What is Guilt?

What is guilt? There is no shortage of things to feel guilty about these days and this has produced everything from victims to neurotics. There are solutions but do any of them work?

Guilt and the Human Condition

As someone who was raised in a culture that capitalized on guilt as a motivator for action, I’ve spent a good deal of my adult life dealing with guilt’s effects. I’ve had to be very intentional about breaking out of the entrenched guilt-ridden psychology that was drilled into me as a child. But at the same time I’m trying to understand what guilt is, how it functions and what, if any, role it should play in a healthy psychology.

While I don’t believe religion was the source of the paralytic guilt I was dealing with, I came to realize that was used as a type of catalyst for it. I nibbled around the edges of the problem for years and finally had a breakthrough when, on the advice of more than a few friends, I picked up Earnest Becker’s 1973 masterpiece The Denial of Death.

His thesis (which builds on the work of Freud and Otto Rank) is that as mortal but conscious mammals, we are aware of the horrific reality that we will someday cease to exist. All of our personal investments, memories, friendships, aspirations, and goals perish along with us. That truth is so immensely difficult, so all-consuming, that it dominates our psychology and is at the root of just about all of that we do. Most of our activities are designed to keep us from focusing on the fact that we will die someday.  Russell Shorto in Descartes’ Bones sums up the idea nicely:

“Death is the event in life. It is our chief organizing principle. It's why we rush and why we dawdle. Why we butter-up our bosses and fawn over our children. Why we like both fast cars and fading flowers. Why we write poetry. Why sex thrills us. It's why we wonder why we are here.”

And its why we feel guilty. But what is guilt? Where does it come from? According to Becker, guilt is partially fed by the knowledge of all the life we know we’re not going to be able to live and by the fear that death my visit us on a schedule that doesn’t coincide with ours. If I came to realize that today was my last day to live, I’d wonder: did I waste the day (or worse, my life)? Could I have done the day “better”? Did I give enough, love enough, be productive enough, invest in my legacy enough? Becker writes:

“To lie to oneself about one’s own potential development is another cause of guilt. It is one of the most insidious daily inner gnawings a person can experience. Guilt, remember, is the bind that man experiences when he is humbled and stopped in ways that he does not understand, when he is overshadowed in his energies by the world. But the misfortune of man is that he can experience this guilt in two ways: as bafflement from without and from within—by being stopped in relation to his own potential development. Guilt results from unused life, from ‘the unlived in us.’”

Of course existentialists like Kierkegaard saw this well before Freud (as Becker points out) and the ancients faced this problem much more poignantly than we here in the 21st century being so buffeted by technology as we are. Nevertheless, guilt still figures prominently in our psychology (in the psychology of many of us anyway). In a recent article for the Catholic periodical First Things, Wilfred McClay tackles the problem. While McClay’s article is moderately religious in orientation, I think there is enough substance in his analysis to appeal to the general reader. You may not agree with his conclusions but his analysis has some bright spots worth reflecting upon.

Modern Guilt

On McClay’s view, modern, non-religious treatments (he focuses mainly on Freud’s ideas here) neuter the notion of guilt by untethering it from any moral foundation. We feel an overwhelming sense of guilt for a variety of things but really don’t know why. In this sense, he says, guilt is unreal. It seems like a fabrication because without any moral connection, there is nothing to be guilty of. How can we be guilty for anything when we’re accountable for nothing? But there’s a problem here. Moderns have gotten very good at piling on responsibility for just about everything from what we put in our bodies to the well being of the planet. He writes,

There is another factor at work too, one that may be called the infinite extensibility of guilt. This proceeds from a very different set of assumptions, and it is a surprising by-product of modernity’s proudest product: its ever growing capacity to comprehend and control the physical world. In a world in which the web of relationships between causes and effects becomes ever better understood, in which the means of communication and transportation become ever more efficient and effective, and in which individuals become ever more powerful and effective agents, the range of our potential moral responsibility, and therefore of our potential guilt, expands to literally infinite proportions….Colonialism, slavery, structural poverty, water pollution, deforestation—there’s an endless list of items for which you and I can take the rap. The demands on an active conscience are literally as endless as an active imagination’s ability to conjure them.

This is one of the more significant observations McClay makes and I couldn’t agree more. As someone who lives in one of the more progressive areas of the United States, the sheer number of guilt-inducing social responsibilities alone are overwhelming. Recycle more, drive less (and only a hybrid), help the poor, make sure your kids read, exercise, don’t buy a big house, do buy a small car, buy organic, buy local, buy fair trade, help the needy, walk for the cure, work more, work less, neuter and spay, vote democrat, and on and on it goes. As McClay points out, much of these are good ideas in general. But they’re presented as true moral options and choosing wrongly carries deep moral weight and because of that, guilt. Yet without a clear moral foundation on which to place the moral burden, the cognitive dissonance one must conjure up can be maddening—literally. He cites the work of Frenchman Pascal Bruckner who calls the condition “Western masochism.”

The bigger problem, says McClay, is that there is no clear path to alleviating all this growing guilt. We moderns have had to come up with all sorts of creative ways to salve the thousands of psychological cuts that threaten mental breakdown including becoming victims--either by invention or transferrence--in order to establish a basis for excusing our intangible moral failings. The oppressor becomes the responsible one and the victim, as innocent, is released from the burden of guilt.

Forgive Me Father, For I Have Sinned

McClay argues that “secular victimhood” is a product of a perversion of the Christian ethic. Not surprisingly, he finds the orthodox Judeo-Christian moral system to be the only one that’s really satisfactory. What is more surprising is that Becker, who was by no means a theist, tended to agree. The reason theism works is because God’s forgiveness can allow us to bypass all the labor and burden of having to overcome the basis for our guilt (which, theists argue, we could never do anyway) and “relieve the debt” in one fell swoop, for now and for eternity.

What McClay doesn’t really address but Becker, in inexplicit terms does, is that the psychological benefit of theism accrues to the theistic moral system and is not necessarily dependent on its being true. In other words, one’s guilt is relieved by believing that God has forgiven sins and this “works” as a psychological heuristic even if there actually is no God. (I’m reminded here of Peter DeVries observation that, “It is the final proof of God's omnipotence that he need not exist in order to save us.”) I don’t see any particular difference, at least in this life, between believing that God has forgiven sins and His actually forgiving sins. Of course for the belief to have any potency, if one truly believes that God forgives sins, then one believes God forgives sins. But the reverse is not true. It doesn’t seem to be necessary that there is a sin-forgiving God in order for the belief that there is to be efficacious.

But this demonstrates that ideas are powerful things and if theism as an idea is powerful enough to help us manage guilt, maybe there are other ideas that are just as powerful and even more effective. McClay (and to an extent Becker) doesn’t see any real contenders in the near future.  It might seem incredibly narrow to think there is one cure for guilt because the causes of guilty feelings are as diverse as the people that have them. But McClay and Becker find that theism is as close to a consistent cure as one can find. (For my own part, I found that a healthy application of theism coupled with other psychological devices were more than sufficient not only to heap on the guilt but to heap it on to the point of psychological paralysis. Sure God forgives but he holds the faithful to a high standard and success or failure in this life anyway is dependent on how good you can manage to be. But this is for another time.)

McClay concludes that guilt is an important part of our psychology. It is “surely one of the essentials of our human makeup, the very core of moral responsibility, and a spur to many of the noblest acts in human history. We should not want to hector it or narcotize it into oblivion, for we would not be human at all anymore without it.” But, he says, it does need to be managed and we should do so in ways that cultivate more authentic selves. On that, I couldn’t agree more.

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