In contrast to animals, humans are educated to emotionally feel the effects of their bad actions from a very young age. We refer to this sensation as the sense of guilt. But what happens to human behaviour when the sense of guilt is not properly trained during childhood?
The following statement may come across as a strong generalization. But I am guessing it is not so far from the truth when I say that nowadays people lack a sense of guilt. Or at least, that people’s perception of it has been strongly downsized over time.
First of all, I would like to clarify my definition of the sense of guilt.
The sense of guilt is the emotive perception of the magnitude of our actions. When we act badly, we experience an emotive and intellectual resonance in the immediate future. This reaction is critical to avoid iteration of certain behavioural patterns.
However, in order to build a sense of guilt, we need discipline. In particular, we need to train our emotive potential to feel guilty when we are disrespectful.
Now, an adequate emotive apparatus is not given automatically by nature. If we look at how animals behave, it is evident that they completely lack remorse for their actions. Following the aggression of a passerby, dogs don’t seem to experience guilt. Their psyche remains silent and continues to live in the present. There is no intellectual – and therefore emotional – correlation between the violence of an act and its consequences. For instance, it has been suggested that the so-called “guilty face” that dogs sometimes exhibit, is more an emotive reaction to owners’ behaviour rather than a real state of remorse (1).
So how does this sense of guilt specifically arise in human minds?
Schematically, we might consider the infant psyche similar to the animal one. Infants have trouble processing experience and organizing their mental dimension into past, present and future. Every moment is apparently fresh and unrelated to others. Given this chaotic existence, children lack an instinct for self-preservation and tend to repeatedly put their life and those of others at risk. Therefore, relatives and caregivers are actually there for them, in order to limit their dangerous moves.
In the human dimension, adults represent the main barrier to infant irrationality. They define what children can and cannot do. In other terms, parental guidance and limitation constitute the archetype of a human-based system of laws, a system that guarantees the coexistence of individuals that respect each other.
For clarity, let us take the famous passage of the Bible in which the story of Cain and Abel is narrated (2). Cain and Abel were both sons of Adam and Eve, the first man and the first woman God created. When God refused Cain’s offer but accepted Abel’s, an angry Cain killed Abel. Thus, God decided to punish Cain, banishing him from his own lands and leaving him alone in solitude. Furthermore, God declared that nobody could kill Cain, enforcing the never-ending sense of guilt.
In the Judeo-Christian view, this is the first crime to ever happen. If we think about it, the first event of a series can only be defined in retrospect. Simply put, when Cain kills Abel, humans do not see assassination as a crime. Therefore, as an animal or an infant would do, Cain simply acts according to his instincts in a pure innocent manner. Doubtless, he also does not naturally regret his actions. He does not understand the magnitude of his actions because he still needs to comprehend them.
Here the divine law comes into play, defining the assassination as a crime for the very first time. We witness first-hand how the law restrains this chaotic living force, imposing a limit. When the limit is overcome, the punishment triggers the sense of guilt, which prevents further reiterations of undesirable habits in the future.
Despite the simplicity, this procedure sometimes fails, which can have a great impact and cause alarming consequences for children’s education.
The lack of guilt that we see in children typically arises from parents who fail to set practical rules that children must break in order to be punished and “sense” for the first time the potency of the law. Either such rules are not given at all, or parents simply do not apply them strictly enough. When either of the two situations happens, we can expect the following scenarios.
First of all, children are raised to understand that whatever they may think or do is simply undisputable. This belief will of course make them suffer, because as adults they will experience that reality often limits their actions and sabotages their plans. But even more importantly, the aforementioned emotive potential – that needs to be reinforced in order to train discipline and ultimately to develop a sense of guilt – is lost. Children might eventually grow up in a limitless mental dimension, where there are no time and space constraints, and everything in life should be done according to their needs.
This second aspect becomes very clear when we think about people chronically incapable of delivering on deadlines. This is a typical example in which missing the goal does not trigger an emotive response. Given that missing a deadline is not perceived as a misbehaviour, the experience is reiterated innumerable times.
In conclusion, we could summarize the presented scenario as follows:
- Parents set rules, which are important to constrain children’s behaviour and allow them to sense limits;
- Children recognize these rules as a constriction to their habits, therefore they break them;
- When rules are broken, parents punish their children, inducing a sense of guilt;
- The sense of guilt is critical to prevent further misbehaviours, training a certain discipline which is ultimately critical to socially behave in a respectful manner.
Among others, “respect” is a uniquely human trait and we must cultivate it.
The loss of the sense of guilt is the antechamber of a return to a “natural egoism”, where any human being – as any other living species already does – pursues its own interests. When humans act selfishly, they have a dramatic impact on the surrounding reality, destabilizing not only other human communities, but also the equilibrium of ecosystems. Given the uncontrolled human power over the natural world (see the article “Are humans still under the pressure of natural laws?”) we must train ourselves to feel the impact of our actions.
I believe one simple implementation will help enormously to sensitize public opinions towards this educational habit. Countries could provide free basic courses of developmental psychology for parents. These courses must be made compulsory for at least one of the two parents and/or caretakers, providing educational tools to properly train infant psyche.
If we really expect our children to become constructive members of our communities, we must teach them how to give stature to their actions.
- Horowitz, A., “Disambiguating the “guilty look”: salient prompts to a familiar dog behaviour”, Behav Processes, 2009.
- Unknown authors, “The bible”.