The Importance of Guilt

‘Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased?’

Theodore Dalrymple notes an important shift in language in recent decades in Our Culture: What’s Left of It. In the past, we were unhappy. Now, we often say instead that we are depressed. This medicalises the problem, and separates our actions from their natural rewards:

This idea in turn implies that one’s state of mind, or one’s mood, is or should be independent of the way that one lives one’s life, a belief that must deprive human existence of all meaning, radically disconnecting reward from conduct. (‘The Frivolity of Evil’, p.9)

Instead of examining our actions for the moral causes of our unhappiness, we seek to medicate the symptoms. The doctor who agrees to do this, says Dalrymple, is not really helping his patient:

The patient’s notion that he is ill stands in the way of his understanding of the situation, without which moral change cannot take place. The doctor who pretends to treat is an obstacle to this change, blinding rather than enlightening.

Dalrymple’s point is readily applicable to the world of education, where we see all kinds of unhappiness resulting from misconduct. The unhappiness and the misconduct must be connected in the person’s mind before they are likely to do anything about the misconduct. But when we simply focus on the symptoms – the unhappiness – and try to ‘treat’ those, we are letting our pupils down. We are ‘radically disconnecting reward from conduct’.

When a pupil complains of boredom, for example, we may try to ‘treat’ this symptom by entertaining him, or, to use more palatable language, by making our lessons more ‘engaging’. But the complaint about boredom from the pupil is a symptom of a moral problem. These complaints arise when a pupil is not prepared to invest sufficient effort into study. When you are working hard, you do not complain of boredom. When you complain of boredom, you are really proclaiming your own laziness. Indulging this laziness is one of the worst things a teacher can do. We need to strike at the root (the laziness) not just deal with the symptoms. Otherwise we will be ‘blinding rather than enlightening’.

Pupils who misbehave in class, disrupting lessons and showing disrespect towards teachers, are often seen as suffering from a medical problem, and treated with drugs, in the same way those with depression are handed pills that just deal with the symptoms. When a problem is medicalised, it enables everyone to avoid the moral issues.

Guilt is excruciating. One of my most terrifying recurring nightmares is that I have committed a terrible crime, and I am haunted by guilt that cannot be expiated. But however painful it is, guilt is vital. It is the nerve system of the moral being. The worst possible situation, morally speaking, is to do evil things and to feel no guilt. Emotional pain is an indicator that something is wrong. If we numb it with drugs, we are refusing to face the problem. Shakespeare knew this four hundred years ago, when he had Macbeth request some medical cure for his sorrow:

Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased,
Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,
Raze out the written troubles of the brain
And with some sweet oblivious antidote
Cleanse the stuff’d bosom of that perilous stuff
Which weighs upon the heart?

We would do well to remember more often the doctor’s answer:

Therein the patient
Must minister to himself.


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