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2020090120201001 (R4)What is guilt - is it a legal verdict, a state of mind or a moral idea? Why do we feel guilty? And is there such a thing as collective guilt, by which a whole community or even country may be judged?

A criminal barrister but also grown up a Catholic, Helena Kennedy QC cross-examines the notion of guilt from a range of perspectives - legal, psychological and political.

Guilt is both a public judgement and a private emotion, both legal and psychological. It's also highly political. Following recent Black Lives Matter insurgency across the UK the question of collective guilt - historical guilt - is animating debates around Britain's colonial past and demands for reparations. The example of Germany and the trials at Nuremberg following the Second World War are a model of how law has confronted, and struggled with, ideas of collective guilt. Today there is strong moral disagreement around how far back in time shared responsibility for historic crimes should extend - ‘…the guilt remains, more deeply rooted, more securely lodged, than the oldest of old trees' the Black American author James Baldwin wrote of slavery and its continuing impact, ‘..history is present in all that we do'.

Jewish guilt, Catholic guilt, guilt as a state of inner conflict. In psychoanalysis, it divides the self even as it creates a shared bond with others. On an everyday level most of us reflect on feelings of guilt - not keeping a promise, not telling the truth, failing in our obligations. Where do those feelings of moral guilt, indeed of conscience, come from? And has our understanding of guilt really changed over time?

With her own experience as a criminal barrister and hearing from a range of contributors, Helena takes the legal notion of guilt as a verdict and ventures outwards drawing on religious ideas, psychoanalytic insight, political grievance and the meaning of historic justice.

Contributors include the author Howard Jacobsen, psychoanalyst and writer Adam Phillips, curator Aliyah Hasinah, international lawyer Philippe Sands, legal scholar and barrister Conor Gearty, author Svenja O'Donnell, barrister Ulele Burnham, writer and journalist Rhik Samadder and moral philosopher Michael Sandel.

Producer: Simon Hollis

A Brook Lapping production for BBC Radio 4

Helena Kennedy QC explores guilt as a legal, psychological and political idea.

What is guilt? Is it a legal verdict, a state of mind or a moral idea? Why do we feel guilty? And can it be carried across generations – is there such a thing as collective guilt, by which a whole community or even country may be judged?

A criminal barrister, but also grown up a Catholic, Helena Kennedy QC cross-examines the notion of guilt from a range of perspectives - legal, psychological and political.

It's debatable whether guilt is a public judgement or a private emotion, whether legal ideas about guilt inform psychological ones or the other way around. It's also political. Following Black Lives Matter, the question of a country's collective guilt - historical guilt - is animating recent debates around Britain's colonial past and reparations for slavery, in both the United States and increasingly in the UK. The example of German guilt and reparations to the Jewish community after the Second World War is being discussed as a model for how this might work in practice. There is strong disagreement, not least around the measure of collective guilt being invoked and how far back in time it should extend - ‘…the guilt remains, more deeply rooted, more securely lodged, than the oldest of old trees,' the African-American author James Baldwin wrote of slavery and its continued impact on the present.

Jewish guilt, Catholic guilt, guilt as a state of inner conflict. Explored in fiction, it's a key issue that literature has taken from law, turned on its head and reflected back to the legal system - spectacularly in Kafka's The Trial - while philosophers have reflected on guilt as a form of being, a primal existential condition. In Freud too, guilt is an animating force, coded into the psyche, powerfully driving our relationships. On an everyday level, most of us reflect on feelings of guilt - not keeping a promise, not telling the truth, failing in our obligations. Where do those feelings of moral guilt, indeed of conscience, come from? And has our understanding of guilt really changed over time?

Drawing on her own experience as a criminal barrister and hearing from a range of contributors, Helena takes the legal notion of guilt as a verdict and ventures outwards, drawing on religious ideas, psychoanalytic insight, literary imagination, political grievance and the meaning of historic justice.

Contributors include the author Howard Jacobsen, psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, activist and curator Aliyah Hasinah, Philippe Sands QC, legal scholar and barrister Conor Gearty, biographer Svenja O'Donnell, moral philosopher Michael Sandel, barrister Ulele Burnham and writer and journalist Rhik Samadder.

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