Kaare T. Pettersen
Thursday, May 10, 2012
Shame as a moral emotion
A moral emotion, says Jonathan H. Turner and Jan E. Stets in Moral Emotions (2006), “is one that is aroused in reference to cultural codes that contain evaluative content” (p. 556). The evaluative content of these cultural codes can have a large variation of intensity. Figure 1 shows the variation of intensity of evaluative content from values in a society to situational norms. June Price Tangney and Ronda L. Dearing (2002) write that shame, guilt, sympathy, and empathy are often considered as the “moral emotions”.
Kaare T. Pettersen
Turner and Stets (2006) write that shame and guilt can set into motion processes that again arouse other emotions like anger, fear, disgust, and hatred (Lewis 1991; Scheff 1990; Turner 2002). They conclude that guilt is probably a typical moral emotion because it is clearly related to the action of violating cultural codes, while shame is a less typical moral emotion because it comes when a person has behaved incompetently (not necessarily a wrong doing) or when one senses a devaluation of one self from other (Turner, 2002). Combined with the figure 1, this would mean that guilt is a strong moral emotion because intensity as its evaluative content is very high and often connected with values the society is likely to hold. The respect for private property is highly values in our western society. Stealing another persons property is therefore an action with a high evaluative content, which makes the guilt connected to this action a strong moral emotion. Should one not live up to the expectations of ones spouse, the situational norms in ones marriage would be broken, and one could feel embarrassed or shameful. This shows that shame has less intensity as a moral emotion because of its evaluative content.
But what is morality? Turner and Stets (2006) say that from a sociological point of view “morality ultimately revolves around evaluating cultural codes that specify what is right or wrong, good or bad, acceptable or unacceptable” (p. 544). Figure 1 shows different moral codes at the level of society where values are important; at the level of broad institutional domains (family, economy, education, science and so forth) where ideologies about what is right, proper, and appropriate are important for individuals; at the level of specific institutions, for example a worker in the factory or a student at school, have expectations to live up to; and finally there are face-to-face interaction where norms say something about respectful conduct and are therefore moral.
It is common for people to feel shame when they violate an expectation in a face-to-face interaction. The shame felt can have different intensity, from embarrassment to humiliation, but it is shame they feel and not necessarily guilt. They have not lived up to the expectations they have to themselves or that they believe others have to them in a specific situation, and that is why the feel shame. It does not mean that they have done something wrong which induces guilt. But the less situational and the more ideological the norm becomes, the more will guilt also dominate the person involved. People can feel both shame and guilt when an institutional norm or society value is broken, for example for scientists to lie and build their research on falsified data; or for parents to abuse or neglect their children.
Shame, like other moral emotions, connects a person to social structure and culture through self-awareness. This self-awareness consists of a relation where the self relates itself to itself, or as the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard puts it
“But what is the self? The self is a relation that relates itself to itself or is the relation’s relating itself to itself in the relation; the self is not the relation but is the relation’s relating itself to itself” (Sickness unto Death, 1849/1980, p. 13).
Turner and Stets (2006) use a more sociological discription:
“An individual’s transsituational self-conception and more situational identity are both
cognitive and emotional constructs. They involve conceptions of who a person is, how others should respond to self, and valenced emotions about the characteristics of self in several or particular parts” (p. 548).
But put together, the philosophical and the sociological citations describe the self as consisting of layers upon layers of constructs, conceptions and characteristics, which all relate to each other in a very complex relationship. The self is both a process and a relation, both with itself and with others. Because the self is powered with emotions, it can become a moral self. These can be seen in individuals that give the impression of having the moral identity of being caring, and that they say that they feel both shame and guilt when they feel that they do not help others in the way should or could have. Shame can be especially painful because the self is so much involved.
Inducing more shame, as John Baithwaite (1989) recommends as a response to criminal behavior instead of imprisonment, in order to build up their conscience, is at its best only a solution for the shameless, those that do wrong without regret. But I agree with Martha C. Nussbaum (2004), that this kind of shaming, which is becoming more and more usual, is not the way to go. She gives five arguments for this. First, shaming would be in violation with the principle of dignity, of the society’s responsibility to give all citizens a social basis for self-respect. Secondly, all such forms for response are just the same as stoning people or using the pillory. They represent a primitive form for reaction that is not worthy of a modern civilized society. Thirdly, they are not reliable. It is very much possible that this form for reaction will strike the wrong person, or be too harsh or to mild in relation to the misdoing. Forth, shaming does not function as a judicial punishment, that one is finished with shame when shaming is over. The humiliation one is given through shaming continues and the community will push the wrong doer even further away than before. An lastly, one has the problem of “net-widening”. When a reform is introduced as an alternative to imprisonment for short sentences, there will always be a resistance to include people who one believes should have gone to prison. So one ends up shaming people who otherwise would not have gone to prison but received probation. The result being a unplanned widening of shaming without control from the judicial system.
Both shame and guilt when people recognize that a cultural code has been broken or that there has been a failure to live up to these. Despite the similarities between shame and guilt, there are some differences between them that are substantial. Lewis (1971) emphasized that shame included the whole self. Shame makes people feel small and worthless, both by self-evaluation and by looking at oneself in the eyes of others. One tries desperately to hide, escape, or to strike back. Shame damages the self and is so painful that defence mechanisms try to protect the self. This leads often to anger and violence pointed toward others, giving a sense of control (Lewis, 1971; Retzinger, 1991; Scheff and Retzinger, 1991). My data will show that this anger and violence is also pointed towards oneself, giving a sense of control in the same way as if it was pointed towards others. The consequence of this is a highly activated defence mechanisms and therefore less attunement to others. Turner and Stets (2005) have included a model worked out by Scheff which shows the development of reactions when the shame is denied and repressed, leading to hostility, contra shame that is openly spoken of through a positive self evaluation, leading to mutual respect and social solidarity (Figure 2).
Figure 2: Scheff’s model of attunement and social solidarity (Turner and Stets, 2005, p.156) supplemented with reflections own reflections concerning hostility (cursive writing).
Many of my informants told about one or more of these two forms of hostility, clearly related to shame. Hostility towards others can be direct aggression and violence, and also new sexual transgressions. Hostility towards one self can be self- injury, self-starvation, suicide attempt, an so forth. Both forms always gave my informants a short lived relief of inner pain, before being tormented by guilt. This leads to a negative spiral with new negative- self-evaluation, new hiding and denial of shame and new hostility, and this ca go on for years on end.
Kaare T. Pettersen
Braithwaite, John, 1989. Crime, Shame and Reintegration. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Kierkegaard, Søren,  1980. The Sickness unto Death. A Christian Psychological
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(Translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong).
Lewis, Helen Block., 1971. Shame and Guilt in Neurosis. New York: International
Nussbaum, Martha C., 2004. Hiding from Humanity. Disgust, Shame and the Law. Princeton:
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Retzinger, Suzanne M., 1991. Violent Emotions. Shame and Rage in Marital Quarrels.
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