Guilt is a concept used in various ways in various contexts.
In psychology and ordinary language, guilt is simply a negative affective state in which one experiences regret at having done something one believes one "should not" have done. Guilt and its causes, merits, and demerits is a common theme in psychology and psychiatry. It is often associated with depression.
In criminal law, sometimes in individual and religious moral codes, and more rarely in systems of ethics (either as a philosophical discipline or in ethical codes and professions relying on them), guilt is a concept similar to the economic concept of debt. Actions of low or negative legal value that cause damage on the object, put an equal amount of guilt on the agent. Value theory addresses these questions directly.
Collective guilt is the idea that a collection of humans or a human institution can bear guilt above and beyond the guilt of particular members. Collective guilt is generally regarded as impossible because it seems to presuppose that collections of humans can have traits, such as intentions and knowledge, that strictly speaking are truely possessed only by individuals. Nevertheless, humans seem to have a natural tendency to attribute collective guilt, usually with tragic results. For example, Christians have for centuries blamed "the Jews" collectively for the death of Christ. Moreover, history is filled with examples of a wronged man who tried to avenge himself, not on the person who has wronged him, but on other members of the wrong-doer's family, or ethnic group, or religion, or nation, or tribe, or army. Even today many nations have laws holding corporations, but not the individual decision-makers within them, responsible for certain kinds of acts. For example, in the United States corporations can be finded for violating pollution laws, but the individuals who actually ordered and directed the polluting activity may not themselves be regarded as having broken any laws.
Guilt can sometimes be remedied by punishment (a common legal action and advised or required in many legal codes), by forgiveness (as in transformative justice), or by sincere remorse (as with confession in Catholicism or restorative justice). Law does not usually accept the agent's self-punishment, but some ancient codes did so: in Athens the accused was permitted to propose his or her own remedy, which might in fact be a reward, while the accuser proposed another, and the jury chose between. This forced the accused to effectively bet on his support in the community - as Socrates did when he proposed "room and board in the town hall" as his fate. He lost, and drank hemlock, a poison, as advised by his accuser.
Traditional Japanese society and Ancient Greek society are sometimes said to be "shame-based" rather than "guilt-based" in that the social consequences of "getting caught" are seen as more important than the individual feelings or experiences of the agent. This may lead to more of a focus on etiquette than ethics as understood in Western civilization. This leads some to question why then we would adapt the words ethos and mores from Ancient Greek when their norms are so different from ours.
Christianity and Islam inherit most notions of guilt from Judaism, Persian and Roman ideas, mostly as interpreted through Augustine who adapted Plato's ideas to Christianity. The Latin word for guilt is culpa, a word sometimes seen in law literature, e.g. in "mea culpa", "I take responsibility". The Latin word for authority assumes a high degree of responsibility, the English word "province" being a close equivalent.
The relationship between guilt, social trust and the law is complex. A nearly universal notion is that guilt cannot accrue by ignorance except remarkably by ignorance of the law - giving law special status in any ontology. This notion alone explains why religious moral codes and the legal codes of civilizations have tended to evolve closely together.
Some thinkers have theorized that guilt is used as a tool of social control. Since guilty people feel they are undeserving, they are less likely to assert their rights and prerogatives. Thus, those in power seek to cultivate a sense of guilt among the populace, in order to make them more tractable. This was a theme in Eric Hoffer's True Believer. Ayn Rand claimed that Christian sexual morality served a similar purpose.
Evolutionary psychologists tend to think that guilt is a rational human emotion selected by evolution. If a person feels guilty when he harms another or even fails to reciporicate kindness, he is more likely not to harm others or become too selfish; in this way, he reduces the chances of retaliation by members of his tribe and thereby increases his survival prospects. As with any other emotion, guilt can be manipulated to control or influence others, yet it is likely more advantageous than not.
Another common notion is that guilt is actually assigned by social processes like a jury trial, i.e. that it is a strictly legal concept. Thus the ruling of a jury that O. J. Simpson or Julius Rosenberg was "guilty" or "not guilty" is taken as an actual judgement by the whole society that they must act as if he were so. By corollary, the ruling that such a person is "not guilty" may not be so taken, due to the asymmetry that assumes one is innocent until proven guilty and prefers to take the risk of freeing a guilty party over convicting innocents.
Guilt was a theme in John Steinbeck's East of Eden and many other works of literature. It is a nearly universal concern in novels, who explore inner life and secrets.
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