Guilt is useless

In traditional moral (and religious) systems, notions of guilt, shame, and what one ‘deserves’ figure prominently. And there’s no question that our psychological constitution allows such notions to get a hold of us, so to speak. But what I want to suggest is that a humanist moral system must view such notions as unnecessary. Even harmful.

What underlies guilt, shame, and practices of retributive punishment is the idea of what one deserves. In philosophical circles, we call this “desert”. (It’s pronounced like “dessert”, not like what the Sahara is.) But it turns out the notion of desert is really problematic. One of the reasons it’s problematic is because we’re terrible at allocating it. When I play cards with my in-laws, for example, I’m very quick to accept responsibility for my victories, and very slow to accept responsibility for my losses. I attribute my victories to skill–to ME–and my losses to bad luck. I don’t do this consciously mind you. I just feel great about myself when I win (as opposed to thanking my metaphorical lucky stars).

It turns out it’s not just me, and it’s not just cards. Some studies have shown (if my memory serves me right) that middle and upper-class individuals are very likely to attribute their successes in life to talent–to personal skill and hard work. Whereas individuals from less privileged backgrounds are more likely to attribute their successes to social support (their parents, their friends, their scholarships, etc.). I can only hypothesize that this is because the delusion of pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps is harder to sustain when it’s so obviously false. But in the right kind of environment, your brain gets away with making you feel great about yourself about matters of luck.

Think about it: you did not make yourself. You did not choose your personality, your parents, your siblings, your social class, your color, your sexual orientation, your nationality, or any of the things that have provided the parameters for your life. More importantly, you didn’t even choose to learn the lessons you first learned. The experiences which set you off on the course you’ve embarked on were essentially made for you by your environment. You’re a cognitively complex animal, of course, and so now you’re making your own decisions. But both the software you’re using to make those decisions and the hardware that’s running the whole thing are ultimately the product of forces that pre-exist you. Even your skill is ultimately a matter of luck.

It’s easy to let this line of reasoning overwhelm you. But it shouldn’t. You are who you are, even if in some sense you are “just” the product of a particular human culture. Falling back on traditional notions of an immaterial “soul” or of “free will” won’t help (although I should note that our neural flexibility grants us a pretty radical degree of freedom–we can recreate ourselves at will). We should rather embrace the role of luck in making us all who we are.

Luck tends to undermine desert. Maybe there’s a way to reconcile them. I’m not sure. But I think the pervasiveness of luck means, at the very least, taking the notion of desert with a grain of salt. Concretely what this means is that we should stop feeling so much better than people who don’t have our station in life (and maybe work for a less stratified social order). We don’t deserve our station. Perhaps we are witty, talented, or whatever. There’s no point in denying it (humility is overrated). It’s just important to remember that we did not ultimately make ourselves witty, talented, or whatever. Likewise, the poor, the addicted, the crazies of the world–they did not make themselves who they are. They are in some sense–as we all are–victims of fortune. Perhaps a little compassion is called for (not in the sense of being “deserved” of course, but just in the sense of making the world more livable).

Just as we should be compassionate to others who have not had our fortune, we should give ourselves a break. Instead of beating ourselves up emotionally (through guilt or shame) when we fall short of whatever standards we’ve been holding ourselves to, we should acknowledge that we are imperfect animals. If we are not yet who we want to be, it is not shame or guilt that will get us there. There are simple steps one can take to reprogram oneself in the desired direction without all the self-hatred.

Consider finally how we should approach having hurt someone. When I do something, whether intentionally or unintentionally (usually it’s the latter), to hurt someone, and that hurt becomes apparent to me, I apologize. The same psychological tendencies that make us trade in notions of desert and guilt and shame will tend to make us shy away from admitting wrongdoing. Desert makes us cling to ego. But as a humanist trying to live shamelessly, I don’t have to cling to my self-image (which is of course not say that I don’t sometimes do that). I can acknowledge that I am still a work in progress. And that frees me up to say “I hurt you, I dropped the ball, I’m sorry.”

On this point, humanist insight coincides with the best of the world’s philosophical and religious traditions. The practical point is just that clinging to one’s ego has a tendency to hold one back–to make us engage in self-justification. We justify ourselves to protect ourselves from guilt and shame. But guilt and shame presuppose that we ‘deserve’ bad things when we do bad things, and that we ‘deserve’ good things when we do good things. I don’t deny that we should socially reward pro-social behavior and disincentivize antisocial behavior. What I deny is that the soul-crushing emotions that internalize those social incentives should be nurtured. We can and we should outgrow them.


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