We ordered Krista K. Thomason’s book, Naked. You can imagine our disappointment when it arrived and was not the coffee table book we’d envisioned.
OK, that was the lame joke we were thinking about beginning this blog with until we realized that some people might take offense and we would be ashamed that we had begun a serious blog post with a tawdry joke.
Such shame is the subject of Thomason’s book. Its full title is Naked: The Dark Side of Shame and Moral Life. This is a very thoughtful book that takes a deep dive into one of humankind’s most significant moral emotions. We recommend it.
In a brief blog post, we cannot do justice to Thomason’s complex insights, but we agree with her that shame is a valuable moral emotion. Like Thomason, we disagree with those who argue that we would all be better off in the unlikely event that shame could be eliminated as a human emotion.
In our Ethics Unwrapped videos on the topic of moral emotions (shorter video here), we emphasize that anticipating the shame we will feel if others discover us acting unethically motivates people to do the right thing most of the time. We want to avoid others reaching the conclusion that we are not the good people that we purport to be. Our emphasis is on the external-facing aspect of shame.
Thomason emphasizes a second positive moral aspect of shame–that when we act immorally, we also internally feel that we have not lived up to our image of ourselves and this can motivate us toward self-improvement. Thomason defines shame in this internal-facing way as “the experience of feeling overshadowed by some feature of our identities that we do not see as part of our self-conception” (p. 179).
When she explores shamelessness, Thomason also addresses the external nature of shame. People who are shameless simply do not care what others think of them and Thomason notes that this is usually a bad thing because our notion of who we are should probably be shaped, at least in part, by what others think of us because our own view of ourselves is often biased and wrong:
A liability to shame is important because it reflects our recognition of the authority of external points of view, which is the same feature of our moral psychology that gives rise to respect. Our liability to shame also shows that our own self-conception is not the determining factor in our self-estimation. We feel shame because we are not always who we take ourselves to be (p. 174).
Thomason defends the value of shame as a moral emotion, but admits, as we all must, that it has its dark side, as many philosophers have argued. For example, people often feel shame for reasons that have nothing to do with moral failings–because they are poor, or homely, or disabled. Those are not factors that should logically cause people to feel shame; these things are not their fault. People often do feel shame for such reasons nonetheless. Also, shame can cause people to commit suicide or act self-destructively in other ways. Shame often causes people to lash out violently against others. Furthermore, shaming, which has become a significant feature of modern life, has often been carried out in a destructive and unjustified manner. Shame does carry a lot of baggage.
But ultimately, shame’s role as one of the moral emotions justifies its existence, Thomason believes. We agree, but realize that many philosophers do not. In any event, humans have evolved to feel shame and we cannot just decide one day that it is an emotion we will discard.
John Kekes, “Shame and Moral Progress,” Midwest Studies in Philosophy 13: 282-296 (1988).
Martha Nussbaum, Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law (2004).
Jesse Prinz, The Emotional Construction of Morals (2007).
Krista K. Thomason, Naked: The Dark Side of Shame and Moral Life (2018).
Bernard Williams, Shame and Necessity (1993).
“Moral Emotions” (Concepts Unwrapped): https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/moral-emotions
“Moral Emotions” (Ethics Defined): https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/glossary/moral-emotions