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.
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.
 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.