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Robert Adams, Finite and Infinite Goods: A Framework for Ethics, Chapter 10, Obligation, Part II: Guilt

By David Baggett

Chapter 10, Obligation, Part I: Sanctions and the Semantics of Obligation

Chapter 10 Obligation, Part III: Social Requirement

In this section of the chapter, Adams emphasizes that moral obligation can’t be understood apart from its relation to guilt. If I voluntarily fail to do what I am morally obligated to do, I am guilty. I may appropriately be blamed by others for my omission, and ought normally to reproach myself for it, in some degree. Perhaps I may incur some just punishment for it.

The presence of obligation in a moral system divides actions into three classes which can be distinguished precisely in terms of guilt. If an action is morally wrong, one is guilty if one does it. An action that is morally optional can be either done or omitted without guilt. But if an action is morally required, or obligatory, one is guilty if one omits it. Examining the nature of guilt will help us understand how moral obligation depends for its role on a broadly social system of relationships.

The word ‘guilt’ is not properly the name of a feeling, but of an objective moral condition that may rightly be recognized by others even if it is not recognized by the guilty person. Feelings of guilt, though, may reasonably be taken as a source of understanding of the objective fact of guilt to which they point. We do not have the concept of guilt merely to signify in a general way the state of having done something wrong.

It is true that one is not guilty, however unfortunate the outcome, for anything that was not in some way wrong. But there are two other typical features of wrong action that are responsible for much of the human significance of guilt. One is harm that one has caused by one’s (wrong) action. It is wrong to drive carelessly, and no less wrong when one’s lucky enough to avoid an accident, but the burden of guilt one incurs is surely heavier when one’s carelessness causes the death of another person than when no damage is done. (Harm caused to other people is not a feature of all guilt, however. One can be guilty for a violation of other people’s rights that in fact harmed no one.)

A more pervasive feature of guilt is alienation from other people, or (at a minimum) a strain on one’s relations with others. If I am guilty, I am out of harmony with other people. This feature is central to the role of guilt in human life. It is connected with such practices as punishing and apologizing. And it makes intelligible the fact that guilt can be (at least largely) removed by forgiveness. The idea that guilt consists largely in an alienation produced by the wrong is supported by the fact that the ending of the alienation ends the guilt.

This should not surprise us if we reflect on the way in which we acquired the concept, and the sense, of guilt. In our first experience of guilt its principal significance was an action or attitude of ours that ruptured or strained our relationship with a parent. There did not have to be a failure of benevolence or a violation of a rule; perhaps we were even too young to understand rules. It was enough that something we did or expressed offended the parent, and seemed to threaten the relationship. This is the original context in which the obligation family of moral concepts and sentiments arose. We do not begin with a set of moral principles but with a relationship, actual in part and in part desired, which is immensely valued for its own sake. Everything that attacks or opposes that relationship seems to us bad.

This starkly simple mentality is premoral—we need to go on and learn to distinguish between cases when we’re actually guilty and when we’re not. In grasping such a distinction we must learn to make some critical judgments about the moral validity of the demands that people make on us. Nevertheless, Adams believes it isn’t childish, but perceptive and correct, to persist in regarding obligations as a species of social requirement, and guilt as consisting largely in alienation from those who have (appropriately) required of us what did not do.

Some moralists hold that in the highest stages of the moral life (perhaps not reached by many adults) the center of moral motivation is transplanted from the messy soil of concrete relationships to the pure realm of moral principles; and a corresponding development is envisaged for the sense of guilt.

It is certainly possible to come to value—even to love—an ethical principle for its own sake, and this provides a motive for conforming to it; but this way of relating to ethical principles has more to do with ideals than with obligations. To love truthfulness is one thing; to feel that one has to tell the truth is something else. Similarly, failing to act on a principle one loves seems, as such, more an occasion of shame than of guilt. Merely violating a principle, without alienating anyone, is likely more a reason to feel ashamed or degraded than a reason to feel guilty. It’s also significant that insofar as my reaction arises from my personally valuing a principle, it may not matter very much whether the principle is moral or aesthetic or intellectual. But aesthetic “guilt” doesn’t make much sense. Guilt is not necessarily worse than degradation, but they are different. And a main point of difference between them is that, in typical cases, guilt involves alienation from someone else who required or expected of us what we were obligated to do and have not done, or who has been harmed by what we have done and might reasonably have required of us not to do it. (This is of course not to deny that shame often accompanies the complex reaction to things of which we judge ourselves to be guilty.)


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