The difference between guilt and shame

I have made some awkward attempts at getting the concept of the difference between guilt and shame clear in person recently, so I wanted to talk about it at more length here. This is my way of continuing to do philosophy, and hopefully I can make it kind of clear to you.

Some of the implications of Bernard Williams in his excellent book Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy are pretty interesting. One interesting implication of his views is that you sort of construct your own morality if you think about it enough, and one that does not depend on morality taught to oneself, necessarily. One might naturally be a rights-believer, it’s sort of built into the culture, or one might have studied and be a utilitarian, and think that the greatest amount of happiness (or utility) is what we should aim for. These systems have holes in some ways, but are robust in certain situations, which is why I say we should all learn them all – there’s precious little information in terms of varieties of theories, and huge amounts of wisdom to be got in reading the breakdowns, and then reading the original.

In looking at ethics in a systematized way, Bernard Williams notes that the feeling of regret is not something we should feel sorry about. After all, regret is not a moral feeling. In other words, if one feels regret, it is not because one hurt anyone else. It is simply because one wishes to act differently in the future, should a similar situation arise.

But then, he talks about the difference between guilt and shame. Guilt is something to be felt about actions that you did which were morally wrong. But those actions are no more, so it’s just kind of a reminder that you will feel guilty if you do it again.

Shame is a trickier beast. Shame is what we feel when we have done something ethically right, wrong, or even neutral, and we feel like we did it because of the kind of creature we are.  This is a sort of Calvinist approach to emotion. People say “you should be ashamed of yourself.” But we are who we are, and there is often very little we can do to change ourselves in significant ways because of the kind of people we are.

You want to know what philosophy and science say parents can do for their kids to make them geniuses?

Feed them well when they are in the belly, and I mean whole foods well, and as much as possible otherwise, and ladies, yes, this is an incentive to get pregnant, but I still don’t recommend it for reasons I will talk about in the future, unless you think you and your husband are going to make the savior of mankind. Then, when they sprout noticeable levels of consciousness, read parenting books that are not written by psychopaths or demagogues and do the things found in them. I recommend whatever is rated the highest and cheapest for the most sales on Amazon.

When they start to develop an identity, encourage it. If it runs counter to your beliefs, ask yourself: are my beliefs about the world important enough to ruin this kid for life if I’m wrong? If that process comes back yes, ask yourself if it was your beliefs that told you so, and then ask yourself what, all sciencey things considered, not just sciencey people of your own religion, science thinks about your beliefs about what actually happened.

Those who consider this sometimes see that they have a duty to encourage the identity of that child to take whatever shape its DNA wants to express itself in, accept and nurture and offer guidance along that path.

The duty to nurture another human being should not be taken lightly. It involves a lot of rights and responsibilities. A parent is electing to care for another human being.

Here’s why this little rant has to do with shame:

Shame about what and who one is – shame at being a minority, a little slow, short, heavy, lanky, physically less tensionable (immuscular), whatever – it rides in that person’s head all the time, causing them to suffer every moment. It can build up into a whole identity where the child (or adult) feels like they are guilty for everything that happens around them, and guilty about not being able to be as perfectionistically performant as one could be, so long as one worked hard enough, or skipped more sleep, or worked out more, or whatever. This can lead to drug use, self-harm, whatever it takes to try to cure the shame that lives inside, whose only real cure is to be expressed and talked about and hence corrected, because shame is almost always (I believe) built on bad beliefs, whereas guilt about an action is the real deal.

Sure, this perfectionism gets great results – after all, the person tries as hard as they can. This, a sort of Puritan Bargain, an anti-Faustian bargain with God, trading not one’s wild success in life for one’s eternity in Hell, but trading performance ability for a lifetime full of high cortisol levels and health problems from which recovery indicates that God has helped one.

Anyway, I digress into self-improvement territory. Instead, I’ll have to let you go. I’ll be adding some links and wikipedia articles and papers over the next few days. Also editing.

That’s what I named myself when I was 12. Weird, huh?

At DefCon, I was dubbed Hot Wings. That was DefCon 6 or 7, I think. Whatever, I’ve never hacked anything in my life.


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