Atonement, guilt and what it all means

In Crime and Punishment Fyodor Dostoevsky explores a number of contemporary themes such as the role ideology plays in intentions, corruption, morality and free will.

The subtext of his novel is not just about modern psychology and the role of the individual caught up in circumstances beyond his control, but also whether retributive justice works and if there is such thing as punishment ever truly fitting the crime and whether there can ever be atonement.

Another writer, Ian McEwan, explores the theme of atonement in his eponymous novel and, inevitably, enters the realm of neurobiology and free will.

Atonement, of course, cannot take place without a full realization of personal guilt and an understanding of the concepts of right and wrong. This is one of the reasons why atonement features heavily as a behavior and mental states manipulation tool for a variety of organizations and institutions such as the Church and mental health institutions.

The reason we even need such a device is because we understand that we all make mistakes and we are all subject to neurobiological phenomena that change our perception and can rewire our reality.

Sometimes that can be beneficial and we can get outcomes we would never have thought possible. At other times it blindsides us, leading us into bad choices that only lead us into situations where the right thing to do becomes very hard for us.

In an ideal world, where our motivation, as a whole, is wholesome and our lifespan is sufficiently long, we need to have some way of pressing the “reset” button that allows us to realign ourselves with our values and make our actions truly meaningful.

None of this happens without work which means that even in our attempt to guide ourselves from a place where we are unhappy towards one where we are happier (because the action decreases the cognitive dissonance we feel) we need to experience the need for ourselves, otherwise our motivation will be insufficiently strong to help us get there.

Belief in atonement is all-inclusive. If we want it for ourselves we cannot, logically, exclude it for anyone else. And if we want it for everyone then it changes the way we see people, how we perceive justice and what we expect punishment to be. It completely transforms our understanding of guilt and what it is supposed to do and it also changes our understanding of social emotions.

We’re at that moment in our history of development where we can look at our emotions, the things we prize and the ideas that drive us and actually understand their provenance and the way they propagate through our brain. That level of understanding, nascent as it may be, comes with its own call to action. What we change of our world systems and how is every bit as important as why, and for once we cannot separate any aspect of it.

Just like coffee and donuts, cookies, croissants and chocolate cake go together with the Sunday Read. The whole is always greater than the sum of its parts. Have an awesome Sunday wherever you are.

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