Guilt

January 29, 2004 | one comment
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There has been an interesting discussion of guilt over at Bob and Logan’s blog. In response to some comments that I made, Russell makes the following intriguing remark:

    In the broadest sense, guilt is a feeling of fault about a disorded state of affairs, which means that it in fact acknowledges, on a rather deep level, an abiding desire for, or attachment to, an ideal (or perfect) state of affairs. To no longer feel that desire or attachment might mean you wouldn’t have any more guilt, but it would also mean you would have lost all appreciation of how things ought to be, and thus all understand of the one route (i.e., Christ’s grace) to redeeming that state of affairs.

    I realize this thread is more about the cheap ways we tend to belittle, compare, or “motivate” ourselves or one another in the church, rather than any theological point. But for my part, I’m not so certain the conventional and the theological realities of guilt are all that separate. I feel guilty about a lot of things, both big and small, because frankly, I do a pretty bad job at both big and small things. In short, I’m pretty hopeless on my own. Given the message of the scriptures, it seems to me that that’s not necessarily a bad thing to keep in mind.

What I find interesting about these comments is the way that Russell links guilt to a deep commitment to some conception of the good. We live in a world that tends to be dominated by the idea that guilt is a purely negative, pyschological condition. We tend to speak of it in the language of pop-pyschology as a clinical condition to be eliminated. Russell, however, turns this on its head and makes it into evidence of meaningful moral engagement.

Two issues remain, however, even if we accept Russell’s view of the matter. (And I am inclined to be sympathetic to virtually all views critical of pop-pyschology.) First, the desirability of guilt seems to become linked to vision of the good that it instatiates. I suppose that there might be some value in mearly being engaged. However, I suspect that a lot of guilt comes from mistakenly deep involvment in the thick of thin things. Second, we need to think about the implications of Russell’s theory of guilt for how we use it. Suppose that the guilt flows from some real and valid moral concern (like Russell’s concern for the poor). Can we use ethically use that guilt to manipulate behavior? Presumeably to do so for purely selfish reasons is wrong. What about if I am manipulating him in order to pursue the good that drives his guilt? I am not quite sure what the answer to this question would be. It seems that at least in part, some of it will turn on the question of knowledge. Am I likely to know better than Russell how to pursue the good? However, I am not sure that even this fully answers the question. I still can’t help be feel that there is something at least suspect about using guilt to manipulate behavior.

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One Response to Guilt

  1. Adam Greenwood on January 30, 2004 at 10:18 pm

    Using his definition of guilt, Nate, than there is nothing intrinsically wrong with using guilt to manipulate Br’er Fox. You can only make him guilty by making him aware of some aspect of the good that he didn’t know of already, or, which is much the same thing, pointing out some departure from the good that he wasn’t aware of already. How can it be wrong to advance Br’er Fox a little? We do know that an evil man can’t do a good thing, meaning, I suppose, that the impurity of his motive takes away from the good he has done in teaching the Grey Fox, but the Grey Fox himself has not been harmed.

    But maybe you’re saying that the real problem is that my conception of the good is actually worse than Br’er Fox’s, so I’m actually dragging him down by trying to get him to percieve the good as I do. But that’s not a problem with guilt, that’s a problem with all forms of teaching, including example. The answer is to try to evaluate your relative goodness compared to Br’er Fox’s, trying thereby to avoid teaching your grandmother to such eggs. If, as you’ll no doubt conclude, you don’t find anything to teach him, than probably best that you only try to induce guilt through the sort of calm explanation that will in turn not muddy his own evaluatory access to the Spirit and his own intelligence.

    But maybe you’re saying that inducing guilt in someone over straining at a gnat can be wrong because, even though they ought not to eat it, they also ought not eat the camel they’re so messily devouring. You’re encouraging them to overinvest in gnat-avoidance when camel-dieting is the real need. I suspect that the answer here is related to the answer in the previous paragraph–teaching wrong things about the good doesn’t seem very different from teaching the wrong proportions about the goods–but I’ll have to think about it.

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