Economics, Literature and Scepticism

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I am a PhD student in Economics. I am originally from South Africa and plan to return there after my PhD. I completed my M. Comm in Economics and my MA In Creative Writing (Poetry) at the University of Cape Town, where I worked as a lecturer before starting my PhD.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Rambling about guilt

Posted by Simon Halliday | Friday, March 03, 2006 | Category: |

Why guilt? 01.03.06

This is a much discussed subject, but I wonder about the role of guilt. Guilt in itself is an emotional response to an action that one has taken.1 In this way one feels remorse, sadness, culpability of some sort. It is furthermore possible that one needs to seek redemption in some fashion, some action that will negate the previous action. By negation I mean that it will take the previous action and try to reverse the emotion that one feels for it. For example if I have done something wrong, such as causing an accident, I may seek redemption or, I suppose, emotional deliverance for my negligence or my purposeful wrongdoing by remunerating the person monetarily, apologising, or going out of my way to do whatever is possible to see that that person has adequate care (on the assumption that my actions injured them in some way).

Notwithstanding all of this humanity through the experience of guilt, the question I want to ask is why is guilt so pervasive. Why do we feel it so regularly and possibly for actions that do not cause the repercussions that we think they may. Because of theories of mind that we have, we conjecture as to what others may be feeling. We impute emotional reactions to that which we have done. This imputation results in us feeling guilt, feeling bad, feeling generally as though we have caused some hurt which may be irreparable.

The problem for me is this, on a personal level do I experience guilt in the same way that others do? If I realise that I am 'guilty' of some action, should I feel perpetually sad because of having taken that action, or should I feel the guilt, recognise its momentary worth, take what I believe is redemptive action and then move on? Or should I wallow in the experience of the guilt and not move on to forgiveness? The problem with guilt is that one both has to seek forgiveness from someone else, as well as seeking to forgive oneself. I think the argument as to which is harder depends on the people involved. However, I centrally and personally believe that the latter (self-forgiveness) is more important in order for one to move onwards emotionally and actively.

The question is whether the experience of guilt actually results in resolution, or whether our feeling and indulging in it can invalidate any future interactions because of our inactivity which is as a result of our wallowing in guilt. It is further not to use metaphors that include water as a medium of understanding. Why do we feel that a water or mud-like metaphor is apt? Is it because of the idea of one floating if there is no guilt but sinking if there is? If guilt results in us being in a possibly better situation that we originally – through our penitence – then surely it shouldn't use metaphors of sinking, but rather of further upliftment! Or rather, it shouldn't use metaphors of water at all. Personally, I seem to be at a stage where I dislike the idea of everything being either up or down. The concept of a specific vertical continuum applied to emotional contexts seems, to me, to be inherently flawed. My experiences of emotions (including what I perceive as guilt) are not necessarily up or down, high or low, they encompass a landscape of emotions that do not necessarily attach to an up-down direction.

Even so, another concept which needs to be considered is the relationship between remorse and guilt. If I feel guilty for something, does that mean I should regret what I did? Should I feel remorseful? Again speaking from a personal standpoint, in certain specific contexts even when I have subsequently felt guilt for having taken a specific path of action, I subsequently realised that I would most likely had I been able to go back and choose again, I would have made the same choices and simply suffer the guilt. The existence and experience of my guilt does not necessarily imply that i should want to go back and change what I did. It does not imply that I should regret my actions. I could have learned something valuable which I would not have learned otherwise, I could have experienced or understood something which would not have been revealed to me had I not taken that course of action. Again this links to remorse. Should I feel remorseful if I feel guilt and should I wish (in hindsight) that I could remove that action, that if I could edit history, I would delete that action from my personal history. I don't necessarily think so.

An additional problem is the link that exists between guilt and memory. If I am guilty of some action, for which I then forgive myself or for which I am forgiven by another, is it possible that that forgiveness could be revoked. Can I take away forgiveness once it has been given? In a simple two person relationship does this mean that if I did something wrong for which my friend forgave me, can they subsequently say that they actually revoke their prior forgiveness and that they wish for me to feel more remorseful, or to act in a way that is more penitent or to act in such a way that they feel as though I am more penitent than previously? If this is the case then guilt (although it is never itself erased) can be forgiven, but lives in a limbo in which this forgiveness can be taken away and the guilt experienced even more. This is why I believe that the idiom 'Forgive and Forget' is apt – there is a significant relationship between memory and forgiveness and hence between memory and the experience of guilt. I will feel guilt as long as I remember a specific action that I have taken which warranted my experiencing guilt. If I can no longer remember that I have performed an act for which I should feel guilt, should i still feel guilty? Is it really contingent on others not remembering? In which case for true forgiveness, i.e., ignorance of guilt, both me and others must forget what I or they did. This in itself plays havoc with the concept of history. People claim that they have forgiven actions against them by others, but if it is continually being recorded is that really the case?

I conjure a hypothetical here: if we took two random children one that we told was 'Jewish' (although that wasn't necessarily true) and another that we told was 'Aryan' (of Germanic descent) and then gave them history books and the ability to read them, would they act in ways which we believe would be consistent with forgiveness (assuming that Jewish people have forgiven German people for the Holocaust, or more locally that Black African people have forgiven White African people for Apartheid or colonial domination)? Or, conversely, would the fact that it had been recorded and read result in actions by either individual which would make them act in such a way that made the 'Aryan' feel guilt(y) and the 'Jewish' individual feel victimised? I don't know. I really have no idea, I just wonder what this kind of experiment would produce. It is entirely unfeasible, but it is interesting as a personal thought experiment. On a personal level do we actually forgive people for what they have done, or do we rehash it with ourselves, blame them for certain things, claim that they are responsible for how we are now. At what point can we claim that we actually did not forgive them, or at which point is forgiveness simply superficial? Again I don't know, it's just something that I am thinking about.

Anyway, these are some of the thoughts running through my tired brain. I'll slap them on my blog soon and you can have a rant and a rave at me for my strange late night contemplations if you are so inclined.


1Or possibly some action that one has not done, in which case the 'action' is inaction.

Currently have 4 comments:

  1. In my view the better way of dealing with guilt is the method you consider second - to consider it as it arises, then to recognise that is as a projection of your own mind and an erroneous conceptual framework that you impute onto your perception reality in order to facilitate a (reflexive, habitual) attept to categorize and 'understand' it.

    When you consider the futility of struggling for conceptual understanding, you realise that interrogating your guilt is useless.

    The emotion itself? One moment it is not there. The next it is there. From where does it come? Nowhere. Then it is gone. Where does it go? Nowhere. It exists only as a momentary and fleeting neurochemical tide. (Since it is always in flux, at what 'stage' does it exist? At no stage, really - such a thing as a 'stage' is just an erroneous conceptual imputation onto the temporal continuum).

    But surely the emotion has work to do; surely your unconscious has noted something it would ablate to ease its burdens, and it can do this on its own. When you grasp and interrogate the emotion, you fail, and you suffer. So let it go.

  2. P.S. "Wit is the epitaph of an emotion."

    - Friedrich Nietzsche

  3. Hi Simon, I have enjoyed reading some of your work, particularly the Issue of Descent. Your website was recommended to me a few months ago by Les. It has spurred a re-visit to my long-neglected website, where I too delved into the secluded world of words…

  4. Loved to read this. I guilt have its way with me at times. Interesting thoughts you have put out there.