Noah Smith: Original Sin

A new survey indicates that Germany is the most popular country on the planet. Whatever the reasons for that, and whatever the survey’s scientific shortcomings it strikes me as a very good sign. It hints that the world no longer stereotypes Germany as “those guys who tried to conquer the world and kill all the Jews back in the early 20th century”.

I have never been a big fan of collective ancestral guilt. There seems to me to be no benefit in holding people responsible for what their ancestors did. My reasons for thinking this are threefold:

1. It makes people unnecessarily sad. I have a German professor friend whose grandfather was an officer in the S.S. When she hears about the Holocaust or other Nazi atrocities, she breaks down crying. It’s good for people to remember and learn about past atrocities and feel a bit bad when hearing or thinking about them - that is how we prevent future atrocities. But the degree of guilt and sadness my friend feels is huge overkill. 

2. It strikes me as grossly unfair. Consider my German professor friend. Why should she have to feel bad about something that she didn’t do? I’m sure I have ancestors who ate babies, tortured people, etc. etc. Why should my German friend bear more than her fair share of the responsibility of remembering, and feeling guilty and bad about, humanity’s past atrocities, just because her evil ancestors lived more recently than my evil ancestors?

3. It perpetuates a cycle of group hatreds. At some point in the past, all of our ancestors did terrible things to all of our other ancestors. If we were able to maintain all those feuds, every member of every race, religion, ethnicity, and nationality on the planet would hate every other member of every other race, religion, ethnicity, and nationality on the planet. A universe of Hatfields and McCoys. Who needs that?? 

Anyway, it occurs to me that the question of collective ancestral guilt for things like the World Wars and the Holocaust is really the question of Original Sin. One of the interesting parts of David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years was his discussion of the idea that people are born with debts to society that need to be repaid. The religious idea of Original Sin is the idea that we owe God a blood debt - not just our lives, but our infinite afterlives - because Adam and Eve disobeyed God and ate a forbidden fruit.  

Even putting aside the oddity of the question of why this punishment is proportional to the crime, it seems wrong to me that any person should be held accountable, even by God, for something someone else did. From the first time I heard about the idea of Original Sin, I thought it was utterly and irredeemably absurd. 

My attitude is a result of our species’ great transition from collectivism to individualism. 

But it also strikes me that there is a way in which Original Sin, in a slightly modified form, can be a useful, good concept in a modern, individualistic society. All humans have the capacity to do evil things, and we need to remember that fact. What World War 2 taught us is not that Germans are evil, it’s that any people can become evil in the right situation. Every one of us carries the potential for cruelty, sadism, callousness, and barbarism in his or her brain, inherited from our real-life Adams and Eves.  

We don’t owe God a blood debt. We don’t bear responsibility for the crimes of our ancestors. But we do have something dark within us, always straining to get out, always testing its strength against the bonds of empathy, morality, and society that constrain it. We must always keep this Beast in check - not by lamenting the sins of our ancestors, but by imagining all our own possible future sins, and making sure that they never happen.