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Are you a good person when no one’s looking?: Explorations at the cusp of guilt, shame, and morality

Updated: Sep 29, 2023

Are you a good person? I’ll give you a minute.

How did you define being ‘good’?

For me, it’s the perpetual dodging of guilt.

This is admittedly an unsatisfactory answer, perhaps because it’s a response premised in the ‘negative’ of something, in that it is defined by the avoidance of a negative emotional consequence, rather than by adherence to and endorsement of a finite, well defined set of doctrines that I can look to for moral guidance.

It is, however, as honest an answer as I can muster, without accidentally evangelising some of you to my chosen religion - pastafarianism.

Moral Psychology literature distinguishes between moral identity, values, virtues, intuitions, judgments, behaviour, and endlessly more perspectives, borrowing from its parentage of philosophy and theology, but with greater opportunity for empirical questioning and evidence with the use of neuroimaging and psychometric tools.

Since morality is fairly subjective, what causes guilt differs from person to person, and therein may lie some scope to narrow down our investigation of one’s closely held virtues.

Interestingly, connections have long been drawn between feelings of guilt, shame, and morality.

Psychopaths (that is, those afflicted with a type of antisocial personality disorder, APD) are typified by their abysmal regard for others, capacity to feel remorse or shame, and readiness to use others as tools for personal goal completion.

Literature shows that such instrumental crimes are committed by a higher percentage of persons with clinically diagnosable APD as compared with those who are not. Their ability to premeditate offenses as horrific as murder is codified as ‘instrumental’ (cold-blooded) and is distinct from ‘reactive’ (emotionally-loaded predictor of violence), as demonstrated by both psychometric and neuroimaging sources of data. Neither are excusable by law, of course, but the differing underlying neural and cognitive mechanisms shed light on how criminal motives for perhaps the same crime are not necessarily equal or comparable, especially when operating under varied situational triggers and sociodemographic vulnerabilities that predict the probability of engaging in criminal acts.

This is not to say that the cold blooded killer is more (or less) culpable than the reactive one. But to formulate effective preventive mechanisms and limit violent crimes, it is imperative to understand first that emotional motives differ and the effectiveness of retributive punishments -- which have an intuitive, broad-brush appeal -- will be ineffective, and a misdirection of resources and, by extension, a mishandling of justice.

Getting back to our discussion of personal definitions of goodness, if one is trying singularly to avoid the unpleasant emotional consequence of moral transgressions, one could argue that they could simply try... not getting caught?

Consider critiques of authoritarian parenting styles (that try to impart moral education through punishments rather than teaching their children empathy, sympathy and other-orientation). Studies show that children of authoritarian parents (characterised by high demandingness from their children, but low reciprocity) demonstrate a lower capacity for moral reasoning than those of authoritative parents (characterised by high demandingness as well as high responsiveness to their children’s emotional needs). Demandingness “refers to the claims that parents make on children to become integrated into the family and community by their maturity expectations, supervision, disciplinary efforts, and willingness to confront a disputative child”. Children of authoritarian parents might simply learn to avoid punishment by hiding their immoral deeds, while children parented by authoritative carers will engage in decision making informed by their relatively greater capacity for moral reasoning and not engage in immoral acts to begin with.

Guilt is a consequence, and the drive to avoid it is a motivator to adhere to generally accepted moralistic principles -- as defined by normative references like religion, society, or relevant others. But such a motive to engage in moralistic behaviours are extrinsically sourced, and -- while moderately effective -- are less reliable or indicative of someone’s sustained moral intuitions. Which bring us to the question -

Are you still a good person when no one’s looking?

This is a question that hints at intrinsic moral motivations, and perhaps the essence of morality itself. Are you truly ‘good’, if you have something to gain from it -- whether it be the avoidance of punishment (or even feelings of shame or guilt), or extrinsic rewards like praise, social capital or even literal capital. Does the introduction of rewards pervert the meaning of goodness? If I lost my capacity for guilt, would I still be incentivized to engage in moral decision making to the same degree?

Consider how you’d prefer to engage in prosocial behaviours like donating to charitable organizations or signing petitions to affect public good -- with anonymity or without?

Conversely, are you more prone to immoral choices in the privacy of darkness, with the lights off, when you get to play the role of spectator (while others are relegated to being the subject of your scrutiny), or perhaps in the shelter of anonymous profiles on the internet?

Moral accountability under scrutiny

Research on self regulation of ethical behaviour under conditions of privacy or scrutiny examines precisely this. Studies controlling for people’s deontological (those following moral ‘rules’ or principles) and consequentialist (those whose moral reasoning is premised in considerations of eventual ‘outcomes’ or larger public good) preferences showed that people who are outcome-minded have a higher tendency to engage in ethical behaviour when they are under public ‘scrutiny’ as compared with under conditions of privacy, where they had the option to engage in non-ethics. Persons with deontological (principled) mindsets were unaffected by public scrutiny in their moral decision-making.

However, in interpreting such quasi experimental findings, one must remember that these deontological and consequentialist mindsets interact with subject related variables like self concept, moral identity, personality, as well as contingent factors such as speculated normative expectations (“what must most others think the ‘good’ thing to do is?”) -- even religiosity. Context is queen, and moral decision making outside of an experimental set-up is a complex process involving contingent variables where the experimenter’s control is limited and one must be cautious in the predictions one makes, to prevent policy, laws, or regulations being premised in faulty or inadequate academic premises.

"But why are you telling us this?"

Because studying ways of attributing moral accountability has applications in just about every field where one is expected to adhere to an ethical code of conduct. Certain professions in particular mandate a critical examination of 'deservingness' of consequences. For example, in judicial and allied professions to determine the blameworthiness of crimes, in defense when political strategy encompasses the perceived need to choose against civil liberties, in medicine or psychiatric practice when engaging in deceptive placebo-based treatments because they could have utility in treatment, and not least in academic research, where the autonomy granted to an experimenter is equal parts boon and a bane, and necessitates thorough pondering over the eventual outcomes of the study, it's use, informed consent of human participants, cost and benefits to it's intended beneficiaries, and other procedural concerns at the institutional and ethics committee levels.

Seemingly myopic and esoteric questions posed by the social sciences have eventual utility in civil life. The next time there is media uproar over the causes of an actor's death by suicide, or public clamoring for capital punishment of gruesome crimes against women, one would hope that the contents of one's arguments are far removed from reactive sentiment, and instead premised in an understanding of systemic (and not just individual) causal factors of the event, the larger outcomes of instituting retributive punishments as policy (instead of focusing on and reifying restorative measures), and how best to institute protocol that limit the probability of these eventualities even occurring.

Studying morality is studying the deservingness of outcomes, and such considerations pervade all aspects of everyday decision making.

At the same time, additional to having a nuanced understanding of the systemic determinants of ethical decision making, learning and understanding ways to leverage personal accountability to eventuate morally sound choices is essential to productive participation in civil life. Because -

It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.

- Jiddu Krishnamurti


Saloni Diwakar (she/her) is academic researcher and Psychology faculty at Nolmë Labs.

She enjoys reading about popular science, watching cartoons, and promotes rational thought in daily life. She can be followed on Twitter and Instagram (@salonidiwaka.r).

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