|Guilt and Human Freedom|
Do men ever have real ultimate responsibility for their actions? This question can motivate a more fundamental debate about human freedom. By looking specifically at the human experience of guilt, however, we can argue for an answer to this question. In common practice, we treat guilt as though there are two distinct possibilities: either it is justified, and we are truly and ultimately responsible for some bad result to one’s actions, or it is unjustified and we are not responsible for what happened. The very fact that we distinguish between justified and unjustified guilt proves that we can also distinguish between free acts of the will and acts for which we are not ultimately responsible. This paper will look specifically at our experience of guilt and the light it sheds on us as free persons.
In the debate between libertarians (those who believe in free will), compatibilists (those who believe that freedom and the complete determination of human acts are compatible) and determinists (those who believe that all human acts are completely determined by other factors), we often find extended arguments in symbolic logic discussing states of affairs in possible universes; theories attempting to explain freedom and responsibility through different combinations of desires, reasons and values or through neurology or evolutionary biology; and thought experiments involving mind-control or persons acting ‘freely’ while unaware of their inability to do otherwise. A reader can easily become confused or persuaded by abstract theories which are totally removed from his own experience and intuitions of reality. Human freedom, however, seems to be deeply rooted in the human experience: subjectively, it opens itself to be explored in depth, while objectively it can be only briefly delineated. Because freedom analyzed through one’s subjective experience is such a rich source of information, it can be hard to focus with sufficient rigour on the ramifications of this thesis in order to achieve any complete definition or explanation. It is often wiser to restrict one’s examination to a particular aspect of the human experience of freedom, in order to explore this aspect in greater detail. In this paper, then, we will examine only the phenomenon of guilt. Restricting our study to the experience of guilt has several advantages. First of all, guilt is an almost universal human experience. At the very least, it is a normative experience: those who never experience guilt are considered psychologically unbalanced. Again – and this will be considered in more detail throughout the paper – guilt originates as a response to one’s own actions and finds its object within the self (though this does not imply that it involves an objectification of the self: guilt takes as its objects one’s actions, not one’s self). Many other experiences are evoked by or directed towards others and become intertwined with other motives and actions; this self-oriented experience is easier to isolate and thus simpler to evaluate. Finally, guilt is a complete response in itself: it does not necessarily lead to any change in the subject. Like pain or fear, it can incline a person to act in a certain way, but does not cause such an action; it is an experience distinct from any action taken on its promptings.