The Shame of Feeling Guilt

As I posted on Saturday, I have been ill recently. What I did not mention in my list of symptoms was a feeling of wrongness at not posting in the blog. Some part of me felt that I was obliged to post. I even, as I returned to a more normal state of consciousness considered whether I might add a new piece of work to the Miscellany to make up for missing those posts. With the benefit of a little distance I have instead chosen to post some thoughts about the feeling of obligation.

My first thought was that I had made the promise to myself that I would update the blog three times a week. When this did not move me to post I was assailed by the feeling that I owed it to my audience. They would not know that I was ill so would expect a post; I would be choosing to fail them if I lay on the sofa instead of writing. While these were not easy to overcome I did convince myself that a fever driven ramble would not be a proper post anyway, and anyone who placed my words above my health would already have complained that I only update three times a week.

Life without industry is guilt, and industry without art is shame. – John Ruskin

When the thought arose that I would not laze around if I was being paid to write the blog (if you do feel I post too infrequently then I am open to discussing this) I recognised the thoughts for what they were: my inner critic attempting to put structure before self-interest. With hindsight I also recognise in the attacks the two threads underlying moral and legal systems: guilt and shame.

Guilt-based systems say that an act is wrong if the actor judges it as wrong; it can be wrong even if no-one sees it or it is only a thought. This can be seen in many religious belief systems and is particularly clear in the Catholic concept of unclean thoughts being a sin. It also appears in some laws about attempted or victimless crimes.

Shame-based systems take the opposite approach and say an act is wrong if the group judges it as wrong; whether or not the actor thinks it is wrong it cannot be wrong if no-one sees it . A historical example is the crime of hidden murder in pre-Christian Scandinavia: killing was legal if you proclaimed openly you had done it but was illegal if you attempted to hide it. This can also be seen in the modern rule that ignorance of the law is no excuse.

Of course, most real-world systems result from many centuries of glossing and amendment and are much more complex than an either/or classification. However, I do wonder if people who grew up under in primarily shame-based society are free of the inner critic, or whether it still manifests as an inner society.

Do you believe that an act is wrong if no-one but the actor is affected? Or that an act can be right even if society perceives it as wrong?

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