Guilt: What is it Good For?
I walk down Franklin Street at least twice a day, and I often see a familiar, rotating group of people experiencing homelessness. Invariably, this provokes a gnawing sense of guilt in me – guilt that I don’t give more, guilt that I actively try to avoid eye contact, guilt that I don’t even know their names, though I have certainly seen them dozens of times. What troubles me is that this seems to be an unfortunately fixed equilibrium. Guilt ought to be a motivator; the discomfort should push me to do better. And yet, with a few exceptions here and there, I haven’t changed my behavior. So, what is to be done with this purposeless guilt?
Before I answer that question, I want to hone in on what I mean when I say “purposeless guilt.” There are many people who are better than me and have changed their behaviors in response to feeling guilty. Hats off to these upstanding individuals, but this article is not for them. This is for those of us who are stuck feeling bad, but not bad enough to fix the problem.
It seems to me that there are two paths one could take: try to exorcise the guilt, or lean in and embrace it. A few years ago, I was in the midst of another ethical problem: I felt guilty every time I ate meat, but I had no real intentions of becoming a vegetarian. At the time, I decided the first path was better. I was considering the situation from a short-term consequentialist perspective, whether I realized it or not. The guilt I felt was uncomfortable to me, and invisible and unhelpful to others. The solution then, if I wouldn’t change my actions, was to try to stop feeling so guilty.
I recognize that this approach is patently ridiculous. To start, it’s not even clear how one could simply make themselves stop feeling guilty. As William Neblett writes in The Ethics of Guilt, “where, and to what degree, we feel guilt identifies for us … what we really feel about the various matters of morality” (Neblett 654). We can lie to ourselves about many things, but guilt is a surefire signal that we know we have wronged someone. We can’t just ignore our moral shortcomings.
It is tempting to compare guilt to other motivating feelings. In the same way that we are motivated to eat by a feeling of hunger, perhaps guilt is just an innate mechanism for maintaining a sort of social homeostasis. If that is the case, we should treat it much the same as we do hunger – unreflectively addressing it to distance ourselves from all discomfort. However, Neblett thinks there’s more going on with guilt, and I’m inclined to agree with him. Guilt is a higher-order emotion, a complex feeling that contains within it beliefs and desires about how we fit into societies. There is instrumental value in guilt in its ability to push us to do the right thing, but there is also intrinsic value – “our capacity to feel guilt reveals our humanity” (Neblett 655).
It is quite possible that I will eventually start to give more of my money and time to people experiencing homelessness. Though I didn’t see it at the time, my guilt about eating meat did have an instrumental value as I stopped eating it a couple years later. But there’s more to guilt than just its effects on our actions. We should embrace this and other emotions even if they are unpleasant because they give rise to a fuller, richer experience of life.
Neblett, William. “The Ethics of Guilt.” The Journal of Philosophy, vol. 71, no. 18, 1974, pp. 652–663. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2024803.February 12, 2019