Reflections on Guilt, Shame, and Neurosis

This morning I listened to the ever-delightful Econ Talk podcast, this time featuring Mike Munger speaking with Russ Roberts on Econ Talk.

I commend the entire episode to you, as it’s a delightful little romp on the topic of how economists view morality. (Okay okay fine, I’ll give you the quick version: economists view morality as a simple set of fixed preferences. Roberts and Munger argue that we can change our preferences, and in fact, have an obligation to. In short, we have an obligation to become better people who do not merely “respond to incentives” but rather “create their own objective functions.” [That’s fancy econ-speak for “choose to desire better things.”])

Anyway, in the discussion, Munger mentioned something that caught my attention, and I think is worth repeating and elaborating on.

Munger gives two examples.
• Imagine you do something wrong. You feel bad about this.
• Imagine you do something wrong and someone finds out. You feel bad that someone found out.
Munger then calls the first guilt, and the second shame.
The conversation quickly moved on, but I kept thinking about it.

What I see in the common internet pages on the topic is a bit different: guilt is feeling bad, while shame is feeling bad about who you are as a human being.

I prefer Munger’s definition of things, but I’m not here to argue semantics. I’m here to say that the distinction—even if we use another set of terms—is critical. Let me propose a new vocabulary for our purposes here:
• Feeling bad for something bad you’ve done: guilt.
• Feeling bad when others know you’ve done something wrong: shame.
• Feeling bad for who you are fundamentally as a person: neurosis.

I think guilt and shame are no fun, but fundamentally useful emotions. The neurosis isn’t.

Guilt, when properly used, allows us to become better people. I’m reminded of a friend who told me in high school that I was “easily the most guilty person” she knew: “you feel guilty enough to feel really, really bad, but not quite guilty enough to change.” It was meant in a light-hearted way, but it was stunning—and correct. I vowed to be better. I’ve occasionally succeeded. Guilt now feels like a chance to become something better.

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