Guilt Is A Message Not An Observation

ssGuilt. That feeling of remorse or regret for a bad deed done. It has been mankind’s constant companion. Many have thought about it, wondered about it, written about it; all have experienced it. The Roman historian Tacitus spoke of its power – “Seek to make a person blush for their guilt rather than shed their blood.” Shakespeare recognized its effects: “Suspicion always haunts the guilty mind; the thief doth fear each bush an officer.”

Much effort has been expended in trying to escape it, minimize it, hide and run from it. But it cannot be escaped. It serves as warning and reprimand. It is relentless in its pressure, its insistence, often impelling, paradoxically, the guilty to confess to obtain freedom from it. In the end, it must be faced and dealt with, and the best way to do so is apparent.

But many still refuse to recognize what guilt really is – a message from an intelligent mind. A guidepost and reminder as to what this mind wants – expects – from us. Many insist instead that it is simply an observation, as this comment to my last post expressed:

“I think the problem is the assumption that guilt is a message, and — in particular — a message from a unified source. But, if guilt were a message from a unified source. Everyone would feel guilty about the same things. No, morality is more an observation. As a result most people have (mild) variations in the perception.”

Is there a difference between a message and an observation?

I think there is and that difference lies in the source of the information.

An observation is something internal. If I feel hungry, I am motivated to eat. If I am angry, I am motivated to lash out. Threatened? I may react by flight, or by fight. Feelings of guilt can be observational in nature, to the extent that I am aware, or becoming aware, of a disturbance in my process of thinking. But what is that disturbance? It is an awareness that there is a disconnect between what I have done, or I am planning to do – on the one hand – and what I ought to do – on the other. It is that conflict that I am experiencing as guilt.

Does this not require some explanation? If, after all, these are solely internal to ourselves, why the struggle? When I am hungry, I am not at war within myself as to what to do. My urge – my instinct – is to eat so as to satisfy the hunger. But when I eat too much, when I realize I am becoming a glutton, I begin to realize that I really ought not act that way. The former is internal – an observation and perhaps an instinct – but the latter is coming from outside of the person and is seeking to change what he in fact does.

The skeptic claims that, if guilt were a message, we would all feel guilty about the same things. Generally, of course, we do. No one feels guilt over a good deed done, or angst in trying to help someone. No one feels pleased when they betray a friend. But this is not really the point. While there are variations as to how we receive the message, and what we do with it, the point here is that it is a message, originating from a source external to us. Like a transistor radio, we may have variations in the clarity of the signal received, but we are not the source of the signal.

In my earlier post on guilt, the line from an episode of¬†Madmen¬†served as a quick summary of current thinking about guilt: the character opined that it’s all about what I want to do as opposed to what’s expected of me. But if the skeptic were right – if morality is just an observation – it wouldn’t be that hard to turn off the voice that is calling us to something better. We would simply do what we want, or what the stronger instinct impelled us to.

What we are left with is this: there is a law external to us that we did not create, and that we are somehow liable to. We want to follow it, but in the end we never do – at least not fully. We then suffer the consequences.

Christianity has an adequate explanation for this state of affairs. We feel guilty because we are guilty. We know the law that God has placed in our hearts and we strive mightily to ignore it. What answer does Naturalism have?

Posted by Al Serrato

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One Comment

  1. Mark Ritter says:

    I have always held that, for the Christian, that feeling is one of conviction rather than guilt. Guilt seems to me that feeling of “you have done wrong and you are less of a Christian because of it” clearly something that would be brought on by the enemy. God’s conviction is as a father’s stern repremand…displeased, but shown with love.

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