Monday, August 13, 2012

On Guilt

Guilt is an artefact of the human psyche. This seems fairly clear. It is not in itself an external construct, but something that comes from within us. We are social animals, it is in our DNA as it were. What we call guilt is doubtless a mechanism by which our mind recognises when we have acted against the interests of the group.
The thing is, the acts and circumstances which guilt reacts to and attaches to do not seem to be, in general, specific, that is, they are not naturally within us, in our DNA. Most of them are created socially, consciously even, and may often be individual, and unconscious, arbitrary.
This has serious consequences for those, probably a large minority, if not a majority, who are not in full control of their minds.

The existence of guilt causes complications when it is possible to recognise and analyse it with the conscious intellect. Because it is in our mind we treat it differently from the body parts, and we want it to be important.

We analyse it, we use it, we abuse it, we fear it and suffer from it, we invent

Feeling guilty about something gives information about who we were brought up with. It tells us nothing about the intrinsic rightness or wrongness of the act we feel guilty about. This is clearly true because guilt may be felt by one person for doing someth ingwhich another one would feel guilty about not doing. The same person can feel guilt for doing at one time in their life something which they would feel guilty about not doing at another time and in the same situation. Guilt is something we all feel but it attaches to things not for fundamental reasons but because it is told to. It can be anything.

What we feel is a cultural or social invention. Because guilt itself is a part of our nature we need to find something to attach it to, and the environment we are brought up in provides this, in the same way that it provides a broader set of norms with which we determine what we hold to be moral or immoral, right or wrong. We may be happy to accept those norms, some people are comfortable enough to live their whole lives with the morals they learnt as children. Others learn new ideas about right and wrong, or they fashion their own from what they can take from around them.

Guilt, however, can be felt when going against an idea of right or wrong that you once held, or that was once held by those around you, but that you no longer hold. You may do something you believe to be right (or not wrong), but feel guilt because you would once have thought it wrong.

In other worlds, a sense of guilt tells us nothing useful, not even whether we ourselves believe we are doing wrong. We need to think more deeply to determine where an act within a situation lies in the framework of our own moral understanding. If we have one, that is, which can stand up to the pressure of detailed scrutiny without collapsing into incoherence or self-justification.


Vincent said...

I agree with a great deal of this, but it prompts the desire for discussion, of course.

For a start, I wonder what you mean by "those ... who are not in full control of their minds". Are you referring to anything like insanity? In any case I always question such expressions. What do you call that part of a person which is (allegedly) able to be in control of the mind? Is the danger not that the mind gets in control of us?

But on the matter of guilt, I prefer to look at actual instances. A universal one has to do with what we eat. When I talk to the local Muslims in the street, they complain of being tired, for they are fasting in Ramadan. In Malaysia, where to be of the Malay race compels you to be Muslim, more or less, they have mosque police to make sure everyone obeys the fast. I've known some in an office who'd go somewhere secluded to snack during the day. They might not have felt guilty about it. But round here, they apparently do, and the sense of guilt may cause some to put their health at risk whilst they observe the fast.

Anyone who's vegetarian or, like me, only wants to eat free-range happy creatures, knows the sense of guilt when we deviate from our chosen regime. I imagine that there's nobody whose dietary practice is entirely guilt-free. And in general terms we think of a person who doesn't have a sense of guilt as probably a criminal monster.

I perhaps know what you mean "a sense of guilt tells us nothing useful", but that's a bit sweeping of course. If we have no sense of guilt about committing illegal acts, that makes us potentially criminals, just awaiting motive an opportunity. And it's pretty similar with immoral acts though there isn't universal disagreement what they are.

What of the person who has no sense of guilt against what they think of as "victimless crimes"? Would you employ one, or recommend him to an employer?

Your penultimate paragraph reminds me of the tendency of certain governments (British, Australian, possibly US) to apologize for cruelties or massacres in the past; or for librarians and litterateurs to suppress literature written long before current views on racism and anti-semitism.

The other day I heard on the radio an interview with the navigator on the Enola Gay, who helped drop the bomb "Little Boy" on Hiroshima. What a character! Strong in his nineties. Clear-sighted lack of any retrospective guilt for the part he played. It was war, he said, a filthy business which involves killing. It was done to end the war and save more loss of life.

CIngram said...

By 'those who are not in full control of their minds', I meant people who are not able to identify and fully accept their own ideas of right and wrong, which is probably most of us, and probably includes me, although I like to think I am an independent thinker in matters of morality. Most of us are greatly conditioned by the ideas we absorbed from the society taht brought us up and we can reject them at one level while part of us still believes (I'm not suggesting this is any great insight of mine, but it's true).

I was briefly a vegetarian many years ago. I started because I had arrived at certain beliefs, and I stopped because I abandoned them. The decision in each case was entirely mine, but when I returned to meat I felt guilty, in the sense that I had let down the peopel who seemed to think I had done something good by giving it up.

As a cradle Catholic I can feel guilty about eating meat on Fridays, even though it is no longer a requirement except in Lent, and as I love fish and there is very good fish here, it's easy to get around.

When I say that a sense of guilt tells us nothing useful, I mean that it tells us nothing about what is right and wrong universally. Different people feel guilt for different reasons and the sense of guilt of one person is no guide to any essential morality that may exist (I'm not convinced that there is any such thing).

I wouldn't trust anyone who didn't have a personal sense of right and wrong that they applied to their own actions, but I also like to know whether their moral compass is approximately oriented with mine.

As to the aviator, I would have liked to catch the interview. Even when you know that what you have done is right, it can be hard to convince yourself of that if their are also bad consequences. When you can either act or not act, with no choice in between, you still wish there were one, and blame yourself for not finding it.

Vincent said...

You can listen to the one I heard on this programme:

Alternatively, there's a video interview here:

It could of course be that Captain van Kirk has spent his life since 1945 dealing with interviews on the same question and has hardened himself.

CIngram said...

Thanks. I'll listen to them. I expect he developef a pat answer years ago, but his body language and tone of voice will carry much information.