In the contemporary society one of the factors behind successful coexistence of individuals is conformity to ethical behavior. Currently the society seems to have lost the importance of the basic principles of humanity. The televisions, newspapers, radio and social media are always reporting about incidents of violence, injustice and corruption across different parts of the globe. These vices indicate the lack of conformity to ethical behaviors. Ethical behavior can be defined as the act of practicing what society deems as ‘right’ or ‘good’, as opposed to practicing what society deems as ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’. Usually conforming to ethical behavior is acting in a manner which is consistent to what both an individual and the society believe to be good values. Some of the moral principles, which guide ethical behavior, include fairness, dignity of humanity, honesty, equality, empathy, upholding human rights and respecting diversity of other people.
Ethical behavior is all about making choices. This entails making a choice to do the right thing no matter the situation. I believe that an individual’s childhood greatly determines one’s ethical behavior. Specifically in the attitude towards education, which an individual receives concerning what is ethically right and what is ethically wrong, before he/she attains the age of self-differentiating between the two concepts. It is hard to teach a mature individual how to behave ethically because the fundamental doctrines which govern his/her life are already ingrained in his/her personality. Nevertheless, ethical behavior can be motivated among individuals through emotions. Certain emotions have been seen to motivate individuals to behave ethically, while others have been seen to instigate individuals to behave unethically. Guilt is necessary in motivating ethical behavior among individuals, but the feeling of shame does not motivate individuals to behave ethically.
Over the years people have been using the terms ‘guilt’ and ‘shame’ interchangeably. However, from a psychological perspective, guilt is different from shame. According to Burgo, guilt is the negative feeling we have towards a certain act, while shame is the direct feeling on self after carrying out a given act or behaving in a specific manner. Usually, shame is associated with painful feelings and it results from guilty feelings. Guilt is a common feeling among individuals. Guilt can be described as “a bothered conscience”. When somebody commits an act, which results into regret, these regret feelings can be termed as guilt. Barker explains that there are two types of guilt: true guilt and false guilt. True guilt occurs when one feels ashamed, embarrassed and unworthy after carrying out a certain action. Contrary, false guilt is the feeling of regret after occurrence of an event(s), which an individual is not responsible for. Barker refers to false guilt as unproductive and detrimental in motivating ethical behavior.
Shame is usually a direct result of guilt. A good illustration of the interrelatedness of guilt and shame is something I once did. One day during my junior school’s end-of-year party, I said something hurtful to a group of my former classmates. At first, I intended to hurt my classmates. Afterwards, I felt very guilty because they were all hurt by my remarks. Out of guilt, I started feeling ashamed with myself because I never imagined I would do something like that, especially against my classmates. From the illustration, it is clear that guilt arose out of my bad remarks to my classmates, while shame arose because of the reaction towards myself, which was instigated by the guilt feelings.
Both guilt and shame play a vital role in shaping our perceptions of self and our behaviors toward other people. However, due to the differences between guilt and shame our perceptions of self and our behaviors toward others occur differently as we respond to each of the emotions. Guilt, as earlier mentioned, occurs when somebody does something. For guilt to occur, the action undertaken must be wrong, otherwise, if the action undertaken is right, then guilt does not occur. Since ethical behavior is associated with doing what an individual, as well as the entire society, deems to be right; then guilt occurs when an individual does something, which he/she and/or the society deems to be wrong or bad (unethical behavior).
I believe that feelings of guilt tend to reduce positive response towards one’s actions. This is because when one is feeling guilty, the feeling of guilt usually accompanies questions such as ‘why did I do what I did?’ or ‘what if I did something else apart from what I did?’ Such questions tend to direct an individual towards amending the damage already done or to replace a negative action with a positive action. Barker explains that guilt is closely linked with cognitive dissonance. Barker states that individuals usually hold certain beliefs concerning what is right and what is wrong, and what is moral and immoral. Both beliefs are held from individual’s point of view, as well as societal point of view. Therefore, when an individual undertakes something, which from his/her personal point of view, or from the societal point of view is deemed to be wrong or immoral, cognitive dissonance causes such an individual to feel guilty, and then an individual is compelled to seek what is right or moral and fix the negative action.
I tend to agree with Barker’s observations. Referring to the previous illustration of interrelatedness of guilt and shame, I remember I tried to fix my wrong actions. I have always believed that it is wrong to say hurtful words to other people or to abuse other people even if they wronged me. After I made the hurtful remarks to my classmates, I immediately remembered what I had believed in for a long time. This made me start feeling guilty. The guilt was too much to an extent that before the end of the party I wrote an apology message on a piece of paper and passed it round to my classmates. At the end of the party I requested them to remain behind for a few minutes and I apologized to all them aloud. Therefore, it is true that guilt motivates ethical behavior, since “it helps in maintaining the standards of right and wrong in individuals and the society as a whole”.
On the other hand, occurrence of shame results into escalation of unethical behavior. This is because shame tends to emphasize on the negative aspects of self. Shame is deeply focused than guilt. When shame occurs, an individual starts to feel bad about him/her self, rather than the action, which has been undertaken. Usually shameful feelings towards oneself result into development of inward-turning behaviors. Inward-turning behaviors are those behaviors, which make an individual to withdraw from engaging in social interactions. Many individuals prefer to stay on their own when feeling ashamed, while others tend to hide their faces when in presence of other people. This usually occurs because an ashamed individual tends to think that everybody surrounding him/her is aware of the wrong/bad actions, which he/she undertook. Therefore, instead of allowing an individual to correct the wrong/bad act, shame makes an individual to develop more hurt feelings towards self. As a result, an individual may commit an even dire action as he/she tries to overcome the shameful feelings.
Indeed, due to shame many people who seclude themselves from societal interactions are said to result into aggressive, retaliatory and defensive behaviors. It is obvious that such behaviors are not deemed right in the society, therefore, they are unethical. Moreover, Barker says that, shame results into development of behaviors which are not constructive in motivating ethical behavior. Some of these behaviors include attacking other people, diverting blame, seeking perfection and self-sacrificing. Some people tend to attack others (usually through hitting) as an attempt to feel good about their shame. By hitting another person, an ashamed person thinks that he/she has been lifted up, by bringing the other person down. This is only short-lived. After a short period of time the feelings of shame come back again. In fact, the feelings become more and more strengthened as the individual continues to commit bad/wrong acts. Therefore, instead of motivating an individual to behave ethically, shame makes an individual to behave unethically.
Other people attempt to cover their wrong/bad acts by seeking perfection. Normally, the process of seeking perfection does not succeed, causing even more behavioral problems to an individual due to frustration. In other cases individuals try to place blames for their wrong/bad acts on other people as they try to avoid shame. Placing blame on other people for things that they have not done is morally wrong. Therefore, instead of finding a solution to the problem at hand, an individual ends up adding more and more problems, hence strengthening shameful feelings. Sometimes withdrawal from social interactions results into development of lack of feelings towards wrong/bad acts. Consequently, an individual can commit a series of wrongful deeds without feeling guilty or ashamed of the acts. It is clear that shame does not motivate individuals towards behaving ethically; instead, it provides only a short-term relief from shameful feelings and in the long-term results into worse behaviors. Therefore, guilt is a better guide to morality than shame.
In my own opinion, I believe that the society should use guilt to encourage ethical behaviors among the citizens. This is because it causes positive changes in the way people behave. Barker refers to guilt as a mobilization element towards forcing people to recognize some of the bad things they say or commit. This is actually true since we have seen people and societies refrain from behaving negatively after they have been made to feel guilty of their acts. A very good illustration is Martin Luther’s efforts towards making segregation of African American illegal in the United States. Martin Luther King mobilized the whites to feel guilty towards how they were treating the blacks in America. He achieved this by making it clear that the segregation of blacks from whites was not in line in what Americans referred to as freedom for, and equality of all human beings. Martin Luther King undertook national wide campaigns, emphasizing on his point about freedom and equality of all people. As a result, collective guilt was built all over America and racial segregation was made illegal in the United States of America. The case of Martin Luther provides a very good illustration of how the society can utilize guilt to guide its people towards behaving ethically.
A personal evaluation indicates that I attempt to cultivate a sense of guilt as opposed to a sense of shame. From the illustration earlier mentioned, it is clear that even though I felt ashamed for hurting my classmates, I did not dwell of the shameful feelings. Instead, I capitalized on the guilt feelings and this is what enabled me to fix my wrong actions. Therefore, we should always avoid letting shameful feelings take control of our emotions after we have done something wrong. Alternatively, we should only allow ourselves to feel guilty for our wrong deeds, so that we can be able to make the necessary corrections. Indeed, guilt is more important in motivating ethical behavior than shame.