This article is part of a series on the Philosophy of Emotion. See also:
1. Guilt; 2. Love; 3. Emotion

When one commits a wrong, can it be undone? Let’s be more precise. Given that one’s caused harm, what, short of reversing the damage or abandoning one’s conscience, (and if anything), can alleviate, in this person, the feeling that he has wronged the universe?


Contravening goods

Maybe doing “contravening goods” can “cancel out” the wrongs and alleviate this sense of wrongdoing. But this seems troublesome. Do good deeds “undo” bad ones? Or do they exist only independently, accumulating alongside the ever-constant collection of wrongs? Good and bad deeds live in separate universes, we might imagine; they’re eternally unable to counter-balance each other. Dents cannot be undone by new paint.

There’s a sense, though, in which the “equal and opposite” possibility attains credibility. If we attribute the root of guilt to a conviction that one’s “presence in this world has made things worse” and that, in a sense, one’s “lost the right to be here,” then shockingly good deeds, which, contrarily, suggest to the doer that “without one’s presence, well, heaven knows what state these people would’ve been in” might combat one’s feeling of non-belonging, and hence, of guilt. The feeling of undeserved existence wouldn’t merely be accompanied by a feeling of indispensable existence. It would be replaced.

This attribution reduces the moral legitimacy of one’s existence to a balancing act between good and bad deeds. “Has the good of this life’s impact outweighed the bad? Would the world be on the whole better, or worse, in absence of this impact?” Temporarily ignoring the attribution’s validity, it’s immediately appealing: it promises an unbounded possibility to change one’s moral legitimacy. Under this outlook, our problem is solved.

But is the attribution correct? Perhaps the root of guilt lies not in an enumeration of one’s impact, a trivial counting task. Perhaps it lies in a conviction that the doer himself is fundamentally flawed. And this conviction, it seems, cannot be reversed.

Symmetry and universality

Is this conviction reasonable? Or, are we prone, thinking “asymmetrically” through our own small restricted window, to censure our own wrongdoings with singular heft? It’s easy to feel guilty when one resides in the (inertia-laden) state of mind in which only one person in the world (guess who) has done anything wrong. Unless the guilty deems himself special, however – reason should argue otherwise – this view must be incorrect. There are seven billion of us on this planet. It’s likely that the guilty man is, though perhaps indeed guilty, not singular in his guilt. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God… There is none righteous, no, not one(Romans 3:10-23) (1). We may conceive of ourselves as challenged, flawed, and in very good company.

This alone serves as a consolation. The consoling effect itself, moreover, tells us something about guilt: the feeling of guilt really does, to some extent, involve a characterization of the guilty as irreversibly flawed. This conviction must crumble in light of the argument from symmetry.

Is the story over? Our healthy company in the realm of the imperfect might console us holistically. Dread regarding the suffering of the victim, however, is likely to constantly return. How might we redeem our guilt if the wrong done is still out there, out in the world?

Texture and depth

Our impacts on this world are complex and multifaceted. They’re vast, multitextured, multicolored networks, with dips, ebbs, flows, and nuances. To single out wrongs as tangible entities is not just painful, it’s a logical fallacy! Wrongs as discrete entities don’t exist.

We’re not automatons, doers of single deeds, one after the other, running through a list like a carriage return. We’re people, with family, friends, and acquaintances; passions, vocations, and hobbies; mistakes, troubles, and regrets. These don’t form a list, but a landscape, of variegated color and form. Thinking thus seems to help.

Realizing that we’re people – as if it were something that needed to be realized – goes a shockingly long way.

Universal forgiveness and guilt

Through one thing alone, I believe, an ultimate solution could be reached. All must universally forgive one another, and share in each other’s guilt; all must recognize that we’re each guilty before each other. “For all is like an ocean, all is flowing and blending; a touch in one place sets up movement at the other end of the earth,” said Father Zosima in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. “No one can judge a criminal, until he recognizes that he is just such a criminal as the man standing before him, and that he perhaps is more than all men to blame for that crime… If I had been righteous myself, perhaps there would have been no criminal standing before me… Take upon yourself the crime of the criminal your heart is judging, take it at once, suffer for him yourself, and let him go without reproach.” (2) The stroke of genius is that by eliminating all moral debts – permitting a “moral jailbreak“, as it were – we become, ultimately, better off than if we’d kept strict ledgers.

Confess all wrongdoings. Again from The Brothers Karamazov, the Mysterious Visitor: “God has had pity on me and is calling me to Himself. I know I am dying, but I feel joy and peace for the first time after so many years. There was heaven in my heart from the moment I had done what I had to do… And now I feel God near, my heart rejoices as in Heaven … I have done my duty.” (2)

Finally, even the guiltiest among us, crushed by the weight of their penitence, might remember Father Zosima’s words, most powerful of all:

“If you sin yourself and grieve even unto death for your sins or for your sudden sin, then rejoice for others, rejoice for the righteous man, rejoice that if you have sinned, he is righteous and has not sinned.” (2)

  1. New International Version (NIV) Bible
  2. The Brothers Karamazov full text

3 comments on “Guilt

  1. Pierce says:

    Guilt and regret are incredibly useful in our lives, they teach is right from wrong. Guilt, it could be said, is the sole reason for morality. But when we let our guilt consume us we are caught in a cycle of trying to learn something more than can be learned from the experience itself. Once we reach this point we must ask “what can I learn from this cycle of guilt?”

    The final Dostoevsky quote I have a problem with as well, there is no righteous man without sin, (as you said previously in the article). Instead of rejoicing for the nonexistent righteous man, rejoice for yourself, because you have felt the grief and shame for your sins, and you have learned from them. Rejoice because you are living a real life! Even the most majestic peaks must have deep canyons below.

  2. Ben says:

    “When a man truly perceiveth and considereth himself, who and what he is, and findeth himself utterly vile and wicked and unworthy, he falleth into such a deep abasement that it seemeth to him reasonable that all creatures in heaven and earth should rise up against him. And therefore he will not and dare not desire any consolation and release; but he is willing to be unconsoled and unreleased; and he doth not grieve over his sufferings, for they are right in his eyes, and he hath nothing to say against them. This is what is meant by true repentance for sin; and he who in this present time entereth into this hell, none may console him. Now God hath not forsaken a man in this hell, but He is laying his hand upon him, that the man may not desire nor regard anything but the eternal Good only. And then, when the man neither careth for nor desireth anything but the eternal Good alone, and seeketh not himself nor his own things, but the honour of God only, he is made a partaker of all manner of joy, bliss, peace, rest, and consolation, and so the man is henceforth in the kingdom of heaven. This hell and this heaven are two good safe ways for a man, and happy is he who truly findeth them.

    “Where men are enlightened with the true light, they renounce all desire and choice, and commit and commend themselves and all things to the eternal Goodness, so that every enlightened man could say: ‘I would fain be to the Eternal Goodness what his own hand is to a man.’ Such men are in a state of freedom, because they have lost the fear of pain or hell, and the hope of reward or heaven, and are living in pure submission to the eternal Goodness, in the perfect freedom of fervent love.”

    — Theologia Germanica. Chaps. x., xi. (abridged): Winkworth’s translation

  3. Richard says:

    “Dents cannot be undone by new paint.” Nice metaphor. Universal forgiveness certainly has its appeal. To be magnanimous in the face of wrong doing, it harbours undertones of aspirations toward divinity. There’s an old French proverb of unknown origin: Tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner. To understand all is to forgive all. The temptation of those eager for understanding is to understand why people behave badly, and this may often offer us a view of everyone as a victim. And so we forgive them all. Of course, all of this presupposes that we have a clear idea of what counts as right or wrong in every case. Maybe it would be better to be a ‘man of bronze’ to be like nature, as Nietzsche describes: “wasteful beyond measure, indifferent beyond measure, without purpose and consideration, without mercy and fairness, fertile and desolate and uncertain at the same time; imagine indifference itself as a power.” Maybe our guilt should inspire in us only the desire to overcome our guilt. Man cannot be like God if man feels guilt.

    Also, when you quote Dostoevsky: “If you sin yourself and grieve even unto death for your sins or for your sudden sin, then rejoice for others, rejoice for the righteous man, rejoice that if you have sinned, he is righteous and has not sinned.” We ought to take care this isn’t interpreted as a motivation to do bad things!

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