Guilt

Guilt, in its plainest psychological sense, is simply the painful consciousness of having done wrong. Problems with guilt arise when the sphere of wrong-doing expands to swallow up life choices, narrowing the individual to an obsequious cog, a duty slave, a moral robot. Or, when the wrong done is not specific, a vague hovering self-suspicion that can’t be discharged, like an inner crime investigation force which harasses with spying and general accusation but never lays any concrete charges. Or in the case of so-called psychopaths, antisocial personalities that lack a “painful consciousness of having done wrong,” and yet are perfectly conscious of having done something illegal, socially unacceptable, and considered immoral. But note carefully — there are two absences here, relative to the presumed moral normal: the absence of pain or sympathy is most notable, but less important than the subtler lack, namely “consciousness of having done wrong,” which is itself decidedly different from “consciousness of have done something illegal, socially unacceptable and considered immoral.” For one can know that something is against the law, not acceptable to others, and considered by them to be immoral, without thinking that thing is wrong (for instance, if the concept “morally wrong” is lacking in me, I may still be perfectly able to understand concepts like “illegal”, “unacceptable to others” and even “considered by others to be morally wrong,” in much the same way as the blind can know that something is considered by others to be chartreuse without knowing what chartreuse looks like). I’m driving a wedge between a moral concept and a social one. By my account guilt involves moral knowledge. The wrong must be known, not merely vicariously inferred. Psychopaths may be ignorant of wrong, but they know that others aren’t.

Thus, I assume that seeing our own wrong-doing hurts. Guilt is pain. It is the inner penal system, not the inner prosecutor, who simply derives high fees by exploiting that system. There are exceptions, good inner lawyers, as it were. And it helps to have a constitution, even more to have a revisable one. But the individual psyche is about as lucky on this score as the average global citizen when it comes to actual recognition of inalienable civil rights. Due process is often denied. The wheels of inner justice also grind slow. One is often guilty unless proven innocent. And proof is sadly lacking.

Original sin is often represented as a blanket accusation, an extravagant case of collective punishment. As a doctrine, it is often unfairly reduced to the advice to always feel bad about yourself. Can one inherit guilt? Come to think of it, how else is it acquired? Is guilt not a legacy of past circumstance?

Guilt ought to be distinguished from shame. They exhibit different cultural complexions. Shame is the introjection of public humiliation. Out of fear of our thoughts or actions being exposed, we refrain. Shame is all about the public gaze. There is a Confucian line somewhere that reads more or less: Ten fingers pointing. What could be worse? That is shame.

Guilt is a more personal form of persecution. Guilt is more a sense of personal culpability than of public humiliation. Guilt is the introjection, not of public embarrassment, but of cosmic judgement. When Jesus says that you violate the law when you lust after your neighbour’s spouse or harbour anger toward your brother, that’s about love. It’s about taking stock of one’s insides on a higher standard than inherited law. In short, it’s about guilt. Forget shame and public perception. Now you can judge yourself. But is this not in effect shuffling off original sin, a rejection of public and shared perceptions? There is a new law, a new standard, a higher law invisible to the public gaze.

Those who would perceive themselves without guilt had best try. Before long they will try their own tolerance. They will long for their sense of guilt to return, for we find it hard to face ourselves without our moral filters.

Nietzsche asks: what is the seal of achieved freedom? He answers: to stand before oneself without shame.

Spare no pains. You won’t regret it.

A guilty conscience suddenly leads me to confess that I do not believe in original sin. I stress this with uncharacteristic openness because it would appear to follow from what I said (g=k and g=p) that pain=knowledge, which sounds like eating an apple and getting turned on. However, my faults are my present construction, and fall into the domain of rhetorical over-enthusiasm, rather than eating forbidden fruit and getting all worked up.