An Essay on Guilt and Traffic Lights
When overwhelmed by a sensation of guilt, people say and do strange things. I have never realized this fully until it happened to myself. Guilt is a powerful thing, more powerful than hate and in my opinion even more powerful than love. In a way it is that one thing that lies between the two of them. Guilt is based on a sense of obligation that contradicts with our wishes and actions. It is not the same as regret; you can feel guilty yet not really regret your decisions. The word that fits in my opinion best is “compunction”. Derived from the Latin “compungere”, which means, “to prick sharply”, it describes very well the sensation one has when feeling guilty.
Even though it doesn’t seem so, guilt can be seen apart from common norms and values, apart from ethics. In fact it doesn’t even have something to do with right and wrong. As I already mentioned; it is possible to feel you have done the “right” thing and still feel guilty. Guilt is only connected to obligation. Moral, emotional obligation.
Life, and especially life in a society like ours, is a game of giving and taking. There is a whole network of written and unwritten rules for this trade. The cost of a smile, the value of a favor, the price of love and the bills for affection… We don’t see this. We don’t see human relationships that way; despite our good knowledge of economics we refuse to accept that the principles that govern the market may also govern human interaction. It isn’t even so strange we see these patterns recur in economics; after all the market itself is governed by human interactions as well.
Let us try to perceive society as a complex market, managed by a tremendously complicated rulebook. The rules in this book could be divided in categories. As I see it, there are macro-rules and micro-rules. Macro-rules are in a way characteristic attributes of society itself. A good example of those is the road code. Regulations, traffic lights, traffic signs… It’s not you who decided red means stop and green means go. It’s not me and it isn’t your neighbor. It’s not even the government. It is basically a system that spread after being invented, and now it is society as a whole that keeps it working. It is one of those strange things that make me want to compare society with a body: cells that work together to form something utterly complex, without being aware of this complexity. All they do is obey a small set of simple rules, like drivers that stop for a red light and start for a green.
Micro-rules are different. They are imposed by individuals on individuals, within the network of macro-rules a society is using. Micro-rules have to do with social and emotional obligation. You give something; you get something in return, and vice versa. You are bound to others by an unwritten contract. There is no punishment for not paying. No “real” punishment at least. You won’t go to jail, you won’t get a fine, you won’t be banished or anything. You are free to break the contract. At times the terms of different “contracts” you have interfere with each other, even interfere with macro-rules, and you will be obliged to make a choice. Whether this choice is “right” or “wrong” doesn’t really matter. You always wrong someone, no matter what you do. Even though it is possible you don’t regret a decision at all, you feel the guilt. A sharp prick. Compunction.
In my idea, guilt is the punishment for breaking the micro-rule contract you had with someone. I spoke of contracts where others might have spoken of attachments, relationships or emotional ties… Every relationship is a contract, an obligation. The people we acquaint with indenture us, and if we’re doing it right, they are indentured by us.
The person you “wronged” doesn’t even have to experience an inconvenience of some sort for you to feel guilty. He doesn’t even have to know you broke the contract! It is enough that you know your actions violated the terms of the contract…
The mechanism of guilt is of fascinating effectiveness. There are so many situations in which the contract isn’t entirely equal; one party could easily take advantage of the other. That this doesn’t seem to happen all the time at a scale that makes living together impossible is –if you ask me- for a big part on the account of guilt feeling. It seems so simple: provide an unpleasant sensation when an emotional contract is broken, to prevent people from breaking out of badly constructed contracts or making use of loopholes and legal voids in them. Of course, since opportunism is in the human nature, even guilt can’t avoid a certain amount of these events from happening. Yet for the bigger part it seems to work. A simple thing makes such a big difference… Guilt is the traffic light of human interaction…