AskDefine | Define guilt

Dictionary Definition



1 the state of having committed an offense [syn: guiltiness] [ant: innocence]
2 remorse caused by feeling responsible for some offence [syn: guilty conscience, guilt feelings, guilt trip]

User Contributed Dictionary



Old English gylt




guilt (uncountable)


Derived terms


responsibility for wrongdoing

See also

Extensive Definition

Guilt is the fact, state, or verdict (by a court or other tribunal), of an offence, crime, violation, or wrong committed, especially against moral or penal law. Guilt is also a cognitive or an emotional experience that occurs when a person realizes or believes - whether justified or not - that he or she has violated a moral standard and is responsible for that violation. It is closely related to the concept of remorse.

Definitions of guilt

In psychology and ordinary language, guilt is an affective state in which one experiences conflict at having done something that one believes one should not have done (or conversely, having not done something one believes one should have done). It gives rise to a feeling that does not go away easily, driven by conscience. Sigmund Freud described this as the result of a struggle between the ego and the superego parental imprinting. Guilt and its causes, merits, and demerits are common themes in psychology and psychiatry. It is often associated with depression. The philosopher Martin Buber underlined the difference between the Freudian notion of guilt, based on internal conflicts, and existential guilt, based on actual harm done to others.

Causes of guilt

Some thinkers have theorized that guilt is used as a tool of social control. Since guilty people feel they are undeserving, they are less likely to assert their rights and prerogatives. Thus, those in power seek to cultivate a sense of guilt among the populace, in order to make them more tractable. This is especially so within multicultural and multiracial societies where the governments of the day, need a denationalized population, so there is no collective, national cohesiveness as guilt is used in large urban areas to fragment and control the populace.
Some evolutionary psychologists theorize that guilt and shame helped maintain beneficial relationships, such as reciprocal altruism. If a person feels guilty when he harms another or even fails to reciprocate kindness, he is more likely not to harm others or become too selfish; in this way, he reduces the chances of retaliation by members of his tribe and thereby increases his survival prospects, and those of the tribe or group. As with any other emotion, guilt can be manipulated to control or influence others.
Another common notion is that guilt is assigned by social processes such as a jury trial, i.e. that it is a strictly legal concept. Thus the ruling of a jury that O.J. Simpson or Julius Rosenberg was "guilty" or "not guilty" is taken as an actual judgement by the whole society that they must act as if they were so. By corollary, the ruling that such a person is "not guilty" may not be so taken, due to the asymmetry in the assumption that one is assumed innocent until proven guilty and prefers to take the risk of freeing a guilty party over convicting innocents.
Still others -- often, but not always, theists of one type or another -- believe that the origin of guilt comes from violating universal principles of right and wrong. In most instances, people who believe this also acknowledge that, even though there is proper guilt from doing 'wrong' instead of doing 'right,' people endure all sorts of guilty feelings that don't stem from violating universal moral principles.

Collective guilt

Collective guilt, or guilt by association, is the controversial collectivist idea that a group of humans can bear guilt above and beyond the guilt of particular members, and hence an individual holds responsibility for what other members of his group have done, even if he himself hasn't done this. Advanced systems of criminal law accept the principle that guilt shall only be personal. This attitude is not usually shared by other systems of law. Assumption of collective responsibility is common for feud. Such systems tend to judge the guilt of persons by their associations, classifications or organizations, which often gives rise to racial, ethnic, social and religious prejudices. Collective guilt is regarded by some as impossible because it seems to presuppose that collections of humans can have traits, such as intentions and knowledge, that strictly speaking are claimed to be truly possessed only by individuals. The principle of collective guilt is totally denounced in libertarian social thinking. However, there are those who consider such judgements on collective guilt to be overly reductionistic and accept the existence of collective guilt, collective responsibility, etc. Sometimes the idea of collective guilt can be a form of association fallacy. Humans seem to have a natural tendency to attribute collective guilt, usually with tragic results. History is filled with examples of a wronged man who tried to avenge himself, not on the person who has wronged him, but on other members of the wrong-doer's family, or ethnic group, or religion, or nation, or tribe, or army. Likewise collective punishment is often practiced in different settings, including schools (punishing a whole class for the actions of a single unknown pupil) and, more transcendentally, in situation of war, economic sanctions, etc, presupposing the existence of collective guilt.
It has been suggested by Werner Cohn that the accusation that others apply "guilt by association" is itself a fallacy, for two reasons: 1) the term "guilt" is ambiguous. Sometimes it applies to criminal guilt, which requires a very high standard of proof ("proof beyond a reasonable doubt"). But more often, "guilt" refers to various shortcomings that require lesser standards. 2) "association" is also ambiguous. Sometimes "association" may be totally innocent, such as the association of fellow travelers on a train. But other kinds of association, for instance criminal conspiracy, are not at all innocent.
The idea of collective guilt became popular in Western World since the 1960s, as many historical injustices, including e.g. slavery in the United States, has been perceived by intelligentsia as faults of the society requiring retribution on behalf of those who had nothing to do with them (see e.g. Reparations for slavery and White guilt).
Terrorism is commonly rationalized by its practitioners on ideas of collective guilt and responsibility. Many nations have laws holding corporations, but not the individual decision-makers within them, responsible for certain kinds of acts. For example, in the United States corporations can be fined for violating pollution laws, but the individuals who actually ordered and directed the polluting activity may not themselves be regarded as having broken any laws, since they act as corporate officers on behalf of the shareholders. This is generally known as the "corporate veil".

Cultural views of guilt

Traditional Japanese society and Ancient Greek society are sometimes said to be "shame-based" rather than "guilt-based" in that the social consequences of "getting caught" are seen as more important than the individual feelings or experiences of the agent. This may lead to more of a focus on etiquette than ethics as understood in Western civilization. This has led some in Western civilizations to question why the word ethos was adapted from Ancient Greek with such vast differences in cultural norms.
Christianity and Islam inherit most notions of guilt from Judaism, Persian and Roman ideas, mostly as interpreted through Augustine who adapted Plato's ideas to Christianity. The Latin word for guilt is culpa, a word sometimes seen in law literature, e.g. in mea culpa meaning "my fault (guilt)".

Guilt in literature

Guilt was a main theme in John Steinbeck's East of Eden, Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire, William Shakespeare's play Macbeth, Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart," and many other works of literature. It was a major theme in many works by Nathaniel Hawthorne and is a nearly universal concern of novelists, who explore inner life and secrets.

Dealing with guilt

Guilt can sometimes be remedied by punishment (a common action and advised or required in many legal and moral codes), by forgiveness (as in transformative justice), or by sincere remorse (as with confession in Catholicism or restorative justice). Guilt can also be remedied through cognition, the understanding that the source of the guilty feelings was illogical or irrelevant. Law does not usually accept the agent's self-punishment, but some ancient codes did so: in Athens the accused was permitted to propose his or her own remedy, which might in fact be a reward, while the accuser proposed another, and the jury chose between. This forced the accused to effectively bet on his support in the community - as Socrates did when he proposed "room and board in the town hall" as his fate. He lost, and drank hemlock, a poison, as advised by his accuser.

Lack of guilt

Psychopaths typically lack a sense of guilt or remorse for any harm they may have caused others, instead rationalizing the behavior, blaming someone else, or denying it altogether. This is seen by psychologists as part of a lack of moral reasoning in comparison with the majority of humans, an inability to evaluate situations in a moral framework and an inability to develop emotional bonds with other people.

Further reading


guilt in Arabic: شعور بالذنب
guilt in German: Schuld
guilt in French: Culpabilité (psychologie)
guilt in Korean: 죄책감
guilt in Ido: Kulpozeso
guilt in Icelandic: Sektarkennd
guilt in Hebrew: אשמה
guilt in Dutch: Schuldgevoel
guilt in Japanese: 罪悪感
guilt in Norwegian: Skyld (jus)
guilt in Polish: Wina
guilt in Russian: Вина
guilt in Slovak: Vina
guilt in Serbian: Осећање кривице
guilt in Finnish: Syyllisyys
guilt in Portuguese: Culpa (sentimento)
guilt in Swedish: Skuld (etik)
guilt in Ukrainian: Вина
guilt in Yiddish: זעלבסטשולד
guilt in Chinese: 罪責

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

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