The Importance of Shame

In the modern world, we are regularly bombarded with approbations to not be ashamed of whatever actions we commit. In many ways, we can blame psychology for this since it has done much to “animalize” man (Think Skinner and other Behaviorists) since its inception rather than “manify” the animal as in past centuries. (Perhaps rather than blame psychology, it would be better to say that it is not responsible directly but rather rationalizes bad actions as being “psychologically understandable.”) But shame serves a very important social function, a sort of unspoken law to motivate society towards honorable actions and away from dishonorable actions.

In past societies, a lustful man would be shamed by his peers if they were at all any good, with the aim of producing shame-facedness in the subject. The same goes for the glutton, the wrathful man, and others. Shame is a social corrector, a subtle attempt to remove unsociable behavior from society, usually without the force of law. The lustful man, for example, can destroy marriages, one of the building blocks of society, and must needs be repressed. Shaming him is how he is dealt with short of throwing him in prison.

Being shameless clearly creates many social ills: the wrathful man, in his wrathful passion, may commit acts that no temperate man would ever commit, but if the wrathful man is shameless, he cannot even be ashamed of his actions afterward in hopes of correction. He can simply continue in his passions without consequence and risk damaging society.

Mentioning the shamelessness of the “sexual revolution” seems overly obvious to me; anyone with any sense can see the issue there, particularly in the cases of adultery, marriage, and children. A healthy dose of shame, if it had any real effect as it once did, could very well repress these unnatural desires, which would benefit society greatly by promoting healthy relationships instead of degenerate ones.

Aristotle’s Observations

In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle makes some interesting observations about shame.

– Moreover, it [shame] is a feeling not suitable to every age, but only to youth: we do think that the young should be Shame-faced, because since they live at the beck and call of passion they do much that is wrong and Shame acts on them as a check. – Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics Book IV, near the end

This is a good thing, because it teaches youth the difference between mere passions and right reason. This is precisely why shamelessness in modern youth is detrimental: there is no check on their behavior without shame. If you are wondering why he thinks only the youth should be shame-faced, he answers immediately after,

– … but no one would ever praise an old man for being given to it [shame], inasmuch as we hold that he ought not to do things which cause Shame…

(In other words, an old man ought to know better than to commit actions that would engender in himself shame.)

He further observes,

– And for a man to be such that he would feel Shame if he should do anything disgraceful, and to think that this constitutes him a good man, is absurd: because Shame is felt at voluntary actions only, and a good man will never voluntarily do what is base.

If I feel shame because of a wrathful episode, that does not make me good. At least, however, it makes me repentent, a sort of shame-facedness expressed to God.