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Shame was an important emotion in Christian religious morality, where it played the epistemic role of signaling when one had transgressed by sinning. In contemporary moral philosophy, shame no longer has the same shine to it and has lost out to guilt as the self-referring negative emotion of choice. In Naked, Krista K. Thomason attempts to reclaim shame’s status as a moral emotion, with potentially far-reaching consequences for philosophical accounts of moral emotions in general.
The monograph is divided into an introduction, five chapters, and a conclusion, and the discussion is introduced and framed by the story of Ajax, who, in Sophocles’ rendition of his demise, is tricked by Athena into slaughtering a herd of livestock, thinking they were his enemies. The perceived dishonor causes him to feel intense shame, which is unbearable to the point that he commits suicide. This is just one of many interesting and illuminating cases of shame from fiction and memoir throughout the book, which alone make this a valuable text for courses which seek to integrate philosophy and literature. Ajax provides a salient example of shame’s dark side, especially its relation to violence, and this dark side is central to Thomason’s account. The first two chapters concern rival accounts of shame: the traditional view, on which shame is the result of a failure to live up to one’s own values, and the naturalistic view, on which shame reflects a failure to live up to the norms of the social group in which one lives. It is here that Thomason first lays out the necessary requirements of an account of shame as a moral emotion. The theorist must show why shame can be thought to be properly moral while also accounting for its often harmful nature. That is, one must hold that shame is a valuable part of our moral psychology while facing up to the fact that it is often problematic. The traditional view, she contends, succeeds on the first score but fails on the second. Traditionalists often make a distinction between moral and non-moral shame to brush away unseemly cases, but this so severely impoverishes an account of shame as a unified phenomenon that it loses explanatory value. In contrast, the naturalistic view provides a descriptively accurate account of shame, including its flaws, but cannot explain when we should feel shame or if we should feel it at all. These critiques are extended into the discussion in Chapter 2 of shame’s relationship to violence. Though this connection cries out for explanation, Thomason finds neither the traditional nor the naturalistic account up to the task.
The third chapter is where Thomason provides her own account, so those already familiar with the shame literature might opt to start here. For her, shame arises because we feel that some feature of our identity eclipses, overshadows, or defines our self-conception. In other words, we come to be defined by a part of us that is not central to how we see ourselves, or by a part of us that we do not see as part of ourselves at all, but recognize is a part of us when it is revealed. This requires some discussion of the practical notion of identity, which includes not only the way that we see ourselves (our ‘self-conception’) but also elements of our individual histories and the way that others see us (our ‘nonvoluntary identity’). To provide an example, even if I do not see my family’s social class as especially important to my identity, it still is, and when another person or a certain event brings it to my attention, that part of my identity comes to define me. I cannot deny that it is a part of me, and the tension between how I normally see myself and how I see myself in this moment is what produces a feeling of shame. Importantly, this explains why we feel shame for both moral failures—we are revealed in our own eyes to have a different moral character than we think we do—and for non-moral reasons, such as one’s social status, physical appearance, or even one’s status as a survivor of sexual assault or other trauma. In all of these cases, we are made to recognize and focus on some part of ourselves with which we typically do not identify.
Now that she has a theory of shame, Thomason turns in Chapter 4 to the pessimistic view of shame, on which shame is an immoral emotion which we would be better off not having in our psychology. Her comments in this chapter will be of great interest to anyone interested in moral emotions or philosophy of emotion more generally. First, she notes a problem with the pessimistic view: if shame is so bad, why do we think shamelessness is a vice? This shifts the burden to the pessimist to explain the wrongness of shamelessness without conferring moral value on shame. The proponent of shame, however, is on no firmer ground. In the emotion literature, there are two ways for an emotion to count as a specifically moral emotion. On the one hand, an emotion might be morally beneficial. On the other, an emotion might invoke moral concepts as its core evaluative concern. Thomason thinks that the traditional view tries to secure shame’s moral status on these grounds, but both fail. She opts instead to defend shame’s moral value on a novel account of moral value: the constitutive account. This account says that an emotion is moral if it is constitutive of moral commitments or part of moral agency. In the same way that resentment is partially constitutive of self-respect (i.e., if we did not have a liability to resent others for their wrongdoing, we could not fully respect ourselves), shame is partially constitutive of two valuable moral commitments: respecting others as moral agents and having a wide sense of self, which is itself part of a commitment to humility. Thomason thinks that, if we were unable to feel shame, we would also be unable to give others’ points of view practical weight, which in turn means that we would not see them as having authority or standing to make a variety of claims and demands on us. Shamelessness, then, is akin to narcissism—it involves an inability to think that the way others see you might have any bearing on your actions. This analysis eventually leads her to a bold claim, with potentially far-reaching consequences. On her view, there are no correctness or appropriateness conditions for shame, unlike other moral emotions. While we can dispute and presumably come to a conclusion about whether it is fitting for me to resent someone for their actions, the agent is the sole authority over whether something is shameful, because shame is purely self-referring. We feel shame when some part of our identity overshadows our self-conception, but there are no objective grounds for when this happens aside from the agent’s own experience. Shame can be evaluated as to its intelligibility, but there is nothing to say about whether a particular agent should or should not feel shame in a particular instance, only whether they do.
Finally, in the fifth chapter, Thomason turns from experiences of shame to shame-related activities: invitations to shame, shaming, and stigmatizing. Invitations to shame involve trying to instill shame in others by inspiring the realization of unrecognized components of their identity. Thomason says that these invitations are largely interpersonal, but private. In contrast, shaming involves drawing communal attention to some part of an agent’s identity to engender shame in a more public way. Finally, stigmatizing is similar to shaming in that it is publicized, but the aim is not to engender shame, but rather to manipulate an agent’s social standing by marking them as a member of some undesirable group. The question for each of these activities is whether they are morally permissible (or obligatory), given shame’s role in our moral life. In general, Thomason is not a fan. The only one of these that she defends is inviting to shame, but only as a form of moral self-defense. When others act arrogantly, for example, they refuse to acknowledge others’ points of view. Ridiculing or expressing disgust, aimed at producing shame in the arrogant agent, is necessary to defend one’s self-respect. However, she warns us off of trying to use shame for the purposes of others’ self-improvement. Shamelessness evinces a lack of humility; likewise, thinking that we are in a position to morally educate others or enforce the values of the community, which we do in inviting to shame and shaming, respectively, for the purposes of self-improvement, is a moral mistake.
Thomason’s book is provocative, insightful, and loaded with interesting and colorful examples. It will be of interest to theorists in normative ethics and philosophy of emotion, but also to advanced undergraduates and non-philosophers. In particular, her account has important implications for the treatment of trauma survivors who feel shame. In addition, I found her analysis of shame and violence amenable to juxtaposition with Kate Manne’s (2017) discussion of misogyny and male violence. From the perspective of theories of emotion in general, theories of particular emotions, and theories of moral emotions, there is a lot to chew on. Though it only appears in the fourth chapter, Thomason is offering an entirely novel account of what it is to be a moral emotion, and it will be interesting to see whether it explains the value of other moral emotions or whether it only explains the moral value of shame, in which case it seems ad hoc. Moreover, her account of shame may provide problems for theories of emotion, since, contrary to e.g., D’Arms and Jacobson (2000; forthcoming), shame is an emotion with no appropriateness conditions. If it is alone in this, how are we to provide a unified account of emotions? Are emotions no longer to be thought of as a natural or psychological kind, if all but one are subject to evaluations of fit? She does not take up this issue, but it seems a pressing one for her account. If nothing else (though there is much else), Thomason gives the reader plenty to think about.
D’Arms, Justin, and Daniel Jacobson. 2000. “The moralistic fallacy: On the ‘appropriateness’ of emotions.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 61(1): 65-90.
------------. Forthcoming. Rational sentimentalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Manne, Kate. 2017. Down girl: The logic of misogyny. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
© 2019 Max Kramer
Max Kramer, Ph.D. Student in Philosophy. University of Arizona