That Time I Felt Guilty For Stealing My Own Car: The (Sometimes) Failure of Guilt (and its Absence)

I’m not sure how exactly, but the other day I had been sitting in the driver’s seat of my car, having just parked it and checked my phone for text messages, when somehow I set off the car alarm. Much more bizarre, however, was that I instantly felt guilty for stealing the car itself. Let me repeat that:

I felt guilty for stealing my own car!

The same thing happens whenever I’m exiting, say, a bookstore with a book I just purchased, and somehow the store’s anti-theft alarm chimes loudly.

Apparently juries aren’t the only ones capable of making mistakes in determining whether someone is a thief.

The history of Civilization is a junkyard cluttered with all manner of obsolete fake crimes for which human beings have both felt genuine guilt and for which they’ve been punished in every conceivable manner, from the public and humiliating scolding of an employee to being burned alive at the stake for witchcraft.

On the other hand, an absence of guilty feelings has its own problems as well. The following chilling words, spoken by serial-killer Ted Bundy, should be studied by anyone aspiring to lead a totally guilt-free life:

“Guilt? It’s this mechanism we use to control people. It’s an illusion. It’s a kind of social control mechanism — and it’s very unhealthy. It does terrible things to our bodies. And there are much better ways to control our behavior than…guilt.”

— Serial Killer Ted Bundy[1]

In consideration of the above, I’m inclined to conclude that contrary to Bundy’s own maleficent advice, at least some guilt is healthy and should be acknowledged and valued, if for no other reason than as a sort of safety check on one’s behavior — a spontaneous alert from the more primitive centers of the brain to tread carefully to ensure the safety of others. I’m thinking that guilt should be viewed as a valued source of information regarding the moral status of our own actions, but it should rarely be treated like an infallible source of such information. However guilty I felt for doing so, in no sense whatsoever did I try to steal my own car!

As I see it (for now, and until I encounter the sort of evidence that could change my mind) Guilt should be viewed as an input to careful, conscientious thinking, not an output of it (which would have to be some sort of action, I believe, not merely a feeling or emotion), and guilt should surely not be used as a substitute for one’s real Conscience, which I believe is surely something else entirely.

What do you think?


[1]Cited in Baumeister’s Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty, pg. 305

Image Credit: iStock

 

2 Comments

  1. I struggle with guilt. The way I grew up, the expectations placed on me…I was always disappointing. Then, after having children, I learned to experience a whole new level of guilt. All the times I was a less-than-perfect parent, not having enough money to buy that cool toy they couldn’t live without… Everything is my fault. Famine, global warming…

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

    1. Thanks for owning it, at least. I’ll let the President know he can add you to his list of scapegoats.

      Seriously, though, yeah, nothing like the guilt of parenthood. The other day my six-year-old boy told me that his mother is a much, much better parent than I am. Ouch. And we were on our way to a Lego convention! I mean, dang, what’s a dad got to do? LEGO CONVENTION!!!

      LOL

      Like

      Reply

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