Guilt society

Guilt society

A guilt society is one in which the primary method of social control is the inculcation of feelings of guilt for behaviors that the society defines as undesirable. It involves an implicit judgment on the being (rather than just the behavior) of the individual: "You are an evil person if you would do such-and-so." It also involves creating the expectation of punishment now (when the behavior fails to be kept secret) and/or in the hereafter.

One of the interesting feature of many such societies is that they inculcate feelings of guilt for feelings and/or impulses that the individual cannot help but feel. A primary example of this kind of condition, and one that provides an unending stream of patients for psychiatrists, clinical psychologists, and other such professions, is the condemnation of feelings or motivations spurred on by one's biological drive for reproduction. Where a shame society might well tell its members that sexual interactions of any kind are to be protected from general view or knowledge, a guilt society may well tell the individual that he or she is guilty or sinful because of the mere fact that he or she feels sexual desire.

A prominent feature of guilt societies is the provision of sanctioned releases from guilt for certain behaviors either before the fact, as when one condemns sexuality but permits it conditionally in the context of marriage, or after the fact, as when the Catholic Church sold indulgences during the Middle Ages or when someone in the world of today is provided some way of "making up for" his or her guilty thoughts, motivations, behaviors, etc. There is a clear opportunity in such cases for authority figures to derive power, monetary and/or other advantages, etc. by manipulating the conditions of guilt and the forgiveness of guilt.

Paul Hiebert characterizes the guilt society as follows:

Guilt is a feeling that arises when we violate the absolute standards of morality within us, when we violate our conscience. A person may suffer from guilt although no one else knows of his or her misdeed; this feeling of guilt is relieved by confessing the misdeed and making restitution. True guilt cultures rely on an internalized conviction of sin as the enforcer of good behavior, not, as shame cultures do, on external sanctions. Guilt cultures emphasize punishment and forgiveness as ways of restoring the moral order; shame cultures stress self­denial and humility as ways of restoring the social order. (Hiebert 1985, 213)


Hiebert, Paul G., Anthropological Insights for Missionaries, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1985.

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