Guilt is a useless emotion.
— Jiddu Krishnamurti
Some years ago, a few of us were sitting around the coffee shop pretending to have a conversation about passing dogs. You know, one of those days when no one seems able to think of something better to talk about:
“There’s a dog!”
“I see. Quite a dog!”
“It looks happy…”
“Or a mix.”
“Wow! That babe coming down the sidewalk. She’s gorgeous! Flat out gorgeous!”
“True, but she’s not a dog.”
Things went on like that for about three-quarters of an hour before someone said, “I’m ashamed to be wasting time talking about dogs.” Half of us nodded and mumbled, “yeah”, so I decided then and there to destroy the conversation, for in chaos is renewal. “Shame is a useless emotion, ” I pronounced, “Same as guilt.”
Everyone fell silent and looked at me. So, I put on a distracted look — as if I had totally forgotten the matter and was now fascinated by the sparrows flitting by. I wanted to know if anyone was interested to pursue it. In a moment, I had my answer: “You can’t just say something like that and not explain yourself. What do you mean?”
The resulting conversation was a lively free for all in which some of us spoke at once, and all but one or two of us had an opinion. But I don’t suppose any of us were really thinking about it — we were just tossing out our convictions and preconceptions. Still, I managed to take away from that conversation the lesson that some of us place a lot of faith in guilt and shame.
We think shame and guilt — especially guilt — are reliable guides to whether or not we have done wrong. As one person put it, “Guilt is my moral compass.” And someone else said, “People who don’t feel guilt are psychopaths, and psychopaths can’t tell right from wrong.”
I think my friend apparently thought a failure to feel guilt made you a psychopath. But psychopaths have other characteristics besides a failure to feel guilt. For instance, they do not feel empathy, and they tend to blame others for their harmful behavior, among other things. That is, anyone who does not feel guilt is not by that fact alone made a psychopath.
Now, people sometimes distinguish between shame and guilt. Accordingly, we feel shame when:
- Someone accuses us of violating a moral standard.
- We believe we bear significant responsibility for the violation.
- We believe they are within their rights or otherwise justified to accuse us.
Guilt is very similar, but does not rely on someone else accusing us. In effect, we accuse ourselves. Thus, we feel guilt when:
- We believe that we have violated a moral standard.
- We believe we are significantly responsible for the violation.
To date, I have only heard one reason given for why shame and guilt are useful emotions. Namely, that they are reliable guides to what is right or wrong. I have several problems with that notion, but I will only bring up two of them.
First, I think all morality is ultimately arbitrary. It’s true that I might posit an overriding principle or value — such as human well-being — and then logically derive from that principle or value a coherent set of morals, but that does not negate the fact my coherent set of morals is ultimately grounded in an arbitrary decision that one principle or value shall override the others. Yet, if that is indeed the case — if all morality is ultimately arbitrary — then the moral standards I might feel shame or guilt for violating are ultimately arbitrary. Thus, I cannot rely on my feelings of shame or guilt to reveal values that are ultimately any more objective than any other values.
Second, I was reminded of that coffee shop conversation today when I read D’Ma’s post, “Every Time I Fail“, over on her blog, Gullible’s Travels. In her post, D’Ma talks about the Christian notion of guilt she was raised with, and how difficult it has been for her to escape feelings of religious guilt, despite her rejection of Christianity:
Even doubting as I do, even having relinquished inerrancy and even divine inspiration, even realizing that belief in the God of the Bible is probably nothing more than believing in the Tooth Fairy, when I see these images and hear the words to songs like Feel the Nails the guilt and shame wash over me anew and I have to remind myself that I don’t crucify Jesus every time I fail.
I recall friends who, somewhat like D’Ma, became non-theists only to now and then still feel guilt for sinning against the Christian God. Shame and guilt are frequently of the past. They are often outdated. We change. We grow. But all too often, our shame and guilt do not.
For those two and other reasons, I do not believe shame and guilt are useful emotions. People have told me they are reliable guides to right or wrong. But it seems to me they are — at the very best — no more reliable than anything else, for it seems to me all values are ultimately based on arbitrary decisions. Moreover, they can be out of whack with our more mature values. That is, we can feel shame or guilt for violating moral standards we no longer hold. In either case, they seem to me useless emotions.
Yet, what do you think? Are shame and guilt useful? And if so, how?