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Guilty dilemmas

Tuesday, 23 February 2021
This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.

Guilt is not a pleasant feeling to experience. It can eat away at the pleasures of daily life, cause us to overanalyse our decisions, or can even enhance our anxiety, those bothersome moments that always propel us into the future, into an unknown but conscious state of fear or excessive worry.

It can drag us down, so low that we can hardly stand up again. The more we give in to the turmoil of guilt, the more our self is being weighed down by the heaviness of emotional burden.

So is it any wonder that we try to evade guilt feelings as often as possible, especially in times of pandemic, when we need to acknowledge the existence and well-being of others more often than before, and some might say to the detriment of one’s own?

Feeling guilty might be a constant reminder of all the good we have not done, Voltaire said, so we better start acting rightly or stop feeling guilty, or both. Easier said than done, at least for most of us.

In On The Genealogy of Morality Nietzsche argued that guilt did not always have a moral connotation. It was previously associated with the debtor-creditor relationship, when indebtedness caused the debtor to have a bad conscience, to be acutely aware of the necessity to repay the debt.

The fear of not being able to pay the debt and the fear of being punished for it were turned inwards, and this led to self-inflicted suffering and emotional misery.

Nietzsche draws attention to the etymology of the German word ‘Schuld’ (guilt), derived from ‘Schulden’ (debt), in order to emphasize the existence of dependency and power relation, which are the foundation of guilt.

The moment we enter society, any transgression that was allowed in a pre-moral time is being curtailed by societal laws and rules. Malevolence, hatred, cruelty, all have to be kept in check, and because we cannot externalize them anymore, we internalize all these instincts, by turning them against us.

Our social actions become predictable, and promises, which require a ‘real memory of one’s will’, the ability to say ‘I will’ to the other, that differentiate us from animals, form the basis of morality. Under the guise of promises and obligations guilt ensues, both in terms of what we owe to society as a whole, and what we are owed.

We are not alone anymore in our endeavours, but find ourselves in a Levinasian face-to-face encounter. According to Nietzsche, there are no overarching moral principles to defend, just human agency and its will. This tendency towards moral particularism stands in stark contrast to Schopenhauer’s emphasis on compassion as moral incentive, a prosocial behaviour that Nietzsche categorizes as ‘slave morality’.

Why subservient? Because it highlights human weaknesses, vulnerabilities and suffering rather than strength. For the proponent of ‘master morality’, empathy, humility or forgiveness are not virtues but vices. A life devoid of resentment and feelings of guilt, this is noble. The end goal is to advance one’s will to power, so as to overcome oneself and achieve self-actualization. And being ‘slaves’ to the needs and will of others is an impediment to self-mastery, so Nietzsche.

But then, this does not mean that we should stop engaging in moral acts and disregard selflessness altogether. We are not one of Dostoevsky’s characters, whose lives are marked either by humility or pride, as André Gide noticed. We are somewhere in between, both master and slave. We can be wealthy and empathic at the same time, or obedient and greedy.

Nietzsche was right in one regard. We should become more strong-willed in our pursuit of noble values, even if his understanding of ‘noble’ is open to interpretation. Cowardice, lacking bravery in acting outside of our comfort zone, is indeed a weakness. For example, not helping others in need because we risk to temporarily and partially give up our freedom is a cowardly excuse. Being courageous means that we are aware of the risks and afraid of what might happen, but nevertheless take the plunge into the unknown.

Guilt as an emotion, feeling bad about ourselves for something we have done wrongly or because of our indifference towards others, might not always suffice in convincing us to act morally. Simply because sometimes we focus on our character more, how bad a person we are, and in the process we forget to think of a remedy for our wrongdoing.

To recognize moral transgressions, and act accordingly, we mainly need a moral consciousness, that is, to lose our self-focus for a moment and acknowledge the presence of the other. Voluntarily, with no strings attached.“