The unavoidable guilt in every choice

Our latest translation is Emotional Truth: The philosophical content of emotional experiences. Alice Holzhey-Kunz explores the importance of the philosophical dimension of emotions, inverting the traditional relationship between emotions and philosohpy: instead of being mere objects of philosophical thought, some emotinos contain an inherent philosophical truth. In this extract she examines the guilt we face in every choice.

Everyday life certainly usually takes its habitual course. That is exonerative because every established rule and eery habit spares us a decision that we would otherwise have to make: when to get up, whether to have a shower, whether to have breakfast and if so what to eat, whether to go to work today at all and, if so, when and for how long and so on. Yet there is always still enough to decide, in small and large matters. We have already demonstrated in the chapter on anxiety the anxiety-inducing nature of every choice. In the centre was the unavoidable renunciation imposed on us by every choice, and the impossibility of knowing whether the choice favoured in the moment will also contain what we hoped from it. Now we return to the phenomenon of choice to show that every choice is also connected with guilt. Where that can be credibly justified, it can only be an ontological guilt  because ontical guilt is certainly always possible but is by no means always incurred.

Now it quickly becomes obvious that the unavoidable guilt in every choice is dual in nature. For one thing, the first unavoidable guilt consists in the mere fact that choosing means selecting one of the available possibilities and therefore rejecting all the others. It exists in relation to the unchosen possibilities that thereby lose their chance of being realised. This guilt continues to increase because no one who makes a choice can know what valuable potentialities he is thereby destroying. For another thing, the second ontological guilt consists in the fact that the choice is never made by itself but must be made actively by an individual. Every choice is an ‘I choose.’ A choice only comes about when someone is ready to make it himself. One therefore never chooses only one thing or another but one always chooses at the same time to make a choice oneself. Also for this ‘choice of the choice’ that is similarly unavoidable, everyone makes himself guilty, for who has allowed him to choose himself as he chooses? It is only ever he himself who thereby arrogates to himself the right that has not been granted to him from anywhere – in short, who empowers himself to choose. If we take a look at the pre-modern age, then precisely at this delicate point there is a higher, usually divine agency that empowers human beings – if at all – to choose freely. Today in the post-religious age, the questions ‘may I choose?’and ‘who gives me permission?’ fall eithers into the void or back on oneself and make a self-empowerment inescapable. This act of self-empowerment is experienced as (ontological) guilt

The depth of this feeling of carrying out an illegitimate act by the self-empowerment has been captured by the actor Karl Valentin in the sentence: ‘Mögen hätt’ ich schon wollen, aber dürfen hab’ ich mich nicht getraut’ – ‘I’d certainly have liked to but didn’t dare allow myself.’ This saying has struck many chords because it expresses what many people experience emotionally without being able to capture it in words themselves. 

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