Guilt: The Debt and the Stain


Abstract: Contemporary analytic philosophers of the “reactive attitudes” tend to share a simple conception of guilt as “self-directed blame”—roughly, an “unpleasant affect” felt in combination with, or in response to, the thought that one has violated a moral requirement, evinced substandard “quality of will,” or is blameworthy. I believe that this simple conception is inadequate. As an alternative, I offer my own theory of guilt’s logic and its connection to morality. In doing so, I attempt to articulate guilt’s defining thought or proposition through an extended investigation and analysis of guilt’s many competing metaphors, which I trace from the Hebrew Bible to the New Testament to Shakespeare to contemporary vernacular. My interpretation of this literary genealogy offers a way to understand guilt’s seemingly disparate metaphors in terms of a single master-image that illuminates our self-conceptions and our relationship to morality. I conclude by making a very brief start toward a moral vindication of guilt against the backdrop of Nietzschean and Freudian analyses that explicitly call guilt’s place in a healthy social and personal life into question. I suggest that once guilt’s logic is made explicit, we can see that it makes sense of, honors, and addresses some of our deepest aspirations and needs.

Author's Profile

Samuel Reis-Dennis
Rice University


Added to PP

154 (#75,212)

6 months
154 (#17,821)

Historical graph of downloads since first upload
This graph includes both downloads from PhilArchive and clicks on external links on PhilPapers.
How can I increase my downloads?