There are two Pali words, hiri and ottappa, that are sometimes rendered as guilt and shame, but I think these are misleading translations and should be abandoned. They are unhelpful partly because they come with a lot of baggage from Christian tradition, and partly because in Buddhist usage these are considered healthy or skillful states rather than unhealthy or unskillful states.

There is no direct equivalent in English, but I suggest we translate these words as conscience and respect. They are considered mental factors or emotional states that provide for the inner regulation of behavior on the personal and social level, respectively. They are considered the “twin guardians of the world” because they prevent people from committing unethical acts of body, speech, or mind.

The word hiri suggests the idea that a person would just not do certain things because they know them to be inappropriate and harmful. In common speech we say, “I would be ashamed to do that,” but we don’t mean a person feels the full weight of shame as a psychological burden, only that they intuitively “know better” than to do it.

We might say they have too much self-respect to transgress beyond a certain point. I might tell little white lies, for example, but would not bring myself to be untruthful about something really consequential. Or I might squash mosquitoes, but my conscience would prevent me from killing a dog or a person.

The word ottappa takes this into a social realm, where one holds back from certain heinous acts (or words or thoughts) out of a respect for others or for the opinion others have about oneself. That is to say, I would not do something that transgresses a certain shared social ethical standard, and I could not bear it if other people knew what I did (or said or thought).

The distinction between these two words accounts for why many people have a different standard for their own behavior depending on if it is public or private. We will sometimes do things secretly, if we know we will not get caught, but if on camera or in front of others, we will exhibit better behavior.

Importantly, both hiri and ottappa have opposite mental factors: ahiri and anottappa, and one or the other pair are always functioning. So any unskillful or unhealthy action involves a temporary suspension of conscience and respect, and the active presence of a lack of conscience and a lack of respect. The guardians are protecting the world from their destructive twin siblings.

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