Guilt is Good

The New York Times has published an article called “Guilt and Atonement on the Path to Adulthood,” mainly about some University of Iowa research on guilt in children. How people feel guilt, and what they do with it, is of course one of the most important indicators of culture. Furthermore, the article gives us a picture of science and morality crossing borders – interesting in the least because such transgressions often tell us so little in fact, while claiming to undermine so much in theory.

Children have to learn to feel and place guilt; it is not automatic. Obvious enough for anyone who knows a brat child with permissive parents, or who has read the book of Proverbs. The truth must be codified in a research journal, though; and so it has been.

The article differentiates between guilt and shame in order to save the didactic features of feeling bad from any oh-so-inappropriate condemnation of people. This latter part is important, because it is one shibboleth of the post-industrial life: people are all basically good. Never mind that we just said morality has to be learned (because that would indicate an ulterior, or superior, source of that morality). The moral of this article is that we can be better if we could just come to grips with the fact that we’re good.

The article’s author rejects shame, which is rooted in (internalizing) public scorn, while accepting guilt. Guilt is defined here as a negative feeling in response to a negative action, though less directed at the person than the action; only the feeling is contained in the perpetrator. However, guilt is an internalization of an outside accusation, too. The accuser, though, is less importantly some social group, than it is some authority. Guilt, of course, is not rooted in feelings but juridical proceedings. The feeling of guilt is just the perception that you are convicted by an authority. As the author admits, guilt is learned, usually from parental authority.

However much the University of Iowa researchers or the New York Times columnists would like to affirm the learning process while also affirming the learner, a therapeutic approach does not touch this legal analogy. The problem is that in a courtroom, not only the crime but the defendant is found guilty. He really is a wrong-doer, in some sense. This perhaps explains why children not only feel bad, but in a social setting they sometimes actually seek to make atonement, which is the restoration of relationship. Again, even a child might know that the atonement is nothing without the offer being accepted, i.e. forgiveness. While remission for guilt may be sought, in the end it is out of his sorrowful hands.

The striking part of this article on “Guilt and Atonement” then, is not just that it uses a confused definition of guilt, but that it does not address atonement. To draw this post full circle, we may reiterate that culture helps define social notions of guilt and shame, and we may note further that the transmission of culture begins with child-rearing. We fundamentally misunderstand people, and explode any real usefulness of culture, when we obfuscate children’s understandings of guilt.


“The rod and reproof give wisdom, but a child left to himself brings shame to his mother.” (Prov 29:15)


  • August 26, 2009


  • August 26, 2009

    Bryan Wandel

    I do find it interesting. Thanks for the link, Tom.

  • September 4, 2009

    Caitlin Barr

    “Never mind that we just said morality has to be learned (because that would indicate an ulterior, or superior, source of that morality).”

    I’m not sure why the fact that morality must be learned indicates an “ulterior, or superior, source.” A child has to learn his or her own name, but that name didn’t come from a superior – at least not ontologically superior – source: it came from another human being. So too with many purely cultural norms or, if you will bear with the postmodern language, constructs such as don’t wear white after labor day, do wear green on St. Patrick’s Day, blue is for boys and pink is for girls, etc.

    The mere fact that something is not part of a human being’s innate knowledge cannot prove a superior source for that something, for many things that must be learned have no other source but human culture.

    And, finally, if moral injunctions are simply a human product, then wouldn’t the creation of such injunctions prove the goodness of humanity?

  • September 5, 2009

    Bryan Wandel

    Thanks for the thoughts, Caitlin.
    I totally agree that this particular argument does not necessarily point to a superior source of (knowledge of) goodness. It necessarily points to an exterior source, of which superior is one possibility, because it is exterior. If it bothers you, it’s possible in that part of the post to bracket the words “or superior” without losing my flow of thought.
    My point is, first, that if there is learning of good, then it is not inherent within a single person, and therefore guilt, involving the transgression of good, must also relate to something outside of ourselves. The problem and its solution are intimately tied to their original structure.
    Second point: The fact that knowledge of goodness comes from other humans does NOT imply that it is innate in humans. If it does not arise naturally, without a learning process, then the key lies at least in human sociality. So that is one of the first thoughts in understanding humans – that acting socially produces a wholly different kind of human life, and enables goodness to come out that otherwise would not. Hence Aristotle’s definition of man as the zoon politikon. It is why some philosophies go astray without using it is one of the first facts of existence. ie. it implies something about human nature – not that it happens automatically, but that it humans fulfill more of what they naturally are by partaking in sociality. To sum up: the goodness of any particular human does not add up to the goodness that can be produced by humans acting socially.
    Again, all this is only in relation to assuaging guilt. Perhaps more of the moral content can come out later. Because there is, as yet, no reason for rejecting the exterior source as well. I’ll just say briefly that relating moral injunctions to human artifices can be a good analytical tool, but theory is more than analysis.