From the book abstract:
Moral philosophers have long argued that shame can be a morally valuable emotion that helps people realize when they fail to be the kinds of people they aspire to be. According to these arguments, people feel shame when they fail to live up to the norms, standards, and ideals that are valued as part of a virtuous life. But lurking in the shadows is the dark side of shame. People might feel shame when they fail to live up to their values, but they also feel shame about sex, nudity, being ugly, fat, stupid, or low-class. What is worse, people often respond to shame with violence and self-destruction. This book argues for a unified account of shame that embraces shame’s dark side. Rather than try to explain away the troubling cases as irrational or misguided, it presents an account of shame that makes sense of both its good and bad side. Shame is the experience of a tension between two aspects of one’s self: one’s self-conception and one’s identity. People are liable to feelings of shame because they are not always who they take themselves to be. Shame is a valuable moral emotion, and even though it has a dark side, people would not be better off without it.
From the review:
We feel shame when we fall short of our moral ideals, and also when our roommate catches us using the toilet. Traditional defenses of shame’s moral value have largely focused on cases of the former sort. In Naked: The Dark Side of Shame and Moral Life, Krista K. Thomason argues that defending shame’s moral value requires us to pay closer attention to cases like the latter.
Thomason’s aim in Naked is to offer a defense of shame’s moral value that doesn’t render large swaths of the phenomenon rationally or morally unjustifiable. […] Thomason approaches this task in two steps. She first diagnoses exactly where prevailing moral defenses of shame go wrong (ch 1 and 2). She then advances her own account of shame, which she situates in an independently plausible account of moral emotions (ch 3 and 4). […]
Thomason’s targets in the negative portion of the book are the ‘traditional view’ and the ‘naturalist view’. The traditional view defines shame as “the painful emotion we feel in response to our own failures to live up to our ideals or values” (23). For the traditionalist, shame serves as a moral corrective: to overcome it, we must recommit to our moral ideals. Whatever virtues this account has, Thomason contends, it purchases them at the expense of phenomenological accuracy. Surely, when we feel shame about our race or gender, it isn’t because we’ve fallen short of some moral ideal. The naturalist account holds that shame is what we feel when “we fail to live up to public ideals” (43). Shame thus has a socializing role to play; it tells us when we’ve committed a social gaffe, and helps prevent us from committing similar missteps in future. Thomason argues that, while the naturalist view scores higher on phenomenological accuracy, it lacks the resources to tell us whether shame is morally worth having.
Chapters 1 and 2 will be of interest to readers looking for a clear survey of the philosophical literature on shame. Her critique of the reigning positions in that literature, meanwhile, gives the reader a clear understanding of the methodological commitments undergirding her own account. These methodological commitments are not necessarily ones that she shares in common with her interlocutors, and as such, her critique of the traditional and naturalistic views may leave proponents of those views unperturbed. For instance, Thomason’s critique of the traditional view largely focuses on how it requires us to accept that many paradigmatic instances of shame aren’t in fact morally worthy, or even rationally justifiable. For Thomason, who thinks that accounts of moral emotions ought to be able to explain the emotion’s moral value while providing a unified conceptual analysis, the traditionalist’s move to ‘theorize away’ the dark side of shame is unacceptable. But for the traditionalist, this ‘theoretical cherry picking’ is just part of the project that they’re engaged in—their goal, after all, isn’t to offer a moral vindication of every instance of shame, but rather to identify what the morally worthy instances of the phenomenon have in common. If many paradigmatic instances of shame turn out to lack this feature, then so much the worse for those instances.
Why think that defending shame’s moral worth requires us to embrace its dark side, and offer a unified account? To answer, we must take a closer look at Thomason’s real philosophical target in Naked—the pessimistic view. This view that says that, given how bad shame often is, we would be better off not feeling it. The pessimist might grant that the traditionalist and naturalist are right about shame’s moral and social upshots, but she will deny that these beneficial upshots can outweigh shame’s negative effects. For all the good shame sometimes does, the pessimist warns, it’s still more often than not psychologically painful and morally misdirected.
Thomason’s strategy for defeating the pessimist is to identify a feature of shame that is common to our experiences of it, and that plays an important, constitutive role in our moral agency. Identifying such a feature will allow her to bypass the consequentialist worry motivating the pessimistic view. She won’t, in other words, have to argue that the good instances of shame outweigh the bad, but will instead be able to argue that shame as a whole has an important role to play in our moral lives that makes it indispensable. Thomason begins this task in Chapter 3, when she offers her unified account of shame. On this view:
When we feel shame, we feel a tension between our self-conception and our identity. More specifically, we feel that some feature of our identity eclipses, overshadows, or defines our self-conception. (87)[…] Shame gets its foothold in this mismatch. It forces us to recognize that we do not have the final word when it comes to ourselves. Rather, people may conceive of us in ways that come apart from our own self-conceptions. You may think that you’re a paragon of self-control, but the shame you feel upon discovering that your friends see you as an unreliable trainwreck throws that self-assurance out the window.
At this point, a clarification is in order. For Thomason, ‘self-conception’ is not synonymous with ‘self-ideal’. Shame is not fundamentally the product of people viewing us as less admirable than we think we are. Rather, it’s a product of other people viewing us differently than we view ourselves. Severing the connection between shame and self-ideals helps Thomason distance her account from the traditional view, but it comes at a cost. Specifically, it makes it difficult for Thomason to make sense of cases involving people who see themselves as shameful. An alcoholic might, for instance, come to view herself as ‘a shameful drunk’, and she might feel shame at that self-conception. But there may be no mismatch between how she sees herself and how others see her—everyone might agree that she’s a shameful drunk. If there is a mismatch in this sort of case, it seems to consist in the disconnect between who the alcoholic is and who she wishes herself to be.
Thomason might respond that the alcoholic experiences shame because she feels that a single part of her identity has eclipsed her self-conception. Her shame may thus be a reaction to the worry that people see her as nothing but a shameful drunk: “even some part of ourselves that we identify with or embrace can become something we feel shame about if we start to feel that it no longer reflects our self-conception [in] the way we want it to” (103). To illustrate, consider the case that Thomason offers us of the nude model who feels shame when she realizes that the artist painting her is sexually aroused. The model feels shame not because she doesn’t see herself as a sexual being, but because she doesn’t see herself as sexual in this context: “Her shame is due to the fact that the artist’s attraction makes her suddenly aware of herself under a description that differs from the one she operates with at the moment” (155).
I think there’s more going on in the model’s case than a mere tension between the artist’s self-conception and identity. To illustrate, think about what sort of misperceptions wouldn’t provoke feelings of shame. Imagine that the artist thinks that the model looks pensive, when she takes herself to be looking bored, or that the artist sees her as a collaborator in his artistic project, when she sees herself as just posing for some extra cash. Whatever emotions these misperceptions may provoke, shame is unlikely to be among them. To be sure, Thomason grants that the feeling of our self-conception being overshadowed by our identity is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for shame, and that “someone may feel overshadowed by some feature of her identity but feel something other than shame” (87). But these caveats raise the question of what else shame involves. What, in other words, is it about some mismatches that make our experiences of them feel shameful? And why is there a high degree of consensus about which activities and attributes provoke shame?[…]
Having developed a unified theory of shame, Thomason moves on in Chapter 4 to explain why shame ought to be considered a moral emotion. To do this, she first develops an independently compelling constitutivist account of moral emotions. On this account, an emotion qualifies as a moral emotion “if it is constitutive of moral commitments or parts of moral agency” (145). Shame—or rather, our liability to feel shame—reflects “our recognition of the authority of external points of view” which is the feature of our moral psychology that makes interpersonal respect possible (174).[…]
I am persuaded by Thomason that our propensity to feel shame speaks to the investment we have in other people’s perception of us. I am not quite convinced, however, that this investment necessarily involves the sort of morally laudatory interpersonal regard that Thomason envisages it to. Thomason sees shame as involving the same sort of interpersonal regard that Darwall associates with recognition respect—we feel shame, on her account, because we recognize that persons qua persons have a certain practical authority over us (155). But even if we grant that shame (and our corresponding propensity to feel it) involves interpersonal recognition, it doesn’t follow from this that it involves recognition for persons qua persons. To see why, consider the following example:
Claire feels shame, but only when she’s called out by someone of equal or greater social standing. She feels no shame when a waiter asks her to lower the volume of her cell phone conversation in a restaurant, but she would feel shame if a fellow restaurant patron made the same request.
Claire’s shame involves interpersonal recognition, but it’s not the sort of interpersonal recognition that features in recognition respect. Nevertheless, unlike Thomason’s shameless person, Claire clearly feels shame. This means that at least some cases of shame don’t involve the morally valuable mutual regard that Thomason describes. Perhaps Thomason can be on board with this—she may not need to grant that every instance of shame involves this mutual regard in order to argue that our overall propensity to feel shame does. But if we can imagine that Claire’s propensity to feel shame is similarly responsive to social standing—perhaps she has a propensity to feel shame if and only if she’s in the presence of someone with suitably high social status—then it’s possible to have a propensity to feel shame that isn’t constitutive of our moral agency.