. Along with this universal identification, solidarity is formed by “ethical habits and reciprocal moral obligations internalized by community members as grounds for trusting each other.” (Fukuyama 9) These habits and internalized obligations cannot be formed by means of rules or regulations alone; some kind of internal incentive to comply with these norms is necessary. Samuel Oliner found that highly moral people view themselves as having “connections with others in relationships of commitment and care and the belief in a basic universal similarity”(Oliner 259). He also found that these relationships and beliefs are valued above social status and that moral obligations protect this solidarity.

Moral taint always requires a community that shapes the character of the individual. Everyone is a member of one same collective-humanity-but each person is also a member of other, more specific collectives (e.g. female, white, middle class, etc.). It is on the basis of the one shared collective of humanity that much of metaphysical guilt theory is formed. Solidarity creates obligations not to harm others and to prevent others from performing harms. These obligations are not moral obligations but rather are of a different form-they are grounded solely in solidarity. The nature of those obligations will be discussed later. Even those not directly involved in harming others are metaphysically guilty due to their not having attempted to prevent the harm, that is, due to their failing to comply with solidarity obligations.

One issue that must be considered in regard to the concept of moral taint is what role a person must have in a harm in order for him or her to be considered tainted, that is, what role does solidarity play in determining the range of association? Most thinkers who concur with the idea of moral taint agree that an individual can be polluted even if his or her association with the harm is inadvertent. Thus, one can be metaphysically guilty by unaware association. This is quite an encompassing position given that there is solidarity among humans, as we have previously set forth. Everyone in the entire world is not morally responsible for everyone else, although one may experience metaphysical guilt due to solidarity and personal attitude/response.

The second aspect of an explication of metaphysical guilt is an understanding of social existentialism. Social existentialism theory stems from much of Jean Paul Sartre’s position which asserts that an individual chooses how to define his or her own existence. It also has its roots in Martin Heidegger’s theory of the social construction of the self. May takes the following position: “It is possible for a single person to choose which societal influences he or she will be exposed to, and hence, which kind of self he or she will become. . . . Here . . .there is no essence of the self; it is social experience or existence as well as individual choosing, that constructs the self” (May 3).

Living authentically involves knowing who one is and recognizing solidarity responsibility for the harms that occur in the world. Sartre said that “authenticity consists in having a true and lucid consciousness of the situation, in assuming the responsibilities and risks it involves, in accepting it in pride or humiliation, sometimes in horror and hate. There is no doubt that authenticity demands much courage and more than courage” (quoted in May 149). Because one makes choices that create an authentic being, there is an element of responsibility involved, even though one cannot avoid making that choice. When one refrains from choosing, a choice is still made in that process. The existentialist asserts that one always has the power to change one’s own attitude regarding a situation, his or her own position, and also how one approaches the world. Sartre would say that authentic individuals must meet head-on their own faults and the faults of the communities of which they are a part. May would perhaps depart from Sartre and assert that responsibility goes beyond bringing about a state of affairs and includes solidarity responsibility for one’s attitudes toward a harm if one is not directly associated with that harm.

Social existentialism says that an individual is responsible in some way for his or her attitude toward a harm that could potentially occur or has actually occurred. Even if no harm actually occurs, the individual who had the harmful attitude risked a harm by maintaining the attitude and, thus, shares responsibility for the harm because he or she did nothing to curb the risk. It is not necessary that circumstances ever come about that would allow for action based on the attitude. By maintaining a harmful attitude, a harm is risked and that person had a significant role in potentially causing the harm since they did nothing to halt the harm (which would have actually occurred had the appropriate circumstances come about). Thus, one has a type of obligation toward the community at large, although since no physical action was performed, (only mental in maintaining the attitude) he or she is not morally responsible, but solidarity responsible. Thus, metaphysical guilt theory is grounded in the fact that each person inevitably chooses to maintain certain attitudes and chooses to create his or her own identity under social influence. That is, choices concerning attitude and identity make metaphysical guilt possible. To illustrate, if one chooses to maintain an attitude of disgust toward a Jew, for instance, but does not physically harm a Jewish person, while another is influenced by that attitude, that is cause for metaphysical guilt.

There are degrees to which one’s character and choices are influenced by the social context and, therefore, there are degrees of solidarity responsibility. For instance, if an individual can do nothing to prevent a harm being perpetrated by his or her community, there is still an element of responsibility, which arises from obligations toward the community. If verbal disagreement is not possible or beneficial, the individual can at least mentally denounce his or her group and dissociate his or her self from the group when it takes a morally wrong action. In this situation, the individual has the opportunity to hold the community responsible for harms rather than the community holding the individual responsible. Those who can distance themselves from the group but choose not to are subject to being metaphysically guilty and are solidarity responsible.

To summarize, metaphysical guilt theory is based on a shared identity of humankind (solidarity) and individual choice (social existentialism) in the following manner. Solidarity is the identification of humans as individuals without regard to differences. It, along with social existentialism, provides the ground of an individual’s obligation toward others to at least express disapproval of morally wrong actions and this holds even if that individual did not participate in them (nor was he or she even a member of a group who did perform the harm). Thus, social existentialism, or the view that attitudes and choices are formed under group influence, are grounds for solidarity responsibility. Therefore, one may be metaphysically guilty when one did nothing to prevent a harm that one ought to have-especially if one refrains from even internally disapproving. Also, one may be metaphysically guilty if one benefits from harm performed at a previous time.

Moral taint, as we have described it, is synonymous with metaphysical guilt. An individual’s state of taint can never be fully abolished. Instead, there are actions one may take to partially alleviate moral taint. Several thinkers suggest that one take “reasonable steps” to distance one’s self from the taint that could be inflicted (May 159). These steps will vary depending on the situation. May suggests one ask of oneself, “have I done all that can reasonably be expected of me to distance myself from this harm?” (May 159). While one will always be tainted, the levels to which the taint is applied may vary according to the response of the one who was tainted.

If there is nothing that an individual could have done to physically prevent a harm, then he or she cannot be held morally responsible. But that person has solidarity responsibility with respect to the choices he or she has made. One of the differences between metaphysical guilt and moral guilt is that one cannot be morally guilty for not sacrificing one’s life when there is nothing to be gained. But, should that person survive when others have been killed, he or she will often have what we have termed “metaphysical guilt.” This has been something that many Germans who lived through World War II have had to deal with-they feel “guilty” for being alive when so many were killed, particularly in situations in which they could have sacrificed their life, but it would have done nothing to alleviate the situation. They still may feel a type of guilt even if they made the choice to dissociate themselves with the collective who performed the harm, i.e. the Nazis. They can by no means be considered morally guilty and they are less tainted because they chose to, at the very least, mentally separate themselves from those who acted wrongly. Still, the situation has left them with a slightly tarnished sense of self-morality.

What if someone benefits from a harm that has occurred and is tainted by it at the same time? What is the appropriate ethical response? Recently consideration has been given to a class action lawsuit for reparations to benefit descendants of American slaves. It is argued that these reparations ought to be paid by corporations, Southern families, and, by extension, the general American public. The theory of metaphysical guilt may shed light on this issue.

Few would question the fact that slavery has had great effects upon living African Americans as well as their communities. All white Americans are members of a collective that is tainted because of that happened during the time of slavery. White Americans are seen as less than pure morally, because of the actions of their ancestors performed, even though some individuals did not preform a harm. White Americans must also question whether they have repudiated their morally wrong attitudes which would perpetuate the harm. Have they dissociated themselves from other members of their group who did perform the harm? But, taint does not imply moral responsibility which would be necessary for the application of traditional reparations to be assessed. Instead, metaphysical guilt is implied by taint. In terms of their solidarity responsibility, have white Americans done all that can be reasonably expected of them to distance themselves from the harms of slavery? Can members of other races see the needs that exists in African American individuals and communities and do what is expected of them as fellow human beings to help alleviate those needs? This attitude is imperative for there to exist solidarity among Americans of all colors. Is it plausible or beneficial to bring in the judicial system to mediate in this matter?

Since all Americans to some extent have received economic benefits from slavery, ought they be required to make reparation for what their ancestors and for what their fellow Americans did in oppression another group of people? What type of payment is appropriate for solidarity responsibility? Currently, it has been theorized that the basic crux of the lawsuit will be to prove that one is subject to being compelled to make rectification for the consequences of a harm-to show liability. The main difficulty in this case arises when most white Americans and most corporations do not consider themselves to have done anything for which they ought to be held responsible. If an individual or their ancestor emigrated to the U.S. after slavery was abolished, they are still tainted by virtue of solidarity and have solidarity responsibility as well. Thus, the burden is to show that solidarity is a necessary condition to a well-functioning society and personal choice is integral in forming solidarity. Personal attitudes and choices that lead to a lack of solidarity are, therefore, the ground upon which one could justify reparations.

It seems that this piece of potential litigation essentially seeks to create a feeling and environment of solidarity that apparently does not exist currently because the harms of slavery have not been sufficiently rectified. It is on the grounds of justice that solidarity is championed. But would the lawsuit create solidarity? Francis Fukuyama suggests that solidarity can only be formed by internal beliefs and habits not rules or regulations (Fukuyama 9). Thus, affirmative action or other similar programs cannot create solidarity. It seems that change is created through individual interaction, not government programs. If this is true, it would seem that just giving every descendent of a slave a check for $1000 will not create meaningful change. Several attorneys involved with this case have recognized this and suggested that the reparation money be used to create programs of social and moral education (Hitt 43). There is possible danger in this solution as well because it may alienate other minority communities who feel (and perhaps rightly so) that they have been oppressed as well. The following solution may or may not be possible, but perhaps the money from the lawsuit could be used to educate whites as well as blacks on their common ground-individuals meeting individuals and recognizing each other as such-not discounting the past but growing and moving on through it. This might be a specific qualification attached to the social programs.

It seems appropriate that some type of reparation is in order. There are other professionals who are much more capable of deciding what is appropriate and would do the least harm to the nation politically, legally and socially. But, theoretically, the form of reparation given above would seem to be appropriate.

An objection that is sure to come up with such a comprehensive position on moral taint is that the idea of personal responsibility will cease to be powerful because everyone is tainted by something or someone. There is an underlying fear of “incessant responsibility.” Moral taint offers the concept of a non-obligatory but ideally virtuous life whereby even though all are tainted, and ought to regret that taint, that does not necessarily entail that one has failed in his or her moral responsibility.

May’s rejoinder to this position is that because individual identity is shaped by group membership, this provides motivation for re-shaping the groups one has membership in, or at least one’s attitude toward the group, if membership happens to be involuntary. It is defeating to resign oneself to having an identification shaped by things which he or she did not choose. May asserts that humans must reshape their attitudes. People must feel motivated to avoid directly causing harm, but this motivation does not necessarily have to be weakened because moral taint adds another item on the list of things for which one ought to feel a sense of moral responsibility. May gives an example saying that “people continue to feel strongly motivated to avoid committing murder, even though there are other, lesser laws, such as traffic laws, that they are legally obligated not to violate” (Mellema Collective Responsibility 82). He asserts that people in a community ought to be motivated to avoid taint because they recognize their responsibility to the lives of other community members. If one’s own moral status is interrelated with a collective, that will negate the tendency to ignore serious evils.1 Perhaps this is just a complicated instance of positive peer pressure.

Idealistically speaking, it would be quite beneficial to live as though there really were

human solidarity. This does not seem to be logically plausible, though, because for there to be a state of inclusion, there must also be an idea of exclusion and the potential to carry the exclusivity out. One of the difficulties that arises from Jasper’s position is that because moral responsibility is as pervasive as moral guilt, unless a person does something to distance him or her self from the harm, they are held co-responsible. But how does one distance one’s self from the collective of all humankind without ceasing to be human? Perhaps one ought to maintain an overarching sense of the solidarity of humankind but at the same time recognize that it is when one is a member of a smaller group that he or she can form his or her own authentic identity. By sustaining a sense of solidarity, community is fostered which helps create an ethical society due to the closeness of relationships, while it is within one’s smaller groups that he or she can choose what kind of person to become and be responsible for his or her character.

Would anything change if one could be tainted by positive things rather than by harmful acts? How would the concept of moral taint be affected if consideration was given to individuals being tainted by morality rather than immorality i.e . benefitting from morally praiseworthy actions of others within one’s group. It seems this is what commonly occurs during the Olympics in televised human interest personal biographies. When a Kansas farmer chooses to relate or identify with a Russian ice skater, all the world seems to applaud because solidarity is often what this athletic phenomenon is intended to achieve. When it is a matter of the triumph rather than defeat of the human spirit, everyone wants to be “tainted” by this success. Why ought we seek to avoid metaphysical guilt when we pursue joy in identifying with others’s successes? If we accept the one, perhaps we ought to accept the other as well-particularly because metaphysical guilt is involved in one’s personal sense of morality and not just one’s sense of triumph and victory over various difficult odds.

Moral taint, in the form of metaphysical guilt, forces individuals to evaluate their lives and consider whether or not they are happy with the type of person they have become. This theory can cohere with many world-views and many religions. Within those groups a greater sense of community is formed due to the prevalence of metaphysical guilt and the solidarity that must exist previous to its formation. It seems that metaphysical guilt can be used to benefit humankind because it encourages greater responsibility within various groups, which is an advantage to all people.


Appiah, Anthony. “Racism and Moral Pollution” Philosophical Forum, 18, (1987), pp185-202.

Fukuyama, Francis. Trust. Free Press, New York. 1995.

Hitt, Jack. “Making the Case for Racial Reparations” Harper’s Magazine (Forum), November (2000), pp 38-51

Klassen, Johann. “Punishment and the Purification of Moral Taint” Journal of Social Philosophy, 27 (1996), pp 51-64.

May, Larry. Sharing Responsibility. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. 1992.

Mellema, Gregory. Collective Responsibility. Rodopi Press, Atlanta. 1997.

Mellema, Gregory. Individuals, Groups, and Shared Moral Responsibility. Peter Lang, New York. 1988.

Oliner, Samuel and Pearl. The Altruistic Personality Free Press, New York. 1988.

Schultz, Walter. Kinesis “Towards a communitarian liberalism” Vol 21 number 1, Summer 94.

The quote in the title is from Mellema “Collective Responsibility” p 76.

1See Oliner’s book for further explanation.

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