The maldistribution of guilt

One of the things I decided at a young age was that although I would take moral responsibility for my actions, I would never let anybody make me feel guilty about what I am.

This was partly a reaction against my early religious upbringing.  I learned many good values in my church, such as respect for the dignity and worth of all persons and the duty to stand up for what is right when everybody else disagreed.  But I also took away a belief that guilt holds positive value.

At age 13 and 14, I believed, because I failed to love other people as myself and failed to love God with all by heart, soul and mind, I was a sinner and that it was because of sinners such as me that Jesus had to suffer and die on the cross.  I noticed that in the Gospels Jesus was forgiving of repentant sinners, but condemned people who took satisfaction in following religious rules.   I concluded that the best thing I could hope to be is a repentant sinner, but repentance was of no value if I took satisfaction in being repentant.

I do not claim this is an accurate account of Christian teachings.  But it is what I believed at age 13 and 14, and I do not think I was unique in these beliefs.

guilt2Guilt has a positive function.  If you feel bad about doing bad things, and good about doing good things, you are motivated to do fewer bad things and more good things.  But if your sense of guilt is so highly developed that you feel bad about feeling good, you are trapped in a Catch-22 vicious circle.

Guilt, like many other things, is badly distributed.   Some people have much more than is good for them, but those who need it the most have none at all.

I knew a woman, a person of no explicit religious beliefs, who came as close as anybody I know to being a saint.  She spent decades of her life as a volunteer teacher in New York state prisons, ministering to society’s outcasts just as Jesus did.  From time to time she would talk about how rewarding she found her work and the relationships with the inmates.  Then she would bring herself up short.  She thought that if she found pleasure and satisfaction in her volunteer work, her reason volunteering was selfish and had no moral merit.   Neither she nor anybody else benefited from this kind of reasoning.

I am highly suspicious of anybody to tries to persuade me to do or believe something based on the guilt I supposedly should feel for being white or middle-class or American.  This approach leads me to believe that the persuader has no valid argument.

I think that white guilt—the feeling of guilt for being a member of the white race—is a subconscious version of Christian original sin.  It is based not on what you do, but what you are.

I have listened to liberal white people in workshops confessing that they are all a bunch of racists.  I think such conversations reflect the subconscious notion that feeling guilty has moral value in and of itself, regardless of whether the feeling leads to constructive action.   If you are concerned about civil rights, it should be because you want everyone’s basic rights respected, not because you are trying to get rid of negative feelings about yourself.

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3 Responses to “The maldistribution of guilt”

  1. Mark Adams Says:

    P.E. said:
    “I think that white guilt—the feeling of guilt for being a member of the white race—is a subconscious version of Christian original sin. It is based not on what you do, but what you are.”

    It should read: one is based on what you do, not in what you think you are

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  2. Mark Adams Says:

    “I am highly suspicious of anybody to tries to persuade me to do or believe something based on the guilt I supposedly should feel for being white or middle-class or American. This approach leads me to believe that the persuader has no valid argument.”

    A valid argument is one in which the conclusion follows the premise, not the other way around.

    One false premise is the unquestioned fidelity of elders. We assign value to a method known as, the way it has always been done method, because of the simple tried and true old way earned the trust of our family. This may have worked in the past, for certain applications; but, in general, these sorts of truth tests are based on familiar tradition because of comfort. These old tried and true methods are not always factual because these schemes are not always true. The sentimental attachments often provide fictitious data. Explanations such as, “It works”, or “this is always the way it has been done,” may have been true in the past or in certain situations. We cannot generalize and say this method passes the truth test. Variables change and our way of thinking must also evolve to think outside the box. Protocol procedures are generally fine and the textbook solutions set the groundwork for a correct solution. It becomes necessary to scramble to solve a problem in a more efficient manner so procedures are modified with better materials and innovative methods.

    “I would never let anybody make me feel guilty about what I am.”

    Updated information is not universally available or known. We assume everyone reads what we read and knows what is current and correct. We incorrectly assume most people have the same views and interpretations we have. Adding to the complexity, certain data is not perennial due to change.
    What of old data? Some information is consistent. Comfort in recalling the good old days is not universally true. Claims such as, “life would be better if we returned to the past,” will be examined as representative of nostalgia and sound simple enough; yet, such statements are not necessarily accurate. In fact, many notions are outrageous narrow minded claims. That type of thinking may have worked in the past, for a select few, during moments of good times when many misfortunes are not recalled. This was the older generation with many outdated ideas, many of which are dismissed.
    Change is forced by a younger generation. The “good old days” type of thinking and similar delusions are dismissed as they were one-sided and not universally good.
    Why would anyone change his mind if he is correct? Hilary Putnam, computer scientist and analytic philosophy, is known for applying an equal scrutiny to his own philosophical ideas and to those of others. The objective is rigorous analysis to expose flaws. He has a reputation for changing his mind. This is what scientists.
    The misconception some have is to make a stance and never change your mind ( as it is presumed to show weakness). Instead, willingness to compromise show wisdom. Those who do not understand that have demonstrated their lack of intelligence.
    Facts change. The fastest way to go from Europe to New York used to be a steamer, then an airplane, then a jet, then the Concorde, then back to a jet. Who knows what tomorrow?

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  3. philebersole Says:

    There is a subtle but important difference between lamenting the over-representation of elderly white males and supporting greater representation for young people, minorities and women.

    Once I signed up for one of the excellent reading courses at Writers & Books Literary Center here in Rochester. As we were waiting to begin, the instructor, who was an intelligent and thoroughly decent human being, lamented that the participants seem to be the usual crowd of elderly white men. I thought, but didn’t say, that I could reduce the proportion of EWMs by withdrawing from the course.

    Then a young dark-skinned women, a late enrollee for the course, entered the room. My friend the instructor did not greet her, did not make eye contact and in general acted as if she wasn’t there. She didn’t come back for the second session, which of course could have been for many different reasons.

    I suggested to my friend that he could have been more friendly. He said he wasn’t responsible for other people’s behavior.

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