Shame and Guilt

“A passer-by cannot be guilty of failure to try to prevent a lynching.”

Pg 181 – They Thought They Were Free
Shame is a state of being, guilt a juridical fact. A passer-by cannot be guilty of failure to try to prevent a lynching. He can only be ashamed of not having done so.

I thought this quote nicely illustrated the differences between moral/immoral actions and legal/illegal actions.  All too often the assumption of “if something is legal then it’s moral, if it’s illegal then immoral” captures people.  If asked directly, they would probably disagree.  Particularly if something like homosexual marriage, abortion, war, or other controversial items were brought up.  Deep down we know there is a difference, even if we don’t take the time to think about it.

Shame is a state of being.  One based on our true sense of morality, our true sense of what is right and what is wrong.  It is not based on legal matters.  If I thought that the above-described lynching was unjust, and assuming I have even a remotely weak sense of justice it will be my moral obligation to try to prevent the lynching.  If I have even the slightest sense of what Christ meant by loving my neighbor, I would attempt to stop an unjust lynching.  Not doing so is shameful.

Guilt is a juridical fact.  Guilt is based on the legal framework of society.  Which, depending on the framework, is separate from morality.  I would not be guilty of failure to prevent a lynching.  One cannot be guilty for not acting, for failure to act.  Unless of course, an agreement for future actions had already been made (contract); at which point guilt is not for failure to act but willfully deceiving the other contract party members.

Guilt being based on legality, and shame on morality does not mean that there are never any mutually guilty and immoral actions.  Legal and Moral are potentially inclusive and not mutually exclusive actions.  It is both legal and moral to attempt to save a drowning child.  It is not illegal, though it is immoral, to not attempt to save a drowning child.  Though in today’s legal systems, the latter may in fact be an offense.

There is a difference between guilt and shame.  Between Moral and Legal actions.  In today’s society the distinction is rarely mentioned, though it is always worth reflecting upon.  Why?  Because their will come a time when we need ensure our individual actions are based not on some supposed law, but on our moral foundations.  Their will be – and already is – a difference.  Our foundations need to be strong and rooted.  I try – and am not always successful – to root them in the words of Christ.  Others in specific philosophers.  Others still on the Non-Aggression Axiom.  Others are unsure.  Where are your roots located?

This post is a continuation of a long series of commentary on quotes pulled from They Thought They Were Free, the Germans 1933-45 by Milton Mayer.  The book itself is home to a lot of revelations to the nature of people and I do recommend reading it.  For additional reading please see the short review of the book itself and a list of other commentary like this post.


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