The End of Guilt?

by Dave Schuler on June 11, 2008

This post is not a good thought-out analysis but rather a series of possibly disconnected reflections inspired by reading Joshuapundit’s Council submission on the interaction between Islam and tribalism.

I think a more important question than the one that Freedom Fighter asks is the connection between liberal democracy and guilt. As I’m sure you must know people in different societies have differing ideas about the relationships among themselves, their actions, and other people. The anthropologist Ruth Benedict among others distinguished between cultures in which guilt is the dominant restraint on individual action and cultures in which shame is the dominant restraint. The idea is that guilt is an internalized individual response, conscience, that focuses on the questions “what have I done?” or “what shall I do?” while shame is an externalized, social response that focuses on the question “what will people think?”. In her book The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, Benedict contrasted traditional Japanese culture as a “shame culture” with American society, a “guilt culture”.

Not only Japanese culture but also Chinese and Arab cultures have been characterized as “shame cultures”.

The notion of guilt goes way back in western civilization. It’s the driving concept in the Orestian cycle of Greek myth which goes back at least 3,000 years. It’s also an important concept both in orthodox Christianity and in Judaism. In Roman Catholicism, the Christian denomination with which I’m most familiar, the idea of guilt is so prevalent as to be the subject of many jokes. For example, how many Catholics does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: a Catholic won’t change a lightbulb. He’ll sit in the dark and wonder “What did I do wrong?” Among Jews guilt is proverbial. As me auld mither says, that’s something the Irish and the Jews have in common (and why they so frequently get along).

Reform Christianity, particularly of the sort’s that highly informed by Calvinism, tends to erode the notion of guilt. If salvation or damnation are determined solely by the grace of God (as all Christians believe) and that grace is pre-destined to be bestowed by God without recourse to the acts of the individual (as a radical Calvinist might believe) the significance of an individual’s acts are greatly reduced. I’m sure I’m expressing this badly.

That was one of my concerns about President Bill Clinton, by the way. I think his faith tradition inclined him to believe that his actions were relatively less important (guilt) but that not getting caught was very important (shame). I had the same concern about George W. Bush.

Is liberal democracy without guilt practical? I have my doubts. I think that liberal democracy, at least as we understand the idea here in the United States, requires that the overwhelming preponderance of the people be law-abiding. It seems to me that’s only likely in the presence of internalized guilt or with a much more intrusive assertion of the state apparatus resulting in a stronger likelihood of transgressors being caught than we’re accustomed to thinking of as liberal democracy.

Will liberal democracy be able to survive in a post-Christian world, particularly one in which internalized guilt is abandoned? I’m not really certain about the nature of the interactions among liberal democracy, guilt, western traditions, and Christianity. They’re very intertwined.

I think that liberal democracy is a pretty good form of government, indeed, I think it’s the best form of government but I’m not so arrogant as to believe that it’s the only form of government under which people can be happy nor do I believe that all societies can adopt liberal democracy without substantial social disruption and in some cases the degree of social disruption might be just too painful to bear.

There’s a danger to pluralism of that sort, too. I think the evidence is pretty good that liberal democracies tend not to go to war with one another but, as I suggested above, I’m not convinced that all societies are likely to adopt liberal democracy. Are the differences among societies so great that war is inevitable?

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Bookworm Room » Wonderful stuff to read from the Watcher’s Council
June 18, 2008 at 12:39 pm
Bookworm Room » Watcher’s Results
June 20, 2008 at 9:32 am

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Token Jew April 4, 2009 at 10:37 am

I think we should clarify the proverbialness of guilt among the Jewish faith. Indeed, it is proverbial, but then again, at least as far as Reformed Jews go, the entire faith is proverbial. My Rabbi has said several times, “The base of Jewish faith is based on but one principle, the rest is just commentary.” That principle is, “That which is hateful (harmful, ugly, etc.) to you, do not do unto others.”
That, basically, leaves the floor open to interpretation, argument, discussion, and all other forms of communication. It is like they say, “ask 3 Jews their opinion, and you’ll get at least 4 answers.” We constantly question our faith, and are encouraged to do so, because it is only in the questioning, and the challenging of your faith, that you truly come to understand it, and take it to heart.

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