Guilt and Shame

What constrains people’s behaviour when no one else is looking?

Both guilt and shame are feelings resulting from oneself having committed a bad act. But:

  • Shame arises from others knowing that one has committed that bad act, whereas
  • Guilt arises from internally knowing that one has committed that bad act.

Their opposites are:

  • to have high esteem – a good reputation, and
  • to have high self-esteem.


Although shame and guilt exist in all societies to some degree there is a stereotypical idea, originating from E. R. Dodds, that:

  • Oriental societies are ‘shame societies’ in which social order is maintained primarily through shame, and
  • Western societies are ‘guilt societies’ in which social order is maintained primarily through guilt.

But shame versus guilt discussions are muddied by there being different understandings of the difference between the two. I think this can largely be resolved by thinking of four categories rather than two. In my terminology, this gets described as one type of guilt and 3 types of shame:

  1. Public shame’: the painful feeling arising from others having observed the improper behaviour. (Embarrassment is the much weaker cousin of public)
  2. ‘Ultimate shame’: the painful feeling of arising from an all-seeing God having observed the improper behaviour.
  3. Self shame’: the painful feeling of a negative evaluation of oneself. The focus is on the defectiveness of the actor (the self).
  4. ‘True Guilt’: the painful feeling resulting from a belief that one has done something wrong. The focus is on a defectiveness of the act.


  • For some, the demarcation between ‘guilt’ and ‘shame’ separates 1 from 2, 3 and 4: it is that shame derives from other people being aware of the misdemeanour.
  • For some, the demarcation between ‘guilt’ and ‘shame’ separates 1 and 2 from 3 and 4: it is that guilt derives from oneself recognising that one has done wrong.
  • For some, the demarcation between ‘guilt’ and ‘shame’ separates 1, 2 and 3 from 4: it is the distinction between the actor and the act; the distinction between the guilty “I did something bad” and the shameful “I am bad”.

Regarding the extra shades of shame, the most significant demarcation between ‘guilt’ and ‘shame’ is that separating 1 from 2, 3 and 4. With this demarcation, ‘ultimate shame’ and ‘self-shame’ are referred to as ‘guilt’. This is how confusion arises.

Shame versus Guilt around the world

Morality and Self-Regulation

As has been proposed previously, the purpose of morality is to balance the wants of oneself against the sometimes conflicting wants of others for the general mutual benefit of the many individuals in a society. It is a benign means of social control.

Shame is the feeling that arises from other people knowing about one’s misdemeanours resulting in damage to one’s reputation. Improving reputations benefits individuals and the wider society, leading eventually to a culture of the presumption of trust.

But, in a pure shame culture, it is still OK to do something wrong:

as long as no one knows you have done it!

credit: Scott Adams

Ensuring proper moral conduct by having something always watching

…because this will not damage one’s reputation. The basic rule is:

Don’t do bad, or don’t get caught!

In contrast, guilt should promote better moral cooperative behaviour in that it makes people behave well

even when there is no one else watching.

The basic rule is:

Don’t do bad!

which is more obviously aligned to what we understand about morality. A guilt culture should accelerate the presumption of trust and attain a higher level of trust than a shame culture. It is like empathy in that it is not essential for a moral society, but it helps.

Guilt aligns the values of the self with those of society:

  • shame arises from a violation of cultural or social values, while
  • guilty feelings arise from violations of one’s internal values.


  • shame involves the feeling of disgust of others towards oneself, whereas
  • guilt involves the feeling of disgust of oneself towards oneself.

In short, as a way of maintaining social order,

  • self-regulation of individuals is preferable to external regulation;
  • that is: guilt is preferable to shame.

Neuro guilt and shame

Catholic Guilt and Protestant Shame

Our reputation with others is not significant to us for all other beings. We are not likely to be concerned about our reputation with one’s neighbour’s dog, for example. We generally only care about how we are seen by other people – and not all people – because there are repercussions for us for our transgressions.

And, for those that believe, there is also a very significant other – an all-seeing God– with very serious repercussions for us for our transgressions. For them, guilt is not known only to that individual. God knows too and He can punish the sinner in the afterlife. This is what I have termed ‘Ultimate Shame’.

If an individual publicly confesses their sins, their anxiety will be reduced even though they then suffer shame. Individuals would obviously prefer to be shamed before as few people as possible and for this knowledge not to spread beyond them. Confession to a single discrete priest manages this. ‘Catholic guilt’ becomes ‘Catholic shame’. Actually, Catholics trade ‘Ultimate Shame’ (supposed ‘guilt’) for something halfway between ‘Ultimate Shame’ and ‘Public Shame’ – a ‘Limited Shame’. The individual has acknowledged their wrong-doing, been forced to reflect upon it and compare it against the values of wider society. In recognising their wrong-doing, they have demonstrated that it was the act that was bad and not the actor.

Southern Europe is said to have a shame culture whereas their Northern cousins have more of a guilt culture. Southern Europeans are predominantly Catholic whereas Northern Europeans are predominantly Protestant. They trade their guilt for shame but the Protestants are stuck with guilt. In either case, even when there are no human witnesses, acts are not entirely private; it is still generally shame rather than guilt that is involved.

And shame does not require punishment. For example, I suspect that this is the case for the majority of those in Northern Europe who state they are Christian on census forms. This majority have no direct outward practice of their religion from one census to the next. For them, they have an un-theologized, un-analysed, un-formalized ‘personal God’ with whom they have a relationship than helps them. There is almost certainly a hope of an afterlife but no pretence of knowing – indeed, no effort applied to knowing more. But there is no punishment codified. Wrong-doings result in shame. Their personal God is an entity that holds them to account – God is an other.

Self Shame

Atheists do not have ‘Ultimate Shame’. A society of only atheists would seem to be a shame culture in which you really can do anything as long as no one finds about it, as there would be no damage to reputation.

The secularization of the West raises concerns from many that there will be a decline in moral standards as a result.

This may be true or it may be false, depending on evidence (something to be looked at in the future). But it is not a given. If individuals did feel bad about it, there could still be what I am calling ‘True Guilt’ – an intrinsic bad feeling about oneself which would motivate people away from ‘bad’ behaviour.

And even this secular guilt can still be a form of shame. We can be shamed before the ‘other within’ with whom we have our internal conversation. I call this ‘Self Shame’.  We can be brought up (conditioned) to have that ‘other within’ questioning us. At times, it can be our conscience. Shame, and the presumed moral standards that arise from ‘others knowing our wrong-doings’, is still possible without an omniscient being.

Act and Actor

But it is also possible that we can be brought up (conditioned) without an ‘other within’ questioner. I started off saying that:

  • Shame and high esteem arise from others knowing, whereas
  • Guilt and high self-esteem arises from a self-

but I have basically categorized everything as a form of shame, except for the absence of shame. Guilt does not feature.

One more distinction between shame and guilt was:

  1. For shame, the focus is on the defectiveness of the actor.
  2. For guilt, the focus is on a defectiveness of the act.

Dualist Deontology and Physicalist Virtue Ethics

As I have frequently contrasted previously:

  • Dualists (of the ‘substance’ type) believe that mind and matter are separate, whereas
  • Physicalists reconcile the two, believing that ‘mind’ (such as it exists) supervenes on the physical matter.

For dualists, mind is pure, untainted and unconstrained by the material and therefore could exist after the destruction of the material body.

  • The religious are almost always dualists,
  • and physicalists are almost always not religious.


  • To a dualist, our bodies might be very different but our ‘minds’ are essentially the same, capable of making right and wrong choices – and being judged (now, or later) equally. And it is the acts that are judged, not the actor. Having recognized a sin, a mind can change and act differently next time. The rightness or wrongness is in the act. This is in line with the ethical positions of Deontology and Consequentialism.
  • But to a physicalist, a bad act is causally a result of a bad actor. It could not have been otherwise. If I sinned – and recognized that I did – then there is something wrong with me – the biological me. Rightness or wrongness is embedded in the actor and the actor cannot easily change. This is in line with the ethical position of Virtue Ethics.

In my terminology, the distinction between guilt and self-shame is that the focus is on the actor in the former and on the act with the latter. Thus:

  • Guilt is associated with dualism and act-based ethical positions.
  • Self-shame is associated with physicalism and virtue ethics.


This was the 18th part of the ‘From Neural Is to Moral Ought’ series. It built upon a predecessor part, ‘Trust’, in which social institutions evolve so that agents (rationally) self-regulate their behaviour. Here I have considered the emotions (bad feelings) of guilt and shame. (It is similarly parenthetical to the series in that it is not ‘neuro’ at all, but the well-worn dualism-versus-physicalism dichotomy is considered again.)

Where I am going with this:

  • In a physicalist worldview with virtue ethics, it is the actor that is bad. Bad acts cannot just be confessed away. This is shame, and shame can be a very destructive inability to change.
  • Guilt comes with heightened anxiety of some form such as repression or self-punishment. But shame can also be very destructive.
  • A physicalist worldview can also reduce personal responsibility – ‘my brain made me do it’.
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