Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 January 2012
History is replete with instances of great harm being committed by one group against another. Regrettably, while engaged in such harm doing, group members tend to perceive their own group's harmful actions as morally justifiable. Such legitimization protects people from the distress and guilt that they might otherwise experience when confronted with the harm done by their ingroup. Indeed, choosing not to legitimize the ingroup's actions and questioning its morality can be seen as traitorous acts. Thus, there are ample reasons to suppose that people will be strongly inclined to protect their social identity by perceiving their group's actions from the vantage point of the “moral high ground.”
Collective guilt, then, might seem to be an unlikely emotion to experience, given that its occurrence requires the self to be seen as a member of a group that has acted immorally. Despite the many impediments to doing so, around the world there have been instances where people have both publicly and privately debated whether their group's treatment of another group was justified or not. Such a reassessment of the legitimacy of the ingroup's actions can focus on historical injustices from long ago, as well as more recent and ongoing forms of intergroup harm doing. Feelings of collective guilt that are widely shared have resulted in formal apologies and other forms of reparations being issued to the harmed group as a means of making amends for the past and its continuing effects in the present.
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