I’m reading an interesting article about compersion. This is my first reading of Eric Francis, and I’m finding him to be very thought provoking. While I obviously take issue with his ideas about chakras, astrology, and other woo-woo, he has some noteworthy things to say about guilt, jealousy, and possession. I’m only through part two of his series, but that’s been sufficient to inspire me for today’s blog.
What is guilt? In psychology, it is a cognitive experience in which a person believes (regardless of the truth of the belief) that they have broken a moral standard and are responsible for the violation. For the remainder of this post, this is the definition I will be using.
Why do we experience guilt? For those of you who have read all of my entries on morality, you should know the answer intuitively. Guilt is an emotion given to us by natural selection as a negative reinforcement. It is the stick where pride is the carrot. That is, when we do something morally good, we feel proud to have acted well, and when we do something morally bad, we feel guilty to have acted poorly. Pride feels good. Guilt feels bad. It’s as simple as that.
Without going into gross detail, I think we can take it as read that guilt is often misplaced, and that we should not take feelings of guilt as prima facie evidence of the truth of the matter. In fact, I will suggest that among the emotions which enforce morality in humans, guilt should be the most suspect.
As I’ve explained in some detail previously, humans have a built-in moral instinct which revolves primarily around fairness. Some things become essentially universal in human culture because they are so self-evidently in line with our base desire for fairness. Every culture has a concept of theft, whether it is property or rights or ideas that are being stolen. Every culture has a concept of murder — unfairly killing someone. In all cultures, most people feel guilty when they commit theft or murder, regardless of how they were raised.
On the other hand, guilt is also one of the most easily taught emotions. When a child is taught that a certain behavior is wrong, they will often feel guilt for the rest of their lives, even when they have reasoned that their upbringing was in error. I wonder how many young women in America feel guilty for masturbation. I’m afraid that the number must be staggering. As adults, we can easily reason that masturbation doesn’t break any legitimate moral codes. It harms no one, is pleasurable, and by all scientific accounts, promotes health, happiness, and a sense of well being. Yet, many forms of religious indoctrination instill in young women the belief that masturbation is wrong, and therefore — the guilt.
Guilt is a control mechanism, and is exploited to fantastic effect by religious leaders, politicians, and used car salesmen everywhere. It is perhaps the best and most easily instilled control emotion.
Guilt is paralyzing. I recently had a discussion with a woman in her late 30s who has basically given up sex. Her second marriage recently failed, largely because of her inability to open up emotionally. Her first husband exploited her early religious teachings, and conditioned her to believe that it was immoral for her to enjoy sex. It made her a slut and a whore. So complete was the conditioning that she has never had an orgasm. Every time she feels one approaching, she is overcome by feelings of guilt that are so strong, the sexual excitement immediately subsides.
In America, guilt and sex go hand in hand. Did you know that the Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction is still being litigated? Less than half a second of a not-quite fully exposed breast has led to years of courtroom insanity. Over a breast.
I have always thought that one of the best arguments against intelligent design is the emotional makeup of humans. If anything, one could convincingly argue that our emotions are there to make us do things that are otherwise irrational. Sure, they make the experience of being human what it is, but don’t you think an intelligent designer could have programmed them a little better?
Getting past unwarranted guilt is very difficult. This is one of the reasons I am so vehemently opposed to religious sexual indoctrination of children. While I am under no delusions that minus religion, everyone would live in a utopia of sexual expression and freedom, I am also not blind to the horrible exacerbation of our innate feelings of guilt, shame, and embarrassment imposed by our religious beliefs. In my blog about Nate Phelps, I opened up far more than I ever have publicly, and hinted at some of my own battles with guilt. When I look back at my late teens and early twenties, I am often overcome with melancholy (and sometimes anger). In my wake is an ex-wife who shouldn’t have had to experience my sexual hang-ups, my misconceptions about marriage, my belief in the myth of the “male head of the household,” and my emotional distance that was a direct result of me marrying her because of what she represented, not who she was. I got married because I felt guilty about having sex before marriage. There’s no way to sugar coat it. I caused emotional anguish in a young, vulnerable woman who loved me more than I loved her. There is no way to separate this from my religious upbringing. The notion that sex before marriage is wrong cannot be derived from any natural morality. Only from religion. In my own life, unwarranted guilt has been a major factor in many of the wrongs that I have committed.
Guilt is a dangerous weapon, and it is also a cage. The wise critical thinker will examine his own feelings of guilt with extreme skepticism. It’s my personal opinion that guilt causes more harm than good in this culture. We don’t need the threat of feeling guilty to prevent us from robbing banks or killing our neighbors. We don’t need it to treat others with respect and decency. We could certainly do without all the unwarranted guilt over things that were never wrong in the first place.