Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Useful Guilt and Selfish Guilt

I’ve noticed that there are two types of guilt, useful guilt and selfish guilt.

Useful guilt leads me to change my behavior so that I no longer do the guilt-inducing action because I’ve decided it’s wrong.

Selfish guilt contains all the pain of guilt, and yet, is a selfish indulgence. We feel the pain of guilt to make ourselves feel better. So it is masochistic.

How does it work? If I violate one of my moral judgments – such as, that I should devote myself to the welfare of others, or not eat meat from animals that were mistreated – I’ve done something wrong. But if I don’t want to stop the action I can restore my psychic equilibrium by punishing myself with guilt for my moral infraction. I do a bad thing, punish myself and then feel that the perpetrator has been punished and my moral world is set aright. I feel as if justice has been done or the perpetrator has been punished. I am my own police, judge, prosecutor and prison. Since I have no priest I play that role for myself and gain absolution by causing myself suffering for my transgression. The painful guilt is simultaneously a pleasure since by suffering its condemnation – paying my debt to society – I can continue breaking that moral rule in the future.

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