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There are two main forms of the idea of "guilt"moral guilt and legal or quasi-legal guilt. Originally these were not sharply distinguished, but enlightened thought requires that they should be. In outward substance the two often coincide. In committing a crime one is usually morally at fault, but the degree of one's guilt is not likely to be the same in the two respects in such instances. We may in any case be morally guilty and legally innocentand vice versa. Few who consult this book have committed a crime, but who is there who has never done anything for which he may be morally reproached? Some of the most vicious things men do are well within the law. Nor would it be wise to legislate against all forms of moral evilmuch of that would defeat the purpose of morality. One may also break the law and incur no moral blame. This might be because of unavoidable ignorance (of the law or of some matter of fact), but we could be blameless even in committing a crime deliberately. That would come about if we broke the law on conscientious grounds. Some of the people we admire most (religious or political martyrs, for example) have put religious or moral scruples before the claims of the law. They were not in all cases outwardly justified. The outward justification of resistance to the law is greatest under oppressive government. The duty to conform is very great where there are constitutional means of seeking redress or reform. Upholding constitutional procedure is normally much more important than righting a particular wrong. Resistance (but not of course normal opposition) is very extreme medicine in a democracy, and it is not always justified under tyranny. Persuasion is the best means of reform. But whether outwardly justified or not, a person is free from moral blame (and perhaps worthy of much praise) if he breaks the law in obedience to his own conscience.

Moral Guilt and Determinism

Legal responsibility means liability to punishment, and legal guilt thus means that one has merited some punishment. This may be understood in a retributive, reformative, or deterrent sense. On the latter view, the commonest today where strictly legal or social issues are concerned, absolute freedom of choice is not presupposed. It is of course pointless to seek by punishment to deter someone who in no sense controls what he doesor to make him an example for others. We restrain the insane or the delirious. We do not punish them, and it is absurd to punish people for what they do by accident. But punishment is not made pointless when we act in character and wittingly do certain things even though, being the persons we are, we could not help doing them. Punishment as deterrence is consistent with determinism, for our conduct on other occasionsand the conduct of other personscould be affected by punishment or the threat of it. But in moral matters punishment is a secondary issue. To be morally guilty is to have incurred moral disvalue or to be morally blameworthy. This may call for punishment or some other outward censure, but that is a further question.

Moral guilt is a more basic notion than punishability. It is a unique moral concept not to be merged in associated social and legal notions. Moral guilt presupposes freedom of a more radical kind than legal guilt and is hard to reconcile with any form of determinism. The moral evil it involves must be distinguished sharply from nonmoral evils like sickness, pain, error, and stupidity. I am not to blame for being ill or for failing to win a race, compose a poem, or solve a mathematical problem. I am to blame for moral failure. I cannot help the former failures, provided I try, if it is my duty. But it is hard to see how there could be moral failure if there is any sense in which I could not help it.

the assumption of absolute freedom

But how strictly are these last words to be understood in the case of moral guilt? Is absolute freedom presupposed? If it is, are we ever guilty in the strictly moral sense? Is there not some continuity of character and conduct? Plainly there is such a continuity, and advocates of absolute freedom of choice as a moral requirement have therefore argued that moral praise or blame only apply on the occasions where there is a conflict between "duty and interest"that is, between what we most want to do and what we think we ought to do. During much of one's life there is no such conflict, and we can therefore anticipate one another's actions with much confidence: we know what to expect of people we have come to know. But character and duty will sometimes draw apart. To that extent, it is maintained, nothing affects the outcome but the act of choice itself. If we fail to make the effort of willan absolutely free one in this caseto overcome some weakness of character, and if we thus follow the line of least resistance rather than the call of duty, we incur moral guilt. The degree of the guilt depends not on the outward features of the situation and the magnitude of the ill we do, or at least not directly so, but on the effort of will that would have been required to do right. But it should be noted well that the more outwardly vicious an act may be, the less is the effort needed to resist a temptation to do it, for one can normally presuppose much natural resistance to the act in one's own character. The less the effort required, the more we are to blame for not making it; the greater the effort we do make, the greater our moral worth.

It follows from this view that while we may, for practical and kindred purposes, censure misdeeds in their outward form, we need to be very chary of passing strictly moral judgments on other persons. If we have reason to believe (as is often the case) that someone has acted contrary to his moral convictions, we can impute to him some measure of blame, but how much is much harder to assess than the outwardly objectionable features of a situation. It is also much harder to assess the positive moral worth of another person than to assess his moral guilt. For we know in the latter case that the effort required was not forthcoming; in the former case it is harder to know how much to ascribe to natural good qualities of character, a benevolent or naturally plucky nature, and so on, and how much to free effort. Only the agent himself and God can know the full inner story.

The Feeling of Guilt

We must, however, distinguish "guilt" in the strict moral meaning from the sense of guilt. The latter is the feeling that accompanies the consciousness of being guilty. It is appropriate that we should feel remorse for wrongdoing, the proper tone of the feeling being determined by its appropriateness to the situation of guilt. There are kindred feelings appropriate to the wrongdoing we encounter or suspect in others, feelings or attitudes of blame and indignation. The feelings we actually have are not always appropriate to the situation, and there may thus be a sense of guilt out of all proportion to the facts of the case. Some people seem even to enjoy the sense of guilt and to cultivate it. Psychologists have helped us a great deal to understand these deviations and that other curious aberration by which some people feel guilty for things they have not done at all.

psychological reasons

Some psychologists go further. They try to account for guilt entirely in terms of psychology. A common form of this attempt is that which ascribes guilt to an alleged "need for punishment." This need comes about through punishment or some other disapproval we suffer in infancy. Coming to expect punishment for certain acts, we feel distress when we wait for it without getting it over, and the strain and anxiety induced in this way is suppressed and operates subconsciously afterwards to produce the sense of guilt in mature experience. There is also the introjection into the "superego" of the relief experienced by those who punish us. These theories no doubt reflect states of mind which psychological investigation uncovers, and the layperson can appreciate much of them from common experience. But they seem nonetheless to be mainly concerned with aberrations and an unhealthy assumption of guilt, or perverse ways of dealing with it. The core of guilt is an ethical one, which psychology does not explain away.

Collective versus Individual Guilt

If guilt, in the proper sense, turns on deliberate wrongdoing, it seems that no one can be guilty for the act of another personthere can be no shared or collective or universal guilt. Guilt is incurred by the free choice of the individual. But many have questioned this. Among them are some sociologists who misrepresent in this way the dependence of the individual on society. But the main location of the idea of collective guilt is religion. Many forms of the doctrines of original sin and universal sin regard guilt as a pervasive state of humankind as a whole. It is the guilt of "man," not of this or that person as a whole. Others qualify this and speak of original sin which does not include original guilt. Others hold that while there can be no "great sin" and "little sin," there is inequality of guilt. But it is hard to reconcile the notion of universal sin or guilt, in any form, with elementary ethical convictions. Such notions can also do great harm, both by leading to victimization of the innocentas in the treatment of Jews by the Nazisand in undermining the sense of responsibility; for collective guilt is not the guilt of anyone in particular.

sources of doctrines of collective guilt

Why then do such doctrines of collective guilt seem plausible? Mainly through religious confusions like the following. (1) The sense of religious unworthiness, the awe felt in the presence of God, is mistaken for moral culpability. (2) Certain forms of religious experience are apt to be overwhelming, and the strain is eased at times by encapsulating the divine within the finite media or symbols by which it is known. This is the root of idolatry. The most grievous form of this is that by which the person himself becomes the idolhe aspires to make himself as God. But this distortion of religious experience tends to be conflated, in the heat of prophetic experience, with the expressly moral wickedness of putting one's own wishes before the proper claims of others. This encourages the notion of an unavoidable state of sin and guilt. (3) Guilt is what we seem most disposed to suppress, and at the unconscious level the confusions noted are apt to be intensified. (4) Religious doctrines have often been based on first-order religious utterances taken out of their full context and apart from the experience which prompted them. The figurative character of such utterances is also overlookedfor example, in interpretations of the metaphors of "bondage" or of "sin warring in all my members." (5) Wrongdoing has a cumulative influence that affects the state and the situation of persons irrespective of their own guilty actions; it thus tends to drive men in on themselves and hinder healthy relations with other personsand with God. This also, or the misrepresentation of it, lies behind misleading doctrines of collective guilt. (6) The idea of universal guilt has often been made the pretext for evading the challenge of high ideals professed by religious people. This seems especially true of much Augustinian theology. (7) Religious confusions are deepened by confusions between the points of view of lawwhere the idea of corporated guilt has some placeand the point of view of morality.

Recent anthropology has thrown new light on the origin of the idea of guilt. There was at first little distinction between the points of view of law and of morality, both being merged in communal custom. Nor was heed adequately paid to whether the results of an act were those a person intended. The community was also more the bearer of guilt than the individual, and harsh judgments were thus passed on the innocent and bitter feuds perpetuated. But we should not allow this to determine for us how guilt must be understood in enlightened thought. Ethical notions are not jeopardized by having lowly and doubtful origins.

Religious thought today helps us to appreciate what is true and what is false in notions like collective guilt. But much recent sociology and some recent ethics go further and challenge the ultimacy of the ideas of guilt and responsibility. These are thought by some moralists and psychologists to be ideas we ought to have outgrown"theological anachronisms." A sound ethical theory and better understanding of religion should correct these tendencies.

See also Determinism, A Historical Survey; Philosophy of Law, History of; Philosophy of Law, Problems of; Punishment.


For a general discussion of the subject, see the symposium on "Guilt" by H. D. Lewis, J. W. Harvey, and G. A. Paul, in Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volume XXI. See also the papers on Free Will, Responsibility, and Guilt by C. A. Campbell, P. H. Nowell-Smith, and Erich Fromm in A Modern Introduction to Ethics, edited by Milton K. Munitz (Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1958), pp. 356416. Sir Walter Moberly, Responsibility (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1951) consists of three lectures dealing with the moral and religious aspects of guilt and sin. A classical discussion of the religious and biblical side of the subject is F. R. Tennant, The Concept of Sin (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1912). N. H. G. Robinson, Concept of Sin (New York, 1950) is a first-rate survey of the subject in the work of representative recent theologians like Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, and Reinhold Niebuhr. The liberal approach to this subject may be found in L. Harold DeWolf, The Religious Revolt against Reason (New York: Harper, 1949) and in H. D. Lewis, Morals and the New Theology (New York: Harper, 1948), Chs. 57.

The Freudian view is well presented in J. C. Flügel, Man, Morals, and Society (New York: Viking, 1961). This should be considered along with Sigmund Freud's New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis (New York: Norton, 1933), pp. 78106 and Susan Isaacs, Social Development in Young Children (London: Routledge, 1933). More recent psychoanalytic works are Melanie Klein and others, Developments in Psychoanalysis (New York, 1952); Melanie Klein, Envy and Gratitude: A Study of Unconscious Sources (New York: Basic, 1957); and E. Glover, Technique of Psychoanalysis, rev. ed. (New York, 1955). There are also helpful references to guilt in Walter J. H. Sprott, Social Psychology (London: Methuen, 1952), p. 168ff. The tradition of Ivan Petrovich Pavlov is continued in B. F. Skinner, Science and Human Behavior (New York: Macmillan, 1953), in which the conditioning effect of early training is stressed.

There is a short discussion of guilt in T. R. Miles, Religion and the Scientific Outlook (London: Allen & Unwin, 1959), Ch. 12.

The sociological approach is well exemplified in Barbara Wootton, Social Science and Social Pathology (London: Allen and Unwin, 1959). Criticism of this approach will be found in H. D. Lewis, Freedom and History (New York: Macmillan, 1962), and there is further discussion of the religious implications of the sociological approach in Fred Berthold, The Fear of God (New York: Harper, 1959).

H. D. Lewis (1967)

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