Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Guilty or Not Guilty

by Daddy X

Guilty or Not Guilty?

I’m guilty.

Yes, I’m guilty in the real and legal sense; guilty, as opposed to innocent.

We’re not talking about such clear definitions. We’re talking about that sense of wrongdoing that sticks with individuals, haunts them far beyond the fact of simple guilt or innocence. Guilt is an abstract concept that many believe is not an integral part of the human condition. Are we truly wired for guilt?  Or is it something we need to be taught?

Think about it: Guilt as a learned experience, not wired into us, not instinctual, but rather something introduced through the cultural environment we live in. Anthropologists tell of New Guinea societies that don’t understand the concept. The Tibetan language provides no word for guilt as we know it. According to some psychologists, guilt is a conditioned response, not an “authentic” emotion we’re born with.

I understand that what we feel is certainly authentic to the individual. Perception is reality, but the point being that learned perceptions may also be unlearned.

We come equipped with natural a sense of regret. Sorrow over missed opportunities. Grief over losses. Regret helps us learn what actions will likely provide a more beneficial outcome in the future. We can learn from our mistakes. How long is it advantageous to hold on to such learning experiences? Is there a law of diminishing returns when it comes to regretting our actions? Ideally, the lesson remains. The regret recedes. Held beyond this productive stage, wallowing in guilt is not only non-productive, but often proves devastating. We wade from the productive shallows of regret into the deeper waters of guilt.

Guilt can be seen as a perversion of instinct, our natural reactions regarding hindsight.  Creatures of the wild have learned what plants and crawly things can be poisonous. Early humans did too. Adults would teach children what to eat, what to avoid. I’d imagine some discipline would help make the children learn quicker: a show of anger, perhaps slapping the offending fruit from the child’s hands. “Don’t sleep under big round rocks on a hill!” 

Hopefully, they learned and passed the lesson on. Or they learned the hard way, through pain, hallucinations. In the extreme, people would watch others die.

In order to try and set standards, various belief systems have given us rules to live by. It’s no longer a matter of what emotions are evolutionary gifts to help us get by and which are bastardizations that prey upon us: Religion and abstract conventions now dictate our sense of right and wrong.

Knowledge gleaned from our mistakes helps us create a better tomorrow. Religion, an excellent example of manipulation through guilt, provides a construct not based in reality but in fairy tales and folklore. Since we generally don’t want to do things that will have negative consequences in the future, we look to the powers that be to provide us with a framework. As a result, many of us live our lives serving these artificially constructed mores.

For instance, early Jewish dietary laws had real meaning to a people without the benefits of refrigeration. Trichinosis developed in pigs and botulism in shellfish. Putting meat and dairy in close proximity provided environments for all sorts of pathogens to develop. Today, these laws have no practical use beyond defining a few characteristics of a religious group. And providing opportunities to manipulate group conduct in a particular way.

Fact is, holding on to guilt may have no evolutionary or survival value at all. It is more likely to incapacitate us than make our future more livable, counter-intuitive to any improvement in our situation. Guilt is stagnating, not instructive. It inhibits our ability to learn

Yes, there are things I’ve done in this life I’m not particularly proud of, and some I’m absolutely sorry for, the hurt I’ve imposed on people I love. But guilt? No. I’ve done my best to right those wrongs. To hold on to that sorrow would not do me, or anyone I love any service.


  1. I think your example of the Kosher dietary laws gets to the heart of the matter. Once there were practical reasons for their existence. Now, their only function is to draw a distinction between "us" and "them" - and possibly to keep women in a subservient position. (I have a good friend who married an Orthodox Jewish guy. The burden of dealing with all the dietary restrictions - planning and creating the meals, avoiding problems when they're traveling - falls overwhelmingly on her.)

  2. The fact that some people can see the futility of guilt and turn away from it is probably even more vital to our evolution than than the early survival benefits of guilt. I wonder whether women are, on the whole, more susceptible than men to the useless kinds of guilt, possible because we have traditionally faced more restrictions and thus more ways to be judged as transgressing.

  3. What Lisabet says about dietary law responsibility falling mainly on women aligns with a belief system that puts women in the bleacher seats for religious services.

    And men are viewed as tougher, less susceptible to emotions. Men who don't conform to that so-called ideal are not seen as complete. Golly, who wants a guilt-ridden dude for chrissakes! :>)

    1. On the other hand, there's the whole "guilt trip" thing where we have an impulse to make someone feel guilty if we think they should be. A destructive impulse that does no one any good, and one that women may be more likely to follow than men. I struggle against it from tie to time, successfully, I hope.

  4. Daddy X, banishing guilt seems like a worthy goal -- as long as this doesn't mean living without a moral code altogether. I agree with Lisabet and Sacchi about who seems to be more susceptible to guilt, which usually doesn't seem to help anyone.


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