Feeling Guiltyby Arthur Dobrin -- Leader of the Ethical Humanist Society of Long Island.
Many thoughtful parents want to shield their children from feelings of guilt or shame in much the same way that they want to spare them from fear. Guilt and shame as methods of discipline are to be eschewed along with raised hands and leather straps. Fear, guilt and shame as methods of moral instruction are seen as failures in decent parenting. Parents want their children to be happy and how can you feel happy when you are feeling guilty, fearful or ashamed? If we were really convinced that using fear, guilt or shame as methods of discipline worked, though, we might be more ready to use them as techniques. But we aren't convinced that this is the case. We won't have more socially responsible people if fear, guilt and shame are part of their disciplinary diet as children.
Instead, we will simply have unhappy people. Responsible behavior has nothing to do with the traditional methods of raising moral children. This doesn't mean that guilt isn't an important feeling. It is. Guilt helps keep people on the right moral track. But guilt is a derivative emotion, one that follows from having violated an internalized moral standard. This is far different than making someone feel guilty in order to create the standard in the first instance.
My wife once edited a magazine about hunger. A view held by many associated with the sponsoring organization claimed, You can't get people to give money to starving children by making them feel guilty. So the magazine didn't show pictures of starving children, children with doleful eyes. Instead, there were photos of women in the fields, portraits of peasant farmers and pictures of political organizers. But the publishers weren't completely right about believing that guilt-inducing pictures doesn't lead to moral action. In fact, it was the graphic pictures of starving children in Somalia that called the world's attention to the dire situation there. The power of television is that it does bring images of others' tragedies directly into our home. No rational analysis can do the same. When we are moved to pity, we should also be moved to action.
If we don't do anything, then we feel guilty. We become part of the problem we see and feel guilty for letting bad things happen to people. How can I, good person that I am, let this continue? What has pricked the conscience here are guilty feelings.
Perhaps the most famous account of the origins of guilt is Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents. His theory is that guilt arises because there is a conflict between the demands of civilization and that of an individual's instincts. In Freud's view, inside each person there is a seething cauldron bubbling with sexual passion. No society can survive if people acted upon this instinct at will, so we have laws which put a lid on libidinous behavior. But that doesn't make the sexual drive go away. It merely represses it. This creates a serious problem, though, since humans also have a need to release their tensions. What we have, then, is an ongoing conflict between passion and the law, between sexual energy and society. Civilization, Freud says, exists upon the very discontent it has created.
The analysis doesn't rest there. Freud goes farther by noting that most of us, as adults, don't experience civilization as something external to ourselves. Rather we take it in as an active part of our very being. We internalize the voices that told us as children, Don't do that; no, you can't have that. This internalized voice is the superego. It functions as society's watchdog and it watches over us, Freud writes, like a garrison in a conquered city. The importance of the superego, from society's perspective, is that it acts in place of parents, courts and the police. When it is operating fully, a person doesn't even need society to punish him for his misdeeds. Our guilty consciences make us feel terrible enough, so bad that we won't make the same mistake again.
The process operates largely unnoticed, as it exists in part in our unconscious minds. Our sense of guilt, then, is a result of suppressing our instinctive natures for the sake of the larger good we call civilization. Freud thought this was inevitable and even necessary. Guilt is the price for having a conscience.
Guilty feelings arise when we have violated a moral norm that we accept as valid. A person who feels guilty, notes philosopher Herbert Morris, is one who has internalized norms and, as such, is committed to avoiding wrong. The mere fact that the wrong is believed to have occurred, regardless of who bears responsibility for it, naturally causes distress. When we are attached to a person, injury to that person causes us pain regardless of who or what has occasioned the injury. We needn't believe that we had control over hurting (or not helping) another person in order to feel guilty.
Psychologists Nico Frijda and Batja Mesquita of the University of Amsterdam find that people feel guilty about having harmed someone even when it was accidental. Nearly half the people they interviewed felt guilty for having caused unintended harm, such as hurting one's mother when leaving home to marry.
Unintentional harm may lead to as strong guilt feelings as intentional harm. In other words, being careless is as much a source of guilt as intentional harm. We say, If only I had been more careful, If only I had paid more attention, If only I were a better driver. The fact that a court may not even bring charges against you in the first place may help to assuage some of the pain but it doesn't remove all the feelings of guilt.
The feeling is useful in so far as it makes us more cautious, makes us better drivers or moves us to socially responsible action. The sociopath never experiences such feelings and therefore poses a danger to society; the neurotic experiences so much of it that he can't function normally in society.
Feeling guilty for harm you have caused when you aren't responsible is possible because there is a more generalized readiness to accept responsibility for your actions. Guilt arises when we think we have had choices and then have made the wrong moral choice. Guilt and responsibility appear to go together. If we do harm and feel no guilt, then we don't believe we are responsible for what we've done. This means that we see ourselves as victims -- of circumstances, of coercion, of ignorance and so forth.
Remember that people who think of themselves as victims do so because they believe they have no control over events in their lives. They don't feel responsible and therefore don't feel guilty either. Several tactics can be used in disavowing responsibility: following the crowd, it is someone else's problem, it was done under duress.
Some eschew responsibility by claiming that they had nothing to do with the situation. It's not my problem, is the refrain. I have heard people decry the state of the environment as they get into their cars to drive a few blocks to the supermarket for a small bag of groceries or people who complain about rudeness on the part of youngsters and have no compunctions about mistreating waiters. They refuse to see their part and by refusing to see, feel no responsibility. These people then claim the moral high ground without having a rightful claim to it. They feel good in their self-righteousness.
None of us is perfect and that we live in an imperfect world. This means that we can't avoid hurting others. As the Japanese poet Shuntaro Tanikawa expresses it,
As surely as the earth turns, we will do harm again. In the silence of our hearts . . . there we must make a promise to ourselves, a promise we must try to keep. This is the promise to harm less often, speak less sharply, tear less cruelly. Only we can repair the tears, mend that which we have rent.
If we accept this, then we have to accept guilt feelings as a consequence of being moral people.
Guilt has its place in morality. The Oliners (researchers who studied what made some Germans rescue Jews during the Holocaust despite great personal risk), found that about half the rescuers of Jews were motivated by guilt. But guilt that leads to responsible behavior results from violating moral standards that have been accepted and internalized by a person. The work of Leo Montada bears directly on this point. He studied what he terms existential guilt.
This kind of guilt arises when, for example, a person is the sole survivor of an accident or escapes persecution or survives a concentration camp. Primo Levi was so consumed by this pervading sense of guilt, having lived through the Holocaust as an Italian Jew, that he committed suicide decades later. This feeling is easy to understand when the survivor was close to those who perished.
Leo Montada wanted to know if such guilt is also felt in less extreme circumstances and whether it is experienced in regard to socially distant individuals or strangers. He found that three factors were necessary to produce such guilt: they accepted the fact that there were people less fortunate than themselves; they believed that the needy were not deserving of their fate; and they believed that their well-being was linked to another's misfortune. And the guilt they experienced motivated them to take action on behalf of the needy. In other words, those who felt guilt already had a set of ethical values.
The clear conclusion from the studies on guilt is that attempting to induce guilt as a means of creating a moral standard that will be accepted by the individual is bound to fail. The process is backwards. Guilt flows from morality, not the other way around. If people feel guilty when they have done wrong, it is because they already possess a moral compass. But if they are lacking the rudiments of moral feelings and don't possess mature moral judgment, then deliberately instilling guilt won't create an ethical person. Instead it will more likely create an angry, hostile person.
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