Sense Of Shame Vs. Sense Of Guilt — Two Different Phases Of Moral Development


Michelangelo Moses
Michelangelo Moses (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
1. Human – social animals

We human are social animals. Our existence relies on cooperation, or communication. We were not necessarily more “superior” than any other types of animals in terms of physical ability. i.e., we cannot fly as birds, run like deer, bite like lions, hide like snakes, but we do excel in communicating. Perhaps, it was mostly due to this ability (to communicate and to cooperate), we not only survived, but prospered into civilization.

In order to cooperate, we much work as groups, and in order to work as groups, we must have stable communities, or societies. Therefor, there must be some forces that can bind us together. Looking into humans societies, we may find, that beside our natural needs to communicate, such as feelings, there are two main forces that group us together, one was made collectively and imposed on individuals; the other was also made collectively, but taught through tradition or education, and gradually ingrained into individuals’ minds. The former is law, the latter is morality. So basically, morality is just a set of principle for individuals to follow, in order to establish social stability. And to make morality easier to comprehend, we invented the concept of “good” and “bad”, or “right” and “wrong”, grant those behaviors or thoughts that are helpful to our bond, condemn those that are harmful to it.

The history of morality is as long and complicated as human him/herself. Though religion has very simple explanation about the emergence of morality,  from historical view, morality was not endowed by “God”, but created by humans, also it changes along time. If we look into history, it’s not hard to see, that whatever we think is moral now or here, could be immoral then or there. There are plenty of examples which I would not bother to make.

The evolution of morality is a mega spider web, complicated and mysterious. However, what I am trying to take a closer look in this article is not this giant web, but two type of moral senses that have been ingrained in our human minds: sense of shame and sense of guilt.

2. Sense of shame vs. sense of guilt

I like to temporarily define a sense of shame as a feeling of guilt or even agony provoked by one’s recognition that he/she is no longer innocent or decent in other people’s eye; a sense of guilt is a self condemnation that one makes to him/herself due to his/her awareness of his/her wrong doings. There are similarities between these two, but also an fundamental difference: the sense of shame is evoked by others’ judgment, while the sense of guilt is derived completely from one’s self determination.  Due to this difference, we could easily see that in the case of sense of shame, because one’s feeling of guilt is due to others judgment, so if other people or society do not condemn one’s conducts, he/she would not feel guilty; but in the latter case  (sense of guilt), regardless how other people think, one would still condemn him/herself because the judgment of “right” or “wrong” is made by him/herself.

The individuals who only have sense of shame, usually value others opinion more than their own, thus when they found others no longer “look up” to them, they would feel insecure or abandoned, suffer a significant loss of self confidence; on the other hand, individuals who have sense of guilt would not share these feelings because the it is their own choice to condemn their misconducts. For individuals whose moral drive is sense of shame, they would sometime even conceal their wrong doings, for the purpose of keeping their faces clean in others’ eyes, and those whose moral drive is sense of guilt, they would confess their wrong doings even if they don’t have to.

3. Collectivism vs. individualism

Sense of shame is a product of collectivism. Collectivism is a moral ideology that put collective value over individuals’. As we discussed in the beginning, humans are social animals, and individuals’ survival is almost fully relies upon groups’, so in most part of human history, collectivism is the dominant ideology.

It is because of this fact that individuals could not survive without groups, human beings developed this strong sense of “belonging”. We would be extremely upset if we were rejected by groups. In many cases people would prefer die than being left alone. And naturally, we developed a psychological tendency to please others, or majority, or powerful ones, and the sense of shame would naturally take place when we failed to do so.

The positive contribution that sense of shame made to human societies is, that it makes tight bond between individuals and groups, so it helps establishing social stability. The negative part of it is that when there were no supervision, individuals would act “wrongly”, or destructively, due to lack of self motivation to cooperate.

Sense of guilt is a product of individualism. Contrary to collectivism, individualism is a moral ideology that places the value of individuals above the value of groups. Among societies that collectivism is dominant ideology, individuals don’t have much freedom, but among societies that individualism is dominant idea, individual freedom is the goal of social effort.

The paradox here is, as mentioned earlier that we humans are social animals and cannot survive without group effort, so would individualism leads to damage to societies? My answer is yes and no. If individualism emerged during earlier stage of humans history, or in some societies that are not ready for individualism (that is being dominated by collectivism), it would have negative effects, because societies might be quickly broken up due to unbounded individual freedom. But if individualism emerged in the societies that most people already have self-motive to cooperate, it can do more good than harm. Historical fact is, that individualism as a social ideology only emerged (or evolved) in societies that were ready for it, i.e., western Europe after its dark middle age, when people had very strong sense of guilt (mostly due to Christianity). At this stage, basic altruism already ingrained inside the minds of many (though not “all”) individuals. Also, humanism that was originated from ancient Greek culture also nurtured Europeans with independence, responsibility, fraternity, love, mutual respect, etc. So when freedom finally came, there was a strong moral buttress that kept people’s freedom under certain conditions. The great example of this would be The declaration of rights of man and of the citizen of French revolution: “Liberty consists in being able to do anything that does not harm others.” The “does not harm others” is the bottom line of this individual freedom, without which would only do more harm than good to societies.

Comparing with the sense of shame, sense of guilt is a more advanced phase of morality development. Not only it shares the same positive effect as of sense of guilt, which is binding individuals together, but also it has some advantage that sense of shame doesn’t have, which is making individuals cooperate with others without external force (self motivated altruism).

Maybe it is not entirely accurate to say that sense of guilt is a product of individualism. They both could be mutually dependent, and it could be a long process of evolution. Same can be said to the relationship between sense of shame and collectivism.

4. Morality and social system

Sense of shame most existed in earlier stage of human history, it also widely exists in today, mostly among societies where collectivism is dominant ideology. Sense of guilt as ideology emerged in recent human history, among societies where individualism was dominant ideology (namely Europe).  Generally speaking, the equivalent social system for collectivism is despotism, for individualism is democracy.

As we already discussed, the development of European democracy was closely related to its moral development. That is, though its culture permit individual freedom, the societies can still keep their stability because of individuals’ self motivated cooperating attitude. This is usually not the case in societies that ruled by despotic power – when given maximum individual freedom, the force that once keep societies together no longer exist, people’s sense of shame would stop working, greed, selfishness, hatred, all these “evils” would unleashed and societies would simply collapse. Thus, after a short period anarchy, these societies usually had to go back despotism, in order to establish stability.

Based on this analysis, we may have better understanding of Chinese history, get better idea about why China walked through thousands years of repetition of extreme centralized ruling system and anarchy, still never developed democracy. We may also have better understanding about modern communism, when permit of killing was given, ordinary people could commit extraordinary atrocity. And maybe, we could understand, that the democracy in European civilization really was not something happened in one night, or by one revolution, but by a long evolutionary process. So, we may understand, arguably, an imposed democracy may not be very effective to those societies whose ideology is still dominated by collectivism.

Of course, there are individual differences. i.e., in despotic societies, we could often see people who have good sense of independence or responsibility, and in democratic societies, there are people who would also act irresponsibly. However, the overall change of a society does require collective effort. So only when an idea penetrate through majority, would the society change accordingly.

To conclude, both sense of shame and sense of guilt are parts of the development of human consciousness, and both function as the force to group individuals together. Most likely, all societies had been gone through the first phase – collectivism, under which people cooperated passively by their sense of shame, and only some societies evolved into a more advanced phase of ideology -individualism, under which people cooperate with each others by self motivation, or conscious choice.

So the question remains, if we humans started from the point, what made our societies so different now? Or, did we really start from the same point?

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