28 April 2011

On Feeling Guilty

When we do something wrong, we often feel guilt.

From the American Heritage Dictionary:

(gĭltpronunciation n.
    1. The fact of being responsible for the commission of an offense. See synonyms at blame.
    2. Law. The fact of having been found to have violated a criminal law; legal culpability.
    3. Responsibility for a mistake or error.
    1. Remorseful awareness of having done something wrong.
    2. Self-reproach for supposed inadequacy or wrongdoing.
Read more: http://www.answers.com/topic/guilt#ixzz1KmK8WLRz

The dictionary gives us the two different meanings of guilt: 1) moral responsibility and 2) the feeling of self-reproach that we feel after a wrongdoing. The thing about these definitions is that there is a WORLD of difference between the two. Being morally responsible for something is not always a bad thing, but guilt is used to describe the specific moral responsibility for some wrongdoing. So guilty people - they are the ones that have actually committed wrongdoings. We're square there, but the psychological state of guilt is where the real problems lay:

Guilt is a cognitive or an emotional experience that occurs when a person realizes or believes—accurately or not—that he or she has violated a moral standard, and bears significant responsibility for that violation.

"Guilt." Encyclopedia of Psychology. 2nd ed. Ed. Bonnie R. Strickland. Gale Group, Inc., 2001. eNotes.com. 2006. 31 December 2007

The self-reproach version of guilt is not always felt by those who are morally responsible for the wrong. Also, self-reproach is often felt by those who have not deviated from a moral standard, but perhaps merely a particular person or group's SOCIAL standard. It is not morally wrong to wear white after labor day, but a fashionista might claim this to be a cardinal sin.The confusion of some guilt-feeling parties is that they have broken a moral code. Sometimes social matters do yield morally charged situations:  

For example, it may be in poor taste and not socially appropriate for me to tell someone that I don't like their haircut or that I am so bluntly honest with them in general, but that does not constitute me as a morally bad person. If I am saying such things with the intention to cause them mental or emotional harm, THEN I am a morally guilty person, but not for merely being honest with a person. 

Now, the party that feels wronged (and not just by their hairstylist) may view me as a guilty party - I am "to blame" for their poor attitude or sadness. It would be quite rude of me to have told them how crappy their haircut was, which might be worthy of an apology. I am assuming that I did not intend this person harm, and therefore upon realization that I did cause them harm, I might go through the appropriate guilt sequence (my action caused them harm, I am morally against the mental, emotional, and physical harming of others, therefore I am and feel guilty of causing such harm and need to make amends). That being said, harm was not intended but was caused. Consequences have actions - understand that good intentions do not absolve you from responsibility.

Real problems come in with true conflation of  expectations/social standards that do not have moral force. I think many people feel guilt over behavior that is not particularly a matter of morals, so much as social behavior and manipulation. The fashionista example was one, but a reaction of resentment and vengefulness on the part of the "wronged" party often results in the feeling of guilt beyond the call of morality.

For example, it may be in poor taste for me to tell someone that their method of washing dishes is ineffective. I might have been trying to help them improve their method in order to promote my acquiring clean dishes in a timely fashion. The dishwasher might take offence to this. Rather than having been caused emotional or mental harm, this person has instead taken damage to their ego (they were a dishwasher for many years in a fine dining establishment! how dare I suggest that using bleach was better than just soap for things that have held raw meat! they know how to clean the damn dishes - the nerve!)

Now, the party feels wronged. One could argue that I HAVE emotionally damaged this person in that their feelings were hurt and I should go through the above sequence of guilt and amends-making. Good. We're square.

BUT (you knew there would be a but) this does not require me to feel guilty every time this person washes dishes, pointing out how appropriately they were handled and cleaned from now until the day I die. That feeling of guilt does not come doing moral wrong - it comes from being punished or the fear of being punished cruelly and unusually for one (or very few) altercations. Killing someone might make you suspect for life, but a comment about dish washing or any other trivial matter such as this should be dealt with and dismissed. 

In fact, I'd like to posit that the dealing out of incommensurate punishment on the part of the "wronged party" constitutes a wrongdoing. They are behaving in a way that intentionally inflicts harm on another party - which is morally wrong. 

The point is that the person who is continuing to be punished and made to feel guilt ought not to feel guilty. The psychological presence of the guilt feeling does not indicate that a moral wrong has been done in this situation. This makes guilt a particular and nefarious feeling to deal with.

The moral of the story, here, is to be aware of yourself: own up to moral responsibility and feel remorse for that guilt, but know that feeling guilty is not always the same as being morally responsible. Protect yourself from the emotional damage of inappropriate guilt-feeling and punishment.

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