THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 515, April 19, 2009
"The shot heard round the world"
The Difference Between Guilt and Shame
Attribute to The Libertarian Enterprise
I woke up this morning with a very interesting thought in my head, the end result of a compilation of many different pieces of information from various sources over a period of several years.
The thought is this: Although, to a degree, there are (unfortunately, as I will get to later), a number of similarities between the emotions of shame and guilt, there are also a number of important differences.
Most people conflate the two. This is largely because they have been taught as children by certain individuals in power (usually in the church and government) who have something to gain by this conflation, to do so. It is this conflation between shame and guilt that largely flaws the otherwise excellent philosophical writings of the philosopher Ayn Rand. In one of her essays, for instance, she places nudism (“We cannot take off all our clothes!“) in the same category as certain other actual crimes, such as theft. This conflation of nudism and actual crime ruins the entire theme of the essay.
Equating guilt and shame, however, is a very large and dangerous mistake. Guilt is actually an appropriate emotion, and serves a valid evolutionary purpose. Guilt over such things as murder, cannibalism, theft, and other actual crimes help to ensure survival of the species. And, btw, it is quite appropriate to feel guilt over certain acts that are harmful to yourself, such as cheating on a badly needed diet. You are just as much a member of our species as everyone else!
Shame is a different matter. Shame is a form of cheap, artificially induced guilt, over acts that are not harmful to others, or to the human species in general. Shame over nudity is a good example, as is shame over breaking one of the millions of ridiculous laws in existence. Such as, say, the law against picking up a feather off the ground. Or shame over not paying over what someone claims is your 'fair share' of taxes. Or, in the case of Islam, keeping a dog as a pet. Or anything equally ridiculous and harmless.
Now, it is an unfortunate fact that human beings have a finite capacity (which varies from person to person) for feeling a combination of guilt and shame, just as they have a finite capacity for the amount of food they can eat. So, to the extent that people are taught to feel *shame* over various sorts of nonsense that happen to be convenient to those in power, they have less capacity for actually feeling valid guilt. Just as, if one eats a lot of junk food, one has less room in one's stomach for nutritious food. This may very well be the cause of the rising crime rate in our society. The government pretends to run around like a chicken with it's head cut off wondering if violent movies or video games are the cause of crime, when the real truth is that the artificial shame they have imposed on people with millions of pointless and contradictory laws have merely crowded out the human capacity for real guilt over real crime.
Indeed, the sense of artificially shame can be manipulated to such a degree that it may be in diametrical opposite to what normal guilt would dictate. A good case in point would be religious terrorists or Nazis, who in place of feeling guilt over murder, are instead made to feel shame over disobeying the dictates of their state or religion by NOT murdering. This results in a highly dangerous sort of human being, far more dangerous than a run of the mill psychopath.
A psychopath, of course, feels no (or extremely little) shame OR guilt. They are the moral equivalent of someone who is not getting enough to eat. This is obviously not a good situation, but the situation that arises from someone in whom all normal guilt has been replaced by either irrelevant or diametrically opposed forms of shame is far worse. They are like someone who is on a diet of pure junk food. In them, you have not only the problems of malnourishment, but the problems of too much fat as well (leading to such things as diabetes and heart disease). The religious fanatic whom has been indoctrinated in too many artificial forms of shame about their body, or what sort of food to eat, has little emotional capacity left for normal feelings of guilt over murder.
Indeed, in the worst cases, if the form of shame they have been indoctrinated with dictates that they kill the 'infidel' or 'enemy of the state' (or whoever suits the interests of those who have brainwashed them with shame to kill), the result is someone who is far more dangerous than a psychopath. Because although a psychopath does not feel guilt if they do commit murder, they will not necessarily go out and kill someone unless there is some tangible gain to be had by doing so, and they feel they are likely to get away with it, both in a legal and physical sense. The psychopath is NOT the sort who becomes a suicide bomber. The religious terrorist or the Nazi on the other hand, not only does not feel guilt over murder, they feel shame over NOT committing murder. The desire to alleviate this shame is the only incentive they need to kill. Unlike the psychopath, who requires some tangible gain, such as money or power, to commit murder, the shame driven fanatic needs nothing. Nor are they restrained from committing murder if they feel they cannot get away with it, as a psychopath would be. Indeed, the nature of their shame is such that they may not WANT to get away with it, they may WANT to be arrested, or to even die during the commission of their crimes.
Rand was mistaken in her analysis of of her characters, Hank Rearden and John Galt. She referred to them as the 'Guiltless Man'. But the guiltless man is a psychopath at best and a murdering fanatic at worst. Rearden and Galt were neither. What they actually were, and what all human beings should strive to be, as they throw off the nonsense they have been indoctrinated with by the government and false religions, is the 'Shameless man'.