Guilt and its Vicissitudes: Psychoanalytic Reflections on Morality (Book Review)

Author:  Hughes, Judith M.
Publisher: Routledge
Reviewed By: Ronald C. Naso, Winter 2008 (Vol. XXVIII, No. 1), pp. 34-36

Freud regarded guilt as central to the conflicted subjectivity of neurosis. He famously described it as motivated by the fear of punishment associated with the child’s wish to preserve his ambivalent ties to caregivers. Hughes new book, Guilt and its Vicissitudes: Psychoanalytic Reflections on Morality, demonstrates the significance of this formulation and how it fired the imagination of Melanie Klein and some of the greatest minds within the British school. At the same time, Hughes’ exegesis underscores how these views marked the beginning rather than endpoint of the conversation about this complex experience. Klein understood guilt as depressive anxiety, a distinctive form of mental anguish in which one’s hate is experienced as injurious to loved ones. Like Freud, she discerned workings of ambivalence at its core, but Hughes ably brings forth the very different meanings of this concept for each of these theorists. Freud believed that the fear of punishment motivating guilt represented a means of forestalling the loss of love. It was for this reason reducible to self-interest. By contrast, Klein regarded guilt as the inevitable consequence of the recognition that one’s bad objects are (split off) representations of loved ones. Guilt emerges from glimpsing the destructiveness of one’s hate within an inner world populated by polarized self and object images.

Freud’s account begins with the futility of instinctual renunciation. It is simply not possible for human beings to live without desire, without pursuing that which ultimately brings them pleasure. Whereas behavioral conformity satisfies the demands of others, satisfying inner demands is problematized by virtue of the individual’s privileged access to this thoughts and feelings. In the absence of self-deception or defense, the inner gaze of conscience is inescapable, its demands insatiable. Freud pitted desire against an ever-vigilant, uncompromising moral sensibility that defines who one is.

Klein (1948) distinguishes two elements of Freud’s thesis that she contends are separable: The first is his notion that guilt emerges only after the establishment of the superego, following the resolution of the Oedipus complex; the second understands the anxiety of ambivalence as its underpinning, a formulation which she was to elaborate in great detail. She found support for this idea in Abraham’s notion that preoedipal cannibalistic urges sometimes serve the purposes of identification and preservation of the object, leading to her well-known positing of two forms of anxiety: in persecutory anxiety, the integrity of the ego is threatened whereas depressive anxiety involves the perception that aggressive fantasies harm good internal objects. Linking guilt with depressive anxiety posed a significant challenge to Freud’s dating of the emergence of conscience, yet exploited an ambiguity in his thinking that seemed to suggest a kind of moral anxiety prior to the establishment of the superego, which Klein aligned with what later was to be understood as libidinal object constancy, in which instinctual rather than interpersonal factors were decisive. Real objects played only a secondary role in Klein’s thinking; it was the inner world of objects, of phantasy (as opposed to fantasy) and the processes of projection/introjections that occupied center stage.

Hughes informs us that both Freud and Klein recognized the limitations of ambivalence as an explanation of guilt experience. For Freud, ambivalence owed its existence to a kind of ancestral original sin of patricide, for which the sons later feel guilt. Guilt, he reasoned, rested on the opposition of these forces whose meanings are both pre-formed and transmitted unconsciously from generation to generation. Klein emphasized the more proximate of guilt sources in the child’s internal world, less directly burdened by such assumptions, but also divorced from social norms. Both recognized that guilt often involves no transgression or misdeed. They reasoned that it is only by virtue of the confusion of thought with deed that the sense of guilt, particularly in its unconscious variations, is possible. So powerful is this sense that Klein envisioned two primary outcomes: “the over-riding urge to preserve, repair or revive the loved objects” (Klein, p.120); or the manic defense. Together, ambivalence and “omnipotence of thought” (Hughes, p. 2) condition guilt, making it an existential circumstance of the human condition.

Hughes notices that normativity or what she describes as “a sociological construal of guilt” (p. 105) sets Freud’s account apart from that of Klein. For Freud, wrongfulness always is conceptualized relative to that which threatens punishment or loss of love. In this view, the agent enters the moral universe reluctantly, motivated by a wish to retain his parent’s love while harboring anger and resentment toward them. Instinctual renunciation is a sacrifice for which he expects compensation in the form of love and acceptance despite his ambivalence.

By contrast, Klein portrays the infant as deeply troubled by its beliefs about its capacity to harm loved ones. The child is embedded in multiple relationships and, as a result, his concerns about others, although largely derivative of fantasies mediated by projection and introjections, betoken (proto-) moral agency from the beginning. What is less clear is how the infant/child transitions from an orientation toward objects that is primarily pleasure seeking to one that is truly interpersonal. Klein wants it to be possible for ambivalence to mediate this transformation. But this hope is likely to be disappointed if she does not abandon Freud’s concept of libido, a step she was unwilling to consider. If human action is irreducibly self-interested, ambivalence and/or concern lead logically to regret rather than to remorse. I feel sad that I have harmed or destroyed those things or people who satisfy my needs and provide me with experiences of pleasure. I regret that I have done something that diminishes my pleasure. But to regret actions whose consequences have untoward consequences is not to feel guilt. The latter requires that I endorse a set of norms governing my thoughts, feelings, and actions, above and beyond my unhappiness with their consequences (Joyce, 2006). These norms or commitments are precisely what provide morality with its prescriptive authority. What separates masochism from guilt is the sense that one not only needs (wishes for), but also deserves punishment. The two are not equivalent. One can easily feel one without the other; conflating the two misses something distinctive about moral experience. Without smuggling into her formulation the idea of attachment as an irreducible aspect of human relationships with actual caregivers, Klein’s concern never wears a completely human face.

Lewis (1991), for example, describes guilt as a self-conscious emotion that depends on an appreciation of standards, rules, and goals (SRGs) that “…are established both out of biological imperatives, the drive quality of primary emotions, and from goals as articulated by the culture in which they are born” (p. 51). Guilt can neither be present from the beginning nor conceptualized purely in terms of internal (or instinctual) experience because it depends on a great deal of cognitive development and learning. It requires the capacity to evaluate thoughts, feelings, and behaviors relative to SRGs and to draw conclusions about the self on the basis of such evaluation. These abilities typically emerge no earlier than age two. Lewis informs us further that self-evaluation may be global or specific, and distinguishes shame from guilt on this basis. Both emotions entail deviation (from SRGs) and a negative assessment of self. However, shame involves global, negative self-assessments of oneself as worthless and contemptible. By contrast, guilt reflects a more measured and specific negative assessment that one has violated a rule. It does not focus on the totality of self or personality. In guilt, one acknowledges failure without necessarily feeling that one is a failure.

A simple example may help to focus several of these themes. While shopping in a grocery store, a woman eats several grapes from the batch she plan to purchase. She does so without giving any particular thought to her action, except perhaps feeling some curiosity about their taste and enjoying the experience of eating them. Only when she returns home does it occur to her that she did not pay for what she had eaten and immediately feels a strong sense of guilt. How are we to understand this experience? On the one hand, it is easy to imagine how ambivalence plays a role in the experience. The desires she acted on conflict with the principles she holds and, we’re tempted to say, the norms governing her behavior in this situation. One supposes it is possible to make a case for Kleinian ambivalence by interpreting her actions and setting as unconscious stand-ins for internal objects toward whom her behavior is experienced as aggressive and injurious. This last point is key: Without some appreciation of norms, without believing them to obligatory, how would one get the idea that eating grapes is wrong or harmful, let alone be troubled by it?

A more parsimonious explanation invokes the kinds of SRGs of which Lewis speaks. It portrays the agent as possessing a clear sense of what she has done and how it departs from the standards that she holds. Reality testing is maintained; the subject has not confused thought with deed. Rather, she experiences the thought “I must not steal” as binding. This is important because it involves an experience distinguishable from, and perhaps the antithesis of, ambivalence. Ambivalence prompts deliberation and further consideration. It reflects uncertainty and mixed feelings that require sorting out. Guilt often functions as an imperative, putting an end to deliberation and prompting action (reparation). It is most conspicuous when it compels us to act in a matter contrary to our wishes. It is for this reason that we ought not to dismiss Freud’s idea of the need of punishment too quickly, without first reflecting on how it captures that sense of accountability unique to emotions of self-assessment. Recognizing this authority made Freud’s phylogenetic speculations a necessary, if misguided, gambit that attempted to ground moral feeling in something other the variable constructions of self-interested individuals. Klein felt she accomplished this by giving full expression to his dual instinct theory.

These are but some of the issues Judith Hughes invites us to consider. At one level, Hughes offers a historical account of guilt from Freud through its development and elaboration in the unique perspective of Klein and the British School. It is a work of meticulous scholarship that underscores the originality of Klein’s thought. At another level, Hughes book speaks to the importance of agency that is increasingly under attack within postmodern thought. The latter rightly draws our attention to the myriad forces shaping identity, but with the unfortunate consequence of diminishing the importance of guilt by no longer regarding it as necessary or inevitable. Hughes thoughtful exegesis underscores the importance of beliefs, but also discerns in guilt experience something real and abiding about the human condition. Read in this way, her survey is a cogent and timely response to those who regard the agency of conscience as superannuated.


Joyce, R. (2006). The evolution of morality. MIT Press: Cambridge, MA.
Klein, M. (1948). A contribution to the theory of anxiety and guilt. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 29, 114-123.
Lewis, M. (1991). Self-conscious emotions and the development of self. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 39, 45-73.


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