Monday, May 13, 2024

Shame or Guilt

I confess that I read Roger Kimball’s essay on shame and disgust with considerable self-interest. After all, I have written books about shame, so I believe that I have made at least a small contribution to the discussion of the subject.

If one were to read my books, Saving Face and The Last Psychoanalyst, along with Ruth Benedict’s excellent work, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, one would garner a fairly clear idea about the workings of shame within culture. 

And one would not confuse shame and guilt, as philosopher Martha Nussbaum seems chronically to do. I am going to take Kimball at his word on his summation of Nussbaum’s muddled thinking on the topic. At the least, he persuaded me to ignore her book.

For the record, RuthBenedict introduced the distinction between shame and guilt cultures more than four score years ago. She posited that some cultures attempt to produce social cohesion by prescribing customary good behavior, while others do so by punishing actions that constitute bad behavior. 

By my definition, shame involves not doing what you are supposed to do; guilt involves doing something that you are not supposed to do. 

Presumably when you feel ashamed of your behavior you correct it. When you feel guilt or have guilt imposed on you by a court, society extracts a price for your dereliction and often removes you from social commerce.

Bad manners produce shame. Under normal circumstances you mitigate the shame by improving your manners. 

Breaking laws, violating prohibitions and taboos, produce guilt. More importantly, if you are a miscreant, society assumes that you do not have a well-enough developed moral sense to self-correct. It puts you on trial and forces you to pay a price. It also removes you from society for a time.

Dare I underscore that using the wrong fork at a dinner party does not involve breaking any laws. It is not a punishable offense. It represents a failure to observe common customs, thus to fit in with the group.

Similarly, in a larger sense, failures can also produce shame. This might mean losing a war or leading your company into bankruptcy. Again, these are not criminal offenses, but they require a full public expression of shame, coupled with a withdrawal from social contact, a retirement from one's position. 

It is assumed that the person who fails at a task will self-isolate, to remove himself from society for a time. Thus, the matter is normally not referred to the judiciary.

In a shame culture social cohesion is produced when people follow the same customs and observe the same manners. In a guilt culture, social cohesion is supposedly produced when those who break the law, who violate the person or the property of another member of society, are removed from society, forcibly. 

From here things become more complicated. If you fail to use proper manners, you feel shame. If your behavior is bad enough, you might be ostracized from polite society. One remarks in passing that these rules apply equally to everyone. For those, like Martha Nussbaum, who are agonizing over discrimination, we emphasize that, as a rule, in rule-bound cultures, everyone who follows the rules is respected, regardless.

Obviously, someone who is uninvited from dinner parties because of bad manners will eventually have a way to return to society. He will need to practice good manners and to do so consistently. In order to erase the impression that he is an ill-mannered lout, he will need to behave like someone who belongs, who follows the same rules and who respects the sensibilities of all those assembled.

But, if he commits a crime and is removed from society involuntarily, how can he make his way back? In one sense, we say that he pays his debt to society by spending time in prison. 

That does not oblige him to behave well; it lets him know the price of misbehaving. More than a few chronic criminals are simply willing to take the risk. But, since his incarceration, which also involves removing him from social commerce, was involuntary, we cannot know that he has reformed. Incarceration does not involve developing any new prosocial behaviors. It does not involve not committing crimes, but still, if you are in jail, that does not really count.

As for that other burning question, whether or not shame deters people from committing crimes, the truth seems to lie, not in using guilt and sin to deter by putting a price on dereliction, but in encouraging positive pro-social behaviors. 

Thus, people who are convicted of crimes, who experience imposed guilt, are also stigmatized. Apparently, this offends Martha Nussbaum, but still, as Kimball points out, if a serial sexual predator moves into the apartment complex next to yours, you might very well want to know. And you have a right to know.

Forewarned is forearmed, as the saying goes. The issue is not the way we treat reformed criminals. The issue is that we, as law abiding members of society, need to be warned about someone who has broken the law once and who is therefore more likely to do it again. 

Nussbaum is worried about the delicate sensibility of your everyday miscreant. Customs surrounding shame and guilt involve the need to produce a coherent and moral society. 

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