Guilty, judgmental, vengeful cats


0821 | [ Continuing my study of Scanlon’s book, What We Owe To Each Other… ]

Scanlon now talks about “guilt.” But I’m puzzled about what he says about guilt.

He says:

“Guilt requires negative self-evaluation of a particular kind, which I will call self-reproach. This is the attitude of taking one’s rational self-governance to have been [underline added] faulty, and recognizing that some judgment-sensitive attitude must be modified or taken back.” (p. 270)

I take it this means that “guilt” is a bad feeling that one gets over thinking that one has done something that they have come to know to be wrong (“wrong” just being the faulty “rational self-governance”). Presumably, Scanlon means for guilt to be followed by a feeling of regret (“regret” being the recognition that a “judgment-sensitive attitude must be modified or taken back”).

But there’s something here that doesn’t quite make sense. In my experience, I don’t think that I feel “guilty” for learning that I had made a wrong decision or because I had reasoned badly. I think that I would feel ashamed of these things — incompetent, and ashamed about being incompetent — but, I don’t think that this feeling would be called “guilt.”

So, what he means to have said is that the person intentionally chooses to do things that they already know are “wrong.” And later, when they’re forced to confront that choice for some reason, then they feel guilty….(?) Is that right? That must be it, since it’s definitely not the former (at least in my case).

Perhaps something is wrong with me, and maybe I’ve never actually felt “guilt” in my whole life. Maybe what I thought was “guilt” was really actually “shame.” But if I presume that I have felt guilt before, and when I analyze my own experience with it, then I think that what is really going on is just internalized condemnation. Scanlon calls it “self-reproach.” Guilt is the force of my own harsh condemnation of other people who transgress or who I otherwise deem as blameworthy, which has been turned inward towards the self. In particular, the harsh condemnation involves the feeling of disgust. Maybe this is why a wise guy once said, judge not lest you be judged yourself.

Scanlon says another thing that is somewhat curious:

“If ‘moral’ here is understood in the narrow sense in which I have been using it in most of this section, then this yields the view that it is appropriate to feel guilt only when on believes that one has violated principles specifying what one owes to other people. This would explain the familiar fact that one rational response to feelings of guilt is a desire to acknowledge one’s wrong and seek forgiveness of the person injured by it.” (p.270)

Again, I don’t think that this is entirely true. I don’t feel guilty for failing other people. When I fail other people, I feel shame, not guilt. What I do feel guilty for is doing or becoming the thing that I myself loathe or condemn. I think that his account of guilt might be a rationalization…(?)! It just doesn’t sound… very true. If I want to seek forgiveness from the person injured by my actions, it’s not because others are necessarily truly judging me harshly. It is because I imagine that they are judging me in the same way that I have judged other people for similar actions, and I am hoping that an apology will improve their assessment of me. In other words, I am projecting my own harsh character onto that of other people. Although, in the case of children, it’s possible that they internalize the language of harsh judgment by being exposed to it in their culture or religion or in their role models.

In Republic, Plato notes something that Aeschylus once wrote in one of his plays — that guilt destroys a house utterly. Perhaps, the reason why Plato wanted to censor some of the poets — like Aeschylus or Homer — was because of the potentially bad effect that his plays might have on young people. While Plato himself understood their stories, he saw that they confused young people. And, instead of helping them to be more compassionate, it made them become harsher judges — like the way that Orestes was a harsh judge of his own mother, ultimately leading him to kill her. Or, like Euthyphro was harshly critical of his own father, leading him to prosecute his own father in court.

I think Plato would have wanted the young people of Athens to be less judgemental of their elders, while at the same time manage to refrain from themselves doing the things that they would have judged negatively. After all, by the time the young people got old enough to understand and become more compassionate, their elders may have already died away. And both sides would have missed out on appreciating one another in the time that they do have together. The Plato that I know and love would have thought this way, anyways. (He’s the only one that matters anyhow, since he’s the one that I know and love.)

On my view, guilt is not a healthy concept to have, really. There is nothing particularly superior about a guilt-culture over a shame-culture — even though, I acknowledge that there maybe something to be said about a culture that’s able to recognize the value of meaning and not just the externally visible representations of meaning. But more specifically, guilt is itself simply the visible symptom of a culture that promotes harsh and strong sentiments of disapproval and disgust. One can learn to feel less guilty when one judges and morally condemns others with less severe and hateful force. On my view, guilt is simply the projection of one’s own strong disapproving sentiment towards others that has been redirected inward back towards the self.

That said, in a world with only good intentions, there can be no guilt. There can be shame, and even regret — but no guilt. Since, in such a world, knowledge is goodness and ignorance is evil. And, one cannot be guilty of ignorance. One can only ashamed of it. But, ignorance is something fixable — learn! Instead of wasting time feeling guilty — start seeking truth, and gain knowledge! Is this a Platonic world? A Socratic world?

I think that a truly superior culture would foster understanding and acceptance of each individual for being just as she is, and value truth and love as standards of measuring a person, rather than valuing an unjust and false hierarchy based on a so-called “moral” assessment of people according to unfair and irrelevant standards.


0924 | [ Continuing my study of Scanlon’s book, What We Owe To Each Other… ]

Scanlon admits as much on page 271-272:

“What is special about violations of the morality of right and wrong is that the reasons one has failed to respond to are grounded not just in some value that others also recognize but in their own value as rational creatures.”

But how curious — the notion of ‘guilt’ requires measuring others according to unjust and irrelevant standards, while shame simply requires one to have ideals.

I prefer the latter view.

One other thing that I noticed is that my cat occasionally appears to be feeling guilty. For instance, she flinches if I reach over head to pet her, if she has just made a swipe with her claws at Michael. It is as if she expects me to do to her, what she has intentionally done to Michael. She expects retaliation. She expects something bad. Does this mean that she recognizes that she herself has done something bad to Michael? I think so. She never flinches when I reach over her head to pet her at any other time…

Isn’t that interesting?

Surely, humans have a more developed sense of justice than cats. Perhaps a guilt-culture is more primitive than a shame-culture. I don’t know if this makes one better than the other. But I do think that I have a definite preference. Guilt-cultures fixate on the feeling of disgust, while shame-cultures focus on the ideal of beauty. 🌞 I prefer the latter. [Hey, maybe “Guilt vs. Shame” can be one of my philosophy topics.]

Now, Scanlon also says that the ability to feel guilt implies rational ability. He says: “It implies, first, that moral criticism applies only to rational creatures, since only they are capable of the kind of reflective self-governance in question.” (p.272)

But if this is true, then my cat is a rational creature, since she obviously feels guilt (though, it’s mostly all in her own head, silly girl). I suppose cats can be, in general, quite spiteful and hateful creatures. Oh, but they are so cute. And when they are loving, they are quite loving and sweet.