4 Problems with Guilt-Based Morality

Western theologians and missionaries often assume that “guilt-based” morality is ethically superior. This, I believe, is a dangerous assumption.

A guilt-based approach to ethics has several shortcomings that limit its moral effectiveness, particularly in collectivistic contexts. These limitations do not invalidate Western ethics as “wrong” or “unbiblical.” The notion of individual guilt is indeed essential, but not sufficient, for moral change. By noting these four shortcomings of guilt-based morality, I hope to show where Christians could incorporate honor-shame insights in developing a biblical morality.

1. Punishment Compounds Social Problems

First, guilt-based morality often presents retributive punishment as the just solution (and deterrent) for wrongdoing. However, the Western legal system’s punitive approach to wrongdoing “deepens society wounds and conflicts rather than contributes to healing or peace” (Zehr 2015). An obligation to dispense punishment as demanded by justice dis-integrates communities and relationships, and such alienation increases recidivism by exacerbating shame (Braithwaite 1989). “Our application of justice norms have justified shocking cruelty and continue to do so” (Demetriou 2015b). Solitary confinement and the death penalty are but two examples of such horrendous ostracism (Goode 2015; Oppenheimer 2015). But such violence is often accepted in America’s guilt-oriented legal system. Research has demonstrated that such punitive responses to wrongdoing compound human brokenness by increasing shame and disconnection (Hari 2015).

2. Individualism Fosters Moral Ignorance

When teaching a class in central Africa, I noted the “individualistic” and “collectivistic” tendencies of various cultures. As an example, I explained how young Americans make significant decisions (i.e., university, spouse, career, etc.) independent of family. One Chadian then surmised, “Well then there must be all kinds of immorality and debauchery in America! For without family, how can people know how to choose the right behavior?”

For this Chadian Christian leader, defining ethics apart from community was simply inconceivable. How could individuals possibly know right from wrong by themselves when the heart is full of sin and deceit? The focus on individual rights and law-observance gives little weight to relationships. And this neglect of community is the very definition of sin for group-oriented contexts. From an honor-shame perspective, the individualistic values of self-reliance, absolute honesty, and equality come across as the anti-social vices of stinginess, humiliation, and disrespect. The individualistic assumptions of guilt-cultures are not always Christian virtues.

3. Rules And Laws Rarely Induce Moral Change

From 2002-2010, the United States spent $904 million in Afghanistan funding the “rule of law and justice” to “develop effective justice sector institutions” (Sun Wyler and Katzman 2010). The current situation in Afghanistan suggests this legal approach has not positively influenced society in Afghanistan. According to the New York Times headline, “In Spite of the Law, Afghan ‘Honor Killings’ of Women Continue”(Nordland 2014).

Laws reflect values but are incapable of changing values. Laws can define right behavior but do not produce right behavior. Certainly, Christians can agree on this point (Rom 3:20). Being weakened by human flesh, the Law is powerless to save from sin and death (Rom 8:23). After all, regulations “lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence” (Col 2:23).

4. Guilt Can Be Idolatrous

Dietrich Bonhoeffer critiqued the internal conscience and guilt as idolatrous in his book Ethics. To summarize Bonhoeffer: the human conscience is “concerned not with man’s relation to God and to other men, but with man’s relation to himself” (Bonhoeffer 1995, 28–29). Conscience pretends to be the voice of God defining morality. When our internal conscience becomes the new origin of good and evil, “man has become judge over God and men, just as he is judge over himself.” Moreover, since rules and laws are always defined as either “permitted” or “forbidden” (with no positive commandment), Bonhoeffer notes how for the conscience, what is “permitted is identical with good, and conscience does not register the fact, that even in this, man is in a state of disunion with his origin (God). It follows from this also that conscience does not, like shame, embrace the whole of life; it reacts only to certain definite actions.” Perhaps, the internal conscience should not be equated with “God’s law on our hearts,” but a duplicitous and corrupt voice needing to be checked by the community (cf. Prov 16:2; Titus 1:15).


These four limitations call for a balanced evaluation of ethical systems. Guilt can be good, but it may not always be the best way to frame Christian morality. A biblical view of honor and shame can address these gaps.

This post is excerpted from my article “They Don’t Feel Guilt?!?!” in Restored to Freedom from Guilt, Shame, and Fear: Lessons from the Buddhist World (SEANET 13; William Carey Library, 2017).

For biblical examples of honor ethics, click these links about 1 Peter and 1 Corinthians. Also view “Transforming Honor,” a 40-minute training video about ethics and discipleship.

resources for Majority World ministry

13 Comments on “4 Problems with Guilt-Based Morality

  1. A distinction that should also be made is negative motivators versus positive motivators. Guilt is the negative side of the Guilt-Justice cultural engine. So one could say that all your criticisms of the Guilt-based morality don’t necessarily point to honour-shame; they could also point to Justice & Uprightness as the needed basis for morality, the positive side of the Guilt-Justice coin. (Not that I’m denigrating Honour-shame based morality.

    There is a high correlation between collectivist cultures and honour-shame cultures and a high correlation between individualist cultures and justice-guilt cultures. So I see aspects of the Bible which speak strongly within (and to) each of these cultural engines. And people will tend to appreciate and express the life of Christ in ways particular to their cultural paradigms… and sin and express corruption in ways particular to their cultural outlook.

    I think it is fair to say that both individualism and collectivism have a place in Scripture and in God’s kingdom lived out among His people on earth, but that much (most?) individualism and collectivism we see in human cultures is unredeemed, distorted, and even perverted in many ways. So, our criticism of ugliness should not be an invalidation of that type of culture but a naming of how in its unredeemed state it has failed to live out God’s intention for it.

  2. I have a question and a comment. First who is the author? Paul de Neui or Jayson Georges? Second, I love the thought provoking ideas here. However, I think one has to maintain individual rights in a functioning legal system. Otherwise, people seeking to escape the strictures of Islam, or spousal abuse, in a Western context, will be mistreated if they are forced to have their cases decided by the community from which they came.

    • Ant, Jayson Georges was the author of this post. For clarity, this post was excerpted from Jayson’s article in Restored to Freedom book, which is edited by Paul deNeui.

      And as for your point…yes, individual legal rights are important and essential in general societies. However, I think my points about ethics are more pointed at ethical change within a smaller context, such as a church community. And as you likely agree, ethics within a believing community is far more than outlining individual rights.

  3. “Solitary confinement and the death penalty are but two examples of such horrendous ostracism”

    Is this a claim that the death penalty is not found in cultures characterized by something other than a guilt-based morality? If so, I’d need some convincing, seeing the prevalence of capital punishment throughout cultures and through the ages.

    • One, a simple web search would answer your statistical question(s). Two, I did not claim death penalty is not found in other countries.

      Many other countries (including those that are more “honor-shame”) use the death penalty, but they tend to use it to squash political dissent and retain power. Whereas America is unique in basing capital punishment on moral reasons which are rooted in particular notions of “justice” (even though capital punishment in America seems more rooted in racial and social issues than actual morality or legality…for more on that, read Just Mercy http://amzn.to/2BfwMUs)

      The only countries that execute more citizens are China, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and North Korea—not exactly great moral company. Plus, over 60% of all Americans continue to support the death penalty, claiming the legal rational that criminals deserve an eye for an eye.

      For more about the “legalized violence” in guilt-innocence cultures, see: https://honorshame.com/western-bias-honor-shame-cultures-violent/

  4. I would like some clarity about how honour-shame cultures respond in punishment. The article clearly shows that guilt-based cultures respond with retributive punishment (justifying cruelty such as solitary confinement) which leads to alienation and exacerbating shame…but compared to what?
    What would be the description of the honour-based morality ways of responding/punishing? Thanks!

    • Chris, many have advocated “restorative justice” in place “retributive justice” as a more just method for addressing sin and crime. There are some articles here at HonorShame.com that introduce the topic: https://honorshame.com/?s=restorative+justice&submit=Go.

      And just to clarify, I would not particularly claim that “restorative justice” is the main approach to wrongdoing in honor-shame cultures, but present it as a possible alternative that seems to reflect some Scriptural principles.

      • Thank you 🙂 I guess I was looking for some specifics – so, where a punitive approach has things such as isolation and corporal punishment, what might a honor-shame’s restorative response actually look like.
        For example, in our situation in working with Aboriginal people it will mean that the whole family will be involved in the response and all will have a say…that the whole group where the incident happened will be assured of peace and resolution. Are there any others examples in praxis? Thank you

  5. Jayson, this is a penetrating article, scandalous (in the biblical sense) that it challenges our deeply held assumptions. I appreciate your biblically-balanced approach to ethics based on guilt vs shame, because neither approach is complete. I see this issue as the #1 point of divergence between white and black evangelicals in the U.S. I’ve discussed this with a couple African-American pastors and I believe white evangelicals have got to come to grips with the deficiencies of our guilt-based ethics and our approach to law enforcement and incarceration. The start reality is that too many white Christians (I’m one of them) just want to make policies and enforce them without getting their personal lives entangled with the problems of others, yet this is precisely the kind of “work produced by faith and labor prompted by love” (1Th. 1:3) that our Redeemer King has called us to. May God grant you a broader audience to address this vital issue!

  6. I read this article with fascination. Point 3: Rules do not foster moral change.
    I fear as long as we think along guilt and innocence, we do not really understand the nature and impact of sin. Sin is how I fail God and my neighbor. Sin is not failing my own code of conduct or ethics (point 4), but failing at love.
    Both the OT and NT define a righteous lifestyle.
    Ezekiel 18:14-17: Does not go to the mountain shrines, commits no adultery, gives bread to the hungry, covers the naked with clothing,charges no interest for a personal loan.
    1Tim 1:5: The goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith.

    I have heard it said that sin is downplayed in the honor-shame system. Much to the contrary. We can learn much in terms of valuing relationships and seeing how we fail at these ourselves countless times.

  7. I am still thinking about this article and answers given. I quote from above:

    “For example, in our situation in working with Aboriginal people it will mean that the whole family will be involved in the response and all will have a say…that the whole group where the incident happened will be assured of peace and resolution.”

    Just some days ago I came across these verses (CSB translation) Exodus 21:23: 23 If there is an injury, then you must give life for life, 24 “eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, bruise for bruise, wound for wound.”

    Not sure if this would fall under “restorative judgment” as in Exodus 22, but this is justice metet out instantly, and then the punishment is over. It also protects from the vendetta so feared in honor-shame societies, because a case is delt with and closed with the verdict of the elders (judicial assessment, Ex 21:22).

    This may not be applicable in this world at that point in history, but this is how God prescribes judiciary justice. It avoids the humiliations and damage that go with Western approaches to punishment and justice.

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