I think I have an overactive guilt system

Outline of this post:

I feel a lot of guilt

In basically everything! Buy coffee: am I supporting bad labor practices? (is this the shop that was run by a sexual harasser? but did he leave the picture and it’s employee-owned now?) Wear a t-shirt: is this paisley pattern Cultural Appropriating? Give my grandmother flowers: maybe positive points but probably negative!

Where does it come from?

black and white thinking

Tati recently told me of a workshop she was in where they described “black and white thinking” (where everyone is either Good or Bad1) as a very Western way of thinking, and something clicked into place. In a “black and white” mindset, you’re either good or bad. We wave our hands at the idea that we each contain multitudes, but when you’re raised in a black and white world, you kind of internalize that you must be either good or bad: that God’s up there adding up points and you want to have enough points so you can get into The Good Place.

It doesn’t have to be like that! We can be Good and yet participate in broken systems. We kind of have to.

we should improve society somewhat

max_everyone guilt

I have friends who care about certain issues. For any issue X (usually something big like global warming or racism), some of them care more than me about issue X. Listening to how much they care about it, it’s easy to feel like I should care more about issue X. It’s hard to feel like I should care less.

Other listeners will amplify this: rarely do I hear a friend tell me to care less about X. (it’s impolite to those who do care.) Often they will tell me to care more.

And multiply this by 100 on the internet! On the internet, you get points for slamming others and being angrier, not for being supportive and saying problem X isn’t so bad. I try to avoid this tendency (friends who angrypost, I love you, but I probably stopped following you, sorry) but it’s pretty pervasive.

As a result, I think “I should feel as guilty as my guiltiest friend about X” for all X. But nobody holds that much guilt; that would be exhausting.

I don’t need to feel this much guilt

Friends don’t feel this much guilt

I was talking to a friend about not wanting to be a landlord because landlords are bad. He was incredulous. And, in retrospect, rightfully so! I jokingly say “all landlords are terrible” because I’ve had some mildly bad experiences with them, but “all landlords are terrible” makes no more sense really than “all bike shops are terrible” or “all grocery stores are terrible."2

Ultimately, if everyone is 2/10 guilty about some things and 9/10 about their main cause, and if I’m unconsciously absorbing that 9/10 from everyone, then it seems like feeling super guilty is Normal, but really the opposite is true.3

Too much guilt feels bad

One might argue that it doesn’t matter; if feeling worse makes you a better person, you are obligated to do that. I think that’s kind of moot because feeling worse tends not to make you a better person.

And even if we were able to make this kind of tradeoff, it’d still be a tradeoff. The way I feel matters.

Too much guilt doesn’t help me make better decisions

This is hard to provide evidence for, but I think my best and most selfless decisions have not been made out of guilt.

And besides, the world is complicated. In many cases, it’s hard to tell what even is good. I was recently bemoaning the fact that everything I do contributes to global warming and etc, and a friend pointed out that it also contributes to Progress. The world’s economic and technological wheels, fallible as they may be, are pulling billions out of extreme poverty faster than any other way we know.4

Guilt is often accompanied by shame, which we can just throw right out

A disambiguation: shame is the feeling that “I’m not good and don’t deserve love”. Guilt is the feeling that “I’ve done something bad”.

Shame is entirely useless. If you ever catch yourself feeling shameful and you have the opportunity to switch to not feeling shameful, do it, the shame isn’t telling you anything. Guilt can be useful but it’s like hot pepper: a little goes a long way, and with too much you’re in pain and incapacitated.

In theory, you can have guilt without shame. In practice, they often come together. Too much guilt becomes shame.

I’m adjusting my ethical system to feel less guilt

Implicit in all of this has been a utilitarian ethical system. But as I’ve alluded to a few times, utilitarianism is basically impossible. We can’t possibly know all the consequences of our actions, or evaluate choices and make tradeoffs between them with any level of accuracy.

(So I err by focusing on the negatives of everything. This is not the only way to mess up in trying to live as a pure utilitarian. I’m just assuming that failing at utilitarianism is much much more common than succeeding.)

If I admit that “pure” utilitarianism is practically impossible… well, I still have to live my life. As I’m not particularly into any “thou shalt” kind of religion, deontology seems out as well. So in service of the lifelong quest to build your own ethical system from the ground up, here’s some things I think:

  1. everyone is truly wonderful and worthy of love
  2. everyone is truly strong and capable of love
  3. sometimes people don’t feel like they’re wonderful, worthy of love, strong, or capable of love. This happens for a lot of reasons (trauma, learning wrong lessons, current life circumstances, body hurts, bad neurotransmitters, brain run by goblin)
  4. feeling like you’re wonderful and deserving of love is a prerequisite for feeling strong and capable of love
  5. if you’re not feeling capable of strength and love, but you are called to be strong/loving, there are a couple of possibilities:
    • you could guilt yourself into it
    • you could shut down your feelings and force yourself to do it
    • you could kindly debug your feelings: “do I feel like I deserve love? if not, why not? if so, then do I feel like I am able to do what I need to do now? if not, why not?” Of course (and I apologize for the preceding straw men), this is the best strategy.
  6. the previous point applies as well if you see someone else acting poorly: debugging why they don’t feel worthy or strong or loving is going to achieve better results (better long term behavior as well as feeling better) than guilting them into good actions.

what do we call this

It’s still in the family of consequentialist ethics, because the way I judge if an action is good or bad is by its consequences. But it becomes much softer by allowing an important shortcut: instead of asking “what would, galaxy-brain-wise, make the best outcome for the world?”, I can ask “what is the strongest thing I feel like I can do now? how much capacity do I have, and what feels healthy/right/whole?”

This doesn’t sound easy to apply globally! It sounds solipsistic or lazy: “I dunno man, do what feels good.” And I guess that’s just it: I’m just trying to solve ethics for me, not for the whole world. I know the feeling of rightness/wholeness for myself, and I trust that I’m not going to go off the rails.


  1. “You’re either good or bad” is one reason racism is hard for white people to talk about. Racism = bad, so they think that you’re putting them (eternally, forever) in the “bad” camp if you say they did a racist thing. ↩︎

  2. I should say, “all landlords are terrible” is a defensible position! Or rather, “landlording is inherently corrupt and should be abolished or radically reformed.” I would like to see a change in the way housing works in the US, but I don’t think it counts as “radically reformed.” I think the basic idea of free market land ownership is fine, as long as we make a few big changes like abolishing single family zoning, implementing land value taxes or at least vacancy taxes, and increasing tenant protections (in most of the US). Not really what I’m debating here though. ↩︎

  3. You might say that “all my friends do X” doesn’t show us that X is good or bad. I say, doesn’t it? In a world without Commandments from God, and where X doesn’t really help or hurt anyone, isn’t social proof a pretty good sign pointing in the right direction? Put another way, I choose friends who I think are Good People who I would like to be more like. That makes it almost a tautology that if “all my friends do X”, X is probably a decent thing to do. ↩︎

  4. progressive friends, I hear you wincing! don’t worry, I’m not saying the current system is the best one possible, nor am I excusing global warming, colonialism, overconsumption, and the great Pacific garbage patch! but we have to acknowledge that in addition to the negative butterfly effects we also have positive ones. ↩︎


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