The Origin of Guilt

The Origin of Guilt

I’m interested in the question of the origin of guilt. Please join in and let me know your ideas.

Guilt is an experience one has when one feels a moral standard has been violated.


1) the fact or state of having committed an offense, crime, violation, or wrong, especially against moral or penal law; culpability
2) a feeling of responsibility or remorse for some offense, crime, wrong, etc., whether real or imagined.
3) conduct involving the commission of such crimes, wrongs, etc.
 Some initial questions that come to mind are
  •  Is guilt something to be avoided?
  • Where does guilt come from?
  • Is guilt simply a conditioned response?
  • Is it a product of our Western Judeo-Christian heritage? 
  • Is there really something called toxic guilt?

I would really like to hear your thoughts on these questions.

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4 thoughts on “The Origin of Guilt

  1. It occurs to me, right off the bat, that a person's answers to these questions have a polar bearing on their philosophy in life.

    For instance, if one feels no guilt at harming another human being, will they be more apt to do so?

    Surely there is the motive of wanting to do right, alongside a want to not do wrong, no? If one posses the former and not the latter (or visa-versa), does the bottom fall out of that person's moral direction in life, regardless of religion?

    It may be that morality is a tent with many stakes holding it aloft and that doing right and feeling bad doing wrong are just two of many.

    In short, I don't know. lol


  2. For one thing, I am certain there is such an animal as “toxic guilt.” No doubt. This is guilt that is beyond “normal guilt,” if you will.

    You see this discussed mostly in feel-good, psychobabble belief systems. Notwithstanding, I am convinced it is real. Toxic guilt can eat away at our minds, if allowed to creep in.


  3. “Environment acts on what nature provides.” – you've probably heard that before. I think it's relevant to the question of guilt. In brief, I think that guilt is a refinement of shame, and shame is a refinement of instinct.

    I don't know enough to say for sure where shame came from, but I suspect that shame operates on fear. The fear of concrete punishment (execution, beatings, exile, ostracism, etc.) creates an association between being condemned and being punished. This association allows shame to become a kind of abstract punishment; even if you know that you're not going to receive concrete punishment, the fact that you are being condemned by your peers still triggers a fear response via the association between condemnation and punishment. The problem is that, like concrete punishment, shame only works if you get caught. If I'm sure that I'm not going to get caught, then I feel no fear and thus no shame. This is where guilt comes in. If I internalize the standards of my society, then I feel bad whether I get caught or not; this causes me to become self-regulating. That's why I say that guilt is a refinement of shame, because guilt does not require the offender to be caught in the act. At the risk of vulgar pragmatism, guilt is just more efficient.

    As for the origin of guilt, I can think of a few possibilities. First, it may be that something like guilt arises naturally as we internalize the standards of our society; this would be a more primitive kind of guilt, probably a much older kind. Secondly, though, perhaps Western culture has fostered the development and refinement of guilt because it's such a powerful means of control.

    As to “toxic guilt”, I think it could happen. We do have personal standards, after all. If one's personal standards are too strict, one could easily fall victim to an overgrown sense of guilt.

  4. Thanks, Ben, for your comments.

    Fear is definitely a powerful factor in all this.

    I totally agree with your statement,

    “Western culture has fostered the development and refinement of guilt because it's such a powerful means of control.”

    Absolutely! I think this was developed in the Church, probably when Constantine made Christianity the official religion. When they discovered how powerful a tool it really was, the religious and political leaders honed it to a sharp edge, keeping the masses under their thumb for nearly 2000 years.


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