guilt, shame and morality

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  • J. Value lnquiry 17:295-304 (1983). 9 1983 Martinus Ni/hoffPublishers, The Hague. Printed in the Netherlands.


    LEONARD BOONIN University of Colorado

    The object of this paper is to explore guilt and shame as moral categories and as constituent elements of human responsibility. While guilt fits in clearly with mod- ern conceptions of responsibility, the status of shame is much more problematic. Shame is often characterized as a socially induced condition resulting from being observed performing certain kinds of disapproved acts or revealing certain kinds of physical or other types of defects or deficiencies. Guilt on the other hand is usually identified with conscience and internal self-judgement. The anthropologist, Ruth Benedict, has stated this view of their relationship in a forceful way:

    True shame cultures rely on external sanctions for good behavior, not, as true guilt cultures do, on an internalized conviction of sin. Shame is a reac- tion to other people's criticism. A man is shamed either by being openly ridiculed and rejected or by fantasying to himself that he has been made ridiculous. In either case it is a potent sanction. But it requires an audience or at least a man's fantasy of an audience. Guilt does not. 1

    When shame is thus seen as heteronomously imposed or concerned with matters which are deemed morally irrelevant or insignificant it becomes more a subject for psychological explanation than ethical evaluation. Guilt experiences can also be socially induced or relate to morally irrelevant or insignificant factors but for various reasons we generally do not identify guilt paradigmatically with such cases.

    This paper will focus on what most people would judge to be morally significant experiences of guilt and shame. The thesis of the paper is that morally significant experiences of shame not only can occur without an audience, actual or imagined, but that they are in an important sense more "internal" to the person than ex- periences of guilt. It will be argued that, contrary to the above widely held view, guilt is more social in nature than shame and this difference is crucial for under- standing the distinct roles they play within human existence. It accounts for the divergent ways in which guilt and shame arise and are dealt with. More specifically, it explains certain characteristic differences between them: (1) that while we generally seek to hide our shame there is some tendency to reveal our guilt; (2) that shame is typically a more overwhelming kind of experience than guilt; and

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    (3) that there is more we can do to relieve ourselves of guilt than shame .2

    Guilt and shame can only be understood in terms of their roles and functions within social interaction and individual growth and development. They are essen- tially modes of responsibility; that is, they are distinct but related ways of incurring and assuming responsibility for what we do and what we are. If we are to use intel- ligibly the language of guilt and shame we must understand the language of norms and values in terms of which judgments of guilt and shame are made. Guilt plays an essential role within the complex enterprise of normatively regulating human conduct by rules, while shame plays a corresponding role in regulating human existence in terms of values and ideals. Without norms or rules there can be no guilt; without values and ideals there can be no shame. Guilt is primarily and fun- damentally related to transgressions or violations; shame is primarily and funda- mentally related to failures, imperfections, inadequacies, and weaknesses. 3 A per- son who violates a valid norm or standard without excuse or justification incurs guilt. A person who fails in some fundamental way to measure up to a valid and binding ideal incurs shame. Thus unexcused and unjustified failures to keep im- portant promises to others give rise to guilt, while failures to freely give of oneself or respond with courage and integrity when these are called for gives rise to shame.

    This distinction provides the basis for the analysis to follow. But first some preliminary points.

    For one to incur guilt or shame is of course not the same thing as to recognize and accept the guilt or shame one has incurred; that is, it is not the same thing as experiencing or undergoing them. A person may feel guilt or shame without being guilty or shameful; and conversely one may be both guilty and shameful without feeling guilt or shame.

    A person may violate a valid norm and not recognize its validity or, through some form of self-deception or ignorance, not appreciate the fact that he has violated it. We could say in such a situation that although he has incurred respon- sibility in the form of guilt, he does not accept it. The reverse is also possible. One may feel or experience guilt, and behave as if he were guilty, when he is really not - at least not guilty of that which he feels guilty about. However one analyzes what has been called "neurotic guilt," it would seem to be parasitic on the concept of real or justified guilt. 4 To identify certain guilt experiences as inappropriate and unjustified presupposes there are conditions when such experiences are appro- priate and justified.

    There are, of course, problems concerning how one determines what those standards for incurring guilt are. Even if one denies the existence of any morally justified and objectively valid norms, one would most likely continue to speak in a sociological way of the standards for incurring guilt - by which one would mean socially established and accepted standards of behavior. I f one argues that

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    the only valid norms are those which are accepted as valid by the individual himself, one would still be able to say a person incurs guilt, even though he does not feel it, if he violates his own standards of behavior. For the purposes of this paper, I am assuming that there are certain elementary norms of human conduct which are valid and binding irrespective of whether or not a particular person accepts them, as well as another group of norms whose validity does depend on their being sub- scribed to.

    I believe that a similar account can be given for shame. If one believes that there is an objectively valid conception of the nature and function of man, one would then have a way of measuring fundamental failures, inadequacies, imperfections, and weaknesses. Even if one believes that ideals and values are relative, either cul- turally and socially, or personally and individually, one can still speak of shame in terms of failure to conform to the individual's own or the socially established ideals.

    As far as this paper is concerned no distinction will be drawn between first- person self judgments of guilt and shame and third-person ascriptions. Although the person undergoing the experience may have privileged or even exclusive access to a legitimate form of self-knowledge, it is not this type of knowledge that is pertinent.

    Even if there are certain typical and distinctive differences in the texture and phenomenological feel of experiences of guilt and shame, to identify those ex- periences one would still have to have a conceptual understanding of the nature of guilt and shame. Because guilt and shame are so closely related, it is doubtful that one could recognize their differences without one. One person can always legitimately question another's self-characterization of what he is experiencing; e.g., confusing shame with embarrassment. Although self-judgment may form a constituent part of our experience of guilt and shame, self-judgment does not function in a purely performatory way. Such judgments may be evaluated as being sound or unsound, correct or incorrect, or even true or false.

    It has been suggested that there is a clear and simple test for distinguishing be- tween experiences of guilt and shame. Shame, unlike guilt, it is argued, requires the presence of an external observer or audience: one can feel guilty simply from one's own awareness and recognition that one has done wrong, while feelings of shame arise only when one becomes aware that he is in some manner being ob- served by another. Some anthropologists have employed this distinction as a basis for classifying cultures as either guilt or shame oriented. For example, Ho- meric Greece, s Japan 6 (at least until perhaps quite recently), and various American Indian tribes, such as the Navajos, ~ have been classified as shame-oriented. On the other hand, Greece of the classical period and most Western industrial societies have been classified as guilt-oriented.

    A distinction between a stronger and weaker version of the audience view of shame may be fruitful. According to the stronger version, the audience in shaming a person actually determines by its disapprobation what is shameful. In the weaker version, the person's shame while initiated by a shaming audience is based on what

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    he, independent of the audience, would agree was shameful. Although one can identify instances of both types of shame experiences, it is

    doubtful that the existence of an external audience or observer constitutes an es- sential condition for experiences of shame. There are surely cases of what we would call experiences of shame where no such audience is present. To account for these cases, it is often claimed that the person has become his own observer or audience. To argue this way, though, runs the serious danger of over-extending the meaning of the term "audience" in such a way as to deprive it of its contrary, and hence of much of its original meaning. It thereby undermines the use of the internal-external distinction as a basis for distinguishing shame from guilt.

    Actually guilt seems quite similar to shame in thi


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