Friday, November 20, 2009



I tried to answer this question during a conversation I had with one of my best friends. We often talk about philosophy and power, and we both agreed that "shame" and "guilt" are "kindred spirits." They are both strongly negative words. No one likes to feel guilty or shameful. They both imply that you have done "wrong." But are they really the same? That's the question.

Both "shame" and "guilt" flow from an acknowledgment of power. We only feel shameful or guilty when we recognize that we have failed to conform to a standard that we probably did not make. Someone else made the standard, someone we recognize as "superior" to us. In this sense, both guilt and shame emanate from below; the person who makes the rules that induce guilt or shame at most feels "disappointed" that his "subject" broke a rule. Shame and guilt, then, are for those who occupy an inferior power position. This is why Nietzsche called shame and guilt Sklavenmoral--Slaves' Morality. The rule-maker (or "master") does not feel them. Rather, he causes others to feel them because they do not adhere to his standards. They solidify his grasp over them.

But this does not mean that a single "superior person" causes others to feel guilt or shame. While a "superior person" may have originally laid down external standards, in most cases today external standards proceed from institutions. After all, power is deeply entrenched. It emanates from manifold places. It operates in virtually every conceivable manner, whether subtle or overt. Power radiates in families, in schools, in laws, in social settings and in professional relationships. It exists in commerce and in property. Most relationships involve a party with advantages and a party without them. That disparity provides an opportunity for dominance by one party over the other. And this is the setting in which guilt and shame flourish.

Guilt is more extrinsic that shame. Although both guilt and shame flow from an acknowledgment of power, the power that induces guilt is predominantly external. When we feel guilty, we feel bad because we know we have transgressed against some common rule or understanding. Our negative emotion springs from our awareness that we have violated an external expectation. This includes everything from the criminal law (an external authority about which we are conscious) to our parents (an external authority whose commands we respect). A person feels guilty when he steals or when he knowingly fails to attend a dinner he promised his parents he would attend. In both cases, the person knew he was obligated to do something by some external authority, yet he failed to adhere to the obligation. That conscious failure creates guilt.

With guilt, then, the inquiry is external. We feel guilty only when we acknowledge that some external authority holds power over us. When we break its rules, we feel guilt to the extent that we deviate from the "expected standard." Guilt requires an acquiescence to "superior" people or ideas. It necessarily makes the subject "inferior" to the standard he violates. And unlike shame, it can be objectively measured: The "superior" party can declare a subject "guilty" because the subject verifiably deviated from an external standard. This is why the law uses the term "guilt" rather than "shame." Guilt is a conclusion as well as an emotion. You just need to see whether a person met the standard.

Not so with shame. Although shame might feel similar to guilt, it flows from an entirely different conceptual source. Shame has internal origins. A person feels ashamed when he fails to meet a standard that he expects from himself, not a standard some external authority set for him. An external authority might encourage a person to expect certain behavior from himself. But in the final analysis, only an individual can decide whether to adhere to certain principles or beliefs. In this sense, shame intertwines with honor. An honorable person swears to himself that he will not act in a certain way to achieve certain results. He expects certain behavior from himself. He commits himself to certain principles and beliefs. When he fails to act in the way he expects, he feels shame, not guilt. He failed to meet his own standard, not an external one.

Consider a man who commits himself to respecting others and telling the truth. He makes these commitments because he personally believes that respect and truth are honorable principles. If one day he lies and disrespects a competitor to win a job, he deviates from his own standard. If he truly has honor, he would feel ashamed for breaking his own commitments to good principles. He might also be guilty of violating some external standard against perjury or untruthfulness, but that has nothing to do with his own internal transgression. And that internal violation creates shame. In short, shame is ethical (internal), while guilt is legal (external).

But shame still requires an "inferior" mental outlook. Although an honorable person decides for himself whether to believe in certain principles, in many cases he does not decide freely. The decision whether to believe certain things often depends on social circumstance and expectation. An external rulemaker has as great an interest in creating strong internal shame in his subjects as he does in crushing them under external guilt. A rulemaker wants his subjects to decide to believe in principles that could induce individual shame. All this inures to his benefit. For example, a person learns to believe that "it is good to respect private property." He also learns that it is "illegal to steal." If he steals something, he suffers both shame and guilt: On the one hand, he failed to meet his own internal standard about respecting private property; on the other, he knowingly violated the external command not to steal others' property.

Both emotions are negative. They flow from different sources. But in the end, they both serve to reinforce the "superior rulemaker's" control over his subjects. Guilty and shameful people are easier to manage than willful ones.

Shame seems purer than guilt. It is more individual than guilt because it depends on the individual's own moral ordering. But if a person's own moral ordering is not voluntary--and if individual moral ordering merely substitutes for external rulemaking--then the net effect of shame is no different than guilt: They both reinforce dominant values by inducing negative emotions in those bold enough to "transgress."

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