Knowledge begets responsibility which begets guilt

Knowledge begets responsibility which begets guilt

Guilt is both a curse and a salvation. I conclude that guilt is perhaps one of the few internal mechanisms that can prevent human self-destruction.

Rational analysis and recognition of self preservation can drive us to correcting problems that have immediate and visible impact on our life but it is this internal friction we call guilt upon which we must depend for avoiding long term consequences resulting from our behavior.

Guilt is difficult to analyze because it is ‘dumb’. It is a feeling of being blocked and frustrated without knowing why we feel that way. This develops when embraced by powerlessness while clutched by the unknown. Guilt is a bind of life.

A feeling of guilt emanates from our peculiar ability to apprehend life’s totality but unable to move in relation to it. “This real guilt partly explains willing subordinacy to his culture: after all, the world of men is even more dazzling and miraculous in its richness than the awesomeness of nature. Also, subordinacy comes naturally from man’s basic experience of being nourished and cared for; it is a logical response to social altruism.”—Ernest Becker.

Stewardship-- the conducting, supervising, or managing of something… the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one’s care…

Stewardship is a word used often in the Bible and was at one time used often in England. It was used in England because the youth of the landed aristocracy was taught that they were responsible for the care of the family properties in such a way that they passed on to the next generation an inheritance equal to but more appropriately larger than that received. Each generation was not the owner but was the steward for the family estates. Any individual who squandered the inheritance was a traitor to the family.

I am inclined to think that each human generation must consider itself as the steward of the earth and therefore must make available to the succeeding generations an inheritance undiminished to that received.

In this context what does “careful and responsible management” mean? I would say that there are two things that must be begun to make the whole process feasible. The first is that the public must be convinced that it is a responsible caretaker and not an owner and secondly the public must be provided with an acceptable standard whereby it can judge how each major issue affects the accomplishment of the overall task. This is an ongoing forever responsibility for every nation but for the purpose of discussion I am going to speak about it as localized to the US.

Selfishness and greed are fundamental components of human nature. How does a nation cause its people to temper this nature when the payoff goes not to the generation presently in charge but to generations yet to come in the very distant future? Generations too far removed to be encompassed by the evolved biological impulse to care for ones kin.

How is it possible to cause a man or woman to have the same concern for a generation five times removed as that man or woman has for their own progeny?

I suspect it is not possible, but it does seem to me to be necessary to accomplish the task of stewardship.

Guilt may be our only hope for human acceptance of the responsibility of stewardship.

Your writing is convoluted as usual, but ultimately I have to say you do have a point. People are concerned with things that are immediate threats - it’s harder to care about something that’s going to happen after you are dead. There are some very responsible and wise people who have the forethought to look ahead into the future when it comes to the environment, global warming, etc - but most people don’t give a damn until it’s actually at their doorstep. Not sure what the debate is here, but I don’t think people can be guilted into caring about the future. I don’t know what the solution is, really. But the people in charge of environmental policy should be the most forward thinking motherfuckers on the planet, certainly.

Those forward looking folks are goaded into action by the feeling of guilt.

Wow… how often do you see that many sentence fragments side by side with that run-on sentences?

As far as the content of your post goes, I think I prefer the version out of the Genesis. You know, the one with the man, the garden, the snake, and the tree. At least I could understand Moses’ writing the first time through.

Happily, I don’t feel particularly guilty about my stewardship of the earth. I guess that means that even though I occasionally burn my trash, and often forget to recycle, I’m a responsible steward in your eyes?

Really? I hadn’t heard this before. My understanding was that the “steward” of an estate was the guy you had in overall charge of the place, sort of a overall commander of gardeners and maids and whathaveyou, but wasn’t himself a family member. Just another servant. Your point would still stand, of course, but I wouldn’t mind another view on this.

As to your overall point; I don’t feel that guilt. At least in emotional terms, I honestly feel no twinge of conscience about polluting the Earth horribly. I don’t know why. Like you say, I don’t have that concern for people five generations down. Yet, I still have an *intellectual * guilt; I know what my actions will mean, and though I have no emotional reaction, I still want to preserve the Earth for people in the future. So I don’t need emotional guilt. You might argue that if I did feel it, I would do more… and i’d probably say you were right about that. I guess really I agree with your general point, in that guilt can help cultivate this feeling of stewardship, but I don’t think it’s necessary. Just an intensifier.

Knowledge begets responsibility which begets guilt. This is why the popular saying is “ignorance is bliss”.

Knowledge is the foundation. A sense of guilt will also follow the failure to acquire knowledge. This may be the begining of the slippery slope for you. A little touch of knowledge can lead to more.

I’ve often wondered if the kid at Walmart with Down Syndrome who pushes carts doesn’t have a better life.

Never has for me. Knowledge increases my options, some of which will have consequences for which I may have to take responsibility, which sometimes leads to guilt, but the transitive process is by no means automatic. Frankly, the notion that guilt is a desirable means to an end (in this case, to motivate more environmentalism) is suspicious. It’s too easy a tool for humans to hold power over other humans.

The questions I would like to ask everyone are:

  1. Do you agree that the acceptance of stewardship responsibility for this planet is vitally important?
  2. Do you think that this human characteristic of guilt can be important for stewardship to happen?
  3. Do you have a different idea whereby this stewardship might develop?
  4. Do you give a damn?

You’ve obviously spent a great deal of time thinking about this, but I’ll venture a comment not backed up with much reflection. The feeling of stewardship is probably similar to parental obligation, you’re here and no one else is, this is your kid, you then place the needs of the child above the needs of your own. I don’t believe guilt plays a role at all.


There is a natural desire in every parent for the world to be a better place for their children then it was for them, this may speak more to the natural human instinct for progress more than familial obligation, still, forward thinking 5 generations hence isn’t necessary. Your children will feel the same way and want to advance progress, cure diseases, harness violent nature, etc.

  1. Do you agree that the acceptance of stewardship responsibility for this planet is vitally important?

Yes, I do.

  1. Do you think that this human characteristic of guilt can be important for stewardship to happen?

Absolutely not!

  1. Do you have a different idea whereby this stewardship might develop?

Education, wilderness experiences, mindfulness, self-education, teaching others, joining active green groups, living simply without many possessions, studying the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi.

  1. Do you give a damn?

See #1

I’ve enjoyed this and another essay you’ve written. The fact that you’ve taken an interest in essay writing and serious topics is a good thing.

Psychologically speaking, guilt is a destructive emotion. It tends to burden people and freeze them in their tracks. It’s even one of the signs of depression, especially in young people.

Accepting responsibility is different from feeling guilt. That isn’t a negative feeling guilty. If you have been irresponsible in the past, you can’t change the action (or lact of action) itself. Accepting responsibility means that you allow yourself to examine the irresponsible action(s) to see what you can do to set the consequences in balance.

Give a lot of quiet thought to it. List those things which you can do towards making things right again. If you can’t make things right again, list those things you can do that will be a reasonable balance.

Once you have your list, begin to do these things Some of them you may do for the rest of your life. Some of them may be a one time event.

If you ever begin to feel guilt, refresh yourself with nature, quietness, writing and reading. You also have a right to be nourished and cared for.

You might like this book: The Tracker by Tom Brown


I am informed by psychology that guilt happens. The big question, as I see it, is how to make this human propensity an instrument for improving the chances of survival of the race.

Think we’re doing just fine