Guilt: The Debt and the Stain


Abstract: Contemporary analytic philosophers of the “reactive attitudes” tend to share a simple conception of guilt as “self-directed blame”—roughly, an “unpleasant affect” felt in combination with, or in response to, the thought that one has violated a moral requirement, evinced substandard “quality of will,” or is blameworthy. I believe that this simple conception is inadequate. As an alternative, I offer my own theory of guilt’s logic and its connection to morality. In doing so, I attempt to articulate guilt’s defining thought or proposition through an extended investigation and analysis of guilt’s many competing metaphors, which I trace from the Hebrew Bible to the New Testament to Shakespeare to contemporary vernacular. My interpretation of this literary genealogy offers a way to understand guilt’s seemingly disparate metaphors in terms of a single master-image that illuminates our self-conceptions and our relationship to morality. I conclude by making a very brief start toward a moral vindication of guilt against the backdrop of Nietzschean and Freudian analyses that explicitly call guilt’s place in a healthy social and personal life into question. I suggest that once guilt’s logic is made explicit, we can see that it makes sense of, honors, and addresses some of our deepest aspirations and needs.



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Samuel Reis-Dennis
Rice University

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References found in this work

Moral dimensions: permissibility, meaning, blame.Thomas Scanlon - 2008 - Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Emotions: An Essay in Aid of Moral Psychology.Robert Campbell Roberts - 2003 - New York: Cambridge University Press.

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