HPS Brown Bag Talk. Grant Ramsey and Michael Deem - "Guilt by association?"


Location: 131 Decio Hall

Guilt presents us with an evolutionary puzzle. Unlike some basic emotions—fear or surprise, say—that have clear individual-level adaptive functions, guilt is more enigmatic. While it may be good for you that others are guilt prone, and good for the group as a whole, is guilt also good for the individual? In this paper, we provide an evolutionary perspective on the nature of guilt and whether it is an individual-level or group selected trait. We begin by surveying philosophical and psychological analyses of guilt, noting their parallels and problems, before arriving at a clear conception of guilt. We then examine its role in contemporary legal contexts, which provide clues to its original function. Finally, we provide the outlines of two evolutionary explanations for guilt. We argue that group selection probably promoted the capacity to experience guilt, but that there may have been a positive individual selection force as well.