The other day, I ran over a squirrel.
You know by now that we range far and wide on this blog, exploring many themes. Today, we’re pondering guilt. When I ran over the squirrel, I didn’t feel any. Don’t get me wrong; I didn’t take any pleasure in it. I simply didn’t really feel anything, and it only stood out in my mind as an inspiration for this post.
As is our usual lean, I aimed to try to define what guilt actually is. I turned up this definition:
Guilt is, first and foremost, an emotion. You may think of guilt as a good way to get someone to do something for you out of a sense of obligation. Guilt is not a very good motivator. It’s more accurate to think of guilt as an internal state. In the overall scheme of emotions, guilt is in the general category of negative feeling states. It’s one of the “sad” emotions, which also include agony, grief, and loneliness, according to one comprehensive framework
We’ve already discussed guilt trips at some length. The article continues on:
From a cognitive point of view, guilt is an emotion that people experience because they’re convinced they’ve caused harm. In cognitive theory, the thoughts cause the emotions. The guilt of emotion follows directly from the thought that you are responsible for someone else’s misfortune, whether or not this is the case.
Okay, perhaps now we’re onto something. This gives us at least a framework to understand where guilt comes from, though we can expand out that we feel guilty when we do something that goes against our own personal moral or ethical standards. It also helps us to understand why we’re going to feel guilty for different things. I suspected our editor, Stephanie, would have felt guilty for running over the squirrel. She confirmed as much when I shared the story. Why the differences? Perhaps it has to do with evaluating ethical situations differently. As we were brainstorming, she sent me over the thought exercise:
- You are standing in front of a train switch. The train is heading towards 5 people on one set of tracks, and they will be killed. On the other set of tracks is 1 person who will be killed if you flip the switch. Do you flip the switch?
- You are on a bridge over a set of train tracks. The train is heading towards 5 people who will be killed. There is a man on the bridge that could derail the train. Do you push him off the bridge into the path of the train?
- You are a doctor responsible for 6 patients. 5 of them need organ transplants; their deaths are imminent and no organs are available. 1 is sick and will die soon, but you can save his life. If you don’t save his life, his organs can be used for the other 5 patients. Do you act to save his life?
- Same scenario as above, but this time, the 1 is a tourist who has just walked into the hospital and has only a minor cold. Do you kill him for the purpose of transplanting his organs?
We had different responses, but ultimately, these questions are delving into actions, intentions and consequences. Perhaps the reason I felt no guilt is because I know that I didn’t intend to kill the squirrel. I intended to drive home. The squirrel ran out in front of my car, and there was nothing I could have done. I didn’t intend harm, I was unable to avoid it, and there’s no action to be taken to fix what happened. Thus, in my mind, there’s nothing to feel guilty for.
Guilt can be a useful emotion to prevent us from hurting others or leading us to undo the harm when we have. But Americans put a lot of stock in guilt for it to be seen merely as an internal state. We talk about “guilty pleasures” as though enjoying a particular food or music is something that we should be judged and found wanting for, a set of affairs I also reject. If I start a morning off with Kendrick instead of John Coltrane, does that make me a lesser human being? This blog is and has always been a judgment free zone. Part of the reason for that is that we don’t assign moral values to what we enjoy.
More importantly, an overabundance of guilt can lead us to cause more harm. Steph shared with me another anecdote – she came across an injured rat in her yard. Knowing that the rat was suffering and going to die soon, she was still unable to kill the rat. Perhaps this goes back to intentions – I did not intend to kill the squirrel; Steph would have had to intend to kill the rat. She refrained knowing the guilt she would feel, but ultimately, the rat experienced more suffering than it otherwise would have.
Now we’re left with one of the most consistent themes of this blog – awareness. Guilt is a tool, and it should be used when it benefits us, discarded when it doesn’t (which is most of the time). By mastering our emotions instead of letting them control us, we can make more informed decisions and take swift, sensible action.