2 minute read


The Sense Of Guilt

What is the sense of guilt, and how is it related, if at all, to law? Guilt is a human sentiment that manifests itself in our inhibition from doing what we believe to be wrong and in our feeling guilty when we do what we believe to be wrong. Thus, it operates both in a forward-and a backward-looking manner. In this respect it resembles conscience, which "doth make cowards of us all" and which, when we disobey its dictates, makes us conscience-stricken. Guilt is the feeling most closely connected with wrongdoing, taking as its object belief in wrongdoing. What, more precisely, is it to feel guilt?

A person who feels guilt holds certain beliefs and is disposed to feel and act in certain specific ways. First, one is attached to avoiding wrong, and the mere fact that one has done wrong causes a feeling of pain. Second, just as there is a special satisfaction connected with thinking of oneself as the creator of what is valuable, so there is a special dissatisfaction that derives from the realization that one has been responsible for wrongdoing. This is partly because one sees oneself as a destroyer of value. Third, in feeling guilt one turns on oneself the criticism and hostility that, if another had acted in the same way, would have been directed at that person. Fourth, there is a sense of unease caused by one's feeling alienated from those to whom one is attached. Finally, the sense of unpleasantness associated with guilt is connected with carrying a burden from which one longs to be relieved. One feels obliged to confess, to make amends, to repair, and to restore. A further sense of unpleasantness is caused by one's resistance to do these things, owing to fear and perhaps pride, and the unease experienced until they are done.

How, if at all, is the human disposition to feel guilt related to the legal practice, described above? Individuals are often adjudged guilty and do not feel guilt. They may believe themselves innocent of the charge; they may believe that, although legally wrong, what they did was morally obligatory; or they may not have the requisite degree of internalization with regard to the law generally or to a particular law. Although all this is possible and no doubt even common, vulnerability to the feeling of guilt may be connected with the legal practice embodying the concept of guilt. For, as has been claimed, among the practice's presuppositions is a general acceptance of the authority of society's norms and of the institutions applying them. This seems to imply that individuals generally are liable, when violating the norms, to having their sense of guilt activated. If it were otherwise, condemnation and punishment would no longer have the significance that they do.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawGuilt - Introduction, The Verdict Of Guilt, Factual Legal Guilt, Moral And Legal Guilt, The Sense Of Guilt