views updated May 21 2018



The drama of guilt is enacted upon a wider stage than that set by law. Betraying a friend, lying subtly to oneself, or perhaps even telling an injurious truth to another are among the many types of conduct that may give rise to some guiltbut not necessarily to legal guilt. The subject of this article is legal guilt. But because this legal concept is arguably weighted with moral significance, the relationship between it and moral guilt is also addressed.

The concept of legal guilt has a circumscribed role, not only within life but within the law itself. Judgments of guilt are neither to be identified with, nor implied by, judgments of invalidity or judgments of civil liability. A marriage or a will may be found invalid; this implies nothing about one's guilt in failing to satisfy the conditions required for a valid marriage or will. A judgment in a civil action in favor of a plaintiff and against a defendant does not by itself, even if the defendant has been found to be at fault, imply anything about the defendant's guilt. The legal concept of guilt is restricted to the criminal law, and it is within this area of law that verdicts of guilt are rendered. Consideration of this practice of rendering verdicts is essential if one is to grasp the nature of legal guilt.

The verdict of guilt

The verdicts of guilty and not guilty are legally significant acts that are embedded in a complex rule-defined practice in which charges are leveled, hearings held, and judgments rendered. What is a verdict? As distinguished from the factual assumptions underlying it, a verdict is not a statement of fact that one is or is not guilty as charged. Verdicts themselves are neither true nor false, but valid or invalid. If challenged, they may be "set aside," but not because they are false. It is an essential characteristic of verdicts that they make things happen rather than state what is so. If a verdict is valid a person becomes, by virtue of that fact, either guilty or not guilty before the law. This concept of legal guilt is referred to here as "legally operative guilt."

A number of issues related to the practice of rendering verdicts of guilt will be considered. First, what conditions must be satisfied if a verdict is to be valid? Second, what does it mean to be guilty in the legally operative sense? Third, what presuppositions underlie the legal practice of rendering verdicts of guilt? Fourth, what functions are served by this legal practice? Finally, is there a concept of legal guilt different from that of legally operative guilt, and if so, how are the different concepts related?

Validity conditions for verdicts. There is a common understanding as to what communicative behavior in what settings constitutes a verdict. Thus, for example, persons without legal authority may state their opinions about a defendant's guilt or reach moral judgments upon the matter, but without legal authority they cannot render legal verdicts. Only when a verdict has been rendered can its validity or invalidity be considered. Verdicts must be in compliance with rules that define the conditions to be satisfied if they are to be legally operative. These rules regulate such matters as the form and substance of the verdict, the conditions in which it is arrived at, and the setting in which it is delivered. Thus, a verdict may be set aside because of uncertainty in its formulation, as when it is unclear which of two defendants charged with an offense has been found guilty; because it has been announced in the absence of the defendant; because of misconduct by those charged with rendering it; or because of a lack of evidence to support it.

The meaning of legally operative guilt. What does it mean to be guilty before the law in the legally operative sense? The verdict itself is a formal pronouncement of condemnation by an authoritative social organ. In being declared guilty, one is branded. One's status is thereby transformed into that of the legally condemned. Being thus branded, one is set apart from others and placed in a condition that requires correction. Guilt, by its very nature, calls for something to be done. Further, being legally guilty in the operative sense implies that the guilty person is properly subject to punishment. Any legal practice restricted to establishing one's liability to make reparations or restitution, or restricted to providing compensation, would differ fundamentally from the legal practice of determining guilt. None of these alternative practices necessarily implies either condemnation or the idea of conduct causing injury to society, and thus of owing society something.

Presuppositions of the practice. A number of background conditions are presupposed by a legal practice embodying the concept of guilt. These are conditions whose presence makes intelligible the practice and whose absence would reasonably cause doubt about the existence of this particular practice.

First, a verdict of guilt presupposes the belief that there is a condition of guilt logically independent of the verdict. There are facts to be determined, and they relate, of course, to a person's being in fact guiltywhat shall be referred to as "factual legal guilt." As a corollary, it is also presupposed that those charged with rendering verdicts will reflect on the evidence presented to them relating to the criminal charge and will not resort to such arbitrary devices for determining guilt as flipping coins.

Second, a verdict of guilt presupposes that the person adjudged guilty is the same person charged with having committed the offense. There would be an oddity, for example, in rendering a verdict against a person who at the time of conviction, because of severe amnesia, was believed to lack any sense of continuity with the person claimed to have committed the offense. Again, society could conceivably penalize close relatives of escaped felons in order to deter escapes, but in such a practice, verdicts of guilt would not be rendered against the unfortunate relatives. Liability to suffer penalties is not equivalent to being judged guilty.

Third, the practice presupposes that individuals adjudged guilty have the capacity to comprehend the significance of the verdict and of the punishment prescribed. Verdicts have a communicative function, and among the persons addressed are those convicted of crime. Verdicts would lose their point if they were addressed to individuals who did not comprehend their significance as condemnatory and who were at a loss to understand why suffering was to be imposed upon them.

A fourth consideration, connected with this last point, is more speculative: perhaps a general commitment throughout society to the norms established by law, to the values they support, and to the legitimacy of the practice that has been established is necessary in order to determine violations and guilt. Without these elements the legal practice of finding guilt would be transformed into one in which individuals with power merely enforced their will upon others. In such circumstances the normative basis of the practice would crumble, condemnation would inevitably fall upon deaf ears, and punishment would become merely a matter of making another suffer.

Finally, the social practice embodying guilt presupposes beliefs in an established order of things, in an imbalance to that order caused by wrongdoing, in the undesirability of alienation, and in the possibility of restoration. Unlike the concepts of pollution or shame, for example, the concept of guilt arises in a world in which people conceive of guilty wrongdoing as disrupting a valued order of things. This produces instability and sets the guilty person apart from others, but nevertheless also creates a situation that may be righted by sacrificial or punitive responses. Punishment, although it has other explanations as well, in this conception is a mode of righting imbalances through exaction of a debt owed by the guilty to society. The debt, once exacted, brings about rejoinder. Given this conception, the person branded as guilty is so branded because he has set himself apart by wrongdoing. "Guilt" then adheres to the guilty like a stain and weighs like a burden, and punishment serves both to purify and relieve. Punishment as a response to guilt is thus freighted with symbolic significance, and major shifts in how it is conceived would imply transformation in the legal practice of which it and guilt are now a part.

Functions served by the practice of rendering verdicts of guilt. Practices come into existence and persist for a variety of reasons. They may also, once in existence, serve interests that were not factors leading to their genesis. The universal fascination with crime and punishment strongly suggests that deep emotional needs may be gratified by the legal practice of rendering verdicts of guilt. It seems clear that these needs are better served by the drama of a public trial and conviction than by the growing phenomenon of the plea bargain.

Determinations of guilt and the infliction of punishment upon the guilty convey as nothing else can that there are indeed norms in effect in society and that they are to be taken seriously. Guilt determinations allay anxiety through reassurance that one's social world is orderly and not chaotic: it is a structured space in which not everything is permitted, where there are limits to conduct, and where retribution may be expected if these limits are breached. The practice also provides reinforcement for one's hope that in this world one is not merely a helpless victim, for guilt is founded upon the idea that individuals are responsible for what they do. Moreover, judging persons to be legally guilty permits a societally approved deflection of aggressive impulses. Punishment, like war, may allow for aggression without our suffering guilt as a consequence.

Finally, life outside the law, when issues of guilt and innocence arise, is filled with complexity, ambiguity, and irresolution. It is a virtue of law to make matters neater than they are outside the law, and to make smooth the rough edges of human interaction. The law presents a drama in which one is either guilty or not guilty and in which the guilty meet with their just deserts. Real life is, of course, quite different, but the law with its relative definiteness and its institutionalized means of retribution at least partially satisfies our longing for an ideal world.

Legally operative guilt and factual legal guilt. Some might argue that legally operative guilt is the entire substance of the concept of legal guilt, for, after all, what is more closely connected with legal guilt than liability to punishment? On the other hand, jurors are asked to consider whether a person is in fact guilty before they reach a verdict of guilt. What sometimes justifies setting aside a verdict is a judgment that the evidence of guiltfactual legal guiltis insufficient to justify the verdict. This seems to establish that we possess a concept of legal guilt that is logically independent of a verdict of guilt, for it is a concept that guides those charged with reaching a verdict. Thus, it would seem wise to acknowledge the presence of two legal concepts of guilt and to address oneself to their relationship.

Factual legal guilt

We have seen that the norms governing the practice of rendering verdicts require that those charged with the responsibility consider the evidence relevant to factual legal guilt. In our own system of criminal law a verdict of guilt is to be returned only if it is believed beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is indeed guilty. Although the verdict is not a statement of fact, it presupposes beliefs about the facts. This brings us to a consideration of the nature of factual legal guilt. When is a person guilty in this sense?

First, conduct is normally a prerequisite for legal guilt. This means that a person must actually commit a certain act. It is not enough for him to merely think of doing it, nor is it enough for him simply to have a status of a certain kind, such as being a member of a certain race. Second, the conduct must normally be conscious. Individuals are not guilty for what they do while asleep. Third, there must be legal wrongdoing. Even the most egregious moral wrong does not occasion legal guilt unless the wrong is also a legal one. Fourth, one must have the capacity to appreciate the significance of the norms applicable to one. Animals and infants, for example, do not have the ability to experience guilt. Finally, it is normally a prerequisite for legal guilt that there be conscious fault or culpability with respect to wrongdoing, that is, there must be a "guilty mind" (mens rea). Whatever defeats one's fair opportunity to behave otherwise than he didtypically some reasonable ignorance of fact or limitation on his freedom of actionmay excuse him.

These conditions are common to most legal systems. But how do they relate to the concept of legal guilt? Are there limitations on what legal systems can do with regard to specifying conditions for guilt? Here there are logical and, arguably, moral constraints on legal practice. The law could, imaginably, impose penalties upon individuals merely because of their race. In such a case, however, it would be odd to describe the defendant as having been found guilty. Some of the above criteria, then, may be essentially connected with the concept of legal guilt, in that failure to satisfy them would imply that the concept had no application.

The connection that factual legal guilt has with our moral conceptions of guilt is less clear: moral fault is not essential for legal guilt. Nevertheless, there may be a connection between legal guilt and moral fault that is more than merely accidental. As discussed above, the legal practice of rendering verdicts of guilt has special significance. Individuals who are guilty are viewed as justifiably condemned and as having set themselves apart from the community by disregarding its basic values. To this extent, a number of the conditions for being morally guiltyamong them conditions related to a fair opportunity to behave otherwise than one didare presuppositions of legal guilt as well. On this view, a system that allowed generally for a finding of guilt in conflict with certain moral constraints would be one that used existing institutions of the criminal law in a way fundamentally at odds with certain of its basic presuppositions. Prevention and social control would replace crime and punishment as these are now understood. Even today, when legal doctrine permits conviction of those without fault, it seems that something on the order of a lie is being perpetrated. This is because such convictions create the false impression that the guilty are insufficiently committed to the community's norms, whereas in the case of those not proved to be at fault this has not been established.

Moral and legal guilt

How are these concepts related beyond what has been suggested above? There can, of course, be moral guilt without legal guilt, legal guilt without moral guilt, and a range of instances in which the two overlap. Earlier, there were listed a number of examples of what might occasion moral guilt without legal guilt. To this list might be added those cases where compliance with evil laws creates moral guilt. Since it is sometimes morally right to violate an iniquitous law, it follows that there may be legal guilt without moral guilt. From a consideration of crimes such as murder, where generally those factually guilty are morally guilty as well, it is evident that the two overlap.

Moral and legal guilt may differ significantly. There is no concept in morality comparable to legally operative guilt; one is never morally guilty merely by virtue of being judged as such. Moral guilt is always factual guilt. Further, the law may specify in a relatively arbitrary way the norms that regulate conduct and the circumstances under which violation of these norms incurs guilt. But for moral guilt the norms and the conditions to be satisfied for incurring guilt are entirely immune from deliberate human modification.

Moreover, legal guilt is restricted to those situations in which a wrong is done to society. It is not enough that someone's personal rights have been violated. For the most part, however, moral wrongs that establish guilt arise in situations where another's rights have been violated; the guilt is not necessarily done to the society that conceives itself as threatened by the conduct. Thus, those in a position to condemn or forgive are those whose rights have been violated, and not some party that stands in an institutionally defined relationship to the wronged party.

Further, in being morally guilty there is no implication of being justifiably liable to punishment. There may be entitlement to criticize and to be resentful or indignant, but in a variety of situations where moral guilt arises, either the wrong done is not appropriately viewed as punishable, or the relationship (for example, between friends) is in no way seen as righted by punishment. What is essential for restoration in the moral sphere is such emotions and attitudes as guilt, contrition, and repentance. In addition, the objects of moral guilt differ from those generally of concern to the law. Maxims such as "the law aims at a minimum; morality at a maximum" and "the law is concerned with external conduct; morality with internal conduct" draw attention to the different emphases of law and morality. Finally, moral guilt may remain forever in doubt once all the facts are in. Moral reflection allows for the judgment that a person is and yet is not guilty; this depends on one's perspective, which is not precisely defined by any authoritative pronouncement. Thus, there is no need for moral reflection ever to come to rest.

The sense of guilt

What is the sense of guilt, and how is it related, if at all, to law? Guilt is a human sentiment that manifests itself in our inhibition from doing what we believe to be wrong and in our feeling guilty when we do what we believe to be wrong. Thus, it operates both in a forward-and a backward-looking manner. In this respect it resembles conscience, which "doth make cowards of us all" and which, when we disobey its dictates, makes us conscience-stricken. Guilt is the feeling most closely connected with wrongdoing, taking as its object belief in wrongdoing. What, more precisely, is it to feel guilt?

A person who feels guilt holds certain beliefs and is disposed to feel and act in certain specific ways. First, one is attached to avoiding wrong, and the mere fact that one has done wrong causes a feeling of pain. Second, just as there is a special satisfaction connected with thinking of oneself as the creator of what is valuable, so there is a special dissatisfaction that derives from the realization that one has been responsible for wrongdoing. This is partly because one sees oneself as a destroyer of value. Third, in feeling guilt one turns on oneself the criticism and hostility that, if another had acted in the same way, would have been directed at that person. Fourth, there is a sense of unease caused by one's feeling alienated from those to whom one is attached. Finally, the sense of unpleasantness associated with guilt is connected with carrying a burden from which one longs to be relieved. One feels obliged to confess, to make amends, to repair, and to restore. A further sense of unpleasantness is caused by one's resistance to do these things, owing to fear and perhaps pride, and the unease experienced until they are done.

How, if at all, is the human disposition to feel guilt related to the legal practice, described above? Individuals are often adjudged guilty and do not feel guilt. They may believe themselves innocent of the charge; they may believe that, although legally wrong, what they did was morally obligatory; or they may not have the requisite degree of internalization with regard to the law generally or to a particular law. Although all this is possible and no doubt even common, vulnerability to the feeling of guilt may be connected with the legal practice embodying the concept of guilt. For, as has been claimed, among the practice's presuppositions is a general acceptance of the authority of society's norms and of the institutions applying them. This seems to imply that individuals generally are liable, when violating the norms, to having their sense of guilt activated. If it were otherwise, condemnation and punishment would no longer have the significance that they do.

The future of guilt

From Ezekiel we learn:

The soul that sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son; the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself [18:20].

These words mark a dramatic change in prior practices related to guilt; it was individualized. With Christianity another dramatic change slowly came about: the inner life of the moral agent assumed an importance it earlier did not have. Our own age may now be witness to a drama of equal significance. Through a confluence of factorsphilosophical determinism, the development of the behavioral sciences, the ideology of sickness and therapy, and utilitarianismthe very foundations of the concept of legal guilt have been placed in question.

The assault on guilt has moved along a number of parallel fronts. There are those who claim that the presuppositions upon which guilt depends are not in fact valid. Here one encounters either metaphysical lines of argument, or more empirically grounded theories asserting the existence of causative factors in every case that should exempt the wrongdoer from blame. This line of argumentation is evident in the modern tendency to see antisocial conduct as a matter for therapy, not punishment. Moreover, even if one were to acknowledge the reality of the conditions required for the appropriate application of the concept of guilt, it is sometimes claimed that we cannot have reasonable grounds for believing that these conditions are ever present. Skepticism of this kind may incline its adherents to urge foregoing concern with culpability at the time of the offense charged. Attention should focus rather upon what was in fact donesomething observableand, once this is determined, one should then concentrate on what would be the best disposition of the responsible party, given that party's condition at the time of trial. The orientation is almost entirely toward the future and away from the past.

Finally, some are prepared to say that the conditions for guilt are valid, that we can know them, and yet that it is a mistake to continue the practice. Guilt and punishment are viewed by some as fundamentally irrational modes of viewing human conductrelics from a superstitious past in which suffering is seen as magically erasing evil. From this perspective it is never a former evil that justifies infliction of present pain, only a future good to be realized.

These, then, are some of the strains of discontent with guilt. It is not always evident from a particular critique precisely what the implications are for customary ways of proceeding. For example, philosophical determinists do not customarily urge abandoning the criminal law. It remains unclear, too, whether the law, an institution intertwined so closely with our moral way of looking at things, could be fundamentally changed without a corresponding transformation in moral conceptions and in such moral feelings as guilt and indignation. Nonetheless, the above critiques may gradually modify morality as we have known it, and guilt may conceivably appear as strange to future generations as the world against which Ezekiel was rebelling appears to us.

Powerful assaults have been mounted upon guilt and punishment. They have not gone unanswered, and have in fact mobilized tenacious defenses of customary ways of thinking about human beings. Few ages in history have spoken to the issue of human responsibility with the power and force of our own. Some have insisted that humans are basically free, that they often choose their own enslavement, and that by taking their past wrongs seriously they can redeem themselves. For those of this persuasion the law, with all its imperfections, embodies recognition of the truth of human responsibility and daily reenacts the drama of human waywardness, of wrongdoing, and of its being righted.

Herbert Morris

See also Crime: Definition; Excuse: Theory; Justification: Theory; Mens Rea; Punishment; Strict Liability; Vicarious Liability.


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Dressler, Joshua. "Reflections on Excusing Wrongdoers: Moral Theory, New Excuses, and the Model Penal Code." Rutgers Law Journal 19, no. 3 (1988): 671716.

Durkheim, Émile. The Division of Labor in Society. Translated by George Simpson. New York: Free Press, 1947.

Feinberg, Joel. Doing and Deserving Essays in the Theory of Responsibility. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1970.

Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontent (1930). Translated by James Strachey. London: Hogarth Press, 1961.

Hart, H. L. A. Punishment and Responsibility: Essays in the Philosophy of Law. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1968.

Lewis, H. D.; Harvey, J. W.; and Paul, G. A. "The Problem of Guilt" (Symposium). Proceedings of the Arisiotelian Society, supp. vol. 21 (1947): 175218.

Miller, William Ian. The Anatomy of Disgust. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997.

Moberly, Walter Hamilton. The Ethics of Punishment. London: Faber & Faber, 1968.

Moore Michael. Placing Blame. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Morris, Herbert. On Guilt and Innocence: Essays in Legal Philosophy and Moral Psychology. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976.

. "The Decline of Guilt." Ethics 99, no. 1 (1988): 6276.

Murphy, Jeffrie G., and Hampton, Jean. Forgiveness and Mercy. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. "On the Genealogy of Morals." Basic Writings of Nietzsche. Translated by Walter Kaufmann. New York: Random House, 1968.

Piers, Gerhardt, and Singer, Milton B. Shame and Guilt: A Psychoanalytic and a Cultural Study. New York: Norton, 1971.

Pillsbury, Samuel H. Judging Evil: Rethinking the Law of Murder and Manslaughter. New York: New York University Press, 1998.

Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press/Belknap Press, 1971.

Ricoeur, Paul. The Symbolism of Evil. New York: Harper & Row, 1967.

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views updated Jun 08 2018


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)


views updated May 21 2018


Guilt is the fact or awareness of having done wrong, of violating a norm or prescription. It is a universal phenomenon and a basic trait of human nature. To speak of guilt is to presuppose a world where there are norms and laws and persons with freedom and responsibility who, if they choose, can act against that established order. There are varying types of guilt relative to the nature of the wrongdoing. Legal or juridical guilt refers to the guilt associated with committing a crime, a violation of law, to which penalties are often attached. Ethical or moral guilt focuses on violation of moral norms. Religious guilt comes from injuring one's relationship with God through breaking divine law. Collective guilt refers to the wrongdoing of a group such as a family or nation. The multidimensioned reality of guilt invites interdisciplinary investigation, especially from the perspectives of theology, psychology, and anthropology.

Subjective and Objective Aspects. Guilt viewed as a subjective reality brings to the fore a person's awareness of having done wrong and the feelings aroused by knowing that one has transgressed in some way. Psychology has given primary attention to guilt feelings which are at times inappropriate or disproportionate responses and not necessarily related to any wrongdoing. Psychology is helpful in sorting out inauthentic guilt feelings from a true consciousness of guilt. Often in a given instance there is a mixture of both authentic and inauthentic guilt.

The degree of awareness, knowledge, freedom, and responsibility has direct bearing on the imputability of guilt but may or may not diminish or eliminate the presence of guilt feelings. Such feelings include unpleasant experiences of distress, such as self-reproach, self-blame, remorse, and anxiety. Guilt feelings typically trigger in the person experiencing them various remedial or expiatory actions such as confession, repentance, and reparation. The positive social role of such feelings is to impel a person to take responsibility and to mend broken relationships.

Objective guilt designates either the condition of the person who has committed the wrong or the behavior which constitutes the violation of the community's values and laws. Thus, in a court of civil law one is pronounced guilty of a particular crime even though one may not feel subjectively guilty or culpable. Objective guilt refers to the misdeed, a true violation of the law, whether or not it was freely intended by the transgressor.

Historical and Phenomenological Perspectives. In primitive societies guilt was related to a disturbance of the social or religious order. To incur guilt was to bring misfortune on oneself and one's community. Various means of expiation developed to restore the former equilibrium. Sacrifices and other ritual actions were efforts to undo the damage and to remove the guilt through various symbolic mediations such as a scapegoat.

Paul Ricoeur's study of the language of confession throws further light on the epigenesis of guilt. He traces a movement from the primitive sense of defilement, characterized by the feeling that one is infected and the experience of dread because of such contamination, to the sense of sin. With the notion of sin the sense of a relationship with God becomes prominent. Sin represents a refusal of God's demand. Guilt internalizes and personalizes the consciousness of having sinned. It anticipates the punishment due to sin by the burden it places on consciousness.

Guilt itself evolves and represents according to Ricoeur a significant advance in human comprehension of fault. In contrast to a simple fear of punishment, guilt acknowledges that an injustice has been done, an interpersonal relationship has been damaged. Guilt ultimately leads to a transformation such as Job experienced where in the face of suffering he surrenders to an order that transcends him. The perceived inescapability of guilt in human life leads to the relinquishing of narcissistic goals and embracing a life focused not on one's own righteousness but on a transcendent Other.

Psychological and Developmental Perspectives. Guilt as a psychological reality has been discussed by Freud and a host of other psychologists. Freud saw guilt feelings as arising when there is tension between a strict superego, the internalized authority of parents and other significant figures, and the ego, the executive agency of the personality. The superego emerges into prominence with the resolution of the Oedipal struggle somewhere around the age of five. Guilt, for Freud, makes its appearance toward the end of early childhood. The sources of such guilt are dread of authority and more specifically a fear of the loss of love of those on whom one depends. Freud saw the positive role that guilt can play in life. He was particularly aware of how it functions in human society as a control on destructive aggression. Freud's attention, however, was focused especially on the unconscious and displaced guilt that often stands behind neurotic symptom formation. According to Freudian psychodynamics, guilt feelings aroused in one area of conflict can be shifted and displaced onto another so that the person remains unaware of the true source of the guilt feelings. Various attempts at atonement are largely ineffective in bringing relief. Sometimes the guilt feelings are not conscious at all but stand behind a person's repeated failures or other self-punishments. Freud's explanation of the origin of religion tries to make comprehensible humanity's need for reparation by postulating a primal parricide for which humans still have guilt even though oblivious of it and its origin.

Erik Erikson, building on Freud's theory, has described a crisis in the life of the play-age child around the issues of initiative and guilt. The child desires to do things like others do but struggles with the awareness that some things are forbidden. Erikson suggests that conscience steps in as the governor of initiative. A healthy resolution of the crisis has the child moving forward unhampered by an excessive sense of guilt and with the sense of initiative prevailing.

Some psychological theories place the emergence of guilt earlier than did Freud or Erikson and see its appearance as an important developmental milestone. Melanie Klein sees the emergence of guilt in the first year of life and links it to the child's growing ability to tolerate ambivalence. According to Klein's formulations, the life of every infant is replete with both gratifications and frustrations. The normal infant responds to frustrations with a desire for retaliation; in other words, he or she would like to respond to the sources of frustration by punishing the inflicting party. In the course of infant development, the child senses that the "good mother" who provides food and the "bad mother" who frustrates its desire for immediate satisfaction are one and the same person. The child begins to sense its mother is a whole person in which it finds both good and bad. It senses, too, that the very one on whom its well-being depends is the same one it has wished to destroy. But now the child begins to feel concern for the mother and goes through a period of anxiety related to the feeling of almost having lost or destroyed the mother on whom it depends. An experience of guilt over such possible damage signals the ability to tolerate the ambivalence of conflicted feelings of love and hate directed to the same object. The child deals with this guilt through reparation and various restitutive gestures.

The British pediatrician and psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott, building on Klein's ideas, connects the emerging sense of guilt in the infant with the beginnings of a capacity for concern. He draws attention to the importance of the stable emotional environment provided by the primary care-givers for all this to unfold appropriately. Deprivation in that environment is seen as contributing to the genesis of the antisocial tendency marked by the absence of any sense of guilt.

Guilt Pathologies. Two forms of guilt pathology are commonly recognized. Scrupulosity has to do with an experience of guilt that is too intense and disproportionate or focuses on acts that are not immoral or are beyond the responsibility of the subject. Such excessive guilt feelings seem to arise because of very aggressive, even sadistic, internal monitoring. On the other hand, an absence of appropriate guilt feeling characterizes people with character disorders such as the antisocial or narcissistic personality disorder. In these cases, the etiology often has to do with serious deficiencies in the early interpersonal environment.

Abnormal versus Normal Guilt. In sorting out guilt that has more a psychological origin from guilt in the more properly religious sense, it may be helpful to distinguish between the conscience and the superego. Conscience, in psychoanalytic terms, is an ego function acquired through healthy appropriation of the values and norms of the society to which the individual belongs. As such, it intends love rather than commanding that observance of some rule. It is other-directed, value-oriented, and dynamic in the sense that it looks at the nuances of a particular situation. The experience of guilt engendered by conscience is proportionate to the value at stake.

In contrast, superego is a more primitive agency that censors behavior in terms of past commands. It tends to induce guilt that is often disproportionate to the value at stake. It is more static and does not pay attention to the nuances of situations. It simply enforces past commands of authorities in a blind fashion.

In the average individual, guilt is an ambiguous experience inasmuch as it can respond to a genuine violation of a value or norm as well as to commands internalized during childhood development and still operative in the dynamic unconscious. As Karl Rahner has correctly pointed out, guilt is truly a borderland between theology and psychotherapy, an area where both ministers and psychotherapists may have vital roles to play.

Bibliography: c. baudouin and l. beirnaert, "Culpabilité," in Dictionnaire de spiritualité (Paris 1953) 2:26322654. s. freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, tr. j. strachey (New York 1961). j. w. glaser, "Conscience and Superego: A Key Distinction," Theological Studies 32 (1971) 3047. m. klein, Envy and Gratitude and Other Works 19461963 (New York 1975). k. rahner, "Guilt and Its Remission: The Borderland Between Theology and Psychotherapy," in Theological Investigations 2, tr. k.-h. kruger (Baltimore 1963) 26581. p. ricoeur, Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation, tr. d. savage (New Haven, Conn.1970); The Symbolism of Evil, tr. e. buchanan (Boston 1967). a. vergote, Guilt and Desire: Religious Attitudes and Their Pathological Derivatives, tr. m. h. wood (New Haven, Conn. 1988). d.w. winnicott, Through Paediatrics to Psycho-Analysis (New York 1975).

[r. studzinski]


views updated May 18 2018


Guilt is considered to be an emotion secondary to doing what is perceived as wrong. Because it is a painful emotion, people try to act in a fashion to avoid guilt feelings. Guilt is classified as a negative emotion as opposed to positive emotions such as joy and happiness. Once a person experiences guilt from some perceived wrongdoing, there is usually an attempt to reduce this negative emotional state. Sexuality has been linked to guilt through the association of certain behaviors as evil or sinful. The prohibitions range from the universal taboo of incest to condemnation of masturbation, premarital or extramarital affairs, and sexual fantasies.

Throughout history cultures have institutionalized a number of methods to help individuals relieve guilt. Ancient cultures proscribed animal sacrifices or offerings of material resources. Over the course of time various forms of penitent behavior, including confession of one's sins, were developed by religious institutions to alleviate the emotion of guilt. In order to remove the guilt, individuals were asked by societies and religious institutions to complete good deeds, apologize, and endure a punishment or a penance for their sins and wrongdoings. Compliance to confess one's wrongdoings and make up for the transgressions reflected the need to remove the negative emotion of private guilt and restore self-esteem and a positive public image.


In the 1960s, Donald Mosher developed the concept of sex guilt to signify the negative emotion associated with sexual arousal. Sex guilt is defined as the expectation that a person will feel guilty if a standard of proper sexual conduct is violated. The concept was devised with the notion that individuals who were punished in their childhood for interest in sexual matters or showed any behaviors that were interpreted as sexual would show significant sex guilt as adolescents and adults. Verbal admonishments or physical punishments would eventually lead to the child internalizing the message that sex is bad, dirty, or sinful. Consequently, those individuals showing curiosity, interest, or sexual arousal as an adult would have an increased likelihood of experiencing the negative emotion of sex guilt. Mosher has found that high levels of sex guilt among adults have been linked to an avoidance of sexual activities. Dennis Cannon found that females in general showed higher sex guilt than males and that this outcome was probably related to a societal tendency for parents to be more restrictive and critical of sexual matters with daughters than sons. Cannon also categorized people with sex guilt as: being devout in religious beliefs; subscribing to a higher authority; using denial to handle sexual feelings; accepting few variations in sexual behavior; following traditional gender roles; and being offended by explicit sexual material.


The interaction of guilt and sexuality was formally proposed in the theory of Sigmund Freud (1856–1939). He identified the libido as the force of the sexual instinct and included both the physiological foundations of the drive state and mental representations of sexuality. At birth, the child functions under the pleasure principle, which is defined as the innate tendency to seek pleasure and avoid pain. As a child observes or is taught that one must delay gratification or postpone pleasure, the reality principle takes over.

In Freud's theory, beginning in infancy children are influenced by the sex drive and are capable of erotic activity. The focus of the erotic activity follows a developmental pattern that moves from the oral zone to the anal zone and then to the phallic or urethral zone. In the oral stage of development from birth to eighteen months, the infant's libidinal energy has a focus on the mouth and is expressed in sucking, chewing, and biting. The libidinal energy then switches focus in the anal stage from eighteen to thirty-six months of age. Elimination and bowel control are the focus of libidinal pleasure. Next, the phallic or urethral stage takes place from three to five years of age. Erotic activity is focused on urination, the penis, vagina, and clitoris. It is during this stage that the Oedipal complex emerges, which signals the development of sexual interests toward the parent of the opposite sex and subsequent feelings of aggression and jealousy toward the same-sex parent. It is also at this time that the superego or conscience emerges as the child internalizes parental values and standards. The child now is expected to act on the reality principle and give up the Oedipal fantasies. The superego acts as a censor of behaviors, thoughts and fantasies, and elicits anxiety and guilt over sexual matters.

The psychosocial theory of Erik Erikson (1902–1994) reduced the importance of the libido in development and focused on the social interactions experienced by a child. His stage theory is based upon the epigenetic principle, which means the development unfolds in a sequential and orderly fashion. For Erikson, the relationship between guilt and sexuality occurs during the third stage of development between the ages of three to five years. At that time the child must resolve the conflict between initiative and guilt. During this time of their lives, children show curiosity, competitiveness, aggressiveness, and genital preoccupations. The child seeks favored status with the opposite sex parent and develops fantasized possession of that parent. This possessiveness inevitably fails and the child feels guilt and anxiety. Now the child must learn to begin to look outside of the family structure for accomplishments. The child now forms a conscience or foundation for a moral perspective that serves as a guide. If a child is severely punished at this stage for the curiosity, competitiveness, and possessiveness, the formation of initiative is inhibited and guilt becomes the central feature of the child's emotional development. Independent expression of sexuality can then elicit feelings of guilt.


According to developmental psychologist Suzanne Denham, guilt develops in a child during the middle childhood period between the ages of six to nine years. The child gradually gains an appreciation of the role of personal responsibility in one's actions. The socialization process takes place as children learn through instruction, observing the actions of others, the value systems of their parents, as well as from institutions and society.

Self-regulation or the capacity to control one's actions without outside influence is a goal of socialization. The child who has been socialized monitors personal actions based upon standards that have been internalized into a conscience or ethical philosophy. In relation to sexuality, a child learns certain moral standards that help to inhibit or direct instinctual urges. As the child grows and faces temptations to act upon sexual urges, self-regulation permits the child to follow moral rules. Violation of the moral codes induces guilt and the subsequent desire to remove the negative emotional state.

In developing the codes of morality, children proceed through several phases. Between the 1980s and early 2000s, Claire Kopp identified the phases beginning with what she termed the control phase at twelve to eighteen months in which the child relies on the cues of others to indicate acceptable behaviors. The self-control phase from around eighteen months to four years of age is indicated through an ability to comply with the expectations of others during their absence. The self-regulation phase begins around four to five years of age and is marked by the capacity to use strategies and plans to direct behavior and delay gratification.

Delay of gratification is particularly important in the control of sexual urges as it permits an individual to defer sexual satisfaction or avoid sexual arousal. Guilt or the anticipation of guilt serves as a deterrent to engage in sexual behaviors or expose oneself to sexually explicit materials when they are perceived to be a violation of a moral code. Styles of parenting influence the development of guilt. Physical punishment or power assertive discipline used by caretakers leads to a low level of guilt. These children do not develop strong internal controls for their sexual urges and try to avoid being caught for any misdeeds.


The National Health and Social Life Survey (NHSLS) of the early 1900s found that Americans could be grouped into three distinct moral perspectives. Approximately a quarter of the population viewed sex in the recreational sense and experience little or no guilt over sexual actions. Nearly a third of the people followed a traditional moral perspective, which emphasized sexual expression within a marriage. Guilt emerged for these individuals if they engaged in extramarital relations or nontraditional sexual behaviors. The remaining members of the American society subscribed to a relational moral perspective. This perspective permited a wider range of sexuality as long as it is contained within a relationship that is longstanding and committed. This group would experience guilt when engaging in recreational or casual forms of sexuality.

The NHSLS found membership in each moral perspective was somewhat related to certain demographic characteristics. Females were more likely to be relational than males, and older individuals were most apt to be traditional in moral perspective. Increasing education levels was associated with the recreational perspective. Members of most mainstream religious affiliations adhered to a relational perspective, whereas conservative Protestants and Baptists favored a traditional perspective.

The attitudes toward sexuality and consequently the experience of guilt in the American society have been changing significantly since the early 1970s. The General Social Survey has found a steady decline in the percentage of the population who believe that sex before marriage is wrong; extramarital sex, by contrast, continues to be seen in the negative. Attitudes about sexuality in the United States and other countries were surveyed by the Gallup Organization in 1997. Moral standards varied significantly around the globe with such countries as India, Singapore, and Taiwan showing the most restrictive attitudes of the countries surveyed. Iceland, France, Germany reported the most recreational attitudes about sexuality. The secularization of Western Europe has been seen as a significant factor in the development of recreational attitudes concerning sexuality. The moral perspectives of these secular societies have limited internalized prohibitions toward sexual behavior and consequently limited the expression of sex guilt.

see also Honor and Shame; Penance.


Allgeier, Elizabeth, and Albert Allgeier. 2000. Sexual Interactions. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Damon, W., and R. Lerner. 2006. Handbook of Child Psychology. Vol. 3: Social, Emotional, and Personality Development. New York: John Wiley and Sons.

Laumann, E. O., and J. H. Gagnon. 1994. The Social Organization of Sexuality: Sexual Practices in the United States. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Scholly, K., and P. Holck. 2005. "Using Social Norms Theory to Explain Perceptions and Sexual Health Behaviors: An Exploratory Study." Journal of American College Health 53(2): 159-166.

Schultz, D., and S. Schultz. 2001. Theories of Personality. 7th edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth and Thomson.

Suggs, David, and Andrew Miracle. 1993. Culture and Human Sexuality: A Reader. Pacific Grove: Brooks and Cole.

                                              Frank Prerost


views updated May 29 2018


An emotional state produced by thoughts that we have not lived up to our ideal self and could have done otherwise.

Guilt is both a cognitive and an emotional experience that occurs when a person realizes that he or she has violated a moral standard and is responsible for that violation. A guilty conscience results from thoughts that we have not lived up to our ideal self. Guilt feelings may also inhibit us from falling short of our ideal again in the future. Individual guilt is an inner reflection on personal wrongdoing, while collective guilt is a shared state resulting from groupsuch as corporate, national, or communitywrongdoing.


The researcher M. L. Hoffman has proposed the following stages of guilt development:

Infancy Because infants have no clear sense of separate identity or the effect of their behavior on others, it would be impossible for them to feel true guilt over hurting another.

Early childhood Young children understand themselves as physically separate from others, but do not yet have a deep understanding of others' inner states; therefore, they feel guilt over hurting another person physically, but not over doing emotional damage.

Middle childhood With the increased understanding of others' inner states, children develop a sense of guilt over inflicting emotional pain on others or failing to act on another's behalf.

Adolescence to adulthood Cognitive development now allows the young adult to perceive abstract, universal concepts of identity and suffering and, therefore, to feel a sense of guilt over more general harm, such as world hunger, poverty, oppression, etc.

Guilt serves as both an indicator and inhibitor of wrongdoing. Healthy guilt is an appropriate response to harming another and is resolved through atonement, such as making amends, apologizing, or accepting punishment . Unhealthy guilt, sometimes called neurotic or debilitating guilt, is a pervasive sense of responsibility for others' pain that is not resolved, despite efforts to atone. Healthy guilt inspires a person to behave in the best interests of him-or herself and others and make amends when any wrong is done. Unhealthy guilt stifles a person's natural expression of self and prohibits intimacy with others.

Unhealthy guilt can be instilled when a child is continually barraged with shaming statements that criticize the child's self, rather than focusing on the specific harmful behavior. A statement such as, "It is wrong to take someone else's things without permissionplease return my book," creates an appropriate awareness in the child of healthy guilt for doing wrong. Saying, "Give me my book back! I can't trust you with anything!" shames the child, declaring that he or she is by nature untrustworthy and will never be better than a thief, regardless of future behavior. Consequently, the child sees his or her identity as defective, and may feel powerless to atone for any wrongdoings. This identity can be carried into adulthood, creating a sense of debilitating guilt.

An important difference between shame and guilt is that in the former, a person does not feel he could have avoided the action; in guilt, he feels responsible. Guilt can be used to manipulate someone into behaving in a certain way. This is known as a "guilt trip." Provoking another's sense of guilt in order to obtain something that he or she might not otherwise have offered is a manipulation of internal motivations. If a woman tells her husband that she is going out for the evening with her girl-friends, and her husband responds, "Go ahead and go to the movie, dear don't worry about me I'll be fine here all by myself in this big old house all evening with nothing to do , " the wife will be made to feel guilty for her husband's loneliness. If the guilt trip is heavy, the wife may decide to stay home with the husband, even though she really wants to go to the movie.

It is appropriate to let people know when they have unnecessarily or intentionally hurt others, or have ignored their responsibilities to others. This will instill fair guilt that will help a person be less hurtful in the future.

Although conclusive studies have yet to be conducted, it is likely that the sense of guilt changes along with a person's cognitive and social development. These stages have yet to be thoroughly documented and are still open to critique.

Guilt can be deactivated, the conscience "turned off." Some people never seem to develop a healthy sense of guilt in the first place, through a failure to develop empathy or a lack of appropriate limits, while others choose to turn theirs off. Guilt can be deactivated in two different ways:

1) The person convinces him-or herself that the act was not a violation of what is right.

2) The person reasons that he or she has no control over the events of life and is therefore not responsible for the outcome. With no sense of personal responsibility, there can be no sense of guilt.

When guilt is reduced, internal limits on behavior disappear and people can act without remorse.

See also Moral development; Self-conscious emotions

Dianne K. Daeg de Mott

Further Reading

Greenspan, P.S. Practical Guilt: Moral Dilemmas, Emotions, and Social Norms. New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Hoffman, M. L. "Development of Prosocial Motivation: Empathy and Guilt." In The Development of Prosocial Behavior, edited by N. Eisenberg, pp. 218-31. New York: Academic Press, 1982.

Kurtines, William M., and Jacob L. Gewirtz, eds. Moral Development: An Introduction. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1995.

Middleton-Moz, Jane. Shame and Guilt: Masters of Disguise. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, 1990.

Wechsler, Harlan J. What's So Bad About Guilt? Learning to Live With It Since We Can't Live Without It. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990.


views updated Jun 27 2018

guilt·y / ˈgiltē/ • adj. (guilt·i·er, guilt·i·est) culpable of or responsible for a specified wrongdoing: the police will soon discover who the guilty party is he was found guilty of manslaughter he found them guilty on a lesser charge. See also find, plead. ∎  justly chargeable with a particular fault or error: she was guilty of a serious error of judgment. ∎  conscious of or affected by a feeling of guilt: John felt guilty at having deceived the family | she wrestled with a guilty conscience after her adultery. ∎  involving a feeling or a judgment of guilt: I have no guilty secret to reveal a guilty verdict.PHRASES: not guilty innocent, esp. of a formal charge: he pled not guilty to murder.DERIVATIVES: guilt·i·ly / -təlē/ adv.guilt·i·ness n.


views updated May 18 2018

guilt / gilt/ • n. the fact of having committed a specified or implied offense or crime: it is the duty of the prosecution to prove the prisoner's guilt. ∎  a feeling of having done wrong or failed in an obligation: he remembered with sudden guilt the letter from his mother that he had not yet read.• v. [tr.] inf. make (someone) feel guilty, especially in order to induce them to do something: Celeste had been guilted into going by her parents. PHRASES: guilt by association guilt ascribed to someone not because of any evidence but because of their association with an offender.


views updated May 23 2018


Blameworthy; culpable; having committed atortor crime; devoid of innocence.

An individual is guilty if he or she is responsible for a delinquency or a criminal or civil offense. When an accused is willing to accept legal responsibility for a criminal act, he or she pleads guilty. Similarly, a jury returns a verdict of guilty upon finding that a defendant has committed a crime. In the event that a jury is not convinced that a defendant has committed a crime, jurors can return a verdict of not guilty, which does not mean that the individual is innocent or that the jurors are so convinced, but rather that they do not believe sufficient evidence has been presented to prove that the defendant is guilty.

In civil lawsuits, the term guilty does not imply criminal responsibility but refers to mis-conduct.


views updated Jun 08 2018

guilty a guilty conscience needs no accuser awareness of one's own guilt has the same effect as an accusation. The saying is recorded in English from the late 14th century, but a similar idea is found in the Latin saying, ‘the man with something on his conscience thinks he is always the subject of talk.’

See also we name the guilty men.


views updated May 14 2018

guilt †offence, crime OE.; †responsibility for something XII; †desert XIII; fact of having committed an offence XIV; state of having wilfully offended XVI. OE. gylt, of unkn. orig.
Hence guilty OE. gyltiġ.

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