Feeling bad about oneself is a common response to realising that one has acted wrongly, or that one could have done something morally better. It is a reaction that is at least partly inspired by a cultural background that Western civilisation has been carrying on its back for centuries. But contrary to appearances and folk beliefs, not only does our tendency to feel guilty fail to promote morality, it can also be an obstacle to moral behaviour.
By ‘guilt’, I mean a negative affective state usually experienced as a result of having done something (by action or omission) that is perceived to be wrong, and that is focused on the condemnation of oneself.
I can think of at least seven reasons for why feeling bad about oneself is not useful or desirable for the purposes of leading an ethical life:
1. Feeling guilty is not necessary for leading an ethical life. In other words, it seems to be perfectly possible to have a very ethical life without having to feel guilty when errors or mistakes are made. How one feels about oneself seems superfluous, as long as one tries to remedy the wrongs committed and changes one’s behaviours for future occasions.
2. Feeling bad about oneself is not sufficient for leading an ethical life. That is, one may feel guilty about something and continue to act immorally. A person may feel terrible every time she does something wrong (e.g., cheat on her spouse) and yet continue to engage in the same behaviour.
The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.