ISSUES IN APPLIED ETHICS: 7.2 guilt

ISSUES IN APPLIED ETHICS: 7.2. Guilt

It is interesting to note that in English guilt means both “culpability” and “remorse,” as if the spirit of the language itself wished to pander to the notion that they are the same. In truth they refer to very different phenomena. Even at an elementary level we should distinguish between a number of distinct cases, including: (a) objective responsibility for some evil, (b) imputation of such responsibility by others, (c) recognition of responsibility by the subject, (d) shame, embarrassment, or nervousness.

When one conjectures about the biological origin of the sense of guilt, the obvious answer is that it contributes to the coherence of a group. The word conscience itself refers to its social function, con- or com- meaning “together.” Shame, not conceptually but as an emotion, may be closely related. An animal that has been punished appears to exhibit shame. The abused house pet will cower and cringe “in shame.” Its owner may fancy that the animal–typically a dog–feels guilty over an objective fault; however, in the artificial human environment, which is not the environment the dog’s behavior is genetically responding to, the degree of “shame” as a conditioned reflex is simply the result of specific training, of memory traces. You can recognize a mistreated dog. Pets have been known to starve to death because the owner too successfully imparted the message that they were greedy eaters. Chimpanzees used in experiments have been driven to nervous breakdown by haphazardly, arbitrarily applied shock treatment, their reactions becoming as unpredictable as the punishment inflicted on them.

In the animal pack humiliation helps establish a hierarchy of domination. This usually rests on physical power. We emphasized the importance of exploiting weakness as one of nature’s devices. In fact we identified in the exploitation of perceived weakness one of the main constituents of Code One. In human society the difference between perceived as opposed to real weakness is particularly important. But strictly speaking we are dealing with perceptions at any level. The following example may be instructive regarding the root and development of the sense of guilt and its exploitation in human society.

We propose to describe an encounter seen some time ago on a popular TV nature presentation. The scene shows an–in all likelihood staged–confrontation between a leopard and a baboon, and is supposed to yield an unexpectedly amusing spectacle. The leopard, presumably a zoo animal born in captivity, has probably never seen a baboon in his life and does not know what to make of him; the baboon vaguely resembles human beings, to whom he is accustomed to be in a relation of dependence and inferiority. The baboon on his part cautiously examines the leopard from a distance and, upon noticing the animal’s hesitancy, approaches and begins to gather a certain amount of boldness verging on pugnacity. The leopard pulls back, then climbs a conveniently nearby tree. The baboon exhibits growing indignation; he hurls himself on the tree angrily chattering and menacingly posturing. The leopard, visibly intimidated, retreats from branch to branch until he is precariously balanced on a limb hardly strong enough to support him. The baboon is now beside himself with rage; he seems to be saying: ” What business does this overgrown house pet have showing up on my turf? Just who does he think he is? Doesn’t he realize that I can squash him with one blow, that we baboons are in the habit of making mincemeat out of leopards for sheer fun?”

The bluffing baboon is simply exhibiting the fundamental natural tendency of taking advantage of a weakness. Jacques Cousteau observed that if a fish behaves strangely–that is, if it appears sick or wounded–it is promptly attacked by all the other fish in its vicinity. In human terms the weirdly acting fish is the equivalent of a nervous person.

In a recently published article a supermarket security agent maintained that the easiest way to spot shoplifters is that they look nervous. Lie detectors catch nervous people. They reward the good liar. Trial lawyers attempt to rattle defendants or witnesses in order to make them lose their self-assurance and confuse them–by the inherent logic of their profession they tend to measure success by testing the witnesses’ ability to dissemble, not by getting at the truth. Actors are among the most idolized and sought-after people. (The intricacies of this will be explored in a separate section.) It is as if society wanted to pay tribute to the ability to deceive, the appearance of honesty instead of real truthfulness, which it fears because of its potentially disruptive effects. People may feel too heavily invested in fraudulence to let it be sweepingly disclosed.

If culpability, remorse, and embarrassment had a high positive correlation, Hitler, Stalin, or Manson would have been guilt-ridden, flustered individuals, oppressed and even crushed by a sense of shame. The case was the opposite. Bloodthirsty savages are rarely burdened by delicate consciences. On the other hand, people who have sensitive consciences scruple over the morality of their actions even when they are not at fault. It does not necessarily hold that vulnerable individuals are innocent, but projecting evil into the vulnerable is a grave and prevalent social injustice, leading to a great deal of unnecessary harm, and a concomitant of Code-One behavior. It is one way of taking the path of least resistance in the effort to destroy.

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