July 19, 2024


Science It Works

Guilt and Remorse – Part 2 – The Nature Or Nurture Debate

Guilt and Remorse – Part 2 – The Nature Or Nurture Debate

I wrote in Part 1, about what one man, Jeff Lucas, called being a “shame addict”, and described the experience as suffering from a sense of guilt about everything. Even the things over which we have little or no control! But when attempts at defining the difference between shame and the feeling of guilt proved a non-starter, and the experts themselves appeared to have conflicting views, I began to wonder if society might benefit from its eradication from the human psyche.

So today, in an attempt to answer that question, I’m to ask another. Where does it come from, all this guilt and shame? Are we born with it? Is it nature or nurture?



It has been fashionable for some years, now, among certain celebrities and secularists, to promote a concept which suggests that guilt and shame are imposed upon us – by parents, society’s mores and laws, and by religion – and that this is to our detriment. To hell with guilt and shame, they say, embracing an unfettered expression of their chosen lifestyle.  And who can blame them?  Perhaps the hell and damnation, fire and brimstone, of some faiths and denominations has fuelled this belief?

So would life be a better experience for us all if we abolished the twin evils of a guilty conscience and a sense of shame?


That, in fact, is what Western societies have endeavoured to do for the last decade or two. Mitigation – where background circumstances have been used to plead a case of understanding for the perpetrators of crime – have at times produced the absurd notion that they are the victims.  Not unnaturally, the real victims have felt somewhat aggrieved.

Besides, as the excellent UK Channel 4 programme Dispatches Britain’s Challenging Children showed, bringing up children with no moral compass is detrimental not only to others, but to the child himself.  It made me weep to see little boys at primary school having to be restrained – for their own good – because their upbringing has offered them nothing in the way of reason or rationale.


On the contrary!  It was clear that persuasion had no effect on them at all when it came to offering inducements to go back into the classroom.  These kids have, for the most part, learned only the realities of a belt around the ear, a grunt, or a torrent of abuse. What do they know of co-operation?  Of community?  Of communication? Yet, amazingly, whilst completely lacking in the skills or self-discipline needed to ameliorate their bad behaviour, some of them showed a moral awareness of its effects. They knew what it was to feel shame.

So – is it nature or nurture? I’m inclined to believe that though babies are born without shame when it comes to their nakedness, bodily functions or demandingness, a certain morality is hard-wired into the human psyche. The Bible certainly teaches that this is so. God’s laws, we are told, are written into our hearts.  Whether you believe the nature argument or not, there is evidence that suggests that we are undergoing a change of heart in matters concerning the nurturing of discipline.  As the Dispatches programme showed, morality, and the shame and guilt that go with it, oil the wheels of society – in schools, at home and in the community. Moreover, it brings peace, comfort, fulfillment and education to the child to whom it is taught.

Where does that leave people like me, and Jeff Lucas, when it comes to being “shame addicts”? He rightly defines an addict as “someone who constantly thinks in a particular way, daily, hourly. Their mind is consumed with that substance or activity. Their behaviour is driven.” I asked, earlier, whether guilt and remorse could be perceived as “good” or “bad” and I’ve concluded, above, that in context it is good. But at this level of addictive thinking, clearly, it is bad.


And I’m glad to say that apart from the odd occasion when I’m tired – as post Christmas – it has no part in my life any more. Because Christian teaching should never be focused on the negative aspects of humanity, but on the divine aspects of a God who loves, who is merciful, and who, above all, is forgiving. If you want to know more, you could do worse than visit Jeff Lucas online. His website is: http://www.jefflucas.org/archive/200811