How to see shame as a virtue

Can shame be positive? Some philosophers see it as an emotion that can improve social relationships, and cultivate a better self. Philosophers Owen Flanagan gives context based on his book, How to Do Things with Emotions, and Bongrae Seok explains the shame in the longstanding Confucian tradition.

Across cultures there are huge variations on how people 'do emotions,' says Owen Flanagan

Duke University professor Owen Flanagan argues that we need to think carefully about how we express shame and anger — two emotions he sees as related. He proposes we consider emotions as something shaped by external forces not something 'we helplessly inhabit.' (Submitted by Owen Flanagan/Princeton University Press)

*Originally published on April 21, 2022.

If a hierarchy of emotions existed, many people might place shame near the bottom.  After all, few of us want the psychological distress of having our behaviour called into serious question. 

Yet some philosophers consider certain varieties of shame to be useful. 

"Shame is the emotion that you should feel if you're violating well-conceived social norms," said Owen Flanagan, James B. Duke professor of philosophy and psychology and neuroscience at Duke University. 

In his latest book, How to Do Things with Emotions, Flanagan points out that shame needn't be punishing and soul-crushing. 

Instead of promoting self-loathing, he says it can be an ordinary and socializing emotion, employed to help people "reap the rewards of a shared, harmonious, mutually beneficial common life."

Shame and anger 

The author and academic began to consider shame in this context in recent years, as journalists and others reflected on the polarizing Donald Trump presidency, and "how he had no sense of shame. And I agreed with that. And he wasn't the only one."

Whether acting out in public or on social media, Flanagan also notes society's growing anger issue. 

A former student activist in the 1960s, he notes that there still exists "righteous anger, which is obviously totally justified for higher good" around inequity and injustice. Still, he points to the recent rise of "infantile anger…(and) payback anger, which is like, oh, you hurt me, and now I'm going to…hurt you right back."

Emotions like anger and shame, Flanagan points out, feel entirely spontaneous and reflexive to us. So it's hard to imagine controlling them.

Yet, he says,"if you just look across cultures, how people 'do' emotions that we think are automatic, you'll find huge cultural variation. Now this at least would indicate that emotions are things that we train up."

Acknowledging that we live in diverse, multicultural societies, Flanagan says that, broadly speaking, there are marked differences in the ways that societies "do" emotions such as anger. 

As a cross-disciplinary scholar, Owen Flanagan says his findings show various ways parents of different cultures relate to angry children. (Shutterstock)

"German and North American parents meet children's anger with anger of their own, and anger escalates until it peters out. Japanese mothers basically choose to…extinguish anger in children, by completely ignoring it and by not responding in anger." 

Adult emotions can also be shaped and improved in some traditions, said Flanagan.

"Self-cultivating is a common idea in classical Chinese philosophy…and the idea is that if you see that any emotion is causing you trouble, you could actually get in there and leverage it as an adult."

Shame and self-cultivation

Flanagan's colleague in philosophical research, Bongrae Seok, looks at moral psychology from the perspective of moral emotions, with an emphasis on Asian philosophies. An author and academic at Alvernia University, he points out that shame takes many forms, and that the positive uses of shame in Asian thought stretch back into ancient history, even before Confucius.

Instead of shame destroying an individual's sense of self, Chinese philosophers then and now see it as an ordinary aspect of emotional life, an aid to becoming a more moral person and better member of society.

Bongrae Seok approaches shame from the perspective of self and says shame can be constructive. 'I found wonderful discussions in ancient Chinese texts about shame being a positive human virtue ... and a healthy sense of inner moral sense that can motivate a person to become better and better every day.' (Submitted by Bongrae Seok/Rowman Littlefield International)

"It's basically the idea of a great humility... You are a good person and you can accommodate others' viewpoints. To be courageous, to say, sorry, I'm wrong. And that doesn't hurt your ego."

Living in the United States, while having grown up in South Korea, Seok has seen these two cultural conceptions of shame at work. 

He notes Western self-confidence but observes that Americans might avoid taking on feelings of shame "because they believe that self or ego is quite important. And because of that, they just sometimes ignore that kind of insensitivity to others' feelings."

Broadly speaking, Asian cultures tend to put others first, sometimes at the expense of self. 

Personal, political, corporate, and national shame grew in the aftermath of a mass fatality involving children and high school students: the 2014 Sewol ferry disaster in South Korea. Some of that shame was earned, but some individuals experienced, as Seok puts it, an "extreme form of social shame. Some people say it's a toxic shame."

So ultimately, in Seok's view, "the absolute key is the balance. You have to find the golden middle, which is (that) you have your self-confidence, but you [are] open to others."

Guests in this episode:

Owen Flanagan is James B. Duke Distinguished Professor of Philosophy and Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University, and co-directs its Center for Comparative Philosophy. His latest book is How to Do Things with Emotions: The Morality of Anger & Shame Across Cultures (2021, Princeton University Press).

Bongrae Seok is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Alvernia University. His recent books include Naturalization, Human Flourishing, and Asian Philosophy: Owen Flanagan and Beyond (2020, Routledge), Moral Psychology of Confucian Shame: Shame of Shamelessness (2016, Rowman and Littlefield). 

*This episode was produced by Lisa Godfrey.

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