Toward a Critique of Guilt: Perspectives from Law and the Humanities

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Syracuse University Press. The Life and Mind of John Dewey. Southern Illinois University Press. Only the agent himself and God can know the full inner story. We must, however, distinguish "guilt" in the strict moral meaning from the sense of guilt. The latter is the feeling that accompanies the consciousness of being guilty. It is appropriate that we should feel remorse for wrongdoing, the proper tone of the feeling being determined by its appropriateness to the situation of guilt.

There are kindred feelings appropriate to the wrongdoing we encounter or suspect in others, feelings or attitudes of blame and indignation.

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The feelings we actually have are not always appropriate to the situation, and there may thus be a sense of guilt out of all proportion to the facts of the case. Some people seem even to enjoy the sense of guilt and to cultivate it. Psychologists have helped us a great deal to understand these deviations and that other curious aberration by which some people feel guilty for things they have not done at all. Some psychologists go further. They try to account for guilt entirely in terms of psychology. A common form of this attempt is that which ascribes guilt to an alleged "need for punishment.

Coming to expect punishment for certain acts, we feel distress when we wait for it without getting it over, and the strain and anxiety induced in this way is suppressed and operates subconsciously afterwards to produce the sense of guilt in mature experience.

There is also the introjection into the "superego" of the relief experienced by those who punish us. These theories no doubt reflect states of mind which psychological investigation uncovers, and the layperson can appreciate much of them from common experience. But they seem nonetheless to be mainly concerned with aberrations and an unhealthy assumption of guilt, or perverse ways of dealing with it. The core of guilt is an ethical one, which psychology does not explain away.

If guilt, in the proper sense, turns on deliberate wrongdoing, it seems that no one can be guilty for the act of another person — there can be no shared or collective or universal guilt. Guilt is incurred by the free choice of the individual. But many have questioned this. Among them are some sociologists who misrepresent in this way the dependence of the individual on society. But the main location of the idea of collective guilt is religion.

Many forms of the doctrines of original sin and universal sin regard guilt as a pervasive state of humankind as a whole. It is the guilt of "man," not of this or that person as a whole. Others qualify this and speak of original sin which does not include original guilt. Others hold that while there can be no "great sin" and "little sin," there is inequality of guilt. But it is hard to reconcile the notion of universal sin or guilt, in any form, with elementary ethical convictions. Such notions can also do great harm, both by leading to victimization of the innocent — as in the treatment of Jews by the Nazis — and in undermining the sense of responsibility; for collective guilt is not the guilt of anyone in particular.

Why then do such doctrines of collective guilt seem plausible? Mainly through religious confusions like the following. This is the root of idolatry.

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The most grievous form of this is that by which the person himself becomes the idol — he aspires to make himself as God. But this distortion of religious experience tends to be conflated, in the heat of prophetic experience, with the expressly moral wickedness of putting one's own wishes before the proper claims of others.

This encourages the notion of an unavoidable state of sin and guilt. The figurative character of such utterances is also overlooked — for example, in interpretations of the metaphors of "bondage" or of "sin warring in all my members. This also, or the misrepresentation of it, lies behind misleading doctrines of collective guilt. This seems especially true of much Augustinian theology.

Recent anthropology has thrown new light on the origin of the idea of guilt. There was at first little distinction between the points of view of law and of morality, both being merged in communal custom. Nor was heed adequately paid to whether the results of an act were those a person intended. The community was also more the bearer of guilt than the individual, and harsh judgments were thus passed on the innocent and bitter feuds perpetuated.

But we should not allow this to determine for us how guilt must be understood in enlightened thought. Ethical notions are not jeopardized by having lowly and doubtful origins. Religious thought today helps us to appreciate what is true and what is false in notions like collective guilt. But much recent sociology and some recent ethics go further and challenge the ultimacy of the ideas of guilt and responsibility.

These are thought by some moralists and psychologists to be ideas we ought to have outgrown — "theological anachronisms. For a general discussion of the subject, see the symposium on "Guilt" by H. Lewis, J. Harvey, and G. Campbell, P. Sir Walter Moberly, Responsibility Oxford: Oxford University Press, consists of three lectures dealing with the moral and religious aspects of guilt and sin.

A classical discussion of the religious and biblical side of the subject is F. The liberal approach to this subject may be found in L. The Freudian view is well presented in J. Glover, Technique of Psychoanalysis , rev. New York, There are also helpful references to guilt in Walter J. Sprott, Social Psychology London: Methuen, , p. The tradition of Ivan Petrovich Pavlov is continued in B. Skinner, Science and Human Behavior New York: Macmillan, , in which the conditioning effect of early training is stressed.

There is a short discussion of guilt in T. Criticism of this approach will be found in H. Guilt is the fact or awareness of having done wrong, of violating a norm or prescription. It is a universal phenomenon and a basic trait of human nature. To speak of guilt is to presuppose a world where there are norms and laws and persons with freedom and responsibility who, if they choose, can act against that established order.

There are varying types of guilt relative to the nature of the wrongdoing. Legal or juridical guilt refers to the guilt associated with committing a crime, a violation of law, to which penalties are often attached. Ethical or moral guilt focuses on violation of moral norms. Religious guilt comes from injuring one's relationship with God through breaking divine law. Collective guilt refers to the wrongdoing of a group such as a family or nation. The multidimensioned reality of guilt invites interdisciplinary investigation, especially from the perspectives of theology, psychology, and anthropology.

Subjective and Objective Aspects. Guilt viewed as a subjective reality brings to the fore a person's awareness of having done wrong and the feelings aroused by knowing that one has transgressed in some way. Psychology has given primary attention to guilt feelings which are at times inappropriate or disproportionate responses and not necessarily related to any wrongdoing.

Psychology is helpful in sorting out inauthentic guilt feelings from a true consciousness of guilt. Often in a given instance there is a mixture of both authentic and inauthentic guilt. The degree of awareness, knowledge, freedom, and responsibility has direct bearing on the imputability of guilt but may or may not diminish or eliminate the presence of guilt feelings. Such feelings include unpleasant experiences of distress, such as self-reproach, self-blame, remorse, and anxiety.

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Guilt feelings typically trigger in the person experiencing them various remedial or expiatory actions such as confession, repentance, and reparation. The positive social role of such feelings is to impel a person to take responsibility and to mend broken relationships. Objective guilt designates either the condition of the person who has committed the wrong or the behavior which constitutes the violation of the community's values and laws. Thus, in a court of civil law one is pronounced guilty of a particular crime even though one may not feel subjectively guilty or culpable.

Objective guilt refers to the misdeed, a true violation of the law, whether or not it was freely intended by the transgressor. Historical and Phenomenological Perspectives. In primitive societies guilt was related to a disturbance of the social or religious order. To incur guilt was to bring misfortune on oneself and one's community. Various means of expiation developed to restore the former equilibrium. Sacrifices and other ritual actions were efforts to undo the damage and to remove the guilt through various symbolic mediations such as a scapegoat.

Paul Ricoeur 's study of the language of confession throws further light on the epigenesis of guilt. He traces a movement from the primitive sense of defilement, characterized by the feeling that one is infected and the experience of dread because of such contamination, to the sense of sin. With the notion of sin the sense of a relationship with God becomes prominent. Sin represents a refusal of God's demand. Guilt internalizes and personalizes the consciousness of having sinned.

It anticipates the punishment due to sin by the burden it places on consciousness. Guilt itself evolves and represents according to Ricoeur a significant advance in human comprehension of fault. In contrast to a simple fear of punishment, guilt acknowledges that an injustice has been done, an interpersonal relationship has been damaged. Guilt ultimately leads to a transformation such as Job experienced where in the face of suffering he surrenders to an order that transcends him.

The perceived inescapability of guilt in human life leads to the relinquishing of narcissistic goals and embracing a life focused not on one's own righteousness but on a transcendent Other. Psychological and Developmental Perspectives. Guilt as a psychological reality has been discussed by Freud and a host of other psychologists. Freud saw guilt feelings as arising when there is tension between a strict superego, the internalized authority of parents and other significant figures, and the ego, the executive agency of the personality.

The superego emerges into prominence with the resolution of the Oedipal struggle somewhere around the age of five. Guilt, for Freud, makes its appearance toward the end of early childhood. The sources of such guilt are dread of authority and more specifically a fear of the loss of love of those on whom one depends.

Freud saw the positive role that guilt can play in life. He was particularly aware of how it functions in human society as a control on destructive aggression.

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Freud's attention, however, was focused especially on the unconscious and displaced guilt that often stands behind neurotic symptom formation. According to Freudian psychodynamics, guilt feelings aroused in one area of conflict can be shifted and displaced onto another so that the person remains unaware of the true source of the guilt feelings. Various attempts at atonement are largely ineffective in bringing relief. Sometimes the guilt feelings are not conscious at all but stand behind a person's repeated failures or other self-punishments.

Freud's explanation of the origin of religion tries to make comprehensible humanity's need for reparation by postulating a primal parricide for which humans still have guilt even though oblivious of it and its origin. Erik Erikson , building on Freud's theory, has described a crisis in the life of the play-age child around the issues of initiative and guilt. The child desires to do things like others do but struggles with the awareness that some things are forbidden.

Erikson suggests that conscience steps in as the governor of initiative. A healthy resolution of the crisis has the child moving forward unhampered by an excessive sense of guilt and with the sense of initiative prevailing. Some psychological theories place the emergence of guilt earlier than did Freud or Erikson and see its appearance as an important developmental milestone.

Melanie Klein sees the emergence of guilt in the first year of life and links it to the child's growing ability to tolerate ambivalence. According to Klein's formulations, the life of every infant is replete with both gratifications and frustrations. The normal infant responds to frustrations with a desire for retaliation; in other words, he or she would like to respond to the sources of frustration by punishing the inflicting party. In the course of infant development, the child senses that the "good mother" who provides food and the "bad mother" who frustrates its desire for immediate satisfaction are one and the same person.

The child begins to sense its mother is a whole person in which it finds both good and bad. It senses, too, that the very one on whom its well-being depends is the same one it has wished to destroy. But now the child begins to feel concern for the mother and goes through a period of anxiety related to the feeling of almost having lost or destroyed the mother on whom it depends. An experience of guilt over such possible damage signals the ability to tolerate the ambivalence of conflicted feelings of love and hate directed to the same object.

The child deals with this guilt through reparation and various restitutive gestures. The British pediatrician and psychoanalyst D. Winnicott, building on Klein's ideas, connects the emerging sense of guilt in the infant with the beginnings of a capacity for concern. He draws attention to the importance of the stable emotional environment provided by the primary care-givers for all this to unfold appropriately. Deprivation in that environment is seen as contributing to the genesis of the antisocial tendency marked by the absence of any sense of guilt.


Guilt Pathologies. Two forms of guilt pathology are commonly recognized. Scrupulosity has to do with an experience of guilt that is too intense and disproportionate or focuses on acts that are not immoral or are beyond the responsibility of the subject. Such excessive guilt feelings seem to arise because of very aggressive, even sadistic, internal monitoring. On the other hand, an absence of appropriate guilt feeling characterizes people with character disorders such as the antisocial or narcissistic personality disorder.

In these cases, the etiology often has to do with serious deficiencies in the early interpersonal environment. Abnormal versus Normal Guilt. In sorting out guilt that has more a psychological origin from guilt in the more properly religious sense, it may be helpful to distinguish between the conscience and the superego. Conscience, in psychoanalytic terms, is an ego function acquired through healthy appropriation of the values and norms of the society to which the individual belongs. As such, it intends love rather than commanding that observance of some rule.

It is other-directed, value-oriented, and dynamic in the sense that it looks at the nuances of a particular situation. The experience of guilt engendered by conscience is proportionate to the value at stake. In contrast, superego is a more primitive agency that censors behavior in terms of past commands. It tends to induce guilt that is often disproportionate to the value at stake. It is more static and does not pay attention to the nuances of situations. It simply enforces past commands of authorities in a blind fashion. In the average individual, guilt is an ambiguous experience inasmuch as it can respond to a genuine violation of a value or norm as well as to commands internalized during childhood development and still operative in the dynamic unconscious.

As Karl Rahner has correctly pointed out, guilt is truly a borderland between theology and psychotherapy, an area where both ministers and psychotherapists may have vital roles to play. Bibliography: c. Guilt is considered to be an emotion secondary to doing what is perceived as wrong. Because it is a painful emotion, people try to act in a fashion to avoid guilt feelings.

Guilt is classified as a negative emotion as opposed to positive emotions such as joy and happiness. Once a person experiences guilt from some perceived wrongdoing, there is usually an attempt to reduce this negative emotional state. Sexuality has been linked to guilt through the association of certain behaviors as evil or sinful. The prohibitions range from the universal taboo of incest to condemnation of masturbation, premarital or extramarital affairs, and sexual fantasies. Throughout history cultures have institutionalized a number of methods to help individuals relieve guilt.

Ancient cultures proscribed animal sacrifices or offerings of material resources. Over the course of time various forms of penitent behavior, including confession of one's sins, were developed by religious institutions to alleviate the emotion of guilt. In order to remove the guilt, individuals were asked by societies and religious institutions to complete good deeds, apologize, and endure a punishment or a penance for their sins and wrongdoings.


Compliance to confess one's wrongdoings and make up for the transgressions reflected the need to remove the negative emotion of private guilt and restore self-esteem and a positive public image. In the s, Donald Mosher developed the concept of sex guilt to signify the negative emotion associated with sexual arousal. Sex guilt is defined as the expectation that a person will feel guilty if a standard of proper sexual conduct is violated. The concept was devised with the notion that individuals who were punished in their childhood for interest in sexual matters or showed any behaviors that were interpreted as sexual would show significant sex guilt as adolescents and adults.

Verbal admonishments or physical punishments would eventually lead to the child internalizing the message that sex is bad, dirty, or sinful. Consequently, those individuals showing curiosity, interest, or sexual arousal as an adult would have an increased likelihood of experiencing the negative emotion of sex guilt. Mosher has found that high levels of sex guilt among adults have been linked to an avoidance of sexual activities. Dennis Cannon found that females in general showed higher sex guilt than males and that this outcome was probably related to a societal tendency for parents to be more restrictive and critical of sexual matters with daughters than sons.

Cannon also categorized people with sex guilt as: being devout in religious beliefs; subscribing to a higher authority; using denial to handle sexual feelings; accepting few variations in sexual behavior; following traditional gender roles; and being offended by explicit sexual material. The interaction of guilt and sexuality was formally proposed in the theory of Sigmund Freud — He identified the libido as the force of the sexual instinct and included both the physiological foundations of the drive state and mental representations of sexuality.

At birth, the child functions under the pleasure principle, which is defined as the innate tendency to seek pleasure and avoid pain. As a child observes or is taught that one must delay gratification or postpone pleasure, the reality principle takes over. In Freud's theory, beginning in infancy children are influenced by the sex drive and are capable of erotic activity. The focus of the erotic activity follows a developmental pattern that moves from the oral zone to the anal zone and then to the phallic or urethral zone.

In the oral stage of development from birth to eighteen months, the infant's libidinal energy has a focus on the mouth and is expressed in sucking, chewing, and biting. The libidinal energy then switches focus in the anal stage from eighteen to thirty-six months of age. Elimination and bowel control are the focus of libidinal pleasure. Next, the phallic or urethral stage takes place from three to five years of age. Erotic activity is focused on urination, the penis, vagina, and clitoris. It is during this stage that the Oedipal complex emerges, which signals the development of sexual interests toward the parent of the opposite sex and subsequent feelings of aggression and jealousy toward the same-sex parent.

It is also at this time that the superego or conscience emerges as the child internalizes parental values and standards. The child now is expected to act on the reality principle and give up the Oedipal fantasies. The superego acts as a censor of behaviors, thoughts and fantasies, and elicits anxiety and guilt over sexual matters. The psychosocial theory of Erik Erikson — reduced the importance of the libido in development and focused on the social interactions experienced by a child. His stage theory is based upon the epigenetic principle, which means the development unfolds in a sequential and orderly fashion.

For Erikson, the relationship between guilt and sexuality occurs during the third stage of development between the ages of three to five years. At that time the child must resolve the conflict between initiative and guilt. During this time of their lives, children show curiosity, competitiveness, aggressiveness, and genital preoccupations.

The child seeks favored status with the opposite sex parent and develops fantasized possession of that parent. This possessiveness inevitably fails and the child feels guilt and anxiety. Now the child must learn to begin to look outside of the family structure for accomplishments. The child now forms a conscience or foundation for a moral perspective that serves as a guide.

If a child is severely punished at this stage for the curiosity, competitiveness, and possessiveness, the formation of initiative is inhibited and guilt becomes the central feature of the child's emotional development. Independent expression of sexuality can then elicit feelings of guilt. According to developmental psychologist Suzanne Denham, guilt develops in a child during the middle childhood period between the ages of six to nine years.

The child gradually gains an appreciation of the role of personal responsibility in one's actions. The socialization process takes place as children learn through instruction, observing the actions of others, the value systems of their parents, as well as from institutions and society. Self-regulation or the capacity to control one's actions without outside influence is a goal of socialization. The child who has been socialized monitors personal actions based upon standards that have been internalized into a conscience or ethical philosophy.

In relation to sexuality, a child learns certain moral standards that help to inhibit or direct instinctual urges.

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