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Guilt and Shame in Philosophy and Psychology

Dr, Gilbert Harman & Corey Maley

Thursday, November 04, 2010, 12:00pm - 07:00pm

Princeton University, Department of Philosophy

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Philosophers often see a deep connection between morality and guilt or shame, but disagree about what the connection is and indeed about what guilt and shame consist in. For example, Brandt (1969, 1979, 1992) and Gibbard (1992) suggest that one's moral principles can be identified with those principles one would feel (or would be warranted in feeling) guilt or shame for violating. Nietzsche distinguishes two basic types of morality depending on whether the relevant feeling is guilt (slave morality) or shame (master morality). Walter Kaufmann (1973) argues against a morality of guilt. Bernard Williams (1993) says that an ethics of shame is to be preferred to a morality of guilt. On the other hand, recent psychological research has been described as showing that people are better off if they are subject to guilt rather than shame (Tangney et al. 2007).

Matters are complicated by differences in how the terms guilt and shame are used. Here we follow the usage in Tangney et al. We will use the word guilt for a negative feeling directed at one's act or failure to act. We will use the word shame for a negative feeling directed at oneself. In this usage, guilt is a certain way of feeling that what one has done or not done was bad and shame is a certain way of feeling that one is bad for having acted or not acted. Bernard Williams' and Nietzsche's usage appears to coincide with ours (based on Tangney's). Gibbard and Kaufmann appear to take guilt to include what we are calling shame. Tagney et al. say that most people do not distinguish guilt and shame for having acted badly. Of course, in ordinary usage, shame but not guilt is used more widely to include negative feelings about oneself because of other things: misbehavior of one's relative or country, for example.

Given our terminological agreement with Tangney et al. and Williams we ask and try to answer such questions as (1) Are there people who are not susceptible to guilt as we are using this term? If so, can such people be moral people? Can they have a sense of what it is to do something because that is the morally right thing to do? (2) Is it a good thing to be susceptible to guilt? Should children be brought up to be susceptible to guilt? (3) Similar issues about shame.

Dr, Gilbert Harman & Corey Maley