Guilt as Internal Sanction Essay

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A crucial question of ethics concerns the motivation to engage in moral—and avoid immoral— behavior. Why should and do people commonly refrain from lying, stealing, and otherwise wrongful conduct? Why should and do people commonly abide by laws, regulations, codes of conduct, and religious or spiritual precepts? The most familiar kinds of responses to these and similar questions appeal to promises of reward and (more often) threats of punishment. In other words, people are motivated to do the right things because they expect some good in return, and are motivated to avoid doing wrong things because they fear the undesirable consequences that may follow. Importantly, the undesirable consequences people seek to avoid can and do come from a variety of sources, including those that are external (e.g., the legal system, figures of divine authority) and those that are internal (e.g., guilt).

An important and often overlooked source of sanction is that which issues from conscience. When people make decisions or engage in behaviors that they know contradict values and principles that are important to them, to family members, or to the larger groups and communities of which they are a part, a frequent consequence is negative self-evaluation. People “feel” that what they have decided or done is wrong and, even absent negative assessment from others, they judge themselves in ways unfavorable. This experience is most commonly referred to simply as “guilt” and is described as a state of emotional discomfort that follows from having violated or failed to live up to internal standards. To be more specific, a distinction is sometimes made between guilt and shame. Where the two concepts are distinguished, “guilt” is often used to refer to a feeling which arises when an individual negatively evaluates a particular decision he or she has made or an act he or she has undertaken (e.g., guilt for having lied to a pareant); “shame” is more commonly used to refer to negative evaluations of selves as persons (e.g., shame for being a dishonest person).

What makes guilt unique as a source of sanction for moral wrongdoing is that it is a punishment which is self-imposed. Unlike penalties handed out by judges and other rule-enforcers, guilt is an emotional form of punishment that is inflicted from within. What is more, guilt can and often does persist longer than other, external forms of punishment. A sentence imposed by the legal system for criminal wrongdoing ends when the conditions of that sentence have been met; guilt does not have a defined beginning and end. It can continue indefinitely. In this respect, guilt is a stronger sanction than many of those that are externally imposed. Problematically, however, the effectiveness of guilt as a source of motivation for moral behavior is limited by its lack of reliability.

First, the experience of guilt necessarily depends upon the existence of meaningful values and internal standards of behavior and a belief that one’s decision or behavior will or has violated them. The experience of guilt is in this way tied to the existence and strength of conscience. As well, people can and often do rationalize or justify their decisions and actions in such a way as to reduce or eliminate subsequent feelings of guilt (e.g., rationalizing dishonesty by convincing oneself that it was necessary to protect a friend or colleague). In short, weakness of conscience and one’s capacity to neutralize guilt limit its effectiveness as a motivation for moral behavior.

Relatedly, the experience of guilt requires a certain level of emotional maturity that is not characteristic of all persons. Because the feeling of guilt most commonly follows from having decided or acted in such a way as to cause some harm to another person, the capacity to experience guilt is intimately tied to the capacity to empathize with others, that is, to imagine how one’s actions make others feel and, in turn, to feel remorse or regret for having affected others in that way. Those with certain kinds of personality disorders (e.g., psychopath, antisocial personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder), for example, may lack the authentic concern for other people that is a prerequisite for guilt to serve as sufficient motivation to avoid harmful or otherwise wrongful behavior.

Last, even when genuine guilt is experienced, its punishing effects are not necessarily long-lived. Its strength can be minimal, short-lived, or degrade over time. Most people, most of the time, learn to live with the decisions and actions they regret or for which they are remorseful. Sooner or later, they “get over it.” Much like the neutralization of guilt occurs as an internal (psychological) process, learning to live with decisions and actions is also something people can control internally. For these reasons, although guilt can at times be more powerful and last longer than externally imposed sanctions, it is often regarded as an important but insufficient motivation for moral behavior.

Within criminal justice and criminology, the notion that guilt can serve as a motivation for moral behavior parallels, in some respects, John Braithwaite’s notion of shame as a deterrent to criminal behavior and “shaming” as a response to criminal transgressions. Those who refrain from deviant behavior are often those with sufficiently strong ties to family and community. Where such ties or integrations are present, the likelihood that violations of community standards or social norms will bring about condemnation from others and, subsequently, shame and embarrassment for the offender can be enough to deter a person from such violations.

Because shame is such a potentially powerful deterrent, it can be utilized as part of a restorative approach to criminal justice whereby offenders are subjected to the disapproval of the community, and subsequent efforts are made to reintegrate the offender into the community. Importantly, the utilization of shame as a response to violations of social norms should emphasize the wrongfulness of the act of transgression and avoid the disintegrative and stigmatizing implication that the offender is “evil” as a matter of moral character.


  1. Braithwaite, John. Crime, Shame and Reintegration. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
  2. Braithwaite, John. “Shame and Criminal Justice.” Canadian Journal of Criminology, v.42/3 (2000).
  3. Greenspan, P. S. Practical Guilt: Moral Dilemmas, Emotions, and Social Norms. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.
  4. Hughes, Judith. Guilt and Its Vicissitudes: Psychoanalytic Reflections on Morality. New York: Routledge, 2007.
  5. Kitwood, Tom. Concern for Others: A New Psychology of Conscience and Morality. New York: Routledge, 1990.

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