There has been an interesting discussion of guilt over at Bob and Logan’s blog. In response to some comments that I made, Russell makes the following intriguing remark:
- In the broadest sense, guilt is a feeling of fault about a disorded state of affairs, which means that it in fact acknowledges, on a rather deep level, an abiding desire for, or attachment to, an ideal (or perfect) state of affairs. To no longer feel that desire or attachment might mean you wouldn’t have any more guilt, but it would also mean you would have lost all appreciation of how things ought to be, and thus all understand of the one route (i.e., Christ’s grace) to redeeming that state of affairs.
I realize this thread is more about the cheap ways we tend to belittle, compare, or “motivate” ourselves or one another in the church, rather than any theological point. But for my part, I’m not so certain the conventional and the theological realities of guilt are all that separate. I feel guilty about a lot of things, both big and small, because frankly, I do a pretty bad job at both big and small things. In short, I’m pretty hopeless on my own. Given the message of the scriptures, it seems to me that that’s not necessarily a bad thing to keep in mind.
What I find interesting about these comments is the way that Russell links guilt to a deep commitment to some conception of the good. We live in a world that tends to be dominated by the idea that guilt is a purely negative, pyschological condition. We tend to speak of it in the language of pop-pyschology as a clinical condition to be eliminated. Russell, however, turns this on its head and makes it into evidence of meaningful moral engagement.
Two issues remain, however, even if we accept Russell’s view of the matter. (And I am inclined to be sympathetic to virtually all views critical of pop-pyschology.) First, the desirability of guilt seems to become linked to vision of the good that it instatiates. I suppose that there might be some value in mearly being engaged. However, I suspect that a lot of guilt comes from mistakenly deep involvment in the thick of thin things. Second, we need to think about the implications of Russell’s theory of guilt for how we use it. Suppose that the guilt flows from some real and valid moral concern (like Russell’s concern for the poor). Can we use ethically use that guilt to manipulate behavior? Presumeably to do so for purely selfish reasons is wrong. What about if I am manipulating him in order to pursue the good that drives his guilt? I am not quite sure what the answer to this question would be. It seems that at least in part, some of it will turn on the question of knowledge. Am I likely to know better than Russell how to pursue the good? However, I am not sure that even this fully answers the question. I still can’t help be feel that there is something at least suspect about using guilt to manipulate behavior.
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