When my grandmother died in 2009, my far-flung family returned to east Texas to mourn her. People she had known from every stage of her life arrived to pay their respects. At a quiet moment during the wake, my aunt asked my grandfather how he felt about seeing all these people who loved him and who loved my grandmother. He answered, “Shame” and started to cry.
Moral philosophers have been thinking about shame and its place in our moral lives for a long time. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle claims that shame is the “fear of disrepute” that keeps us from doing shameful things. Aristotle’s influence on contemporary views of shame is easy to see. 2000 years later, John Rawls defines shame as the loss of self-esteem we experience when we fail to achieve certain excellences. Gabriele Taylor calls shame an “emotion of self-protection”—shame is a sort of emotional warning siren that stops us from losing more face than we already have. This general understanding of shame has become the dominant one in moral philosophy. Shame is thought of as a negative emotional response to a failure to live up to our values or ideals.
Suppose I want to be an honest person, but in a moment of weakness I hide something important from a loved one. I feel shame about my dishonesty. Philosophers will say the reason I feel shame is because I have betrayed my values. This way of understanding shame makes it a nice complement to our other important moral emotions. We feel guilt about doing the wrong thing, we feel indignation when we see injustice, and we feel shame when we fail to be the sorts of people we want to be. Thought of in this way, shame fits comfortably alongside the rest of our moral emotions with a distinct role to play: it helps us make sure we’re living up to our ideals.
So where does this story leave my grandfather? Nowhere, it seems. He felt shame when faced with a room full of people who loved him and who loved my grandmother. What values did he betray? What ideals did he fail to live up to? He didn’t do anything wrong. In fact, he didn’t really do anything at all.
Maybe my grandfather’s shame is just irrational. We want to say that he has no reason to feel shame. It would be perfectly natural to tell him, “No, you should feel loved and supported. You shouldn’t feel bad about yourself.” He must be mistaken about his feelings.
I don’t like this answer. In part, I think it’s patronizing. We’re assuming that because his feelings don’t fit the familiar story we tell ourselves about what shame does, then he’s the one that must be getting it wrong. Especially when it comes to negative emotions like shame, we’re quick to police those feelings when they don’t immediately make sense.
The bigger problem is that, out of all our moral emotions, shame seems to have the most variety. People feel shame about a whole host of things. Philosophers are right that we feel shame about failing to live up to our values, but we also feel shame about being seen naked. We feel shame about being poor, about looking stupid in front others, and about the way our bodies look. Rape survivors, torture victims, and cancer patients all report feelings of shame. Most of these cases don’t fit the story that moral philosophers usually tell about shame, and yet some of them—shame about being seen naked, for instance—are some of the most familiar shame experiences we have.
That experience—the experience of having his sense of self challenged by some other version of him—is the hallmark of shame.
So what should we do? I think we need to tell a new story, and it should be one that can help make sense of my grandfather’s shame and other cases like it. I think shame isn’t about failing to live up to our ideals. Instead, I think we feel shame when something happens to make us feel like we’re no longer ourselves. In other words, shame isn’t about our values; it’s about our identities. My grandfather was humble and unassuming. He preferred to fly below the radar and not draw a lot of attention to himself. When faced with a room full of people expressing love and concern for him, his self-conception got shaken—he hadn’t really flown as far below the radar as he thought. Having all these people in the room who loved him forced him to see himself in a way he didn’t expect or anticipate. Their presence presented him with a different version of himself that was strange and unfamiliar. That experience—the experience of having his sense of self challenged by some other version of him—is the hallmark of shame.
This story of shame doesn’t presuppose that we’ve failed to live up to our ideals, and it doesn’t assume that we have to be judged negatively by others. The result is that it can help us understand shame in all its variety. My grandfather’s shame isn’t irrational even though it doesn’t look the way moral philosophers have traditionally described it. That doesn’t mean my aunt was wrong to try to comfort him. Shame is, after all, a painful feeling. We can comfort people’s painful feelings without telling them those feelings are mistaken.
I think this story can also explain why shame is a morally valuable emotion. It’s common to hear people say that political leaders and public figures are “shameless” or “have no shame.” Obviously these judgments are meant to be critical—so why is it important to have a sense of shame? According to my story, we feel shame when we have our sense of ourselves challenged by some other version of us. Just because I think I’m an upstanding person, it doesn’t make me that way. Having a sense of shame means that we take seriously the thought that we might not always be the people we think we are.
Featured image credit: Caïn venant de tuer son frère Abel by Henri Vidal in Tuileries Garden in Paris, France by Alex E. Proimos. CC-BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.