Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) believed that the capacity for guilt varies between individuals and among human populations. He also believed that this variability had, in part, a heritable basis.
Humans are motivated to act correctly by either shame or guilt. We feel shame after acting wrongly in the presence of others. We feel guilt even when no one else sees us acting wrongful or even when we merely think about committing a wrongful act. To varying degrees, all humans seem to have some capacity for both shame and guilt. Most cultures, however, rely primarily on shame and only a minority rely primarily on guilt. In the literature, the distinction between the two is presented as one between non-Western and Western cultures or between collectivistic and individualistic cultures. The capacity for guilt thus seems to be strongest in populations of Northwest European descent.
From the time of Charles Darwin onward, this subject has attracted the interest of several thinkers. How have they explained the origins of shame and guilt?
Darwin speculated that shame originated from a universal desire to “save face,” which was initially concern about one’s personal appearance:
We have seen that in all parts of the world persons who feel shame for some moral delinquency, are apt to avert, bend down, or hide their faces, independently of any thought about their personal appearance. […] And as the face is the part of the body which is most regarded, it is intelligible that any one ashamed of his personal appearance would desire to conceal this part of his body. The habit, having been thus acquired, would naturally be carried on when shame from strictly moral causes was felt; and it is not easy otherwise to see why under these circumstances there should be a desire to hide the face more than any other part of the body. (Darwin, 1872, p. 123)
Shame, however, is not the same as guilt, and Darwin took care to distinguish between the two when discussing how and why people blush:
With respect to blushing from strictly moral causes, we meet with the same fundamental principle as before, namely, regard for the opinion of others. It is not the conscience which raises a blush, for a man may sincerely regret some slight fault committed in solitude, or he may suffer the deepest remorse for an undetected crime, but he will not blush. “I blush,” says Dr. Burgess, “in the presence of my accusers.” It is not the sense of guilt, but the thought that others think or know us to be guilty which crimsons the face. A man may feel thoroughly ashamed at having told a small falsehood, without blushing; but if he even suspects that he is detected he will instantly blush, especially if detected by one whom he reveres. (Darwin, 1872, p. 126)
With respect to real shame from moral delinquencies, we can perceive why it is not guilt, but the thought that others think us guilty, which raises a blush. A man reflecting on a crime committed in solitude, and stung by his conscience, does not blush; yet he will blush under the vivid recollection of a detected fault, or of one committed in the presence of others, the degree of blushing being closely related to the feeling of regard for those who have detected, witnessed, or suspected his fault. Breaches of conventional rules of conduct, if they are rigidly insisted on by our equals or superiors, often cause more intense blushes even than a detected crime, and an act which is really criminal, if not blamed by our equals, hardly raises a tinge of colour on our cheeks. (Darwin, 1872, p. 130)
Darwin saw guilt as being not only less universal but also more recent in origin:
The highest possible stage in moral culture is when we recognize that we ought to control our thoughts, and “not even in inmost thought to think again the sins that made the past so pleasant to us.” (Darwin, 1936, p. 492)
A few lines further on, he suggested that this kind of mental discipline is “more or less strongly inherited”:
There is not the least inherent improbability, as it seems to me, in virtuous tendencies being more or less strongly inherited; for, not to mention the various dispositions and habits transmitted by many of our domestic animals to their offspring, I have heard of authentic cases in which a desire to steal and a tendency to lie appeared to run in families of the upper ranks: and as stealing is a rare crime in the wealthy classes, we can hardly account by accidental coincidence for the tendency occurring in two or three members of the same family. If bad tendencies are transmitted, it is probable that good ones are likewise transmitted.(Darwin, 1936, p. 492)
Has the capacity for guilt been more strongly selected in some human populations than in others? Darwin does not address this question, other than to add:
Except through the principle of the transmission of moral tendencies, we cannot understand the differences believed to exist in this respect between the various races of mankind. (Darwin, 1936, p. 493)
In his work Civilization and Its Discontents (1930), Sigmund Freud argued that guilt was initially a fear of discipline by close kin, particularly one’s father. Only later was this fear broadened to include fear of discipline by non-kin, this change being related to the development of larger human communities:
When an attempt is made to widen the community, the same conflict is continued in forms which are dependent on the past; and it is strengthened and results in a further intensification of the sense of guilt. Since civilization obeys an internal erotic impulsion which causes human beings to unite in a closely knit group, it can only achieve this aim through an ever-increasing reinforcement of the sense of guilt. What began in relation to the father is completed in relation to the group. If civilization is a necessary course of development from the family to humanity as a whole, then […] there is inextricably bound up with it an increase of the sense of guilt, which will perhaps reach heights that the individual finds hard to tolerate. (Freud, 1962, pp. 79-80)
Guilt and shame are two means by which social rules are enforced in large communities where most interactions are no longer with close kin. Shame is enforced by external supervision, i.e., by other people who witness a wrongful act. Guilt is enforced by internal supervision, i.e., by one’s conscience, which Freud called the super-ego:
We have also learned how the severity of the super-ego — the demands of conscience — is to be understood. It is simply a continuation of the severity of the external authority, to which it has succeeded and which it has in part replaced (Freud, 1962, p. 74)
As the super-ego took over from paternal supervision and discipline, it became not only more important but also more hardwired:
A great change takes place only when the authority is internalized through the establishment of a super-ego. The phenomena of conscience then reach a higher stage. Actually, it is not until now that we should speak of conscience or a sense of guilt. At this point, too, the fear of being found out comes to an end; the distinction, moreover, between doing something bad and wishing to do it disappears entirely, since nothing can be hidden from the super-ego, not even thoughts. It is true that the seriousness of the situation from a real point of view has passed away, for the new authority, the super-ego, has no motive that we know of for ill-treating the ego, with which it is intimately bound up; but genetic influence, which leads to the survival of what is past and has been surmounted, makes itself felt in the fact that fundamentally things remain as they were at the beginning. The super-ego torments the sinful ego with the same feeling of anxiety and is on the watch for opportunities of getting it punished by the external world. (Freud, 1962, p. 72)
The translation is awkward (the original was in German), but he seems to be referring to the heritability of traits that have proven their adaptiveness over time, i.e., “genetic influence, which leads to the survival of what is past and has been surmounted.” This heritable component seems to be a capacity, or a willingness, to identify social rules and comply with them, the actual rules being non-innate, i.e., “softwired.” This notion of an innate, heritable component comes up again a few pages later:
Experience shows, however, that the severity of the super-ego which a child develops in no way corresponds to the severity of treatment which he has himself met with. The severity of the former seems to be independent of that of the latter. A child who has been very leniently brought up can acquire a very strict conscience. But it would also be wrong to exaggerate this independence; it is not difficult to convince oneself that severity of upbringing does also exert a strong influence on the formation of the child’s super-ego. What it amounts to is that in the formation of the super-ego and the emergence of a conscience innate constitutional factors and influences from the real environment act in combination. This is not at all surprising; on the contrary, it is a universal aetiological condition for all such processes. (Freud, 1962, p. 77)
Freud also argued that people differ in their capacity for guilt. In a footnote to the above passage, he explained that the super-ego emerged through “gradual transitions” and thus exists to varying degrees in different people: “[…] it is not merely a question of the existence of the super-ego but of its relative strength and sphere of influence” (Freud, 1962, p. 72). Some individuals are thus extremely guilt-prone:
For the more virtuous a man is, the more severe and distrustful is its [the conscience’s] behavior, so that ultimately it is precisely those people who have carried saintliness furthest who reproach themselves with the worst sinfulness. (Freud, 1962, pp. 73-74)
These statements may seem surprising. Didn’t Freud believe that neuroses are due to learned inhibitions and that we ought to overcome our inhibitions? Here, however, he argues that both the inhibition of behavior and the expectation of inhibition are instinctual. There has thus been a co-evolution between the internal control mechanism (the super-ego) and human desires (the ego):
The sense of guilt, the harshness of the super-ego, is thus the same things as the severity of the conscience. It is the perception which the ego has of being watched over in this way, the assessment of the tension between its own strivings and the demands of the super-ego. The fear of this critical agency […] the need for punishment, is an instinctual manifestation on the part of the ego, which has become masochistic under the influence of a sadistic super-ego; it is a portion, that is to say, of the instinct toward internal destruction present in the ego […] (Freud, 1962, p. 83)
When this control mechanism enters into conflict with human desires, the result is a “conflict between the two primal instincts” (Freud, 1962, p. 84).
We must distinguish between the real Freud and the one of undergrad courses. The latter Freud has become a mouthpiece for beliefs, like rejection of biological determinism and rejection of inhibitions, that did not become dominant until after his death. The real Freud believed that mental and behavioral traits have a substantial heritable basis, as did most scholars of his day. By emphasizing the importance of both nature and nurture, he was in fact taking a very middle-of-the-road position … for his time. The middle ground would not shift toward environmental determinism until later, with growing interest in the findings of Ivan Petrovich Pavlov and subsequent efforts by the Boasian school of anthropology to explain human behavior in terms of cultural conditioning.
To be continued
Darwin, C. (1936) . The Descent of Man and Selection in relation to Sex. reprint of 2nd ed., The Modern Library, New York: Random House.
Darwin, C. (1872). The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, London: Murray.
Freud, S. (1962). Civilization and Its Discontents, New York: W.W. Norton