Guilt, Shame, and Depravity

Everyone knows what it is to be tempted.  You are a member of some community, the members of which have some expectations of each other.  You might generally intend to satisfy these expectations, but through a failure of foresight, or some other sort of bad luck, feel an acute impulse to consume something that is not yours to take, or in some other way break commitments you would generally want to honor.

Guilt refers primarily to a violation of trust from the perspective of an epistemic community with a shared history, and only secondarily to the subjective attitude of the offender.

If, having violated trust, you intend to repair that trust by owning up to what you did and by making amends or accepting whatever penalty the community places on you, then you feel a pronormative sort of regret.  When making the sorts of precise distinctions needed to navigate contemporary civil conflict, we call this condition guilt.  We use the same word for the subjective feeling and for the objective fact, because someone feeling guilt is taking the perspective of a community member who expects norms to be followed, and intends to do so.

Guilty behavior tends to be self-limiting; it is experienced as a sort of tension that can only be discharged by correcting the record and restoring normative relations.

Shame refers to the intent to conceal, which implies a locally adversarial relation to norms.

If the penalties for coming clean seem like too much to bear, or for any other reason a resolution does not appear available, someone might intend to keep their guilt a secret.  Keeping two distinct stories straight - a public one and a private one - is cognitively expensive, so covert offenders will frequently substitute motivated forgetfulness.  If we intend not to recollect our guilt, we will also intend to deflect investigation that would reveal it.  When this is an exceptional state, towards some particular events in someone's life, we can call it shame.

At times in my life, I have maintained a work persona who was totally conscientious, in full control of and able to make arbitrary commitments about his time usage.  This persona was not aware of my inclination to stay up late looking at what it would consider low-value media on the internet, procrastinating from my endorsed work.  Maintaining this sort of separation creates a kind of tension, which is relaxed when I get away from other people and start procrastinating on the internet.  The persona is constructed intentionally not to be aware of the motivations that cause the procrastination, so that it can speak as though I did not have those motives.  If my day persona were asked to speak about why I did what I did at night, it would be unable to speak, and unable to investigate, because of the strength of the compartmentalization; I would experience that inhibition as an unexplained tension and difficulty thinking, rather than as a conscious intent to mislead or remain silent.

Because of the intent to conceal, shame is not self-limiting the way guilt is.  Partial discharge of the tension of shame is frequently used to form adversarial, coalitional bonds.  People frequently bond through "vulnerability," i.e. the mutual private revelation of information they feel ashamed about.

Shame generalizes to a coalitional strategy: depravity, the reciprocal intent to derail investigations into norm violations.

The cognitive processes responsible for the intention to conceal what we call shame are necessarily partitioned from the ones that handle our public, pronormative personas.  If someone senses enough optimization for moral concealment in their self and those around them, they might notice that these are two sides in a conflict, decide that concealment is the winning side, and choose to side with it.  In other words, they might act to interfere with the investigation of others' secrets, and expect to be reciprocally covered for.

Someone engaging in the depraved strategy would display less tension from fear and cognitive dissonance than someone who is merely locally ashamed.  Thus, from coalitional motives, they would preferentially cover for people displaying an  uncomplicated, i.e. generalized intention to cooperate with concealment.  Since the intent to conceal isn't compatible with an explicit, accessible memory of the concealed events, such arrangements must be inexplicit; in the convergent case, members of the generalized coalition of depravity recognize each other not by their attendance at secret meetings, but by the following behavioral tells:

  • They believe that they are doing something bad.
  • They expect that they can call on allies to derail investigations of their bad behavior, on the fly, by instantaneous mutual recognition.
  • If pressed, they expect allies to join them in expressing open disapproval of such investigations.
  • They feel compelled to behave as an ally towards others displaying similar tells.

In practice, depraved coalitions frequently infiltrate and come to dominate privileged groups with some other more straightforward marker such as ancestry group, educational pedigree, or parents' socioeconomic class.  But if you look carefully, access to the group's privileges are actually regulated by depraved behavior. Members of this group who do not exhibit depraved behavior are marginalized, have access to far fewer privileges than you would have expected based on the overt signs of membership, and you will usually see the occasional person who does not have the overt group marker, but displays compatibly depraved behavior, accepted into the club.

Depravity derails normative investigations by scapegoating people who are not depraved.

If there is enough shared intent to investigate a crime, this coalition will preferentially direct prosecutorial attention towards someone who is ashamed but not depraved, who might even flip back to being guilty and take responsibility for their crimes. They will try to attribute as much crime as possible to this person, in order to prevent or postpone further investigation. We call this sacrificial substitute a scapegoat.

Bad incentives can push people into shame and depravity, but ashamed and depraved people do not respond well to good incentives.

Straightforwardly, the more badly misaligned a community's incentives are, the more people are forced into the kinds of double binds that convert guilt to shame. Unfortunately, while correcting incentives can slow or halt the conversion process, it does not seem to be sufficient to reverse it. This is because the avoidance aspect of shame and depravity interferes with the evaluation of incentives; ashamed or depraved people have a simplified, conflict metaphysics.

I know of three promising, complementary methods that might reverse the process.

The first is to intervene within the conflict, by applying short-term violence against concealment. This might work because unlike long-run incentives, short-term violence can reverse the perceived winning side. With people who are only partly converted, this can force the pronormative aspect of their consciousness to the surface, in a context where it might otherwise remain submerged. This does not in itself create a permanent improvement in alignment, but it does give pronormative consciousness a lot more information to work with, and might help jumpstart the process of incentive evaluation that can help someone recognize that they face good incentives, not bad ones.

The second is to put someone in a situation where their material environment imposes nonsocial performance constraints, which cannot be navigated or appeased through mental avoidance. This would provide lots of data invalidating their conflict metaphysics, and correspondingly validating hypotheses that help them avoid pain.

The third is chemical, somatic, and brain therapies such as MDMA, rTMS stimulation of the medial prefrontal cortex, and alignment-focused movement practices such as yoga and tai chi.


The Inner Ring

The Engineer and the Diplomat

Against unreasonably high standards

On Commitments to Anti-Normativity

Preference Inversion

Language, Power, and the Categorical Imperative

6 thoughts on “Guilt, Shame, and Depravity

  1. Paul

    Very interesting essay. Something I'm left wondering is where exactly the _feeling_ of shame fits into this framework. One thought is, coordination among purposely-separated parts of ourself is generally difficult. When it is necessary, maybe shame the feeling helps with this coordination. Like a signal to our parts: "yes, something shady is going on here, please just try to roll with it." And maybe it works in a very similar way interpersonally: if in a group conversation my friend brings up something potentially embarrassing to me, my blushing would be saying: "please work with me here in keeping this secret".

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  3. Abram Demski

    I am compelled by the argument that shame has to do with hiding things, because it fits with the important cultural narrative of Adam & Eve donning clothing in response to shame.

    That same story leads me to reject some of your other conclusions. Unless you want to say that everyone except nudists are depraved. This follows from your framework, if we count clothing-wearing as a response to shame about the body. But calling this depraved seems wrong, because the situation is so explicit.

    Simply put, my thesis is that some behaviors which your framework would call depraved are actually pro-social in the context of many prominent cultures. Clothing might be a somewhat problematic example, since there is practical utility to clothing, although I would emphasize that there is actual shame involved in nakedness in many contexts. A different example, though:

    Jessica Taylor's [parable of the gullible king]( suggests that optimism bias is a kind of distributed conspiracy to hide information, much like your description of depravity. This is perceived as pro-social in many cultural contexts.

    I guess the main point is that the depraved (if we insist on using this term) often have no interest in hiding their depravity. Conservative cultures which favor clothing that covers a lot of skin will openly admit that it hides their nakedness. (That's pretty hard to be secretive about!) They'll further talk about it as a way to avoid lust and such. (If it's an excuse, what is it an excuse for? I'm not sure.) Positive-thinking cultures will openly admit that they like to look on the bright side, openly talk about how telling someone bad news is harmful to that person because it makes them sad, etc.

    1. Tim Freeman

      If you are going to ponder whether non-nudists are depraved, you should be explicit about which social norm is being violated. It is confusing to talk about depravity in a context where the social norm is unspecified.

      On the face of it, "you should wear clothes in public" is a plausible social norm, so the non-nudists are not necessarily depraved. If the social norm is "we are all perfectly healthy and beautiful", then I suppose they are. Or maybe you had some third option in mind.


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