Standard Article


  1. Scott A. Anderson

Published Online: 1 FEB 2013

DOI: 10.1002/9781444367072.wbiee597

The International Encyclopedia of Ethics

How to Cite

Anderson, S. A. 2013. Guilt. The International Encyclopedia of Ethics. .

Publication History

  1. Published Online: 1 FEB 2013


The concept of guilt enters into ethics with two different but related referents. It can refer to a normative state or status, contrasted with “innocence,” that is predicated most often of agents and/or actions. In this framework, “guilt” is frequently discussed in terms of its relationships to concepts such as “responsibility,” “blame,” “intention,”and “conscience,”and related to the justification for punishment (see Blame; Conscience; Intention; Punishment; Responsibility). “Guilt”can also refer to a psychological element in a human being (or conceivably in other animals), most often described as an emotion (see Emotion; Sentiments, Moral), and contrasted with other emotions such as shame (see Shame and Honor), pride (see Pride), or anger. The two referents are frequently thought to be nonaccidentally related, and hence conceptually intertwined: the psychological feeling of guilt may be hoped to track the normative concept, and the normative concept believed to warrant feelings of guilt on the part of a guilty party. But the two referents may occur individually without the other, as guilt is sometimes felt in circumstances where there is no evident breach of normative duty (see Duty and Obligation); and people do sometimes violate laws and morality without feeling guilt for it. Philosophers have been particularly interested in guilt (in respect of both sorts of referents) for its functional properties as well as for giving an account of its content and place in normative theory.


  • ethics;
  • legal and political;
  • motivation;
  • emotion;
  • guilt and innocence;
  • responsibility