Guilt or remorse is an emotion that occurs when a person feels that his behavior has fallen short of what his own ethical principles called for him to do (or not do). It is a form of regret.
Ayn Rand placed a great deal of emphasis on guilt as a means of controlling people, and titled chapter 19 of Atlas Shrugged "The Face Without Pain or Fear or Guilt." One of her characters stated, "The worst guilt is to accept an undeserved guilt".
George H. Smith, in Atheism: The Case Against God, writes that people can be controlled by either physical or psychological sanctions: "A physical sanction, if successful, causes the emotion of fear. A psychological sanction, if successful, causes the emotion of guilt. A man motivated by fear may still retain an element of rebelliousness, of determination to strike back given the opportunity. A man motivated by guilt, however, is a man with a broken spirit; he will obey the rules without question."
Shame and guilt sometimes, but not always coincide; either can exist independently of the other. A person can feel ashamed of an act that he regards as foolish but not morally wrong, without feeling guilt. He can also feel guilty about committing an immoral act without feeling shame, for example if he does not care about the opinion of others or if others do not know about the act that he committed.
In some jurisdictions, governmental courts can consider a defendant's remorse (or lack thereof) as a factor relevant to sentencing for criminal offenses. It could be considered relevant to his risk of re-offending; if he is likely to commit a new crime, then the court might deem it appropriate to protect society by imprisoning him for a longer period of time. Of course, there can be epistemological problems involved in determining the defendant's level of remorse; for example, he might make an insincere statement of regret in allocution. Sometimes his remorse or lack thereof can be inferred from his behavior, such as attempting to make amends for his behavior or engaging in similar criminal behavior. However, these actions too could be done with the intention of giving the court a certain impression, rather than out of genuine remorse.
The courts' giving defendants extra prison time for lack of remorse could be considered an infringement of freedom of thought. As mentioned above, a defendant could quite easily feel regret, but not remorse, for his crime. His fear of future punishment might suffice to deter him from further lawbreaking. A defendant could also feel genuine remorse and yet still re-offend, if he succumbs to temptation or changes his mind about his ethical principles later. In a libertarian judicial system, the plaintiff might consider his perceptions of the defendant's level of regret in deciding how strict or forgiving to be in exacting restitution.
- Smith, George H.. "Religious Morality". Atheism: The Case Against God. pp. 173. http://www.andrew.cmu.edu/user/jksadegh/A%20Good%20Atheist%20Secularist%20Skeptical%20Book%20Collection/SMITH_The_Case_Against-God.htm.
- Tannehill, Morris and Linda (1970). "Rectification of Injustice". The Market for Liberty. pp. 101. "Assuming the aggressor could not make immediate payment of his entire debt, the method used to collect it would depend on the amount involved, the nature of the aggression, the aggressor's past record and present attitude, and any other pertinent variables."
- Guilt (emotion) on Wikipedia