All emotions, as distinct from bodily feelings, are based on beliefs of a certain sort. For example, the emotion of anger is based on the belief that we have been injured or wronged by someone's action or comment. Of course, we may be wrong about the intention to injure – emotions can be irrational if based on false beliefs. The emotion of guilt has the same pattern. To feel guilty is to believe that we have done something wrong. The wrong can vary from the trivial to murder, and the intensity of the emotion will vary accordingly as we understand the situation.
Guilt, like anger, can be irrational. We may believe that we have hurt someone's feelings when they have barely noticed what we did. Sometimes, indeed, irrational guilt can warp someone's entire personality. In such cases, the help of the psychiatrist or psychotherapist is required. But rational guilt involves the correct belief that we are blameworthy for some wrongful word or deed, although we may sometimes resist this awareness until others persuade us that we are in fact guilty of a wrong. Seen in this way, guilt is an important psychological mechanism which is an ally of morality.
Some psychiatrists and others might wish to resist this conclusion. For them, guilt is an emotion which is at best useless and at worst destructive of the human personality. But the person who never experiences guilt for wrong-doing is dangerous. The worst case is the psychopath. Those who down-play the emotion of guilt are thinking of guilt simply as an unpleasant feeling. But I have stressed the non-experiential element in guilt – its conceptual element. It requires the belief that we are blameworthy. In other words, it is not just a feeling like a headache; rather it derives from our values, and a belief that we have failed to follow them.
Granted the cognitive core of guilt – a belief that we are blameworthy for not adhering to our own or society's value system – it often takes with it a desire to make reparations or at least to apologise. This again is a rational and important moral mechanism for the harmonious running of society.
The concepts of shame and guilt are sometimes used as if there is no difference between them, and certainly they overlap. For example, we might say: 'You should be ashamed of yourself for being so harsh to that student/pupil/junior doctor in front of his colleagues'. Nevertheless, there are essential differences between guilt and shame. First of all, guilt is essentially a moral concept; we feel guilty if we believe that we have committed a moral wrong, but shame is much wider in its reach. We can feel ashamed of matters which do not involve moral wrongs. Secondly, guilt is not dependent on the gaze of others but shame is so dependent. These points require development.
There are things about ourselves, for example, that we are not ashamed of yet we might feel ashamed or embarrassed if observed by others. Embarrassment is a minor form of shame. For example, sitting on the toilet is necessary and natural, but someone might feel ashamed or embarrassed if the door was inadvertently left open on the train and a spectator looked in.
Sartre develops this phenomenon by providing a dramatic example. A man is driven by jealousy to listen at a door and look through the keyhole because he believes his wife is inside with her lover. The man then realises that a person coming down the corridor has observed him in this compromising position. As a result, he feels shame. The point Sartre brings out with this example is that, in being aware that he is seen, the man becomes aware of himself as an object, as a man peering through a keyhole. In other words, the man's image of himself is placed into an objective perspective. Sartre's point is that shame is experienced because the man becomes aware of how he would be seen by an objective observer.
Much earlier than Sartre, Adam Smith uses the mechanism of the impartial spectator within the breast to make a similar point. Smith claims, plausibly, that we have the ability to step back from our perspective as agents and reflect on our actions as if we were spectators of them. He writes in Theory of Moral Sentiments
We suppose ourselves the spectators of our own behaviour, and endeavour to imagine what effect it would, in this light, produce upon us. This is the only looking-glass by which we can, in some measure, with the eyes of other people, scrutinise the propriety of our own conduct.
O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
But, as Adam Smith pointed out, we do have that gift at least to some extent. In a quiet moment, we can be 'impartial spectators' of our own conduct.
Shame on some occasions is much like guilt, in that it does not always require a witness to be actually present for the emotions to be experienced. For example, someone might feel ashamed of eating too much despite nobody being around to criticise. He has departed from his publicly stated aims and values. The situation produces shame because it is concerned with how the person thinks others would view him. An important difference between shame and guilt then is that shame is concerned with how one's image is reflected outward
, how others will see us, whereas guilt is concerned with how one views oneself as a person, how one's image is reflected inwards
A second difference between guilt and shame is that guilt creates a desire to get rid of the stain on one's character, a desire to put things right, sometimes to confess, apologise and make reparations; a factor recognised by the Roman Catholic Church's use of the confessional. Shame, in contrast, produces the desire for concealment, to disappear from the gaze of others, as on the lavatory seat in the train. Shame is therefore different from guilt in that if the lavatory door is shut there is no shame, whereas even if one were never to be seen the guilt would persist.
Linked to all these points is the fundamental one: guilt can be seen as a personal mechanism whereas shame can be seen as a social mechanism. The emotion of guilt is not rational unless there has been wrongdoing for which one is morally responsible. Shame, on the other hand, is like embarrassment in that it can be experienced whether one is in any way, morally or non-morally, to blame. With shame and embarrassment, we wish we had been seen conforming to the current social norms of politeness and decency, but moral wrong-doing need not be involved in that desire for conformity.
It might be objected that just as there can be rational and non-rational feelings of guilt, so there can be rational and non-rational shame. But there cannot be rational and non-rational shame or embarrassment. This is because shame and embarrassment have evolved as social mechanisms to ensure conformity to social norms and reason does not come into it. Middle-class men, for example, who lose their job through no fault of their own often feel ashamed. But there has been no moral fault whatsoever. They are victims of a social mechanism which dictates that men should be providers and causes them to feel shame when this cannot be done.
It is speculative but plausible to suggest that shame has evolved from clan-type social organisations where conceptions like 'honour' are important. I discussed honour in a recent number of the SR (17 November
). Shame has to do with loss of status, 'loss of face', 'being exposed'. It is this aspect which will induce a shamed person to desire concealment. In contrast, the tendency of guilt is to seek confession and atonement. This all suggests that shame will have a social function in encouraging conformity to social norms, norms which may or may not be desirable, whereas guilt will have a function for the individual self in encouraging adherence to moral standards.
Robin Downie is Emeritus Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow