7 reasons not to feel bad about yourself when you have acted immorally

Feeling bad about oneself is a common response to realising that one has acted wrongly, or that one could have done something morally better. It is a reaction that is at least partly inspired by a cultural background that Western civilisation has been carrying on its back for centuries. But contrary to appearances and folk beliefs, not only does our tendency to feel guilty fail to promote morality, it can also be an obstacle to moral behaviour.

By ‘guilt’, I mean a negative affective state usually experienced as a result of having done something (by action or omission) that is perceived to be wrong, and that is focused on the condemnation of oneself.[1]

I can think of at least seven reasons for why feeling bad about oneself is not useful or desirable for the purposes of leading an ethical life:

1. Feeling guilty is not necessary for leading an ethical life. In other words, it seems to be perfectly possible to have a very ethical life without having to feel guilty when errors or mistakes are made. How one feels about oneself seems superfluous, as long as one tries to remedy the wrongs committed and changes one’s behaviours for future occasions.

2. Feeling bad about oneself is not sufficient for leading an ethical life. That is, one may feel guilty about something and continue to act immorally. A person may feel terrible every time she does something wrong (e.g., cheat on her spouse) and yet continue to engage in the same behaviour.

3. Feeling bad about oneself is a selfish response. When we feel guilty we think of ourselves as unworthy, we are not at peace with ourselves. But these kinds of thoughts are fundamentally self-centred, while arguably, morality relies above all on thinking of others. Guilt distracts us from being of benefit to others. We are so worried about what awful people we are that we forget about what we could be doing for those around us (including the possible victims of our moral fault). Indeed, empirical evidence suggests that such self-focus interferes with having empathic responses towards others (Tangney and Dearing 2002). While people who feel bad about their actions and the effects of their actions tend to look for ways to remedy the wrongs they have committed, people who feel bad about themselves are more likely to fall into self-destructive behaviours (idem).

4. Feeling bad about oneself does not make one a better person. Sometimes we seem to think that it would be worse to do something wrong and not feel guilty, than to do something equally wrong but feel guilty about it, as if guilt makes us morally superior, as if it could purify us or redeem us in some way. It is unclear to me how guilt could have such effects. How bad one feels about oneself does not seem to be very relevant; what is important, instead, is repentance or regret: the desire to have acted differently, the intention to repair the damage done, and the determination that in the future one will not act similarly. While regret focuses on action (e.g., I did something wrong), guilt focuses on oneself (e.g., I am a bad person). Repentance is useful: it motivates one to remedy wrongs and not fall into the same mistake again. Guilt is impractical: by keeping the focus on oneself, it contributes to the reification of our negative qualities (e.g., I am selfish), and becomes an obstacle for imagining oneself differently, and for changing one’s behaviour, since we seem to adapt our behaviour to the idea that we have formed about ourselves.

It can be thought that guilt is both the way we realise that we have done something wrong and the way we desire to have acted differently. But it seems to me that we feel guilty precisely because we know (or think we know) we have done something wrong, and not the other way around. Once one perceives one has done something wrong, at least three reactions are available: guilt (focusing on how horrible a person one is), regret (focusing on the badness of the action and on the victims), and indifference. Of these responses, regret is the most useful one for the purposes of moral education and repairing the damage done.

5. Feeling bad about oneself is not a reliable guide to evaluate our behaviour or the virtuousness of our character. We tend to think (or act as if we thought) guilt is a kind of sensor for misbehaviour. If we feel guilty, we infer we must be a bad person, we must have done something wrong. However, we often feel guilty about things we are not morally responsible for (e.g., the accidental death of a loved one) and do not feel guilty about negative situations about which we do bear at least some moral responsibility (e.g., our contribution to climate change). This point further shows why guilt is not an appropriate means of accurately recognising wrongdoing.

6. It is so unpleasant to feel bad about oneself, that guilt becomes a motivator to look away from injustice, to avoid questions of morality. We feel so bad about ourselves when we think about the injustices and tragedies to which we are likely to be contributing to with our actions or omissions that we prefer not to think about it, and distract our attention with more pleasant matters. In morality, there are few obstacles so difficult to tackle as actively wanting to ignore injustice. Guilt makes people associate morality with negative emotions, and these do not draw us closer to ethical behaviour, they distance us from it. If we associate everything that has to do with ethics with negative emotions, it is not surprising that so many people seem to feel aversion to any speech or argument that mentions ethics. Morality can be pleasurable, it can draw us closer to others, and it can contribute to having a more meaningful and happy life, but for this to be possible we must learn how to enjoy it, and feeling bad about ourselves will not help.

7. It can be argued that, in order to be as ethical as one can be, one must learn to experience pleasure in morality. For Aristotle, enjoying what one does is essential to doing things as well as possible: “pleasure makes an activity more exact, longer, and better” (Nicomachean Ethics, X.5, 1175b15-16). In that sense, learning to feel pleasure about morality (more specifically, about acting virtuously) may be a necessary condition for moral excellence, and guilt seems to be the opposite of pleasure. Consequently, and for the purposes of developing more moral behaviour, it seems to be much more important to focus on the things that one does well (morally), and the good that one can bring about (even if the case is one of redress after making a wrong), than feeling bad about oneself.

In summary, feeling guilty is neither necessary nor sufficient for acting morally. If anything, feeling bad about oneself may hinder moral behaviour by inhibiting empathic responses towards others. If one has done something morally wrong, it is better to focus on the suffering of the possible victims, feel regret for having acted badly, try and repair the damage done, change whatever can be changed, and calmly accept the things that, for the time being, cannot be changed. It is important to lead as ethical a life as we can, but it is equally important to do this with joy, and with a clear conscience, knowing that we are doing the best we can, even if that means our behaviour may be unsatisfactory at times. We need to move away from the view of ethics that personifies morality as someone grumpy and snooty. Moral ideals need not be experienced as a weight upon our shoulders. Quite the contrary: ethics is a tool to help us lead happy lives in harmony with the environment, animals, and people around us.



Aristotle. 1999. Nicomachean Ethics. Translated by Terence Irwin. Indianapolis: Hackett.

Tangney, June Price, and Ronda L. Dearing. 2002. Shame and Guilt. New York: The Guilford Press.

[1] I am aware that some psychologists, such as June Tangney and Ronda Dearing (2002), call this felling ‘shame’, rather tan guilt, and ‘guilt’ what I label here as ‘repentance.’ Their terminology however, as the authors themselves admit, does not track ordinary usage of words, and I find it unnecessarily counterintuitive. The label ‘shame’ was chosen by Tangney and Dearing to pinpoint the feeling I define here as guilt, but—importantly—the terms ‘shame’ and ‘guilt’ were not mentioned to their study subjects so as to avoid confusion. In this blog entry, I use ‘guilt’ and ‘feeling bad about oneself’ interchangeably.

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14 Responses to 7 reasons not to feel bad about yourself when you have acted immorally

  • Nathan says:

    Guilt is necessary for an ethical life in so far as it is a necessary component in human moral development. Given we currently know of no other way to become the sort of being that lives an ethical life…

    • Anders Sandberg says:

      How do we know guilt is necessary for moral development?

      • Nathan says:

        Guilt is necessary for human moral development as evidenced by the distinct problems humans who do not feel guilt (to be horrible abrupt about the complex phenomena of psychopathy, sociopathy etc.) have with morality.

        However I imagine the response concerns moral development per se i.e. the possibility that we might one day create moral AI. However, I think that the notion of moral development entails a connection between the evaluation of acts and actors (both self and other). Certainly it is worth considering how we respond to our moral transgression – we are more than capable of being to hard or to soft on ourselves – but I don’t think we can eliminate any and all sense of self-evaluation, which is to say guilt, remorse, regret, shame etc. To put it another way, moral development entails moral emotions or ‘thick moral concepts.’

        If you think AI morality or, perhaps better, AI ethics can be achieved with out such emotions or such development that, in that sense, perhaps guilt would not be necessary. But that is to claim that moral development and moral emotions are not necessary for ethics, which is a different matter and requires a different basis for disagreement!

        • K says:

          There are people who do not experience emotions like guilt who still develop systems of morality. For example, not every person who could be diagnosed as a sociopath (although actually people are not diagnosed this way anymore) does horrible immoral things. People with autism spectrum disorders also sometimes have issues with emotions, empathy, guilt, etc., but many people are still are able to learn and understand morality. Similarly, there are people who do horrible things and then experience vast amounts of guilt about it – but still go on to do the things again. Talking about sociopaths brings to mind serial killers – some of whom experience intense guilt but still go on to kill again, because it is about a compulsion for them that they feel they cannot stop despite the guilt. So, in the end, what function does the guilt actually have?

    • Carissa Veliz says:

      Why isn’t regret enough? Why do we have to go on to condemn ourselves, instead of just condemning the actions?

      • Nathan says:

        Because condemning the action without recognizing its link to agent is hardly going to be conducive to the moral development of human being. Condemning particular actions is only part of the picture. We also have to recognize our responsibility for them and understand why we do the things we do. Regret, guilt and shame are all aspects of this (and, I would argue, moral regret – as opposed to the regret we feel at going to see a bad play – entails some form of negative self evaluation).

        Whilst it is worth considered how we respond to our moral transgression (and, for that matter, our positive moral contributions – would you argue the other side of this coin? Should we not feel good about ourselves for positive moral acts? ). However the idea that we can eliminate negative self-evaluation (which may not be precisely what you are arguing for) from human moral life is predicated on a distinctly inhuman account of morality. But such is the curse of modern moral philosophy which, as Anscombe pointed out, is obviously in need of a realistic moral psychology.

  • Anders Sandberg says:

    In reinforcement learning the difference between actual and expected reward produces a learning signal, telling the agent to update its behavior (the “policy” which maps situations to actions). When the actual reward is less than expected, I feel disappointed (and less likely to do the actions leading to the disappointment in the future). If it is greater, I am happily suprised (and will do more of that action in the future).

    One can also imagine this happening internally when comparing actual and expected actions: I expect myself to behave according to my norms, I find myself doing something else (which my my standards has less value). So I get morally disappointed with myself.

    In this case I am trying to update my action policy in the direction of higher value, but it is an indirect process. As Carissa points out, I could just focus on directly trying to improve value. Going through the process of trying to change my meta-policy of how to do proper actions in order to more proper actions is complicated, especially since I can “cheat” by updating my view of what proper actions are (ah, that beggar would probably just have spent the money on beer – I should not give to beggars at all!)

    The real reason it is hard to do meta-policies is that there are plenty of non-moral value competing for my action decisions: I want to feel happy, safe, well fed, socially responsible and whatnot, and in any given situation some of these value may tug my action selection harder than my moral values. Aristotle had an important point: we learn to feel pleasure and discomfort with our moral actions. Maybe we can learn it so well that those values tend to win over the lesser or base ones. But we should not make our moral planning and learning too complicated to function effectively.

    • Carissa Veliz says:

      Thanks for your comment, Anders. It’s a good point that we can “cheat” by changing our views of what proper actions are in order to fit our actual behaviour. I don’t see any way around this, though, no matter what account of moral development we have. Some kind of honesty with oneself seems necessary to be able to evaluate one’s moral actions appropriately. I’m not sure this is a problem that is specific to the view I am presenting here.

      Regarding your description of reinforcement learning in morality, why can’t one get disappointed with one’s behaviour, rather than with oneself? I think this is the crucial point I want to make. Focusing on oneself is unhelpful. But it is definitely helpful to feel disappointment about wrong behaviour (I’m calling this regret). If you feel disappointed about the behaviour, then, as you say, you will be less likely to do the action that led to that disappointment. If your object of disappointment is your self (maybe we can use the word ‘personality’ here as a synonym), and people often conceptualize one’s self as a relatively static entity, then it will be harder to change the behaviour because you will be feeling that you have to change yourself.

  • Rob says:

    I’m skeptical. Feelings (including less than fully conscious ones) associated with *anticipation of* guilt-feeling may play a critical guiding role in moral life, which itself might depend on guilt-feeling occupying a non-trivial place in neurotypical mental economy.

    • Per says:

      Rob, I think you’re right that anticipation of a negative emotion plays an important role in the efficacy of the emotion as a guide to moral behavior. However, I think that there is evidence that regret, including moral regret, works in a similar way to guilt. Anticipating regret, like anticipating guilt, can motivate regret-avoiding behaviors. If that’s the case, then it seems an adequate replacement for guilt.

  • Azkyroth says:

    This is a good argument; however, I’ve seen enough authors use “guilt” to mean “regret” per your usage above (they tend to use “shame” to mean what you are expressing by “guilt” here) that I think this may be hard to get through as stated…

    • Carissa Véliz says:

      You are right about other authors using that terminology. I find it contrary to common usage and counterintuitive. I would be interested in what people who haven’t read about the topic find more intuitive as terminology.

      • Kaat says:

        The way I see it, they’re two very similar emotions, but they’re caused by a different ‘source’, so to say:
        Shame is linked to how you believe others will think of you (external).
        Guilt is linked to how you think of yourself (internal).

        You could feel ashamed for something, or ashamed at the idea of people finding out about something, without actually feeling guilty about it.

        I totally agree with 2 and four, I’ve met enough people who keep lamenting their mistakes without actually changing something about their behavior.

        • Carissa Véliz says:

          I think it is probably true that shame is external (although you could also feel shame by jsut imagining how others would think of you, even if you know no one will know about what you did) and guilt is internal in the way you describe them to be. While shame is probably important for morality, it might be even more important to have an internal element of judgment that is based on your own conscience and not on what others might think, and I think that role can be fulfilled by regret.