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.
Shame, meanwhile, calibrates us to those around us, and helps us learn morality from the collected wisdom of our community. I’d argue that this is necessary for all of us in order for society to function, but it also protects us from becoming comic book super villains, sure that we are doing the right thing in the face of the lives/planets/universes that it will cost to do said right thing.

Keeping shame and guilt working properly could be an essay on its own, so let me just add one parenthetical thought: balance. More shame than guilt turns life into a theatrical production whose only purpose is to preserve a façade. More guilt than shame unmoors us from the norms of the community in two directions: we can become troublingly down on ourselves for minor infractions, or we can become troublingly untroubled by major ones. We need some guilt and we need some shame, so long as we can keep them balanced and actionable.

But my more major point is that “feeling bad about who you are” is just plain unhealthy. There is nothing redeeming about it. There is no benefit to it. There is nothing practical about it. It is bad, unhealthy, and wrong. Don’t engage in it.

Does that sound guilt-inducing?

Good. Because you shouldn’t engage in it. It will make you a worse person. Don’t do it.

See? Guilt can be good.

I don’t know if trying to dissuade you will work, I must admit. I think the problem is deeper. It isn’t merely common¸ but fashionable. I hope I can dissuade, but at least I can point it out, and not reward it. Self-loathing is not fun, it is not helpful, and it is not Godly.

And while I don’t know how to solve it easily, I think Jordan Peterson’s idea to “treat yourself as someone for whom you are responsible” is a very, very good starting place.

That, and perhaps to feel guilty every once in a while instead—because guilt can be useful.