Scholars Describe Guilt in 3 Disciplines

Three leading academics in Buddhism, psychology, and comparative literature took audience members on a guilt trip yesterday evening.

Harvard Psychology Professor Steven Pinker, Columbia Professor of Buddhism Robert A.F. Thurman ’62, and Harvard Professor of Literature William Mills Todd III spoke in front of a packed Tsai auditorium audience of undergraduates and members of the Cambridge community about views of guilt in their respective disciplines.

“Anyone who is either Jewish or Catholic has a feeling that guilt is essential to life,” said Pinker, joking that the guiltiest countries in the world should be Ireland, Italy, and Israel.

Pinker’s speech focused on guilt from an evolutionary and game-theory perspective.

“We are neither simple selfish organisms nor indiscriminate altruists,” he said.

He argued that a sense of shame increases a society’s ability to survive by ensuring that individuals treat each other equally.

The Undergraduate Committee of the Harvard Humanities Center organized the event after Liz C. Goodwin ’08, who is also a former Crimson news executive, developed the idea of examining guilt from a variety of academic disciplines last year.

While Pinker addressed the psychology behind guilt, Thurman—the first American ordained as a Tibetan Buddhist Monk—discussed the concept of immortal guilt in the Buddhist belief of reincarnation.

“The minute you’re killed in a war, you could be reborn as an enemy,” he said. “If you lose your mind to blind hatred against those who have wronged you, you will be paying for that in the future.”

Thurman, who is the father of actress Uma Thurman, noted that guilt is a “useful emotion” as a tool of mental self-discipline and prevents people from harming each other.

Todd took a literary approach to guilt by exploring shame and forgiveness as a theme for Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky.

“Guilt is the force that enables you to understand that you’ve done someone wrong,” said Todd.

Chiara Condi ’08, the chair of the committee that organized the event, said she was pleased that “someone who works on literature can discuss and find points of agreement with someone who works on science and someone who works on religion.”

The undergraduate committee, which was founded last year, also publishes Humanitas—a humanities journal of undergraduate essays from a wide range of departments.

While no consensus on the purpose or definition of guilt emerged from the panel, many of the audience members were surprised by the diverse approaches taken by the speakers, according to Condi.

“I don’t have a better idea of what guilt is, but I do have a better understanding of different ways of looking at it,” said Jay R. Pritchett ’11 after the event.