Why Guilty Knowledge Leaves Telltales
I believe that the reason guilty knowledge leaves telltales is that the violation of the conscience of a moral being generates certain objective needs, including confession, reconciliation, atonement, and justification. These are the greater sisters of remorse; elsewhere, borrowing from Greek mythology, I have called them the Furies. Now if I straightforwardly repent of my deed, then I make an honest effort to satisfy these avengers of guilt. I respond to the need for confession by admitting that I have done wrong; I respond to the need for reconciliation by repairing broken bonds with those whom I have hurt or betrayed; I respond to the need for atonement by paying the price of a contrite and broken heart; and I respond to the need for justification by getting back into justice. But what happens if I am in denial? The Furies do not go away just because I want them to. What happens is that I try to pay them off in counterfeit coin. I try to pay off the need for confession by compulsively admitting every sordid detail of my disreputable deed except that it was wrong; I try to pay off the need for reconciliation by seeking substitute companions who are as guilty as I am; I try to pay off the need for atonement by paying pain after pain, price after price, all except the one price demanded; and I try to pay off the need for justification by diverting enormous energy into rationalizing my unjust deeds as just.
Such behaviors are matters of everyday observation. To be sure, they are difficult to study systematically. Even so, much of the data about the psychological effects of abortion, from both law and the social sciences, are strongly suggestive, though of course, as one would expect in such a case, they are disputed.
Someone might suggest that all these supposed telltales are imaginary, that the behavior I call “acting guilty” is more naturally explained in other ways. If I think my behavior has been blameless, why not talk about it? There is no need to think that I am engaging in some sort of displaced confessional urge. If my friends unreasonably subject me to moral criticism, why shouldn’t I drop them and make new ones? There is no need to think that I am trying to find a substitute for supposedly having hurt them. If I am doing things that aren’t good for me, why shouldn’t we write my behavior to bad judgment? There is no need to think that I am punishing myself. If some people view my behavior as wrong, but I disagree with them, why shouldn’t I defend myself? The argument that I am making excuses is circular; it assumes what it sets out to prove.
But when I speak of displaced confession, reconciliation, atonement, and justification, I have in mind cases in which these other explanations seem to fall short. We turn to these in the next post.