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Effective Executive Magazine:
The Problem with Guilt
 
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Every human society has a system of laws and moral codes which order the way people can live together, work together, collaborate with each other or do business together. When people “intentionally” break these laws and codes, we call them “guilty” and punish them accordingly. It has always been settled that we have the capacity to decide whether to commit a crime or break a moral code and therefore the concept of guilt made sense. However, modern researchers in a number of fields, including the author’s fields of behavioral neurogenetics and clinical psychology, have cast doubt on this most fundamental of all human concepts. Perhaps we do not have the control over our actions that we thought. Maybe all of our decisions are based on genetics, habit and experience-drivers largely beyond both our control and our understanding. The paper looks in detail at some of these drivers and how we might look at the idea of guilt and innocence in a new and perhaps more productive light.

   
Not long ago, possibly the last of the perpetrators of the Nazi holocaust was put on trial and found “guilty.” I believe that he richly deserved his fate—or at least that society had the right to seek his incarceration. We need to be able to separate those who would harm others and render them harmless by banishing them, locking them away or even, in extremis, by depriving them of their lives.

However, it is one thing to say that these individuals are dangerous (although an ex-Nazi guard in his 90s may not be actually that much of a threat), and quite another to say that they are “guilty” of a crime. “Therein,” as Shakespeare said, “lies the rub.” Guilt in the normal sense of the word assumes that the action the person was guilty of was a conscious choice to do whatever it was that they were accused of.