DevInContext The Case For Personal Growth


The Responsibility Ethic, Part 3: Guilt And Morality


This post continues my discussion of what I've called the "responsibility ethic" in personal development -- the idea that it's best to see ourselves as responsible for our circumstances in life, as opposed to seeing our situation as the product of chance or forces beyond our control.

In my last post, I noted that many personal growth teachers who advocate the responsibility ethic draw a distinction between taking responsibility for our life situation and blaming ourselves for it.  Taking responsibility is healthy, they say, but "beating yourself up" is not.

I also observed that critics of personal growth often object to this distinction, arguing that our tendency to "beat ourselves up" is actually what keeps us behaving morally.  In other words, it's not enough just to know what's right and wrong.  You won't act morally unless you fear that, if you don't, you'll be wracked with guilt.  Thus, if human beings lost their capacity for self-blame, society would descend into violent anarchy.

A Brief Reality Check

First off, I think it's important to keep in mind that this argument is purely theoretical.  I don't know of any critic who has presented solid evidence that personal growth teachings are actually turning people into violent psychopaths.  Nobody has shown that, say, serial killers are statistically more likely to have read I'm OK, You're OK than the average person.  What the critics claim is that if, hypothetically, people took the "responsibility vs. blame" distinction to its logical extent, people would stop behaving morally and we'd all be in trouble.

Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that the critics are right -- that if people fully accepted the idea that we shouldn't punish ourselves for the past, and they fully understood the logical implications of that idea, they'd start murdering and stealing with wild abandon.  Even if this is true, that doesn't necessarily mean the responsibility vs. blame distinction is a menace to society.  That would only be true if we had reason to believe that people, in practice, are taking, or will take, that distinction to its logical extent.

Is there reason to believe this?  Like I said, there's no conclusive evidence one way or the other, but I think a few observations are worth making.

First, consider the audience. Admittedly, given the vastness of the personal growth field, it would be difficult to come up with a profile of the "average personal development consumer."  But we do know that the majority of self-help book sales are made to women.  I hope it isn't unforgivably sexist of me to point this out, but men commit most recorded violent crimes (and, in fact, most crimes of any stripe).  Notably, in the U.S. in 2008, men committed 90% of murders where the killer's gender was known.

If personal growth teachings really do turn people into miscreants, shouldn't we expect to see more criminality among women, who are self-help books' biggest consumers?  Or, to put the point differently, perhaps we can all rest easier knowing that women, who appear to have a lower propensity for violence, are largely the ones buying these books.  But if there's ever an upsurge in male self-help book consumption, I guess, we'd all better stock up on ammo and canned goods and hunker down for the apocalypse.

Second, consider the teachings. As we saw, the critics' argument is that, if people took the responsibility vs. blame distinction to its logical extent, they would behave destructively.  If this is so, personal growth teachers certainly aren't encouraging their audiences to make that logical leap.  You know the typical goals of personal development:  to help you make money, have fulfilling relationships, develop inner peace, and so on.  We don't often see books, CDs or seminars about "Guilt-Free Murder," "Self-Esteem For Child Abusers," or "Loving Your Inner Car Thief."

I don't know for a fact, but I'll make the educated guess that consumers of self-development products and services, by and large, aren't even thinking about the abstract philosophical implications of the ideas they're learning.  They have specific, practical objectives, and they're interested in personal growth only insofar as its perspectives and techniques help them get where they want to go.

Is Self-Blame Needed For Morality?

We've seen that, even if we assume in the abstract that letting go of self-blame means eliminating morality, it doesn't follow that personal growth teachers who talk about releasing guilt are, here in the real world, promoting immoral behavior.  Now, let's return to the original question:  if we lost our tendency to "beat ourselves up" over the past, would we lose any incentive to act morally?  Would the proverbial dogs and cats start living together?

To some, it's obvious:  a person who doesn't feel guilt (which, I think, is another term for self-blame) is, in psychological terms, a psychopath, and therefore a danger to society.  As we saw earlier, Wendy Kaminer argues as much in I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional, writing that "there's a name for people who lack guilt and shame:  sociopaths."  However, as philosopher Gilbert Harman points out, that's not what psychologists actually think.  Psychologists see the lack of guilt feelings as only one of several defining characteristics of psychopaths -- the others include antisocial behaviors like killing or stealing, a lack of empathy, and so on.

In other words, the fact that someone is guilt-free doesn't necessarily make them a psychopath, just as the fact that my car has an engine doesn't necessarily make it a Lamborghini.  For all the psychologists know, there may be many people out there who don't suffer over the past and nonetheless behave morally.

What's more, clearly the threat of self-punishment isn't the only reason people refrain from antisocial behavior.  Many of us, I suspect, don't even form the desire to harm others in the first place.  I don't know about you, but as I go through my day, I don't usually find myself thinking "you know, it'd be great fun to kill that person, but I'd just feel so guilty if I did."  I also suspect that many of us abstain from hurting others because we care about them, and want to see them stay well.  And, at the very least, surely the fear of getting caught and punished by others -- which is distinct from the fear of self-punishment -- deters some people from criminal activity.

My point is that I think there's reason to question the notion that, if people let go of their tendency to self-blame, widespread chaos would ensue.  Hopefully, this will give some solace to people locked in a painful cycle of self-flagellation.

Next up:  Is the responsibility ethic anti-compassion?

Other Posts In This Series:

Comments (11) Trackbacks (3)
  1. I wrestle with my feelings of being unworthy a great deal because of my Dyscalcula. At this point I feel guilty about not bringing in funds to our household. My feelings of blame are so big, I just cashed out my retirement fund to pay the bills so we could go on…..Why did I not understand that the recession was coming, that other folks put aside a years worth of income not just 6 months…I am beating myself up over not understanding or knowing how to do this and no having a “real” job….
    This is a very personal response for me to this post….but I see it in other people who have been labeled when young….
    I also try to think of my self as smart to have been able to save $15,000 in a retirement account on my tiny income – now I start again to save….
    but those feelings still roll around and around… I don’t think I would steal a car or kill anyone, but those feelings do roll around..
    Good writing and pull together…
    I think self-help books often encourage women not even to try….

  2. Hi Patricia — it sounds like you’re going through a lot of suffering and self-blame, and it’s around your belief that you should have foreseen what was going to happen to you financially. I imagine I’d feel that way too if I put the burden on myself to anticipate every problem that might come up. I hope there is some way you can let go of that burden and the whole idea that you’re supposed to know everything.

  3. Thank you for your nice reply Chris, I am seeing that I am not alone in this experience – I was with 3 women this morning all blaming themselves for their economic troubles…it’s just that we have no incoming work right now…and I am too ill to pick up cleaning houses or childcare etc…

    I think this is a good series, and I am really reading it with a personal perspective, which may not be so helpful your message, but I think this issue is big….and worth exploring for many

  4. Chris,
    Again you have done an excellent job with this thought. I am with you in the thought that removing self blame would not create and does not create a rise in crime. I wonder about the murder statistic and that women are only committing 10% of known murders. I wonder if the operative word is “known”. Could it be that women who murder are more clever and less apt to get caught, ha. No probably not, just a thought.

  5. Hi Mark — thanks for the appreciation. As I was writing this I started noticing how many areas of my own life where I operated on the assumption that “if I don’t beat myself up, I am bad or immoral,” and letting go of that is always liberating for me. As for your comment on the crime statistic, I think it’s worth letting the FBI know just in case. :)

  6. Dear Chris’ new blog, hello!!

    I kick self-blame to the proverbial curb.

    But I do take responsibility for everything I do or do not do, that brings me closer to where I want to be, or for treating others in ways I know are not from a place of love.

    Actually I am exactly where I want to be in Life!! Really.

    I perhaps used to fear self-punishment. Then I designed my life to not allow for situations that did not bring good things for me — as you seem to have done in your life.

    Happiness really is a choice.

    P.S. Lamborghini’s are ‘way over rated. I’ll take my little Honda any day!


  7. Hi Jannie — it’s inspiring to hear from someone who’s exactly where they want to be — I know the moments when I recognize that for myself are so liberating. I agree about Lamborghinis too — I mean, you have to push the car door upward to get out — who wants to deal with that? And then it looks like a bat-wing or something when it’s open.

  8. Hi Chris,

    Again, a lot of ideas to chew on. :)

    I would like to comment on a single issue: Personal growth writers don’t have to state or imply logical conclusions. Logical conclusions result naturally, without the need for guidance or direction.

    You don’t need to know the philosophical implications of selflessness to feel guilty when you commit a selfish act. If you consistently live by an idea, it will express itself naturally in different aspects of your life.

    I believe the “internal locus of control” is healthy, provided we take responsibility only for the things we can change. Taking responsibility for what happens to us is unhealthy and *may* lead to feelings of frustration and a sense of incompetence (there are too many factors that come into play for us to say that A will always lead to B).

    Your series is important in defending the responsibility ethic, but we also need to acknowledge when we stretch the ethic beyond its reasonable extent.

    As always, thank you for an engaging post. :)

  9. Hi Haider — I’m glad you enjoyed the post. It may be true that people generally understand, and that their behaviors are shaped by, the logical implications of what they learn — I don’t mean to rule that out.

    But if we assume that, I think we also need to accept that “I can kill and steal from whoever I want” isn’t a logical consequence of letting go of self-blame. The reason is that, if the conclusion that “I can kill and steal at will” did follow from getting rid of guilt, we would expect personal growth literature, seminars and so on to be turning people into violent criminals. However, like I say in the article, that doesn’t seem to be the case.

    On the issue of the responsibility ethic’s limits, perhaps we can say this: the responsibility ethic is resourceful when it comes to activities and areas of life that personal growth tends to address. It’s resourceful for me to believe I am responsible for my situation in the area of my finances, for instance, or my personal relationships. But it would not serve me to take the responsibility ethic into realms personal development does not deal with — for me to believe, for instance, that I am responsible for the weather, earthquakes or flu epidemics.

  10. Hi Chris,

    A massive apology for the long absence.

    I strongly agree with the last paragraph of your last comment, and believe it to be a necessary point to make when determining the parameters of our responsibility.

    I haven’t read the rest of your post series (yet), but look forward to reading them soon!

  11. Hi Haider — I’ve had a long absence myself, but I plan to break the silence within the next few days. I’m looking forward to your feedback on the other posts.

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