Why the Concept of Moral Guilt Has No Meaning in Secular Culture

Leah Hickman | Contributor to ChristianHeadlines.com | Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Why the Concept of Moral Guilt Has No Meaning in Secular Culture

In this interesting article from the New York Times, psychologists from various secular universities discuss the importance of helping children develop a healthy sense of what they call “moral guilt.” Yet their relativistic view of morality leads to a number of inconsistencies that only a biblical worldview can iron out.

To begin her article, M.D. Perri Klass cites Dr. Tina Malti of the University of Toronto, who writes, “Moral guilt is healthy, good to develop…. It helps the child refrain from aggression, antisocial behavior” while also promoting “prosocial behavior.” Here, Dr. Malti seems to equate prosocial behavior with moral behavior. In her view, guilt simply keeps kids from doing socially unacceptable things.

Another professor cited in the article echoes this view of morality. Professor Roy Richard Grinker asserts that part of being raised in a certain cultural setting involves “a kind of internalization of the values that a society holds.” He reduces morality to a society’s values—to human-set standards that fluctuate with society’s whims. Yet the topic of the article still necessitates the use of terms such as “right” and “wrong”—terms that become hard to pin down in a society of constantly changing standards.

Advising parents with children who struggle with excessive guilt, Klass encourages them to emphasize “not that there is something wrong with the child, but that the child chose to do something wrong, with certain results.” Yet later, she cites a University of Connecticut professor who encourages parents to give their children “concrete strategies for being better going forward” (emphasis added).

Notice this professor does not refer to strategies for “doing” or “acting” better but “being” better. This suggests that perhaps there is something wrong with the child after all—a deeper issue that led to the wrong actions. But if humans determine their own standard for right and wrong, who’s to say that the child was wrong in the first place? We could easily say that parents who attempt to help their child “be better” are simply imposing their personal morality on their children.

At the end of the article, a New York University professor emphasizes that guilt is only useful in so far as it helps kids in “their capacity to know right and wrong, to behave in that right way, and when they don’t to repair it with honesty and straightforwardness.” However, if that “right and wrong” is determined solely by society’s values, as the rest of the article suggests, then our poor kids are going to have a tough job knowing what right and wrong is. No amount of guilt will do them any good unless the knowledge of absolute truth drives that guilt. No attempts at “being better” will amount to anything without the hope of the Gospel and the promise of new life in Christ.

In the biblical worldview, guilt is more than an alarm that goes off to warn people of their antisocial behavior. It’s a right response to how we should feel as sinners before a holy God. It should turn us toward the Savior, making us even more grateful for his forgiveness and for the chance we have to truly “become better” in the eyes of God rather than in the ever shifting eyes of man.


Leah Hickman is a 2017 graduate of Hillsdale College’s English program. She has written pieces for multiple Hillsdale College campus publications as well as for BreakPoint.org, ChristianAnswers.net/Spotlight, and the Discover Laura Blog. Read more by Leah at aworldofgrasspeople.blogspot.com.

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Publication date: November 29, 2017