The Nature of Moral Obligations: Moral Guilt

Author Brett Kunkle Published on 07/09/2015

Persons who do not fulfill their moral obligations are subject to adverse judgment. If I choose to refrain from a morally obligatory act, I am guilty. But let’s distinguish between two types of guilt. First, guilt may be thought of in terms of a subjective emotion moral agents experience when they fail to fulfill their obligations. The failure results in deep ethical pain or discomfort. Feelings such as regret, remorse, or resentment may accompany one’s moral failings.

While an account of guilty feelings may be useful, for my purposes I will only concern myself with a second sense of guilt. In this sense, guilt refers to an objective state-of-affairs. In virtue of an agent’s moral failings, he has done something wrong, and as such, deserves appropriate blame and just punishment. The guilty person in this sense may not recognize or admit guilt, but the objective fact of their guilt remains nonetheless. Guilty feelings may or may not accompany the agent’s actions, but they’re not necessary in order to levy some punishment against an objectively guilty person.

Indeed, punishment is one of the things that distinguishes the rational ought from the moral ought. I may have a rational obligation to hold that 2 + 2 = 4, but if I fail to live up to it I’m not subject to punishment. However, if I fail to fulfill my moral obligation not to abuse young children, then appropriate punishment seems clearly justified. Rational wrongs require a correction of the error, while moral wrongs require the correction, or punishment, of the person.

We turn again to naturalism for an accounting of this feature of moral obligations. The naturalist may explain the existence of guilt with some kind of evolutionary account that claims it has survival value for the human species. Moral guilt compels continued cooperation among persons, and as a result, human beings are able to pass on their genes to the next generation. However, such an account only works by reducing obligations to feelings that somehow connect to patterns of action that help us survive. But remember, our primary concern is not with guilt feelings but an objective state of guilt resulting from a failure to fulfill moral obligations. Indeed, guilt feelings may not be absurd in a naturalistic world, but moral obligations that have no survival value would be absurd in such a world. Thus, moral guilt is another feature of morality that seems to resist naturalistic explanations.