Is Guilt Useful?

Q: You wrote that guilt and shame are not good motivators. But aren’t they useful if you have, in fact, done something wrong?

A: If somebody did something deliberately to harm you, then what kind of person do you think this is? Is this someone who is really all that capable of feeling guilt? I wouldn’t think so. It’s fine to say this person SHOULD be motivated by guilt. Well, that’s obvious. Guilt would have been a useful motivator to not do something wrong if one had a conscience, and an explicit, rational definition of right and wrong from the get-go. But the fact is: People who deliberately do bad things don’t have the conscience, and don’t have that objective definition of right and wrong.

The people who end up subjected to guilt and shame are those who haven’t necessarily done anything wrong. “Stop being so selfish!” is the usual call to arms for encouraging shame in another. The evil doing person will hear that and simply laugh. Too many good people hear this and think, “Oh my — selfish. That’s the worst thing in the world. Could I be guilty of that?” They entertain their own guilt without even expecting the accuser to offer any evidence.

By the way, it’s not bad to be self-interested. It’s possible to be self-interested and not harm anyone else. The world is full of people acting in their self-interest who are not lying, cheating, or acting with physical violence towards another. If caring about your own wants and needs, and taking rational action to bring them into reality, is wrong in principle, then anyone trying to survive and be happy is immoral, by that crazy definition. It’s usually the people trying to advance this crazy definition of morality who use shame and guilt as tools. They tell you not to be selfish. They tell you this — why, exactly? So that they can get something from you. For what purpose? To serve their own ends, of course. The person who tells you not to be selfish is self-refuting. ‘Don’t be selfish. Don’t spend that money on yourself; spend it on me. Or spend it on someone I consider more important.’ In the process of being selfless, you’re doing what HE or SHE wants. The person who tells you not to be selfish gets to be selfish him- or herself. How fair or moral is that?