ERC Roots of Responsibility will sponsor a workshop on Guilt, Shame, and Regret, to be held on Sunday 2–Monday 3 April 2023, in person at The Queen's College, Oxford. This workshop is organised by RoR's Rachel Achs, in collaboration with Giulia Luvisotto and the Academy of Finland project, Responsible Beliefs: Why Ethics and Epistemology Need Each Other.


About the workshop

Guilt, shame, and regret are all painful “self-consciousness” emotions, commonly directed toward ourselves or the products of our agency. This conference aims to investigate their nature and role within our capacities for rational and moral self-governance.


Sunday 2 April

Jordan Mackenzie, “Survivor Guilt” (joint work with Mike Zhao)
Comments: Alexander Greenberg

Fifteen-minute break

Christopher Bennett, “Guilt as an Expressive Emotion”
Comments: Lucy McDonald


Sophie-Grace Chappell, “Agamemnon at Aulis: A Misfiring Example in Williams”
Comments: James Warren

Fifteen-minute break

Andreas Carlsson, “A Time for Guilt”
Comments: Maria Alvarez

Half-hour break

Oded Na’aman, “Having Done Wrong”
Comments: Michael Brady

Workshop dinner at The Queen’s College


Monday 3 April

Antti Kauppinen, “Saying Sorry”
Comments: Luke Russell

Fifteen-minute break

Nomy Arpaly, “Are There Fitting Emotions?”
Comments: Alex Grzankowski


Edward Harcourt, “Guilt, Shame, and the ‘Morality System’
Comments: James Laing


Presenters, Titles, & Abstracts

Nomy Arpaly (Brown) - Are There Fitting Emotions?

Abstract. In this talk, I will sketch a philosophical account of emotion. On this account, an emotion would have three components - one of a roughly cognitive nature, one deeply dependent on desire, and one that is neither cognitive nor conative. I will use the account to explain some complex phenomena involving the way we make moral assessments of agents on the basis of their emotions, with special attention to guilt.

Christopher Bennett (Sheffield) - Guilt as an Expressive Emotion

Abstract. This talk will start to give shape to the idea of an ‘expressive emotion.’ An emotion is expressive, I will say, if it is best explained by reference to an expressive action. An expressive action is an action that has expressive properties that relate to the significance of a situation, and which is performed to mark the situation as in some way extraordinary (Bennett 2016; 2021; 2022).

Why might one think that there are emotions that are best explained by reference to an expressive action? I will argue for four main conclusions about expressive emotions:

1.     They are emotions for which the conditions of fittingness specified by the emotion’s formal object are shared with the conditions of appropriateness (in a sense to be explained) of an expressive action.

2.     They are emotions the phenomenology of which is best explained by reference to an expressive action.

3.     They are emotions the psychological role of which is the same as that of expressive actions, namely, to lift situations out of the mundane and mark them as in some way extraordinary.

4.     They are emotions for which there can be non-instrumental reasons; and the nature of such reasons is best explained by reference to an expressive action.

I will argue that the expressive theory gives a better explanation than rival theories of how emotions are to be individuated; in what their unity consists; and how there can be non-instrumental reasons for emotions.

I do not claim that the expressive theory applies to everything that is called ‘emotion.’ Emotions that I am interested in include pride, shame, guilt, joy, disappointment, awe – these and others I will argue should be classified as expressive emotions. In this paper I focus on the emotion of guilt, arguing that it is best understood in relation to the expressive action of dissociation (from wrongdoing).

Andreas Carlsson (Inland Norway)- A Time for Guilt

Abstract. Affective attitudes tend to diminish over time. This raises a general puzzle in the philosophy of emotions (Moller 2001; Marusic 2022). When we first experience these attitudes, they seem perfectly appropriate reactions to certain facts. If these facts don’t change, how can it be fitting that the affective attitudes change? The literature offers different answers. According to Howard (2022) many feelings remain fitting until the agent dies. According to Na’aman (2019) many affective attitudes are rationally self-consuming: they become less fitting the longer they endure. In this paper, I investigate whether these two competing accounts make sense of the temporality of guilt and the closely related issue of whether blameworthiness can cease and disappear. I will argue that both accounts yield counterintuitive implications when we consider the close connection between guilt and blameworthiness. I will then develop an alternative view of this connection, according to which fitting (self-) blame is not a sufficient condition on blameworthiness.

Sophie-Grace Chappell (Open) - Agamemnon at Aulis: A Misfiring Example in Williams

Abstract. Williams’ discussion of dilemmas in his classic paper “Ethical consistency” famously focuses on an example that has not bothered commentators on and respondents to Williams as much as it should have bothered them: the example of Agamemnon in Aeschylus’ play. In this paper I try to pick apart what Williams wants to say from what is really going on in the text that he unfortunately chooses for his example. I compare with Williams’ discussion of Agamemnon four other commentators on this crucial passage in Aeschylus’ play: Plato, Socrates, Aristotle—and Bernard Williams’ Greats tutor Eduard Fraenkel, whose epochal Corpus Christi seminars on the play Williams attended (along with Iris Murdoch, Hugh Lloyd Jones, and other rising stars of the time). I shall argue that these commentators led Williams astray. They are surprisingly prone to the same flaws of rationalism, impersonality, and moralism in making sense of Aeschylus’ extraordinarily subtle and brilliant depiction of Agamemnon; and Williams’ discussion inherits these flaws.

This is an obviously ironic, especially given that a very fruitful reading of the passage—one that I think makes much better sense of what Aeschylus actually says—points a deeply Williamsian moral. It takes Agamemnon at Aulis as a study of a key step in the corruption of a character, a study that has gets its power and its horror from its ability to show us how that process looks from Agamemnon’s own viewpoint.

Edward Harcourt (Oxford) - Guilt, Shame and the ‘Morality System’

Abstract. Enemies of the ‘morality system’ tend to be friends of shame. This was certainly true of Wollheim – though the phrase ‘the morality system’ came later – and with some qualifications it is also true of Williams, who of course introduced the phrase. The phrase notwithstanding, it’s hard to say exactly how the different bits of the morality system are supposed form a system – possibly because they don’t. Instead, I shall think of this undoubtedly ‘distinctive formation within the ethical’ as giving special significance at least to the ideas of moral obligation; of interiority as opposed to sociality; and of autonomy and moral responsibility. Guilt and the morality system supposedly belong together because, again supposedly, guilt is the emotion that goes with failures to meet distinctively moral obligations for which one is responsible. Shame by contrast is said to have a much wider range of intelligible objects, to be more loosely associated with responsibility and more closely associated with the mere judgment of others.

I’ve argued in previous work that the contrasts along these various dimensions between guilt and shame are exaggerated and sometimes ill-grounded, and so do not underwrite a credible normative distinction between the two emotions, distinct though they surely are. The point was not, however, to rehabilitate shame for the morality system but rather to argue that both guilt and shame have a proper place outside it. In this paper I want to raise two challenges for that ambition, arising as it were from opposite directions, and to try to respond to them. The first challenge is that there is after all a distinctive form of shame which belongs especially closely with moral obligation and responsibility and which, while still social, is less thoroughly other-involving than other recognizable forms of the emotion. The second challenge is that there is a distinctive form of guilt – survivor guilt – which does not belong especially closely with morality.

Antti Kauppinen (Helsinki) - Saying Sorry

Abstract. It is quite obvious that by default, we owe an apology to people we’ve wronged. In such cases, saying ‘sorry’ is an important part of taking responsibility for what we’ve done and expresses our guilt for it. Feeling guilt and expressing it shows that we don’t just believe we’ve done wrong, but that we care about the relevant norm, the victim, and our relationship to them, and are committed to act in ways that are consistent with this in the future. But saying ‘sorry’ can also express agent-regret or shame. Sometimes we should apologize even though we’re not responsible for wrongdoing, as in Williams’s Lorry Driver case or in collective shame scenarios. Contrary to some recent claims, I argue that this doesn’t amount to taking backward-looking responsibility for action or show that we are after all somehow responsible in these cases. Instead, in these scenarios, we have reason to take prospective responsibility for engaging in a kind of responsibility ritual. The distinctive mark of this is that the addressee has a duty to dismiss the apology. Indeed, the agent is entitled to resent the addressee who doesn’t turn down the apology, or even with the addressee who forgives the agent, since there is nothing to forgive. Like actual responsibility-taking, engaging in a responsibility ritual serves a purpose. The willingness to take on what Jordan Mackenzie calls the role of the ‘bad guy’ amounts to recognizing the acceptability of the addressee’s predictable negative feelings and reaffirming the importance of the personal or moral relationship, in part by way of making public that the harm done has compelled one to engage in pained self-examination to ensure that one genuinely hasn’t acted with ill will or negligently. But it doesn’t change the fact that those negative feelings towards the agent are in these cases strictly speaking unreasonable, which is why the onus is on the addressees to publicly distance themselves from them in response to the apology. In a society of purely rational beings, there would be no need for the responsibility ritual. The reason to engage in it, I will suggest, is an instance of the tribute that morality pays to human nature.

Oded Na’aman (HUJI) - Having Done Wrong

Abstract. In this essay I reflect on my wrongdoings as a soldier in the Israeli military. I propose that while moral repair should offer some relief, it should also allow for recurrent horror and anguish at one’s wrongdoing. The shock of self-recognition can be essential to the person one has become and should therefore persist even if and when moral repair has been completed.

Jordan MacKenzie (Virginia Tech) [with Mike Zhao] - Survivor Guilt

Abstract. We often feel survivor guilt when the very circumstances that harm others leave us unscathed. Although survivor guilt is both commonplace and intelligible, it raises a puzzle for the standard philosophical account of guilt, according to which people feel guilt only when they take themselves to be morally blameworthy. The standard account implies that survivor guilt is uniformly unfitting, as people are not blameworthy simply for having fared better than others. In this paper, we offer a rival account of guilt, the relational account of guilt, which makes sense of survivor guilt and other forms of guilt without self-blame while preserving the intelligibility of guilt about wrongdoing. According to this account, guilt involves the feeling of being unable to justify ourselves to others, and we lack self-justification when we (however blamelessly) stand on the positive side of an undesirable asymmetry with them. When someone survives something that those around her do not, the disparity in outcome constitutes an asymmetry that is often undesirable, because it arises from luck or violates a requirement of solidarity. Thus, survivors may fittingly feel guilt.

Respondents (alphabetical order by surname)

  • Maria Alvarez (KCL)
  • Michael Brady (Glasgow)
  • Alex Grzankowski (Birkbeck)
  • James Laing (Edinburgh)
  • Lucy McDonald (Cambridge)
  • Luke Russell (Sydney)
  • Alexander Greenberg (Southampton)
  • James Warren (Cambridge)


Assaf Sharon (Tel Aviv), who was going to respond to the presentation by Jordan Mackenzie, is unfortunately no longer able to attend the workshop. Alexander Greenberg (Southampton) is responding to Jordon in Assaf's stead.

Participating in the workshop

We encourage colleagues and especially postgraduate students to attend. Please spread the word. Attendance to the event is free, but space is limited, and registration is essential. If you are interested in attending, please register from the following Eventbrite page:

Enquiries about the workshop can be submitted via the message form on this website.

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