Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, February 07, 2014

Guilt, Shame, and Sin

To what extent should morality be re-enforced by the way that we think about or treat people who violate it's tenets?

Shame is typically considered the more primitive method of enforcing morality. Same categorizes the sinner according to the sin committed and applies some sort of punishment as a result. The examples that most readily spring to mind, for me, come from to miniseries based on classic literature that we recently watched with the kids.

In Bleak House, Lady Deadlock is terrified of the shame that will come upon her and her husband if it is ever discovered that prior to her marriage she had a child by another man. When the secret does look like coming out, she runs away in at attempt to shield them from the shame which she thinks must inevitably fall upon her. In Middlemarch, the somewhat less sympathetic Mr. Bulstrode, who has made himself unpleasant around town with his non-conformist moralizing, is in his own turn utterly shamed when it comes out that he got his money dishonestly (and then contributed to the death through negligence of the person who could reveal his past). She is shunned by everyone but his every-loyal wife and has to leave town.

Shame involves tarring the sinner's whole person with the brush of the sin. According to a shame-based way of looking at things, Lady Deadlock is not "a woman who had a child out of wedlock" but "a fallen woman", the sin defines the person and subsumes it. Shame is a powerful way of socially enforcing moral norms because it places a very heavy penalty upon the violation of certain norms. However, it is also an approach which leaves no room for redemption. Shame are a morality-enforcement mechanism sacrifices permanently certain identified sinners in order to serve as an example to others. In this sense it is a predatory means of social enforcement. The only way it can operate is by putting some people beyond redemption, making examples of them that others may not follow in their footsteps. This heavy threat does provide a strong reason not to violate the norms enforced by means of shame, but since the means of enforcement is public, it also creates a strong reason for secrecy. Thus, in both literary examples, Lady Deadlock and Mr. Bulstrode are willing to do almost anything in order to prevent their transgressions from becoming known, since shame only comes into play if the sin is known. Sin that is not known, if avoiding shame is the only way in which people think of sin, is no sin at all.

Guilt is a somewhat more complex approach to moral enforcement. If we think of shame as the idea that people who do certain things are unworthy of being associated with, guilt is the idea that certain actions are unworthy of us. According to guilt, if you commit a sin, you should feel bad about having done so. When morality is socially enforced by means of guilt, there may still be strong social sanctions placed upon someone who violates society's moral norms, but the sinner can redeem himself in the eyes of society by repenting of his sin. But more importantly, guilt is not primarily an external force, it is an internal force. Using guilt, society teaches us that we should blame ourselves if we violate certain norms. This enforcement thus operates whether the sin is known by others or not.

Because the terms are often used in a casual sense, I think they often get mixed up. We often hear people talk about the need to bring back shame -- that people should feel ashamed for doing certain actions. However, half the time what is meant is guilt rather than shame. Guilt is the personal belief, "That action was not worthy of me and I should never do such a thing again." Shame in the sense that I am speaking of here, however, is externally applied -- except perhaps in some sort of despair in which the sinner classifies himself according to the sin he has committed and rejects himself permanently as a result, holding that he will always be defined by that sin and so it hardly matters what he does from here on out.

At the end of the day, it perhaps doesn't matter much how we use the terms. But I don't bring up the matter to make an argument about correct use of terminology, but rather because I think that as those of us who adhere to traditional morality make the case for returning to a clearer sense of sin in society, it's important that we think about the traditional behaviors that we seek to bring back. A sense of guilt can be a very healthy thing, but shame in the predatory sense is not, even though one often saw it used in Christian cultures. Shame in the sense described here leaves no room for redemption, and redemption is, after all, the central message of Christianity.


Aron Wall said...

Huh? Why must shame necessarily be permanent?

A teacher who puts a dunce cap on the child and stands them in a corner is using shame, not guilt, to punish bad behavior. But that might only last for one day. There is no need why an external shaming must necessarily be permanent. It can be limited in time, or subject to the expectation that the disgraced person should be eventually able to work their way back into society through good behavior.

Now in specific cultures there may well be offenses which guarantee permanent social degredation. But it doesn't seem inherent in the very idea of shame. And obviously every shame based culture permits some degree of reparation for sufficiently minor offenses.

If anything, it seems less obvious when one should stop feeling guilty. Shame is a punishment of society; society decides when you are forgiven. Whereas, unless one has the benefit of Christian doctrine (which puts even guilt in a relational context), it's not at all clear when one should stop feeling guilty for something.

Kate said...

I still think the centrally important observation holds, even if we cede non-permanent forms of shaming: shame sends the wrong message. It says "to be known to have done this thing makes me unworthy." It fosters the growth of hidden sins, which cannot be easily excised because shame is targeted at known sin, not unknown sin.

Guilt, on the other hand, inspires repentence...and the natural outcome of repentence is a desire to leave sin behind and redress wrongs. If we feel guilt for our wrong actions, but not shame, then the way is clear to apologize, make amends, seek support in avoiding occasions of sin, etc.

Caroline said...

This is similar to my issue with the death penalty, because it also leaves no room for repentance (or even the fact that someone might have been sentenced unjustly).

Darwin said...


That's a decent point. The examples of shame that I was thinking of all involved permanently changing someone's standing in society, but there might be more short-term forms of shaming.

I think the more basic point probably still works. Shame is an approach which considers the sinner to be defined by the sin. So if we take the dunce cap as an example of shame, the message would essentially be "you are a dunce, and so it's okay to make you stand in a corner and wear a stupid hat".

A guilt-based approach, on the other hand, would be more along the lines of "by giving that stupid answer you acted in a manner unworthy of yourself."

This I think also gets at the issue of reparation. While there's a sense in which it's not clear when one should stop feeling guilty for a past offense, the overall guilt culture approach as an obvious direction of redemption built into it in that the concept of guilt is that one is acting contrary to how one should act. Thus, the way out is to in future always act as one should act. With shame, on the other hand, the person is defined by the offense, so it's less clear how you get out.


I wouldn't necessarily see punishment and shame as the same, even though both might be permanent. Punishment is based around the idea of meting out a reciprocal action to some offense, in order to right the balance of justice. Shame is more oriented around sanctioning or expelling a member of society who has acted contrary to social norms. I suppose that the end result of the two might look similar in certain circumstances, but to the extent that punishment is rooted in justice (while shame is rooted in an instinctual desire to maintain group purity) I'd see it as different.

rhinemouse said...

Have you seen this essay about Middlemarch and shame? It comes at a lot of the same issues from a slightly different angle.

Jenny said...

I don't know how you can split the difference in application between guilt and shame in maintaining some kind of social standard.

I do think that guilt is the superior emotion and that the applications of shame in previous cultures were decidedly unchristian, but it seems that certain behaviors are only suppressed if they come with a dose of shame. I want to be wrong.

Darwin said...


Now that I look at it again, I recall reading that piece last year. It's an interesting piece, and I think it was part of what got me thinking about the whole question in this context.


I think that social sanction and re-enforcement do make a big difference in enforcing certain moral standards, but I'd like to think it's possible to sanction the actions that we want to condemn without having those who commit them be changed from a person into "someone who did X".

That said, there's an extent to which maintaining the common good often means some degree of sacrifice of the interests of individuals. And I could see that applying in the realm of how people who break moral norms are treated.

Jenny said...

I've had a phrase rolling around my head for several years.

"How do you show compassion for the individual without destroying society?"

I think of it in relation to unwed parenthood. In the past unwed mothers were treated dreadfully and the shame led to hiding, abortion, forced adoption, and being an utter outcast. This is the wrong way to treat someone who has made a mistake.

Now we seem to have overcorrected. There are baby showers and parties. These parents and the innocent children definitely need help, materially and spiritually, but it now seems there is little to no displayed disapproval. How do you walk the line between supporting someone through the consequences of a poor decision and celebrating the poor decision?

Darwin said...

I agree that we seem to be at the other end of a pendulum swing. As to how to walk the balance:

One thing that strikes me is that this is in part a problem when we lose a sense of sin and have way too many people talking about "valid choices" instead. Both the sin of sex outside of marriage, and the sin of unnecessarily depriving a child of having both a mother and a father, married and living together.

The other is that there's an extent to which not that much sanction is necessary because being a single parent is already incredibly hard. We do need, as a society, to stop kidding ourselves that it's _not_ incredibly hard, much harder than raising children as a married couple. But it seems like to the extent that we remain clear on the realities, the fact that the moral claim is based on clear natural realities means that it shouldn't necessarily take huge amounts of reenforcement to make the point. It just takes talking clearly about consequences, because a lot of the error here is in people not looking realistically at the consequences their actions are setting themselves up for.

Jenny said...

"It just takes talking clearly about consequences"

I think this is true, but I hadn't really thought about it before now. If the culture would tell the truth about the consequences of these decisions, many would go down another path. Of course, our current culture actively lies about the consequences.

"You might be hurt by pre-marital sex, but everyone else is having a good time. The fact that you are hurt shows there is something wrong with you."

"Go ahead and end that pregnancy. You don't want to ruin your life and that isn't a baby anyway. Don't worry, you'll never give it a second thought."

"Only having one parent is just fine. No kid minds being at daycare or really cares about his biological parents. You will be having it all, so go ahead and use that sperm donor."

"Getting divorced is much better than staying together for the kids if you are having a rough patch. Why try to make the marriage work when you can be INDEPENDENT!"

So I guess the real question is how do you make the culture tell the truth?