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


Autistic until Proven Guilty: More Good Reasons to Blame Autism for Everything

In addition to the Six Good Reasons to Blame Autism for All Your Problems that I posted a few days ago, we might add a seventh, which is that doing so is a natural, consistent, and thoroughly reasonable adaptation to the domain of personal ethics of certain cornerstone legal principles enshrined in the U.S. Justice System and even in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In particular, it is essentially an adaptation of the well-known Presumption of Innocence principle that requires guilt to be proven instead of innocence, but it is also an adaptation of the principle that a witness cannot be compelled to give testimony that is self-incriminating.

With respect to the current context, I think it’s imperative to recognize that quite to the contrary of pop-culture exhortations to “trust your gut”, feelings in general are often terrible representations of reality. What could be more common than irrational anxiety or fear, especially for autistic people? As another example, anger can make us feel powerful, even as it renders us inflexible, impulsive, and blind to relevant information (i.e. contextually stupid). And of course, who hasn’t fallen madly in love with someone who can only reciprocate with boredom?

In particular, pro-social feelings like guilt, shame, regret, remorse, and embarrassment are notoriously misleading. Human beings on either end of a given accusation — both accuser and accused — are vulnerable to what might aptly be referred to as delusions of culpability. Of course, delusions of innocence are also possible, and so clearly we should not pretend to be sociopaths, who themselves have a dangerously misleading lack of such pro-social emotions. Feelings aren’t always wrong either, and should never be denied or ignored.

But I think especially when we feel guilty or ashamed, for example, we absolutely should demand that our feelings be confirmed by the facts. Even a quick study of history and current events shows that it is very easy to manipulate someone into feeling guilty or ashamed for all kinds of ridiculous pseudo-crimes — homosexuality, masturbation, witchcraft, being black, Jewish, etc. Once our feelings of shame or guilt have passed the test of being grounded in fact, I think then and only then should we agree to accept appropriate personal responsibility for the events, actions, or consequences in question. I think a firm commitment to “autism made me do it!”, at least initially, is an excellent way to ensure such an outcome.

Yup. Autistic until proven guilty. That’s my new credo — for now at least, and until I encounter the sort of evidence that could change my mind.

And if you think you may have some of that kind of evidence, or any other thoughts on the above, please let me know in a comment below!








Does This Atheist Really Believe In Heaven?


Image found here.

I’m an atheist, by the way — for now at least, and until I encounter the sort of evidence that might change my mind. So if you ever catch me sitting around doing absolutely nothing, I assure you there’s absolutely no need to panic: that’s just me practicing my religion¹.

But I recently discovered² that even though I am an atheist, I do actually believe in Heaven. Now, please, don’t get too excited about this. I assure you there’s absolutely nothing trippy or paradoxical or even especially interesting about the fact that I believe we all — yes, truly all of us; even the worst of us (Hitler, Stalin, Donald Trump³) — go to Heaven when we die.

It’s no big deal, really, because all I mean by this is that I believe that only living things can suffer; and that inanimate things like rocks, coffee cups, and corpses don’t have any experience at all, but in particular and most wonderfully they do not suffer.

And to my view, that is really all anybody can rationally expect from Heaven.

Fortunately, it’s also all that any of us actually needs, I think.

¹ This is only partly a joke. I do practice meditation, which many consider to be a “spiritual practice”, and which is arguably a euphemism for “sitting around doing absolutely nothing”.

² My mother passed away a few weeks ago, after a decades long struggle against the Parkinson’s Disease that slowly — oh so excruciatingly slowly — transformed her into a meat statue. It was awful to watch, and one of the most tragically heroic events I’ve ever personally witnessed. After her passing, I was nervous about telling my six-year-old twins, and it took me a good 10 days to work up the courage. In the end, my wife and I decided we would tell them that she had died and gone to Heaven, and I reconciled this explanation with my atheism in the way described above. It was a little weird, at first, but I am glad we did it.

³ Ha ha, just kidding. Sorry, couldn’t pass that one up. Although I do think His Donaldness is an epic pig of a human being, and it really shouldn’t surprise anybody in the least if he does eventually haul off and commit some sort of mass atrocity like Hitler and Stalin did — and really for no better reason than because the Twitter server had an outage and he didn’t know what else to do with himself at 2 am — so far Mr. T-Rump has managed to keep his actual body count to a level far below monstrous. But he’s only been in office for less than a year, so maybe he will eventually earn his place among the real monsters of History.

Faking It: Is This The Real Stigma of Psychiatric Disability?

Boy crossing fingers behind his back in front of dad.

Image Credit: Shutterstock

It is commonly believed that psychiatric disabilities carry a stigma. And I’m not sure about anybody else at this point, but I know that at least I have always assumed that this stigma had something to do with being weak — essentially a weakness of character, or virtue — something about being unreliable, undisciplined, infantile, etc.

But following certain uncomfortable encounters I’ve had in recent months, it has become increasingly apparent to me that this mental illness stigma may actually be a lot more specific than that. I have come to strongly suspect that this stigma may be really and really mostly about malingering — the unscrupulous practice of faking or exaggerating an impairment of some sort, in order to exploit the sympathy, compassion, guilt, etc. of others for selfish gain.

To be clear, at this point for me this is really just a strong suspicion — more opinion than fact, or maybe a conjecture, or hypothesis — that I seem to find much more plausible than its competitors. I think it’s critical we not forget that — primarily because I also believe that one of the most damaging mistakes a person can make is to confuse an hypothesis for established fact, a merely plausible idea for one that is actually true. And also because I strongly suspect that this very mistake is what’s actually causing the stigma in the first place! I think it would be tragically ironic to try to solve the problem of the stigma that burdens those with psychiatric disabilities with the very sort of foolishness that may be causing it.

So, again, I currently believe (until I encounter the sort of evidence that could change my mind about it) that this mental health stigma may be really and mostly about malingering.

What about you?

Skepticism, Knowledge and Malingering

Man looking skeptical

Image found here.

Never confuse skepticism for knowledge. If I claim to have a disability and you are skeptical of that claim, that does not somehow magically imply that I am faking or exaggerating something.

Of course your skepticism is entirely rational and legitimate, and kudos for that. But simple skepticism is not evidence of anything other than some brain’s rational hunger for actual evidence. If you think otherwise you are badly confused. And especially if you happen to work as a disability-insurance claims investigator, then you are dangerously confused and shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near such an insurance claim.

Skepticism is just a first step toward actual knowledge, and a refusal to take the next one — to scrutinize the real evidence — is the most reckless kind of foolery.

We Need To Stop Calling Them “Invisible” Disabilities

I’ve noticed that it’s common to say things like “he has a so-called ‘invisible’ disability” with the scare quotes around disability and the phrase so-called as a qualifier. I’m assuming this is done to signal the speaker or writer’s understanding that there’s really nothing about an actual disability that is invisible, especially to the person struggling to cope with it.

But I think we need to up our game a bit with this business of disclaiming the idea that a disability can be invisible. I’m thinking we need to either quit using the expression at all, or brazenly interrupt the conversation in order to pontificate on the real problem, which is that the person with the disability is being judged as unreliable in some sense.

To my view, the problem with this class of disabilities is not at all that they are invisible in some way, but that they are mostly visible to just one person, and that person is just assumed for some reason to be an unreliable witness. The issue at hand is one of patient credibility, not disability “invisibility”.

Now, this is actually not to say that all patients should be simply believed without question. I could say a lot more about that and plan to in a future post, but for now I’ll just clarify that what I’m mainly asserting in this post is that if the problem of these so-called “invisible” disabilities is ever to be solved, it must first be properly understood, and in this case that means recognizing that the core issue is really one of witness credibility or reliability.

As I see it — for now, and until I encounter the sort of evidence that might help me change my mind — the “invisibility” thing is just a distraction.

Skepticism as Curiosity

Little boy looking at the ground through a magnifying glass

Image found here.

Although I see myself as a skeptic, I’ve never liked that term. It always has a taint of disparagement, and I always feel like I need to explain it, or make jokes like “Don’t worry, it doesn’t seem to be very contagious.” It often seems to be used like a synonym for disagreeable, or party-pooperstuffy, stodgy, closed-minded, old coot, etc.

For me, skepticism is quite the opposite of all that. To my view the word skepticism is more like a synonym for curiosity — an urge to push past my current knowledge and understanding of the world. As I see it, to be a skeptic is nothing like being closed minded. On the contrary, it means to open one’s mind to alternatives, to free oneself from excessively rigid or mindless ideological over-commitments, and to stubbornly refuse to clutter up one’s own nervous system with a tangle of complicated, contradictory, and unnecessary opinions — what we might call belief pollution.

But that doesn’t mean I have no beliefs or opinions, of course. In fact, I seem to have so many of these that I’ve even created this blog as a place to document them. But my blog isn’t just a place for me to put my opinions. As I experience it, writing is actually a better way to think, and the process of a writing a blog post is also the process of formulating, scrutinizing, testing, reformulating, re-scrutinizing, revising, and in general indulging my often relentless curiosity regarding the way my own mind works.

In this way I am skeptical of even my own beliefs.