How to Live Without Guilt
It is hard to be alive without messing up, often significantly. The more one lives, the more opportunity one has to make mistakes. We often have feelings of guilt, regret, and remorse for these actions or inactions. Feelings of guilt pervade our society. One article that appeared in the Guardian in 2017 was entitled, “Why Do We Feel So Guilty All The Time?” Its author laments:
Filial guilt, fraternal guilt, spousal guilt, maternal guilt, peer guilt, work guilt, middle-class guilt, white guilt, liberal guilt, historical guilt, Jewish guilt: I’m guilty of them all.
Guilt has been a major focus of psychological studies and theorizing at least since the time of Freud, who had a lot to say on the subject. A Google search for “scholarly articles on guilt” turns up over 2.5 million hits. Therapists routinely deal with feelings of guilt in their practices.
Afreeism is the philosophy that we have no free will. It is based on the idea that the universe is completely causal. Consequently, every event is determined by a long chain of causation originating before any of us were born. Humans are not exempt from the laws of physics and chemistry. Every firing of a neuron, every action we take, every thought we have is the result of a chain of causation that began eons ago. We often do what we want, but what we want has also been determined.
Afreeism is not based on dogma or faith, but rather on scientific observation of how the universe works. It is an idea based in physics, chemistry, biology, and most recently, neurobiology. It is not a new idea. More than two millennia ago, a number of philosophers and scientists concluded that the universe is completely deterministic. Most prominent among them were Leucippus and Democritus (proponents of the atomic theory of matter) and the Stoics. More recently, Baruch Spinoza, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche rejected free will. In modern times, doubters of free will include the late physicist Stephen Hawking, evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne, neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky, biologist Owen Jones, and cognitive scientists Wolf Singer and Paul Bloom, just to name a few.
Understanding afreeism is not easy; it is counterintuitive to most of us. And the implications are surprising. Looking forward, the causal nature of the universe says that what we do matters. Looking backwards, however, we can see that everything that we did was caused by a web of causation that began before we were born. We simply had to do what we did.
Given this, why should we feel guilty about our actions? Why have remorse or regret? Our actions simply had to happen.
Pain in life is unavoidable. We sometimes are hurt and we sometimes hurt other people. It is quite natural to feel pain and sadness when we see others, both loved ones and strangers, in pain. But it does not help to add remorse, shame or guilt to our pain and sadness.
People can be full of guilt and remorse. They made the wrong career choice. They married the wrong person and stayed in the unhappy marriage for far too many years. They had an affair. They put their money in foolish investments or they lost it gambling. They avoided going to the doctor for too long, allowing the cancer to progress. They put their kids into the wrong schools. They were absent as parents. They trusted the wrong people.
Afreeism teaches us that it makes no sense to feel guilt for these actions. But guilt is a powerful emotion and we have been socially programmed to feel it. How do we overcome it?
One way is through visualization. Imagine that you are a free-floating bodiless soul. (This is just an exercise. You do not have to believe in the existence of souls.) What would happen if you were randomly placed into the body of someone you did not know? (Suppose that the previous soul had to vacate the body for unknown reasons and that you are taking its place.) The body that you have come to inhabit has a history, which is now your history, and a current set of circumstances, which are now your circumstances. What do you do?
In whatever body you have been placed, you must decide how to move forward with the new life that you have just inherited. For a start, you assess your present situation. Are you married or single, what is your financial situation, do you have children, what are your children’s situations, and so on? Clearly you will have challenges. There are things from your inherited history that you will have to deal with. Perhaps the body that you are in committed some crime or insulted someone or has a bad relationship with a family member. There may be some stories from this history that make you smile and feel good. Others might make you cringe. Others will teach you things. You might prefer that the person who formally occupied the body had not done some of the things she did, but you cannot feel any personal responsibility for them or any personal regret for having done them, because you were not even there.
In a sense, this is the situation we are in. Sure, we did some things that we wish we had not been caused to do, but we should not feel guilty about them because they simply had to happen. We now have to assess our current circumstances and deal with whatever they are going forward.
This leads to the following morning exercise: Get up, have your cup of coffee or tea and then sit quietly for a moment imagining that you have simply been put into this body and into this life this very morning. No regrets, no guilt. You are not responsible for what has happened up to now. Now assess where you are and move on.
This simple exercise can help you remove feelings of guilt, remorse, and self-blame, all of which are impediments to happiness.
A Side Benefit
For many, this exercise is also one of appreciation and empathy. Of all the bodies that I could have inhabited, I somehow ended up with this one. For many of us, this is far better than most of the other bodies in the world that we could have had the misfortune to inhabit. If we have had this good fortune, then it is important to remember that this is not true for everyone. Some people have inherited histories, character traits, family situations, and health conditions far worse than ours. They are not responsible for this. Their lives were determined just as much as ours.
Afreeism has many more implications than those explored in this short article. It has much to say about moral obligation, moral responsibility, social engagement, humility, tolerance, purpose, and even social policy. For those interested, the Afreeist Society and its website are a good start.