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Nov 1, 1974

Kaufmann, “Without Guilt and Justice: From Decidophobia to Autonomy”

“Together, guilt and justice form a “two-headed dragon” that, in our culture, constitutes one of the most potent enemies of individual freedom.”

The vast majority of men, according to Walter Kaufmann, are slaves—not through external compulsion, nor yet through willing choice, but precisely through the failure to make choices, to exert decisive control over their own lives. Without Guilt and Justice is a penetrating study of the nature of that failure and of the requirements of genuine freedom, self-direction, and personal autonomy.

Mankind is at a curiously inconsistent point in its history, Kaufmann observes: for the most part we have progressed beyond explicit religion, yet religious ways of thinking still predominate, at least in fields like politics and morality. Hardly anyone nowadays, if asked why he behaves as he does, would answer, “Because it is God’s will,” but most people still act as if they were under the purview of some higher, mystical authority. Such authority takes many forms, but one of the most common is justice.

The principle of justice dictates that men should be treated in certain ways not because such treatment will have desirable consequences, but simply because it is “deserved.” This notion of “deserving” particular rewards and punishments, Kaufmann argues, has no basis in reality; it makes sense only within the context of religion. In today’s world, justice serves primarily as a substitute for religion, i.e., as a psychological crutch for those who do not know how, and are afraid, to make their own decisions. It is an expression of what Kaufmann calls “decidophobia.”

On the socio-political level, Kaufmann attacks both the liberals’ and the conservatives’ favorite forms of justice (distributive and retributive justice respectively), arguing that neither is consistent with rational decision-making. The purpose of laws, he points out, presumably is to alter people’s behavior in certain ways; an obsession with giving people what they “deserve” can only obscure and interfere with this purpose. Thus, for example, :“it makes sense to punish people for parking violations, but it does not make sense to insist that those who have violated various parking regulations have thus shown that they are wicked.”

Similar considerations apply to guilt, which is a personal expression, and emotional enforcer, of justice: “To say that anyone is, or feels, guilty is to say that he deserves, or feels that he deserves, punishment.” Together, guilt and justice form a “two-headed dragon” that, in our culture, constitutes one of the most potent enemies of individual freedom.

The truly free man—the autonomous man—guides his life not by considerations of what he and others deserve, but by a scrupulous weighing of the probable consequences of his actions. He is future- rather than past-oriented; like a conscientious surgeon, he does not torment himself with guilt feelings over errors he has made, but instead tries to learn from such errors so that he can avoid repeating them. (Surgeons who do continually worry about how much blame they deserve for their mistakes, Kaufmann points out, become “neurotic menaces.” The same is true, of course, in other areas of life.)

To those who insist that guilt feelings are necessary for the prevention of “anti-social” behavior, Kaufmann’s answer is a masterpiece of quiet sarcasm:

Admittedly, there are some people whose social conscience depends on resentment and is ultimately rooted in self-hatred. When they make progress with their analyst and manage to have a satisfying sexual relationship, their political activism ebbs away. People of this type are rather like the earnest students of a decade or two earlier who used to say that a person who does not believe in God (or hell) simply has no reason for not committing rape or murder. They were deeply troubled and afraid of what they themselves might do if they ever lost their faith. Millions have discovered that one can care for one’s fellow men and refrain from monstrous crimes without belief in hell or God. Surely, self-criticism and a social conscience can survive the death of guilt.

Autonomy, Kaufmann declares, does not mean a life free of conflicts or alienation; it does not even mean happiness, if happiness is taken as a state of pleasurable contentment. “Liberation involves a bitter knowledge of solitude, failure, and despair, but also the sense of triumph that one feels when standing, unsupported, on forbidding peaks, seeing the unseen.” For those willing to pay the price, Without Guilt and Justice can be a profound help in achieving that sense of triumph. Reviewed by Robert Masters / Philosophy-Psychology (274 pages) / LR Price $7.95