TT23 St Cross Seminar: Not for me: On the external function of guilt

Not for me: On the external function of guilt

You are welcome to attend this hybrid seminar in-person at St Cross College or online (Zoom). See registration details below.


 Not for me: On the external function of guilt


The standard way of thinking about emotions in cognitive science starts with their function. The function of the fear program, for instance, is to help the individual evade imminent dangers. This functionalist proposal illuminates the character of the fear program, e.g., the kinds of things that elicit fear, and the kinds of responses that fear produces. The functionalist approach has been extremely productive, but it faces a puzzle with the emotion of guilt, for it’s unclear what function the guilt program serves for the individual. As Deem & Ramsey put it: “It seems that it is good for you that others are guilt-prone…, it is less clear that being guilt-prone is good for the individuals themselves” (2016, 571). Extant functionalist attempts to solve this puzzle (e.g., Frank 1988) have important shortcomings. To resolve the puzzle, we argue that the functional approach has been overly restrictive. Some cognitive systems need to be understood in terms of the functions those systems serve, not for the individual himself, but for others. That is, some cognitive systems have functions that are external to the individual. Just as the function of an artifact needs to be understood in terms of the interests of the artisan, so too the function of some cognitive systems needs to be understood in terms of the interests of those (e.g., parents, partners, or teachers) who crafted or shaped the cognitive system. This provides an alternative way of thinking about the function of the guilt program. On the external approach, we need to consider the function of guilt from the perspective of those who installed or edited the guilt program in the individual. From that perspective, it’s plausible that a primary function of the guilt program is precisely to protect the individual(s) who stand to be harmed by the agent’s action.


Professor Shaun Nichols (Sage School of Philosophy, Cornell University)


In-person: The seminar will be held in the Ian Skipper Room, St Cross College (61 St Giles’, Oxford). Registration required – register here  

Zoom registration:


Wellcome Centre for Ethics and Humanities

About the Seminar Series

The New St Cross Special Ethics Seminars are jointly arranged by the Oxford Uehiro Centre and the Wellcome Centre for Ethics and Humanities.