Guilt, the most powerful human emotion

March 26, 2024
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Prince Harry and Meagan Markle, we’re told, are wrestling with guilt over Kate Middleton’s cancer diagnosis. Germany suffers from “Guilt Politics.”

Guilt. For many of us, it is our strongest emotion, more intense and debilitating than anger, envy, lust or shame.

We are wracked by guilt. We wallow in guilt. We are drowned in guilt.

Wrote Thoreau, “Public opinion is a weak tyrant compared with our own private opinion.”

Our everyday language is filled with references to guilt. We speak of collective guilt, survivor’s guilt, Catholic guilt, Jewish guilt, food guilt, mom guilt, consumer guilt, white guilt, generational guilt, healthy guilt, pathological guilt, and guilt by association. There’s guilt tripping and pandemic-induced guilt tipping.

Look online, and you’ll find opportunities to buy guilt-free gas and guilt-free meat and undertake guilt-free flying.

To be devoid of guilt is, by definition, to be sociopathic or psychopathic. At the same time, therapists warn of the dangers of an overabundance of guilt: guilt that’s unexpiated or unresolved or obsessive.

Thus, it is striking that the Old Testament does not contain the word “guilt”, despite its focus on various transgressions, beginning with the Fall in Eden and the murder of Abel by Cain, and its 631 commandments and prohibitions. Nor does guilt play a central role in Buddhism, Confucianism or Hinduism. Communal societies seem to place less emphasis on guilt than do more individualistic societies.

In Old English and German, the word “guilt” derives from debt, from a sense of owing recompense or restitution or reparations for a moral wrong.

Guilt can be conscious or unconscious, retrospective or prospective, directed inward or projected outward. Guilt can be a catalyst to self-reflection and change, but it is often counterproductive. It can “twist, distort and corrupt” our emotions, resulting in denial, evasion, masochism or self-loathing. To feel less guilty, we might use drugs or alcohol or judge or cast blame on others in bouts of Twitter-mob fueled fury and outrage. There’s not much room for grace in today’s society, which seems to encourage and even reward moral aggression.

Freud, who considered the sense of guilt to be “the most important problem in the development of civilization,” associated guilt with the superego—that internalized authority that holds us to a standard we are incapable of meeting and punishes us for our deficiencies.

Freud thought, in the words of classicist Wilfred McClay, that “the advance of human civilization brings not happiness but a mounting tide of unassuaged guilt, ever in search of novel and ineffective, and ultimately bizarre, ways to discharge itself.”

McClay, who teaches at Hillsdale College, a key player in promoting a classical education, fears that Western culture is beset by misplaced guilt. He says,

“The stupendous achievements of the West in improving the material conditions of human life and extending the blessings of liberty and dignity to more and more people are in danger of being countervailed and even negated by a growing burden of guilt that poisons our social relations and hinders our efforts to live happy and harmonious lives.”

Conversely, many arguments on behalf of aggressive climate change policies or affirmative action rely on appeals to guilt.

The late Sally Kempton, the popular journalist turned swami, identified three different kinds of guilt—remorse over an act of commission or omission; free-floating guilt that grows out of a sense of being a bad person; and existential guilt, the sense of complicity in the world’s injustice—and offered strategies for letting guilt go to “know your deeper perfection.”

Another popular writer, Lawrence Howells, clinical psychologist and author of Understanding Your 7 Emotions, distinguishes between guilt that is helpful and that which is an emotional trap. It can energize and motivate us to atone or make amends or take other reparative steps, or it can be debilitating and unconstructive and drag us down when we overestimate our level of responsibility.

There have been a handful of serious academic studies of guilt. Among the most recent is a 2023 scholarly article by Milica Nikolić and colleagues that describes how parents instill feelings of guilt in early childhood through the frequent use of “mental state” language in speaking with their young children.

Attorney Vanessa Place’s 2010 book, The Guilt Project: Rape, Morality, and the Law, discusses, with great nuance, the ethical questions of what defines guilt, what is justice and what constitutes just punishment.

Among the most significant philosophical studies of guilt are: Richard Wollheim’s On the Emotions; Gabriel Taylor’s Pride, Shame, and Guilt: Emotions of Self-Assessment; Anthony Kenny’s Action, Emotion, and Will; and Robert Gordon’s The Structure of Emotions: Investigations in Cognitive Philosophy. Among the issues these authors discuss is how guilt and other social and moral emotions of self-awareness such as shame, regret and remorse influence our self-image and our interactions with others.

The most important, thorough, relatively recent book-length study of guilt remains the 2010 Guilt: The Bite of Conscience by the Stanford psychologist Herant Katchadourian, which discusses guilt from legal, literary, neurobiological, philosophical, religious and sociological perspectives. He depicts guilt as at once an objective culpability and a subjective feeling, which varies across cultures and historical eras and a person’s social status.

He notes, for example, that among Stanford students, the most commonly cited reason for guilt was being admitted to that university, followed by the financial burden they’ve placed on their family.

Katchadourian argues that the capacity for guilt is innate, that it serves a variety of functions and is an integral part of people’s moral reasoning. Neither good nor bad in itself, it becomes pathological or maladaptive or dysfunctional when it is excessive or deficient. He considers guilt to be closely tied to monotheistic religions and the strictures of bourgeois society and Victorian morality, and concludes that it plays a lesser role in Asian religions.

The book has fascinating things to say about the evolution of the concept of conscience in Christian thought, in some sense, serving as an internalized substitute for the Hebraic view of divine omniscience, and also as an outgrowth of successive stages of moral development. In abandoning the Catholic practice of confession, the Protestant churches made conscience further-internalized feelings of guilt.

The book also offers a concise and compelling account of the psychological development of moral judgment and the role of temperament and socialization in shaping children’s conscience, and interesting reflections on the issue of whether women and men experience guilt differently, and on the differences between the treatment of guilt in Abrahamic traditions, in Buddhism, Confucianism and Hinduism, and in secular moral philosophies.

Even though Professor Katchadourian believes that emotions of guilt are “hardwired,” he also argues that they are very much influenced by context and roles, vary cross-culturally, and are shaped by the process of socialization and by religious and secular moral teachings. In addition, he takes the view that while guilt can prompt moral behavior, it is at least as important to balance that often punitive emotion with conscious moral reasoning.

Kelly A. Myers, who teaches in Stanford’s Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies program, has written with great insight into Metanoia, the veiled female figure in Greek mythology who trails Kairos, the god of opportunity, and who represents repentance, regret, reflection and, yes, guilt—the emotions that can that ultimately lead to “a change of heart,” a change of consciousness and a fundamental reorientation of one’s self.

Joseph Mussomeli, a former U.S. ambassador, had this to say about the emotion:

“Guilt has a dark allure. To wallow in it is spiritual masochism, a seductive self-centeredness that draws us ever nearer to those most dangerous of sins, narcissism, and despair.”

Guilt can disable, immobilize and incapacitate. But it can also motivate.  I agree with Ambassador Mussomeli’s words and urge you to take them to heart: “We cannot repair the past. But we owe it to the past to make a better future.”

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.



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