Without Guilt & Justice – Against Guilt

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WITH THE DEATH OF JUSTICE, the tyranny of guilt comes to an end. For without justice there is no guilt. To say that anyone is, or feels, guilty is to say that he deserves, or feels that he deserves, punishment. Once it is seen that nobody deserves punishment, it follows that nobody is guilty or should feel guilty.

It may be objected that it is simply a fact in some cases that a person is guilty. But what is a fact is merely that he has done wrong – possibly a grievous wrong. It does not follow that he deserves punishment, and it would therefore be far better to avoid this implication by not speaking of guilt. As long as we continue to call people guilty, we shall not get rid of guilt feelings. Is it silly to criticize feelings? Certainly not. It makes sense to criticize resentment, envy, jealousy – and guilt feelings. Unlike many other so-called feelings, or at any rate much more so than most, guilt feelings involve beliefs and even strenuous convictions. These convictions could be, and are, false and irrational, and therefore guilt feelings are open to criticism.

In particular cases, nobody would hesitate to criticize feelings of jealousy for being unwarranted and irrational. One might also go further and argue that jealousy or guilt feelings, or both, are always irrational. But the case against guilt feelings has far more important implications. While many people condone jealousy, moralists and philosophers are not in the habit of positively demanding it. Guilt feelings, on the other hand, are deliberately demanded, inculcated, and extolled. They are part of the hard core of traditional morality. And they figure prominently in all sorts of false claims. I shall single out three theses for criticism.

  1. Guilt feelings are held to be necessary for the moral health of those who have done something immoral. Remorse is held to be part of the punishment they deserve, or at the very least a prerequisite for reform.

  2. Guilt feelings are held to be something one owes those whom one has wronged. Such feelings are supposed to restore, at least in part, an interpersonal balance.

  3. Guilt feelings are held to be necessary for the protection of society. Nobody can watch people all the time in order to keep them in line. Hence it is held to be imperative for them to internalize punishment and to torment themselves when they do something immoral. If they did not know that this punishment was certain even if they should not be caught, it is believed that they would behave even worse than they do anyway.

My attack on guilt and guilt feelings will involve a critique of these three theses. But the addiction to guilt is even more widespread than these theses suggest.

Many “liberals” believe that their guilt feelings supply the psychic energy for their good works. Where would they be without guilt?

Many “radicals” feel the same way and in addition seem to feel the need to find other men guilty of heinous wrongs. Righteous indignation is a source of energy for them. Where would they be without guilt?

Many “conservatives” believe that all men are guilty because they are finite – they themselves no less than their fellow men. If they are Christians they speak of original sin.

Some non-Christian “existentialists” have spoken in a very similar vein of metaphysical, ontological, or existential guilt. Jaspers, Heidegger, and Buber have all argued that such guilt lies beyond all psychological explanations and that guilt feelings of this type constitute a summons to authentic existence. To quote from Buber’s account of a specific example:

As the guilt feeling fell silent, Melanie lost the possibility of atonement by way of a newly gained authentic relation to her environment that would have allowed her best qualities to unfold. The price paid for the annihilation of the thorn [of remorse] was the irrevocable annihilation of the chance of becoming that being which this creature, in accordance with her highest predispositions, had been destined to become.

Here Buber is, to say the least, exceedingly close to Jaspers and Heidegger. Still, this thesis is essentially a variant of the claim that guilt feelings are a prerequisite of reform. It is a variant and not merely the same thing said in bigger and fancier words, inasmuch as the “existentialists” see such guilt feelings as a summons and a unique opportunity to rise to a higher level of existence than that of the ordinary person who has not had occasion to feel guilt in the first place.

Considering how widespread guilt feelings are and how widely dubious theses about them are credited, it is surprising how little critical attention they have received from philosophers. English-speaking philosophers have largely ignored them, while the German philosophers who have dealt with guilt have rarely subjected the concept to criticism. No doubt, this was in part because, as Nietzsche said, “the Protestant parson is the grandfather of German philosophy.” My own attack on guilt stands in the tradition of Nietzsche and Freud, without following either of them in detail. For although both were against guilt feelings, neither gave us the kind of critique that is needed. It is high time for a full-fledged attack.


Guilt feelings are a contagious disease that harms those who harbor them and endangers those who live close to them. The liberation from guilt spells the dawn of autonomy.

Typically, guilt feelings make those who harbor them feel wretched. The claim that this is precisely what they deserve depends on the conception of justice that I have criticized. I have argued that it is impossible to determine what precisely men deserve, but it may be felt nevertheless that those who have done something immoral deserve some suffering and therefore guilt feelings. As a matter of empirical fact, however, guilt feelings have no particular tendency to be proportionate to the wrongs that they feed on. It is not in the least uncommon for a person to have immense guilt feelings that revolve around a relatively trivial occasion, while he has none or hardly any in connection with what would seem to warrant them much more. What is even far more obvious is that very decent people of great moral sensitivity often torment themselves over minor wrongs, while less humane people feel little or no remorse over outrageous deeds that have brought immense suffering to others.

A critic might grant this much and still protest that those who have done wrong deserve some suffering and ought to have guilt feelings that are at least vaguely proportionate to the evil they have done. But in line with my account of the origin of the concept of desert, I claim that any specific suggestion concerning what is deserved depends ultimately on some appeal to authority, and that we should abandon the notion of moral desert. We should ask not what we deserve but whether the three theses that I want to attack are true.

As for the moral health of those who have guilt feelings, those who nurture self-hatred usually have hatred to spare for others. As a rule, guilt feelings make men vindictive and inhibit the development of generosity. And I shall show presently that they are not by any means a prerequisite for reform.

If guilt feelings were at least of some help to those whom we feel we have wronged, it might still be argued that self-punishment served some purpose. But generally guilt feelings have the opposite effect. They discomfit those on whose account they are felt, and they are actually contagious.

When one feels guilty for what one has done to another person, one is very apt to feel that in some sense it is the victim’s fault: but for the victim, one would never have incurred this guilt. And living close to someone who secretly, or not so secretly, blames him, makes the victim feel guilty. He is infected by being resented.

Even those not blamed by anyone else may feel guilty when they realize that they have caused somebody else who is very close to them great suffering. They are infected by feeling compassion.

Finally, those who feel guilty usually feel, more or less like the antihero of Camus’s novel The Fall, that if they feel guilty, you have no less reason to feel guilty. This conviction does not depend on your having been the wronged person in the first place, although in the case of husband and wife this reaction is the rule when one has wronged the other. When a parent feels guilty over having done something seriously wrong in bringing up a child, he (or she) will normally feel that the other parent should feel guilty, too. And one is infected by being held responsible. Guilt craves company; guilt obtains company by contagion.


Can one transcend guilt feelings without becoming self-satisfied and self-righteous? First of all, it should be noted that guilt feelings are quite compatible with self-congratulation and self-righteousness. The Fall shows this at length. A word of explanation is in order because Camus’s novel has so often been misunderstood, and interpreters have not been lacking who have claimed to find in it a rapprochement with Christianity. In fact, it is the author’s most Nietzschean work.

His first novel, The Stranger, was a kind of antithesis to Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and its antihero was an anti-Raskolnikov. Having killed another human being, he refused to feel any remorse. It scarcely occurred to him even to feel any regret. And when he was sentenced to death, he felt sure that society wanted to punish him merely because he had refused to cry at his mother’s funeral; in other words, because he had refused to fake it, because he was more honest than other men – not because he had committed a crime. Camus’s third and last novel, The Fall, was conceived as an antithesis to Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground. Dostoevsky’s antihero saw everything from underground, from below, resentfully; Camus’s tells us how he always “needed to feel above.” This theme runs through the whole story. He has always been possessed by the desire to look down on others, but then he became convinced of the hollowness and hypocrisy of his life and of his own profound guilt: of course, all men are guilty, but he is particularly guilty and aware of his guilt and thus after all and once again superior to other men. He now spends his time thinking and talking about his guilt and his superiority, congratulating himself and being self-righteous – instead of using his time and energy constructively. I take it that the antihero of this book is not an utterly atypical and marginal case but that the characterization is intended as an attack on the Christian doctrine of original sin and its secular variations, as is Sartre’s The Flies.

Although guilt feelings are compatible with self-righteousness and with a complete failure to work at becoming a better person, it is also clear that some people who feel guilty try to rise to a higher level or do good works, or both. The question remains whether one can transcend guilt feelings without becoming (or remaining) self-righteous and self-satisfied. The answer should also take care of the problem raised earlier – whether guilt feelings are a prerequisite of reform.

In intellectual and artistic endeavors and in sports it is obviously possible to be sharply self-critical without harboring guilt feelings. If the desired goal is that one should not be self-righteous and that one should try hard to rise to a higher level of existence, guilt feelings establish no high probability at all that one will move in this direction; what is needed is a fusion of ambition with humility. Once again I have to coin a word to move an important idea clearly into focus. I shall call the fusion of ambition with humility humbition.

Humility and ambition are widely considered antithetical. I hold no brief for either as long as they appear separately. But their fusion, humbition, I consider a cardinal virtue, along with courage, love, and honesty.

Virtues are habits that can be cultivated, not qualities that one either has or lacks. Thus courage depends in some measure on vitality and therefore comes more easily to some people than to others; yet it is not unteachable. Some swimmers readily dive into the water, while others have to overcome a deep inner resistance, but most people can acquire the necessary courage, especially if they begin at an early age. The same applies not only to other behavior that requires some “physical” courage but also to the “moral” courage that is needed to defy any compact majority. Courage always requires some self-confidence, another trait that, like courage itself and all of the other virtues, admits of degrees. There is no virtue without courage; humbition requires courage (the counsel of timidity is to lie low instead of risking failure) ; love takes courage (fear shrinks at the prospects of rejection, loss, or disappointment); and honesty is not for those who are afraid of losing friends or cherished illusions.

Love, as a cardinal virtue, is the habit of trying to imagine how others feel and what they think; to share their griefs and hurts at least in some small measure; and to help. Again, there are degrees. It is not a question of all or nothing, of loving or hating, of being either courageous or cowardly.

While this is obvious in the case of the other virtues, many people are reluctant to admit it in the case of honesty. They see readily that “courageous” and “cowardly” are. epithets that we apply in extreme cases, and that people who are not courageous are not necessarily cowards. But people who would wistfully admit that they are not courageous feel insulted if one questions their honesty – as if Hamlet had not been painfully right when he said: “To be honest, as this world goes, is to be one man pick’d out of ten thousand.” The reasons for this confusion are of some importance, and I shall consider honesty at length in chapter 7, along with the reasons one can give for the four virtues.

Humbition involves a sense of one’s limitations, accompanied not by resignation but by the aspiration to rise to a higher level of being. Those whose ambitions are petty can realize them and feel satisfied. Those whose aspirations are loftier keep feeling how far they fall short of their standards, but keep trying. They are too proud to be satisfied with their achievements. They are their own severest critics.

I am not proposing that we go back to the Greeks. They tended to see no fault in self-satisfaction. In Aristotle’s ethics, the “great-souled” man is the paragon of virtue. He tells others how well he thinks of himself, and this is not considered a fault because he has good reason to be proud. One is reminded of Socrates’ Apology and, even more, Homer’s Achilles. It was the Orphics and the mystery cults and, above all, Christianity that spread the sense of guilt as far as they reached. Modem man is led to wonder whether a culture without guilt feelings can even be imagined. Most modem readers simply fail to see that the heroes of the Iliad feel no guilt. Again, Achilles is the outstanding example. Even when old King Priam comes to him at night to ask for the return of Hector’s corpse, Achilles feels no guilt for having dishonored the corpse and dragged it through the dust behind his chariot. Neither did he feel guilty when his wrath caused the death of thousands, nor when he was even more directly responsible for the death of his best friend, Patroclus. Now he has Hector’s body cleaned, not because he feels either shame or guilt, but, as Homer “goes out of his way to explain, for a very different reason. If Priam saw the corpse in its pitiful condition, he might say things that would rekindle Achilles’ wrath and lead him to kill the old man and thus outrage the gods. Achilles has no guilt feelings and is fond of telling others that he is superior to all. What I propose is not a return to Homer. We should replace guilt feelings with humbition.


Guilt is inner-directed, shame other-directed, while humbition and self-criticism are autonomous. Thus guilt feelings arise when an initially external authority – the voice of one’s parents, for example – has been internalized. These feelings issue from an inner voice, the so-called bad conscience. The person whose morality is of this type can be sublimely independent of the opinions of his peers, nor does it spell absolution if he knows that his actual parents, out there, do not consider him guilty at all. What matters is their voice inside him, which has gained a life of its own and become tyrannical.

The person whose morality is oriented toward shame rather than guilt is concerned about what his peers will think, out there. He fears being embarrassed, humiliated, laughed at, despised. It might be thought that guilt feelings arise typically when one feels that one does not live up to the expectations of others, and that guilt feelings are therefore other-directed. But this suggestion rests on faulty observation. The person who cares deeply about the opinion of his peers and about the expectations they have concerning his performance is likely to feel deep shame when he lets them down. Guilt feelings are much more likely to arise vis-à-vis one’s parents, especially if one feels that they have made great sacrifices and that they therefore deserved better – even if they themselves do not feel that way. Guilt is tied to desert; shame is not.

Those who have fallen short of their own high standards in painting, writing, or sports are clearly sensible when they do not feel guilty, nor need they feel shame. It is reasonable for them to try to criticize their own performance carefully, to ask themselves what went wrong, and to map strategies for doing better next time. And if there is no next time and the failure is somehow irrevocable, they may well feel keen regret, but they would be unreasonable and neurotic if they felt guilty. Is the situation basically different in the case of moral failures? Why do so many people assume that moral failures call for guilt feelings?

This distinction between two kinds of failures is deeply ingrained in our civilization, and millions are firmly persuaded that there is a profound and obvious difference – but cannot give any convincing account of it. They are apt to say that not only sports but also writing and painting are relatively trivial and not all that important, or that failures in such endeavors are merely “technical” and cause no suffering to others, while moral failures do. It remains unclear why guilt feelings, if admittedly inappropriate in one area, are called for in the other. Not all moral failures cause suffering, while many “technical” failures cause great suffering – for example, some of the failures of doctors, surgeons, nurses, lawyers, judges, politicians, officers, policemen, teachers, architects, stockbrokers, and mechanics. It is obviously much harder to train people to avoid serious failures in such fields as these than it is to educate them to avoid theft, murder, perjury, and rape. If “technical” competence can be taught without inculcating guilt feelings, moral competence must be teachable, too, without recourse to guilt.

Our illustrations also show that the difference between moral and so-called technical failures cannot be that the latter are of no great importance for the survival of a society. The line between the area in which guilt feelings are held to be indispensable and the area in which they are admittedly inappropriate is exceedingly hard to draw, and under these circumstances the intuitive certainty that we cannot dispense with guilt feelings has little force.

How, then, can one account for this intuitive certainty? First, wrongs that in our culture were at one time believed to be transgressions of divine law were considered sinful, and it was axiomatic that whoever sinned was guilty and deserved to be punished. Thus a Jew who has been brought up on the notion that it is sinful to eat ham will usually feel guilty when he does eat ham, long after he has lost his religious convictions. And few actions elicit more profound guilt feelings than masturbation.

Second, the easiest way to impose one’s will on others is to imbue them with fear and guilt: fear that they will be punished if they disobey, and guilt feelings even when no punishment materializes. Priests have not only inculcated guilt feelings but have also devised various rituals to remove them – rituals that, however diverse, have one feature in common: they deepen the dependency of the poor guilt-ridden flock upon the priest.

The easiest way to manipulate others is not necessarily the best way, nor does it happen to be as efficient as is widely supposed. Certainly guilt feelings have not kept people from masturbating. But it is far easier to tell a child that anyone who does a certain thing deserves to be punished than it is to give good reasons for not doing it. Hence parents, and whole cultures, frequently rely on guilt feelings precisely in connection with prohibitions for which they cannot furnish rational justifications.


The proposal to replace guilt feelings with humbition spells relief from some very painful confusions. When John F. Kennedy was killed, Americans were told from many sides – first by a Christian minister – that all of them were guilty. But they were not. And if anyone should insist that in some way you were responsible and that if only you had behaved differently in some way the President might not have been assassinated, you should reply that there are degrees of responsibility, and that it will not do to disregard the difference between significant and more or less fictitious responsibilities.

Oddly, guilt feelings often flourish on the ground of fictitious responsibilities. The proverbial white liberal has guilt feelings about black slavery and squirms under taunts that his ancestors kept slaves even if his ancestors never did anything of the sort. Should the descendants of those blacks in Africa who sold their brothers to Arab slave traders, and the descendants of the Arab slave traders, feel guilty? Clearly, the proverbial white liberal is confused. He would do well to transcend his guilt feelings, and this need not keep him from working for civil rights.

We must distinguish between guilt and responsibility. We cannot dispense with the concept of responsibility, which will be discussed at greater length in a later chapter. It does not follow from any of my arguments that it is irrational for a person to say: You can rely on me; I accept this responsibility. On the contrary, something is wrong with those who will not accept responsibilities. Now, if one has accepted responsibility and failed, one may be (but need not always be) responsible for the failure. Even if one is responsible for it, it does not follow that one should feel guilty, although in German one would say, meine Schuld, which may seem to mean mea culpa, “my guilt” – but which really need not mean more than “my fault.” We cannot dispense with the concept of “my fault” or “my responsibility,” but we should transcend the notion of “my guilt.”

Let us try to work out more fully the contrast between “my fault” and “my guilt.” Each of these two concepts belongs to a little family of related terms, and it may be useful to juxtapose them in two columns. The family in the first column is under criticism here, while that in the second column might replace it.

past-oriented –––– future-oriented
guilt –––– fault
remorse –––– regret
contrition –––– humbition
self-accusation –––– self-criticism
wallowing –––– planning

The wish to have the past different is understandable but irrational. If it actually were different, much else would be different, too. As a passing fancy, such a wish requires no censure, but if it is pursued seriously, it leads one into confusion and inconsistency, or to a pervasive negation of oneself and the world. And those who say no to themselves rarely say yes to others. Or, to put the point more concretely, those who torment themselves hardly ever manage to give others joy.

Those who say “my fault” regret what they have done without plunging into remorse. “Remorse” comes from the Latin remordere, “to bite again,” and thus offers us the same image as the German Gewissensbiss, the bite of conscience, and Agenbite of Inwit, familiar to many of us from James Joyce’s Ulysses. Remorse is a gnawing torment, a way of punishing oneself for a wrong done in the past, a form of self-torture of which one might say, using Biblical language, that it is one of those things that do not profit. Similarly, contrition involves signs of grief or pain. But prolonged and insistent self-reproach and mental anguish move people in the wrong direction.

“Regret” is admittedly a rather weak and colorless word, deflated by abundant social usage. What is needed is a combination of humble regret with a resolve to change. What is crucial is to liberate oneself from the tyranny of an irrevocable past and to ask what can be done here and now and tomorrow.


The contrast of past-oriented and future-oriented attitudes may be too Manichaean. Clearly, there is more of a continuum than a listing in two columns might suggest. And the existentialist version of guilt feelings has its place somewhere near the middle: guilt feelings are emphasized and extolled, but they are justified in large measure in terms of what might become of the individual.

Obviously; I have no quarrel with the future-oriented aspect of the existentialist position. What I reject is the contention that guilt feelings are required to bring about what Buber calls the unfolding of one’s “best qualities.” Not only are they not required, but they impede one’s “chance of becoming that being” which realizes our “highest predispositions.” It is actually the existentialists who operate with a Manichaean scheme of two modes of existence: authentic and inauthentic. Here Buber’s I and Thou (1923) and Heidegger’s Being and Time (1927) are similar. And the later Buber agrees with the early Heidegger that guilt feelings can summon one out of inauthentic existence and become the turning point of a life.

There is no basis for the generalization that those who remove “the thorn” of remorse and self-torment also destroy irrevocably the chance that a profound self-examination opens up for an advance to a higher level of existence. Of course, it is possible for a person who has seriously wronged another to become reconciled to that fact all too easily and to remain essentially the same person he or she was before. It is also possible to turn an experience of that sort into a new point of departure, planning how one can make it up to the person one has wronged and – especially if it is too late for that – how one can make it up to humanity.

Weighing just how much one owes the other person or humanity would be absurd, though no more absurd than worrying and fretting a great deal about how much blame one really deserves. What makes good sense is asking yourself what mistakes, if any, you have made, how you might do better in the future, and perhaps also what sort of advice you could give others in situations resembling the one in which you have failed.

The difference between guilt feelings and humbition is not by any means a mere matter of words. What is at stake is an altogether different outlook and direction of the personality.

Guilt feelings involve a refusal to accept that what is done is done. The person who nourishes them is stuck at some point in the past and cannot go on beyond that point to build a future. He rejects his past deed and his present self, and he supposes in his Manichaean way that the alternative is to applaud his past deed and to congratulate his present self, which would by evil. In sum, he is caught in the spurious alternative between the bad conscience and the good conscience. I reject the good conscience as well as the bad.

An intellectual conscience need not be either good or bad. Rather, the person who has it is conscientious, thoughtful, and sensitive. One should think of the social conscience in the same way: to have a good social conscience would be tantamount to having no social conscience, but it does not follow that one must have a bad social conscience and feel guilty. The person with a social conscience that is not morbid is concerned about the sufferings of the oppressed. This point can be extended to conscience in general. The person with humbition has a conscience, but neither a good conscience nor a bad conscience. He cultivates self-criticism, finds fault with some of his past deeds and omissions, realizes that but for those deeds and omissions he would be a different person now, in a different situation, and accepts his present self and situation (and by extension also his past) provisionally – as the raw material of his future.

Those who assume that they must feel guilty until someone else forgives them are clearly not autonomous. They look to someone else to remove their guilt. Others, refusing to lean on anyone else, find nobody to grant them forgiveness and feel guilty their lives long. The autonomous forgive themselves, but not everyone who forgives himself is autonomous.

It is nobler to blame and resent oneself than to blame and resent others, but it is nobler yet to rise above resentment. This is a normative and hortatory statement, but it is easily transposed into the descriptive mode. Not only are there free-floating guilt feelings in search of a transgression – feelings that may have arisen in the first place in the way described by Kafka – but resentment is an emotion that is typically free-floating, like a smoldering fire that flares up whenever you supply it with a suitable object. Guilt feelings are a form of resentment. The person who harbors them is therefore a menace. The person, on the other hand, who can accept himself provisionally will find it easier to be generous to others.

It may be objected that if the head of a government had ordered the destruction of large numbers of civilians in another country, he ought to feel guilty. But my arguments imply that there is no good reason why he should. Any guilt feelings he might have would not enhance in the slightest either his moral stature or the well-being of others. What would enhance both? Stringent self-criticism and the decision to use all his powers to prevent similar crimes in the future.


Are guilt feelings nevertheless necessary for the protection of society? If this sort of punishment were not assured even when the law does not catch one, wouldn’t most people, or at least a great many people, behave still worse than they do now?

In the 1950s students were asking the very same question about belief in hell. And then about belief in God. Now that relatively few students or readers of a book like this would press such a question about either hell or God, one must ask whether guilt feelings are not the last dike.

Seeing that even the certainty of eternal torment did not keep people from murder and perjury, theft, burglary, and fraud, it seems exceedingly implausible that the fear of self-torment and guilt feelings should be a powerful deterrent now. You may object that committing those crimes did not entail the certainty of everlasting tortures; one could hope for absolution. True enough, but conscience is even less unbending than the church.

Remorse can be a rack, but those who suffer on it are hardly ever those who have committed crimes against humanity or who have seriously wronged their fellow men. As a rule, the bad conscience catches only minor offenders, while major criminals escape its grasp, and often it punishes those who are virtually innocent.

Thus the question that I have set out to answer involves a false premise, namely, that guilt feelings do protect society. There is no evidence that they accomplish much in this way. Nor is there any reason to believe that raising children on humbition would accomplish less. I should think that humbition would prevent antisocial conduct better than guilt feelings, but I obviously cannot prove that.

Still, a few examples may help us to understand the alternatives better. A surgeon who keeps worrying about how much blame he deserves in this case or that, and whether he could or should have known better, becomes a neurotic menace. In order to do his job well and help his fellow men he must be self-critical without losing self-confidence. Of course, operating on people is not like playing chess, and we understand readily how some people would say that, unlike a chess champion who has lost a game, a surgeon who has made a grave error ought to feel remorse. This is traditional wisdom, but for the protection of society it would be far better if the surgeon asked himself when, where, and why he had failed; how he could improve his competence; and how he could teach young colleagues to guard against the mistakes that he has made.

In the case of surgeons it is clearly better and safer to rely on their humbition than to count on their fear of guilt feelings. The same is true of other professionals. But will humbition keep people from committing crimes? Obviously, not so reliably that society can dispense with the police, with courts, and with other deterrents. But insofar as education can deter people, it seems entirely reasonable to trust in humbition – along with honesty and love and courage. Raising children on these virtues and teaching pupils the habit of self-criticism, high standards of honesty, and fellow feeling for other human beings would make for a better society than does the traditional emphasis on guilt feelings.

Moreover, in line with a point made before, one cannot neatly divide education between the moral and nonmoral spheres. Why do most of us never kick dogs? For moral reasons or perhaps aesthetic reasons? We could scarcely say why because we simply do not feel tempted to do such a nasty thing. But our reason for not doing it even when we are angry and feel like letting off steam is certainly not that we are afraid of the pangs of remorse. On reflection we can say why: it would not fit in with the habits we have developed. And if we deliberately ask ourselves whether we should not cultivate this new habit and take up kicking dogs, we can easily think of more good reasons for not doing that than for doing it.


Even those who would like to rise above guilt may well wonder whether they can. Perhaps the cases that involve some tangible wrong are not the hardest cases; if you are persuaded by the arguments offered here, you know where self-criticism must commence and what kinds of plans are needed. The most irrational guilt feelings are more intractable because it is not at all clear what requires criticism. Some people need outside help to understand their feelings. Consider two representative types.

The first is the case of the survivor. Martin Luther is said to have gone into the monastery after a close friend was stabbed to death at his side. It seems that after this experience his guilt feelings became overpowering and he came to feel that he no longer had a right to his own life. This case may seem to be very unusual, but it is merely exceptionally dramatic; the basic syndrome is extremely common. The death of a person who was close to one often prompts acute guilt feelings. The survivor fails to see how, if the other person died, he deserves to live, and he feels that he doesn’t.

In our time this experience is not confined to those who have recently lost a loved one. Millions who survived World War II and realize how many others did not, have guilt feelings. The intensity of these feelings depends on one’s sensitivity and on one’s closeness to those who died. Those who did not know anyone who died in a concentration camp or in some battle or in a bomb raid may not qualify as survivors in the relevant sense. In those who lost many who were very close to them, guilt feelings are apt to be strong; and if some of one’s closest relatives or friends died under dreadful circumstances under one’s eyes, the sense of guilt is likely to be overpowering.

Is it any help to be told that the inference that one deserves to die or, failing that, to suffer terribly, is invalid? Is it any help to be told that the notion of desert is quite confused? In most cases it probably does not help much to be told that once. But it would be stupid to go to the opposite extreme and claim that arguments and books never helped anyone. When one is in a receptive frame of mind because prior beliefs have been shaken up or, in the present case, because one really would like to shed one’s guilt feelings, a book can help.

The arguments must be thought through, digested, lived with. They must lead to a re-examination of one’s life and one’s place in the world. Obviously, we did not deserve a better fate than millions who died horribly. Nor can we hope to earn the right to our survival after the event. Desert is out of the picture. The world is capricious and cruel, and some of the most admirable human beings suffer hideously while many of the most unconscionable flourish. The question facing us is what we can do with the incubus within us that keeps burrowing into the past and gnawing at our vitals. A liberated human being redirects his thoughts and energies toward the future, toward a worthy project – not just any project, not mere therapy. A merely therapeutic project would make a mockery of our survival, as if what mattered now were merely easing our pain and being comfortable. Humbition aims higher and asks to what extent our own particular experience might be turned to advantage.

Confronted with the blatant cruelty of the world, it is difficult not to resent the world and one’s own complicity. To rage against the universe is madness, though most of those who have not experienced this madness again and again lack depth. To submit is unworthy. Autonomy does not bow in defeat; it asks how the experience that breeds guilt feelings in others might give us the power to do for humanity what, but for this experience, neither we nor anyone might have accomplished. Thus survivors have expanded the conscience of their fellow men by writing The First Circle, Cancer Ward, The Painted Bird, and Night.

The second, equally representative case illustrates the same themes. I shall call it the case of the beautiful garden. Suppose you were offered a chance to live in a lovely place, in the middle of a large garden, with a view of lakes and mountains. You had no chores to do; the company was splendid, the food excellent, and whenever you felt like it you could take walks or swim. If you had some project and wanted to write, that, too, could be easily arranged. Considering the condition of most of your fellow men, should you poison this paradise with guilt feelings? It is the thrust of my whole argument that you should not, but that you would be lacking in humanity and love if you considered the situation quite unproblematic. I am against the good conscience and the bad, but not against having a social conscience.

This case may look unrepresentative, but actually most professors and students, as well as legions of other writers and readers, live, at least figuratively speaking, in a beautiful garden. They live in a protected environment that shuts out the misery in which so many millions suffer. For anyone in the garden to feel that he deserved his good fortune would be really insufferable. To torment oneself with self-reproaches or to make life in the garden disagreeable for the other guests because nobody deserved to be so well off, would be stupid and help no one. What course remains?

The case is very similar to that of the survivor. It is a common mistake to think of either case as somehow quite exceptional. Every one of us is a survivor, and most writers and readers have always dwelt in gardens. Desert is a confused notion, and the world is cruel and capricious. The question facing us is what we are to do with the opportunities that come our way.

One answer is: Refuse them because they are not offered to everyone. Show your solidarity with your fellow men by not entering the garden; or, if you are inside, leave. This answer makes sense, unless you could help your fellow men more by using the opportunities offered you. If you could, but leave nevertheless to soothe your conscience, you are weak and place your peace of mind above the welfare of your fellow men.

The best solution is to find a project that will benefit humanity, in line with your limited talents, and to make the most of your situation. If you can acquire or teach skills and knowledge in the garden or write books that may help others more than what you could accomplish outside, stay without remorse; and when you no longer can, leave without remorse.

That sounds very simple, yet I argued earlier that it is impossible to satisfy all claims. There is no just distribution of concerns, of energies, of time. Looking back over a year or more, we can never honestly say that we have done the best we could. Is there not ample reason, then, for self-reproach? For self-criticism, yes; for self-reproach, no.

Whoever wants to accomplish something has to put on blinders, must refrain from running off in all directions, must be hard. He has to slight legitimate concerns.

It does not follow that he must deceive himself. On the contrary, the autonomous person does not become the slave of a project. He asks himself now and again whether his distribution of his time and energies is reasonable, given his standards, and whether these standards themselves stand up under scrutiny – or whether he is a hypocrite. He wonders whether he might not have done this and whether he was responsible for that, but eventually puts aside these worries as best he can to get on with something more fruitful that, if all goes well, may benefit humanity more than continued self-examination. But when he falls asleep, the blinders drop.

It is in dreams that guilt feelings, if one was ever raised on them, survive the longest. Even the person who succeeds in putting an end to continued self-torment is quite apt to continue, at the very least for a while, to punish himself in his dreams. He may know that he does not really have suffering “coming to him”; but when he falls asleep, he forgets.

Some apologists for guilt will grasp at dreams and treat them as authorities – when they can be used in support of guilt. But this involves a double standard. Sophocles’ Jocasta told Oedipus that in his dreams many a man has lain with his own mother, and Plato, too, said that in dreams the part of the soul that is not rational “does not shrink from attempting to lie with a mother or with anyone else, man, god, or brute. It is ready for any foul deed of blood, and . . . falls short of no extreme of folly. . . ” If it is the irrational elements in us that find expression in such wish-fulfilment dreams, why should we hesitate to consider our self-punishment dreams irrational, too? Only reason can decide what is irrational; and I have tried to show that guilt feelings are irrational.

None of this implies that we should ignore our dreams or that all dreams are equally irrational. A person may repress guilt feelings simply because they are painful, and he may persuade himself that he was not at fault when in fact he was. In his dreams he may punish himself for faults that, when awake, he would deny. He must still ask his reason to help him decide to what extent he was responsible and, more important, what it would be best for him to do now.


To charge a person with guilt is to judge that he deserves to be punished. To tell him that he has made a mistake, or even that he has grievously wronged another human being, does not imply that he deserves to be punished. Nevertheless I have argued that we need to retain the institution of punishment for future-oriented reasons. To live together, people have to prohibit some kinds of conduct, and prohibitions without penalties are ineffective in the face of temptation. If we always waived all penalties, the law would cease to deter men, and the kind of conduct that we sought to prevent would flourish. Hence we punish offenders, but we should not insist that they deserve their punishment. Some of them may well be morally superior to the prosecutor, the judge, and the prison guards. But aren’t the prisoners, or at any rate most of them, “guilty,” while the prosecutor, judge, and guards are “innocent”? This is the kind of Manichaean simplicity that I have tried to transcend.

If desert and guilt are out of the picture, does it not follow that we might as soon punish the innocent as the guilty whenever that would seem to promote the good of society? Or rather, since I have rejected “guilt” and “innocence”: might we not punish those who have not broken a law and claim falsely that they did? Since honesty is one of my four cardinal virtues, I obviously should not do that. Nor do I believe that such dishonesty would promote the good of society. (I shall return to this point in the last two chapters.) If we admitted honestly that we were punishing for a breach of the law a person who in fact had not broken it at all, we would undermine the law by making clear that one might as well break it because one stands to be punished either way.

Thus we can dispense with the concept of guilt even in court. Instead of asking for a plea of guilty or not guilty, we should ask the accused whether he admits having broken the law. To ask Antigone, Thoreau, Gandhi, or King whether they admit their guilt involves an absurd presumption. Nor is it up to a jury or judge to pronounce anyone guilty, as if the accused deserved punishment.

Similarly, the person who feels guilty feels that he deserves to suffer, while those who are convinced that they have done wrong do not necessarily feel that they deserve any punishment. Guilt feelings themselves are a form of self-torment; but usually the self-punishment does not stop with guilt feelings. Often they are more diffuse than indicated so far – rather like a depression. Once you feel depressed, you think of things that are depressing, but you do not think of all the reasons for feeling depressed. Frequently, the main reason that brought on your depression in the first place does not rise to consciousness. As long as it does not, you are trapped in your melancholy. It is similar when you feel guilty. You dwell on things that might warrant your guilt feelings but often do not come to grips with the primary cause. In fact, many a depression may well be a form of guilt feelings, a way of punishing oneself.

It would be wrong, however, to think of guilt feelings as mainly very private. Nor is it sufficient to stress how dangerous they are for those who live close by. There is also a politics of guilt. A detailed description would lead us too far afield, but a few observations and three illustrations may at least suggest its dimensions.

In the 1960s it became the fashion for radicals to taunt liberals for their guilt feelings, but a great many radicals suffer from the same affliction, and radical politics has been the worse for that. Too often it has been dictated by the need to assuage one’s guilt feelings instead of being future-oriented and goal-directed. But bearing witness is not even an effective therapy; it is merely a palliative that offers temporary relief and becomes addictive. More important, politics of this sort is frequently counterproductive; so far from bringing society closer to one’s avowed aims, it is as irrational as the sense of guilt that prompted it and plays into the hands of the opposition.

In the last volume of her autobiography, Simone de Beauvoir describes the demonstrations in the streets of Paris in which she and Sartre participated frequently to protest the Algerian war. A woman vomits. Someone else comments: “‘She’s always like that.’ I asked why she didn’t stay at home. ‘Ah! Then she gets such a bad conscience about it, it makes her even sicker than being scared does.’ ” Of course, participation in demonstrations was not prompted solely by the need to assuage guilt feelings. In her epilogue the author says: “This relatively monastic life . . . does deprive me of a certain warmth – which I was able to re-experience with such joy [I] during the demonstrations of the past few years.” I am afraid that most such demonstrations are motivated primarily by guilt feelings and a need for community – or in one word, therapy. It would be a coincidence if this politics of guilt worked against shrewd politicians; as a rule it does not.

De Beauvoir also describes at length how during those years Sartre’s self-destructive fury brought him very close to death, and she relates how Frantz Fanon, one of the most influential radicals of our time, was not even content to make Sartre feel guilty: “Fanon could not forget that Sartre was French, and he blamed him for not having expiated that crime sufficiently.” It should be kept in mind that not a voice in France was more persistent or more eloquent in its indictment of French policy than was that of Sartre, who also got Fanon’s book The Wretched of the Earth published and contributed a long preface. But Fanon “would demand expiation. . . by martyrdom”! There is no need here to analyze Fanon’s guilt feelings. Suffice it that this story shows how irrational and dangerous people with strong guilt feelings can be.

Finally, consider the double-think into which her guilt feelings led Simone de Beauvoir herself. She describes her vivid sense that

all those people in the streets. . . were all murderers, all guilty. Myself as well. “I’m French.” For millions of men and women, old men and children, I was just one of the people who were torturing them, burning them, machine-gunning them, slashing their throats, starving them; I deserved their hatred.

As if this were not irrational enough, the author says later, speaking of the U.S.S.R.: “The sons were covertly blaming their fathers for having supported Stalinism; what would they have done in their place? They had to live; they lived.” In other words, those who supported Stalinism should not be blamed for that; but those Frenchmen who, like the author herself and Sartre, spoke out boldly against the French government were all guilty. To understand this double standard, which is in evidence throughout her otherwise brilliant book, one must not only recall Sartre’s pronouncement that “Russia is not comparable to other countries,” but one must also understand why de Beauvoir and Sartre felt that way. Their attitude toward the U.S.S.R. is incomprehensible apart from their sense of guilt for being so well off. For years they kept trying to believe, although their critical reason occasionally made this rather difficult for them, that the Soviet Union, even during Stalin’s terror, was the best friend of the workers and the dispossessed and starving. Any word that might possibly give aid or comfort to the enemies of Russia would therefore involve a betrayal of the poor, and it was only by at least avoiding treason of this sort that they could barely manage to live with their guilt.

These reflections on the politics of guilt should call attention to some of the social implications of the problem. De Beauvoir provides us with a helpful distance, a brilliantly presented record of events, and exceptional moral sensitivity. My criticisms should not obscure my admiration for her book.

The apologists of guilt often repulse all criticism with the old ploy of the theologians: the loaded alternative, alias Manichaeism. We used to be told that we had to choose between Christianity and crude materialism. Now those who defend guilt are wont to claim that the alternative is to have no concern for our fellow men and no compunction about rape or murder. They think that if you have no sense of guilt you are a psychopath.

Admittedly, there are some people whose social conscience depends on resentment and is ultimately rooted in self-hatred. When they make progress with their analyst and manage to have a satisfying sexual relationship, their political activism ebbs away. People of this type are rather like the earnest students of a decade or two earlier who used to say that a person who does not believe in God (or hell) simply has no reason for not committing rape or murder. They were deeply troubled and afraid of what they themselves might do if they ever lost their faith. Millions have discovered that one can care for one’s fellow men and refrain from monstrous crimes without belief in hell or God. Surely, self-criticism and a social conscience can survive the death of guilt.

Finally, it may be objected that only excessive guilt feelings are a menace, and that the same is true of a complete lack of such feelings, and that we really need a moderate dosage. A middling amount is admittedly less harmful than a heavy dose, but a study of the latter shows more clearly how the poison works. My position does not depend on advocating a good conscience in place of the bad conscience, nor a lack of conscience. The good effects that are claimed for guilt feelings can be had without this poison. To liberate oneself, one must break the chains of guilt.

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