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On the Appropriateness of Shame

photograph of the Statue of Cain in Paris

Shame has taken up a prominent role in the public discourse recently. For instance, The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf recently tweeted, arguing that Americans have an obligation to right past wrongs but not to feel shame over “wrongs perpetrated before our births.” Shame also plays a role in discourse about the pandemic. Earlier on, people might have felt shame over getting COVID-19: “If someone who thought they were being careful got the virus, well…maybe they weren’t being so careful.” And now the issue of vaccine shaming arises, with debates over whether people should be shamed for not getting the vaccine.

But shame is a nuanced thing. It is an emotion we feel, but it is also something we do to other people. I might feel shame, but I might also try to get you to feel shame: I shame you. This leads to two different questions: When is it appropriate to feel shame? When is it appropriate to shame somebody?

One mistake, a mistake that Friedersdorf makes, is to tie shame too tightly to wrongdoing. Some emotions are linked to wrongdoing. For instance, guilt tends to be linked to having done something morally wrong. And you certainly can be ashamed of your own wrongdoing. But there are more things in heaven and earth than moral rightness and wrongness. Some things are ugly, pitiful, or bad in non-moral ways. You might also be ashamed that you have a large nose, or you might be ashamed that you were too cowardly to take an exciting opportunity.

If shame were tied only to your own wrongdoing, then shame over wrongs perpetrated before your birth would be nonsensical. But shame isn’t even just tied to what you have done, hence the possibility of being ashamed of your nose. Shame is instead based on who we are. And shame is distinctly interpersonal: much of the time we feel shame because we know others think poorly of us (perhaps because of our looks or our inability to better ourselves). Further, who we are is based on our broader connections to other people: being in a family, being a fan of a certain sports team, or being a citizen of someplace or other.

So, you might be ashamed not of your own wrongdoing, but of the wrongdoing of your father. And you might be ashamed of your country, too. Nikole Hannah-Jones said that she was ashamed of America’s bombing of Hiroshima.

Now, you might question whether we should feel ashamed by things we haven’t done, by things we are merely associated with. For one, it seems perfectly reasonable to care about our non-moral qualities and to care about what others think of us. Secondly, shame and pride come hand-in-hand. Parents are proud of what their kids have done, and people are proud of their country’s achievements. Hannah-Jones was right when, responding to Friedersdorf, she pointed out that if you want to feel proud of your country – for what it does well now, and what it has done well through its history – you better be willing to be ashamed of it, too, for what it does badly and what it did badly in the past.

So, we can be ashamed of many things, including things we haven’t done. What about shaming somebody else? When should we shame people? Perhaps the obvious answer is: when they have done something shameful.

Though there might be a variety of forms of shaming, how shaming works should be fairly obvious: if you fail to meet certain standards, other people – remember, shame is interpersonal – can point out that they think less of you. For this to be effective, you need to then reflect on your failures, and this can involve feeling shame: you see why they think less of you, and you think less of yourself for it. Perhaps this process even must involve shame: to fully appreciate your failure might require that you do in fact feel ashamed of it.

So, when should we shame people? Again, the obvious answer is “when they do something shameful,” but that is too simple. It can depend on the relationship between people. You – a serial card cheat – might have no right to tell me that it’s wrong to count cards. You – a stranger on the street – might have no right to tell me not to be so rude to my wife (whereas our friends can step in and say something). So, shaming might be inappropriate if you are a hypocrite or if you have no business in judging me, whereas if you are a respected member of my community and my actions negatively affect my community, you might be well placed to shame me.

We must also keep in mind that some forms of shaming might carry costs: rather than making somebody feel mildly ashamed for a past misdeed, you might make them feel awful. And we need to be careful, as Kenneth Boyd noted in this venue, because shaming can be unfair, either picking out individuals who may have done something that was more acceptable at the time, and it can be a tool of bigotry, shaming people for being a minority and perpetuating harmful systems of oppression.

So, should we shame people for not getting vaccinated? Firstly, not all the unvaccinated have acted shamefully. In places where it can be hard to get time off of work to get the jab (or where people are not aware that they are entitled to time off), or in places where misinformation is rife, perhaps they are meeting or exceeding the standards we should expect of them as fellow members of the public. Or they may have genuine, conscientious objections.

But it is more likely that opposition to “vaccine shaming” turns on the idea that shaming is ineffective. Somebody might be acting shamefully: they might be failing to protect others, relying upon an overly individualized notion of rights (and failing to recognize how they interact with others in a society), and failing to evaluate the evidence properly because – though they should know better – they have been captured by petty, angry politics. It can be frustrating to be told not to shame these people. But if our aim is to get them to take the vaccine, we need to find an alternative strategy that doesn’t prompt a retreat into deeper skepticism.

Or, so the argument goes. But maybe that argument is wrong: there is some evidence that appealing to the sense of shame or embarrassment someone would feel if they spread COVID to a loved one is somewhat effective at increasing the vaccination rate. Ultimately, I don’t know when Americans should feel shame for what happened in the past. And I don’t know when we should shame people for their behavior in this pandemic. I do know that to have a well-informed public discussion, we need to understand the many facets of shame.

The Politics of Imponderables

photograph of scales made of pebbles balanced on a boulder

As I glance over the front page (or, let’s be real, the home page) of various newspapers, nearly every story is about either COVID-19 or U.S. racial injustice. Here I want to pause and look not at the stories themselves, but at the discourse developing around both stories. I want to look at the moral outrage we feel when others suggest imponderable comparisons. Consider two personal examples.

I was outraged at Lt. Governor Dan Patrick’s suggestion that we should restart our economy even though it increases the chance that our grandparents might die from COVID-19. I was appalled that anyone would compare the merely economic harm of shutdowns to the incalculable and irreplaceable loss of human lives. I felt a similar outrage at people bemoaning the damage done by the looting which followed the murder of George Floyd. I was appalled that anyone would compare the merely economic harm of looting to the inexcusable and incalculable evil of racialized violence in the criminal justice system.

It is this outrage that I want to pause and consider because, while I believe the outrage is appropriate, I worry about the effects of rendering certain comparisons imponderable. In ordinary times I would be horrified by the harm done by a global recession. In ordinary times I would happily condemn looting that exasperates inner city food deserts or harms locally owned businesses. Yet, in this context, not only am I not worried about these harms, but I find myself incensed at those who talk about these harms too openly. Do they not realize how insignificant those concerns are given what else is as stake? Do they not realize how talking about property damage trivializes the continuous damage visited on minority communities?

Fortunately, there has been excellent research on the outrage we feel when people consider certain trade-offs. This outrage arises when we see others trading off what the social scientist Phillip Tetlock calls ‘sacred’ values for ‘secular’ ones.

To take a commonly cited example, if you present people with a story in which a hospital administrator faces a choice between saving the life of a boy and saving the hospital a million dollars, people won’t just condemn the administrator who chooses the money, they are willing to punish an administrator who even lingered over the question before eventually choosing the child. We are not just upset with those who make the wrong trade, we are outraged with those who even ponder the trade-off we consider taboo. This is true even though a hospital that routinely sacrificed a million dollars anytime it could use that money to save a life would not remain solvent for long.

So why do I find certain trade-offs outrageous. My mind codes the economic liberties of Dan Patrick’s “American way of life” as a merely secular value, not to be compared with the sacred lives of my grandparents. But of course, to many more patriotically inclined citizens, our economic way of life is absolutely a sacred value, and thus something that might sometimes require tragic trade-offs (a ‘tragic trade-off’ is one where we must sacrifice one sacred value for another; a ‘routine trade-off’ is one where we sacrifice one secular value for another).

Once we understand the psychological underpinnings of our moral emotions, those emotions begin to flounder. As I study moral outrage, I learn that what we consider sacred depends, in part, on the peculiarities of how something is presented. Is life insurance a way to bet on a loved one’s death, or a way to secure the financial security of one’s children? Does social security reform break faith with senior citizens, or technically rework bureaucratic infrastructure? A large portion of politics is reframing taboo trade-offs into routine or tragic ones.

By default, I treat life as a sacred value. But if you want to change how I code it, just point out that every year half a million people die of malaria (and well over one million people from Tuberculosis) and yet I’m not constantly outraged that trillions are not being siphoned from the global economy to malaria eradication. I’m unwilling to admit to myself that I care more about diseases that threaten U.S. lives, and thus, to avoid moral hypocrisy, will swiftly ‘mentally recode’ the millions of deaths caused by preventable disease from a moral atrocity to a routine statistical artifact of a large global population.

Similarly, by default, I’m appalled at the thought that we would send U.S. factory workers back to work where they risk contracting COVID-19 just to jumpstart global supply chains. But if you want to change how I code it, just point me towards the UN University’s recent working paper suggesting the disruption of global supply chains runs the risk of plummeting half a billion people back into poverty and undoing a decade of progress toward the UN’s development goal of ending poverty by the year 2030.

Indeed, present me with both of these arguments and suddenly I feel outraged that my fellow U.S. citizens, who are shielded from the worst economic impacts by stimulus checks and a comparatively excellent public health infrastructure, are willing to cripple the economic foundations of the developing world just to avoid a statistically small risk of death.

As Phillip Tetlock puts it, the “boundaries of the thinkable ebb and flow as political partisans fend off charges of taboo trade-offs and fire them back at rivals.” So what role should these ‘imponderables’ play in my politics? Are they a recognition of incalculable human dignity, or a tool of self-deception by which I write off the legitimate worries of those of different political persuasions while indulging in the personal catharsis of moral outrage?

Should I do away with my imponderables? According to many great ethicists, the answer is: No. The great Catholic philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe famously said she was uninterested in arguing with anyone who thought it was an open question whether “procuring the judicial execution of the innocent” could be justified, because such people “show a corrupt mind.” Raimond Gaita, emeritus professor of moral philosophy at King’s College London, agrees with Anscombe and argues that even to see certain courses of action as possible, or certain trade-offs as legitimate, is already to have exhibited a deep moral failing.

To these philosophers, moral imponderables are not a mere peculiarity of moral psychology. Rather, they are essential to a healthy moral sensibility. What it is to have a proper regard for justice is to demand justice be done, whatever the economic costs may be. Why? Because humans have something like a sacred value, or an inner dignity, which dictates that justice take precedence even over the social good.

Why is it appropriate to feel outrage when people bring up the injustices done by looting during a national conversation on racial violence? It is not because the injustices of property damage don’t matter, nor because such injustices are less important (though of course they are). Rather, it is because to recognize the dignity of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, or Ahmaud Arbery is to recognize that the tragedy of their death is, in a very real sense, incomparable to any other injustice. To bring up other injustices in comparison is already to have missed the incalculable dignity of a human being.

Of course, many disagree with Anscombe and Gaita’s claim that moral sensibility involves a recognition of certain imponderables. Consider this vision of intellectual life offered by Simone Weil:

“The degree of intellectual honesty which is obligatory for me, by reason of my particular vocation, demands that my thought should be indifferent to all ideas without exception – it must be equally welcoming and equally reserved with regard to everyone of them. Water is indifferent in this way to the objects which fall into it. It does not weigh them; it is they which weigh themselves, after a certain time of oscillation.”

It is a beautiful picture of unwavering commitment to honest investigation. Yet, for all its beauty, the position seems contradictory. The thought seems to be that the value of truth is so great that one should be able to ask any question and consider any thought, no matter how vile, if it can help one reach the truth. But note what has happened. We’ve rejected all sacred values, made everything thinkable, because of our commitment to the final sanctity of truth. Weil has made it thinkable to transgress any sacred value, but only for the sake of her own sacred value which she privileges above all others.

We cannot escape sacred values. Of course, it is also difficult to put a recognition of sacred value into practice. It sounds nice to say the value of justice is incalculable, but we cannot spend billions on every trial to make absolutely certain that justice is done. The painful reality is that there is only so much we can spend on any given life. Some trade-offs must sometimes be made.

So, what can we conclude about the politics of the imponderables?

I simply want to urge caution. First, to urge caution when we are tempted to quickly condemn others for making comparisons we find inhumane. When we recognize how fickle our own outrage can be, it should encourage humility and self-reflection. We must remember how our own mental biases might distort what we are willing to consider, and thus might seal ourselves off from insight.

However, we also need to be cautious of the opposite temptation. There is a certain seductive temptation in being willing to trade off certain values. There is a “titillation” in thinking “dangerous thoughts.” We love to congratulate ourselves on being brave enough to think the thoughts others refuse to face. We get to feel smugly superior to everyone else who remains unable to remove their moral blinders. But this too is a dangerous and distorting temptation, and it’s a temptation that compromises our ability to appreciate the sacred.

Toronto vs. Chick-Fil-A: Only About Chicken?

photograph of Chick-fil-a storefornt

My hometown of Toronto, Canada recently saw its first Chick-Fil-A restaurant open, to a very mixed reception. While some were excited to try a new take on fast food fried chicken (with some even going so far as to line up for hours beforehand), many others attended the opening in protest. There were a few different reasons for the protest, although the most prominent was the owners of Chick-Fil-A’s well-documented financial support of evangelical Christian organizations that oppose gay marriage and have funded so-called “gay conversion therapy” (a number of protesters were also there to express the view that the killing of animals is morally wrong, although this is not a transgression solely committed by Chick-Fil-A).

Some did not take well to the protesters. For example, in response to protesters who chanted “shame!” at those leaving the restaurant, Canadian evangelical Christian personality Charles McVety – who was leading the city’s annual “Jesus in the City” parade – encouraged people to show their support for Chick-Fil-A, instead. When interviewed, he expressed his view that:

It’s upsetting that people want to stop a business simply because it adheres to Christian values. The business is only about chicken. It should only be about chicken…It should not happen in Canada, if you just want to get chicken, you shouldn’t be shamed.

Is this a business that is “only about chicken”, though? Is there reason to think that someone should, in fact, feel ashamed when they visit Chick-Fil-A, or is it really as morally unproblematic as those like McVety think it is?

There are a couple of things to say about McVety’s statement right off the bat. First: protesters, of course, have every right to peacefully assemble and demonstrate in support of their cause, so McVety is straight-up wrong that such protests “should not happen in Canada.” Second, while Chick-Fil-A does not hide the fact that it is run by those who identify themselves as Christians, there are many Christians who would deny that supporting anti-LGBTQ causes is coherent with Christian values. McVety himself avows numerous views most typically associated with right-wing Evangelical Christianity, which, in addition to his opposition to same-sex marriage, also includes the denial of evolution and global warming. There is plenty of room, then, to be Christian and not agree with McVety, and no reason to think that in protesting Chick-Fil-A one is trying to thwart a business simply because it is run by self-identified Christians.

More to the point, though: why should someone feel ashamed, just because they want to try out a new chicken sandwich? Consider what one of those visiting the restaurant said when interviewed:

I do not agree with [Chick-Fil-A’s] ideology and the policies of the owners, but I’m not here to support the policy of the owner. I’m here to have a meal that I really enjoy.

So, here’s one way to think about the situation: one should not be shamed or feel ashamed for eating at Chick-Fil-A because the business should be kept separate from the values of the owners, and people have a right to eat what they want without being harassed. If they were supporting anything, then, it would be the consumption of fried chicken.

It is difficult to find these lines of thinking persuasive. In supporting the business, one does, of course, support the policies of the owners insofar as the money one spends profits the owners, who in turn use that money to support anti-LGBTQ causes. This may not be your overt intention, of course – you may just want to eat some chicken – but what you intend and what ends up happening as a result of your actions can be two very different things. That you are part of a larger customer base whose collective spending on Chick-Fil-A actively support these causes means that you are, at least in some way, supporting those causes as well.

But can’t someone just be neutral on the matter? Can I not just go and eat a greasy chicken sandwich in peace without having to worry about politics or being judged? Maybe I’m like the patron interviewed above: sure, all that stuff about supporting groups working against gay marriage sounds bad, and gay conversion therapy is not something I would ever endorse, but my buying fried chicken is not about that, it’s just about being hungry and stuffing something palatable down my gullet.

Again, while one’s ideologies can certainly be opposed to those endorsed by the owners of Chick-Fil-A, one’s actions may say something different. It would be nice if the business side could be separated from the ideological one, but when the profits from that business are used to directly support the ideology, it is difficult to find room to draw a line.

Okay, but wait: I order things from Amazon all the time, despite their well-documented horrendous working conditions; I like to take Ubers despite their well-documented horrendous working conditions; I buy all kinds of products from places that are no doubt not terribly concerned with the health and well-being of their employees. I don’t really feel bad about that, so why should I feel bad about buying some B+ chicken from a new restaurant in town? Is this really that big of a deal?

This is a tempting way to think about the problem insofar as it is a tempting way to get oneself to stop thinking about the problem. That one has supported a bunch of businesses with questionable business practices in the past does not, of course, excuse adding another one to the list. We may indeed wonder whether any ethical consumption is possible under late-stage capitalism, but the fact that there are problems everywhere does not mean that there are not still problems in specific cases, either.

While these are big problems to think about, what should I do when it comes to Chick-Fil-A? Perhaps the take-home message should be this: even though one’s intentions may be apolitical, and even though one may very much disagree with the causes that Chick-Fil-A’s owners have chosen to support, one does not simply get to choose to remain a neutral party if one willingly gives their money to the business. One cannot have one’s chicken and eat it, too.

Is Shaming an Important Moral Tool?

Photo of a person behind a banner that says "Shame on Mel Rogers, CEO, PBS SoCal"

Misbehaving students at Washington Middle School last month couldn’t expect their bad behavior to go unnoticed by their peers and teachers. A list titled “Today’s Detention” was projected onto the wall of the cafeteria, making the group of students to be punished public knowledge. This particular incident made local news, but it’s just one instance of a phenomenon known as an “accountability wall.” These take different forms, sometimes they involve displays of grades or other achievements, and sometimes they focus on bad behaviors. The motivation for such public displays of information is to encourage good behavior and hard work from students.  

Middle school administrators aren’t the only ones employing this strategy.  Judges around the country have participated in “creative sentencing,” using shaming to motivate the reduction or elimination of criminal behavior. For example, a district court judge in North Carolina sentenced a man convicted of domestic abuse to carry a poster around town reading, “This is the face of domestic abuse” for four hours a day, seven days in a row.  

The Internet ensures that the audience for public shaming will be wide in scope. Shaming behavior on social media ranges from photos of pugs wearing signs indicating that they “Ate Mommy’s Shoes” all the way to doxing—the sharing of names and addresses of people who participate in socially unpopular activities.

All of this is not entirely without warrant. Some emotions play a central role in morality—emotions like pride, guilt, and shame. We’re social beings, and as such, one of the ways that we protect against bad behavior in our social circles is to hold one another accountable. Imagine, for example, that Tom has a habit of not keeping his promises. He develops a bad reputation as an unreliable, untrustworthy member of the group. He may begin to feel guilt or shame for his behavior as a result, and he may then begin to actually do the things he has said that he is going to do. The recognition that his peers feel that he ought to feel badly about his behavior has the desired effect—it changes Tom’s behavior. It seems, then that shame can be a powerful tool in governing the behavior of members of a social group.

Shaming might play other important social roles as well.  First, it often makes the public aware of problematic behavior. It picks out people that some members of the population might want to avoid. For example, the revelation that Mike is a white supremacist who attended a white nationalist rally may prevent a potential employer from making the mistake of hiring Mike.

Second, public shaming may serve as a deterrent. If Sam, the regional manager of a small company, witnesses other people in his position being called out for sexual harassment against employees, perhaps Sam will stop harassing his employees out of fear of being publically treated the same way.

Third, shaming might be an important way of reinforcing our community values and making good on our commitment to speaking out against unacceptable behavior. After all, some of the most egregious human rights atrocities happened because of, or were prolonged by, the silence of people who knew better, could have spoken out, but did nothing.

On the other hand, there are some pretty compelling arguments against the practice of shaming as well. Often, shaming manifests in ways that end up humiliating another person for actions they have performed. Humiliation is, arguably, inconsistent with an attitude of respect for the dignity of persons. In response, some might argue that though humiliation may be a terrible thing to experience, many of the behaviors for which people are being shamed are comparatively much worse. For example, is it bad to humiliate someone for being a white supremacist?

In practice, shaming has real legs—stories about bad behavior travel fast. The details that provide context for the behavior are often not ready at hand and, most of the time, no one is looking at the context to begin with. Even if it’s true that shaming has an important place in moral life, this will presumably only be true when the shaming is motivated by the actual facts—after all, a person shouldn’t be shamed if they don’t deserve to be.

The question of ‘deserving’ is important to the resolution of the question of whether shaming is ever morally defensible. The practice of shaming can be seen as retributive—the assumption being made is that the person being shamed for their actions is fully morally responsible for those actions. A variety of factors including environment, socialization, and biology contribute to, and perhaps, at least in some cases, even determine what a person does. If societies are going to maintain the position that retributivism is necessary for fairness, they better be sure that they are using those retributivist tools in ways that are, themselves, fair. Similar actions don’t all have similar backstories, and being sensitive to the nuance of individual cases is important.  

The motivation for shaming behavior tends to be bringing about certain kinds of results such as behavior modification and deterrence. The question of whether shaming actually changes or deters behavior is an empirical one. Given the potential costs, for the practice to be justified, we should be exceptionally confident that it actually works.

A careful look at the real intentions behind any particular act of shaming is warranted as well. Sometimes people’s intentions aren’t transparent even to themselves. Moral reflection and assessment are, of course, very important. Sometimes, however, the real motivation for shaming behaviors is power and political influence. It’s important to know the difference.

Even if the evidence allowed us to conclude that shaming adults is a worthwhile enterprise, it would not follow that what is appropriate for adults is appropriate for children. Young people are in a very active stage of self-creation and learning. Shaming behavior might be a recipe for lifelong self-esteem issues.

Finally, given that shaming has the potential for bringing about such negative consequences, it’s useful to ask: is there a better way to achieve the same result?

Bad Tweets and the Ethics of Shaming

Black and white photograph of baseball player Area Turner walking off of the baseball field, glove in hand

Here’s a news story that you’ve probably come across recently: someone’s tweets from a number of years ago have resurfaced, and they’re not good. Tweets that express racist, sexist, homophobic, or whatever other kinds of reprehensible sentiments are brought to light, and the original tweeter is publicly shamed, in one form or another. Making the biggest headlines recently is undoubtedly James Gunn, director of the first two Guardians of the Galaxy movies: Gunn was fired from directing the next installment of the blockbuster franchise due to the discovery of old tweets in which he made a series of tasteless jokes about rape and pedophilia. Or consider two recent examples from the world of professional baseball: the cases of Atlanta Braves pitcher Sean Newcomb and Washington Nationals shortstop Trea Turner, whose Twitter histories were rife with posts using homophobic slurs. The punishments that the Tweeters received upon discovery of their tweets has varied significantly: in Gunn’s case, losing his job, while in Newcomb’s and Turner’s cases, having to issue statements expressing their remorse.

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