Ethics Review Forum: Thomason’s ‘Naked: The Dark Side of Shame and Moral Life’, reviewed by MacKenzie

Welcome to our Ethics review forum on Krista K. Thomason’s Naked: The Dark Side of Shame and Moral Life (OUP), reviewed by Jordan MacKenzie.

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.

11 Replies to “Ethics Review Forum: Thomason’s ‘Naked: The Dark Side of Shame and Moral Life’, reviewed by MacKenzie

  1. Let me first say a word of thanks to Jordan MacKenzie for her thoughtful review of the book and to Daniel Wodak for the lovely invitation to have this exchange. I look forward to hearing what people have to say. I’ll just address two of the questions that MacKenzie raises in her review (I’m using her last name to be respectful, apologies if it sounds overly formal).

    First, what’s shameful about shame? This is a great question for my view. Notice that the traditional way of thinking about shame as falling short of ideals has an easy answer: shame feels like failure. I’ve described shame as this tension between self-conception and identity, but what’s so shameful about that? As MacKenzie points out, key to my account of shame is the idea that a feature of my identity overshadows or eclipses my self-conception. I think this experience causes the characteristic powerlessness, exposure, and smallness that occurs in shame. Rather than a feeling of failure, shame on my account is sort of like a mini-identity crisis. I do have to stipulate that identity crises feel bad, but I think that’s true. One thing that might seem dissatisfying, as MacKenzie points out, is that I don’t seem to have easy way of explaining why people feel shame about some issues of identity and not others. Much to my readers’ consternation, I actually embrace this feature of my account. People feel shame (or don’t feel shame) about a lot of things that don’t always make sense from a third-party perspective. What causes me shame might not cause you shame, but that’s because you and I will see parts of our identities in different ways. This is not to say there are no common objects of shame, but what draws them together is not some feature that marks them all as shameful. On my view, what draws them together is that they are the things most likely to cause tension between our self-conception and identity.

    MacKenzie also raises a good question about the way that shame is meant to reflect a recognition of someone’s practical authority. She is right that I don’t want to suggest that single episodes of shame do this. Instead, I want to argue that a liability to shame is what reflects the recognition of practical authority. On my view, shame is like resentment in this way. Sometimes we resent the wrong people for the wrong reasons, but these cases don’t change the role that a liability to resentment plays in our moral psychology on the whole. So, a liability to shame is part of the recognition of others’ practical authority even if particular cases of shame don’t bear this out. That’s my stock answer, but I want to think a bit about the case MacKenzie presents. I think it’s nearby to a similar question I’ve asked myself while I was working on the book: what about teenage shame? Teenagers tend to be more shame-prone than adults. I think (consistent with my account) they’re shame-prone because they are at a stage when their selves are permeable. They’re in the process of working out what is or isn’t their self-conception or identity, which is why lots of things can feel overshadowing in the way I describe. Nevertheless, it seems their shame-proneness isn’t quite right—they seem to feel too much shame or (like MacKenzie’s example with Claire) they feel it in a way that seems immature. I think what I want to say about these cases is that our sense of self can influence how and when we feel shame. So, maybe Claire’s own sense of self is deeply tied to her social status, and this is why her feelings of shame are influenced by the social status of her audience. If teenagers and Claire come to rethink their senses of self, it will then perhaps change how and when they feel shame. But, I don’t think this changes the role that shame plays generally in moral psychology.

    Thanks again to MacKenize for her thoughtful comments!

  2. Thanks for the helpful response! I want to take a closer look at the common objects of shame. I agree that it’s a feature of your view that there’s nothing in those objects themselves that mark them as shameful, but I’m still tempted towards a view of shame that gives more of an ‘origin story’–maybe one in terms of social norms. Here’s the sort of example that worries me. I think there’s nothing wrong with having a messy house–and my house is usually messy. But I grew up in a family that thought otherwise, and I’ve definitely internalized the idea that there’s something shameful about having–or worse, being seen to have!–a messy house. If a friend comes over unexpectedly and I haven’t cleaned up, I feel a little shame–it’s not earth shattering, but it’s definitely there. But I certainly don’t see myself as someone who keeps a clean house (I’d be happy to admit to my friend that I’m messy–I just wouldn’t want her to see it)–and in fact I positively think there’s nothing wrong with a little mess. The best explanation for my feeling of shame, I think, is just going to appeal to my upbringing. And I think that a lot of common experiences of shame are going to be like this as well–especially the shame we feel around bathroom-related activities, sex etc. These feelings of shame, further, seem to persist even when we don’t have self-conceptions that are in tension with them. Do you think these sorts of origin stories could be compatible with your view?

    I like the response to my concern about recognition respect and the Claire case. I’m a little worried that we can generate the same worry one step back, however–just by imagining that Claire’s propensity to feel shame is one that’s deeply rooted in social standing. So imagine that she has a propensity to feel shame when she’s in the presence of people she deems socially worthy–and that she can’t care less when she’s in the presence of people who are not. I’d still want to say that Claire has a propensity to feel shame, but not one that’s rooted in recognition respect. Though actually–I wonder if we could also just say that Claire does have propensities to feel shame that are rooted in something like recognition respect–she’s just deeply mistaken when it comes to figuring out who commands recognition respect. Anyways, thanks for the great responses, and I look forward to carrying on the conversation.

  3. I love your messy house example, that’s a good one. It’s actually examples like this one that led me to doubt the traditional view in the first place. I think on the traditional view forces us to say that somewhere “deep down” I must still believe I’m failing somehow in having a messy house. I think that answer is unsatisfying, especially when we talk about shame about sex, race, or class. I don’t want to say that “deep down” I must feel like a failure if something about being a woman causes me shame. Instead, I want to say that the social aspects of my identity can cause this tension even if I accept being a woman as part of my self-conception. Other people can call attention to my womanhood in a way that can feel overshadowing, which would cause me feelings of shame the way I describe them. So, for me, the unexpected visit from a friend presents a different point of view to me about my messy house. Even if I think it’s fine, knowing that another person who isn’t me might be seeing this feature of myself in a radically different way is enough to inspire a little bit of shame.

  4. That’s really useful. Does it run into issues with ‘innocuous mismatches’? E.g. if a friend comes over, and sees that I have a ball of yarn and knitting needles sitting on my coffee table, she may end up thinking ‘Jordan must be a really serious knitter’. I’m a casual knitter at best–but I wouldn’t really care if my friend drew that conclusion. I think I gave a similar example with the model–there are cases where mismatches between her self-conception and the artist’s impression of her would provoke shame. And other cases where they presumably wouldn’t.

    One thing I really like about this part of your view is that it offers a really natural bridge between the account of shame and its connection to recognition respect. Shame isn’t just social–it’s at base a recognition that other peoples’ perceptions of you have some normative authority, in much the same way that other peoples’ preferences, desires, and commitments have normative authority.

  5. Haha! The kinds of things I’m ashamed of are legion, so that probably explains why I wrote the book.

    I’m not sure what to say about the innocuous mismatches. Not every case of how I appear vs. how I think of myself will cause feelings of shame. But I think if someone really called a lot of attention to something that was innocuous, it might start to get into that territory. Suppose, for example, someone started to suddenly make a huge fuss about how green my eyes are: “OMG, they are so green, just look at them!” The more they persisted, I think I might start to at least feel self-conscious about it. I could imagine thinking, “Geez, I didn’t think they were that green, but this person is calling so much attention to it, are they really that green?” It might not become full-blown shame, but I think seemingly innocuous things can be thrust into a kind of spotlight in a way that starts to cause this tension.

  6. Do you think, then, that it’s this liability to be emotionally affected by mismatches between our self-conception and identity is what’s doing the work, so to speak? We might think that shame is typically one way in which we might be liable to the tension caused by these mismatches–but there might be other emotional reactions that we can have here as well. The case that you describe about the eye color is very familiar, but I’d be hesitant to call it shame. It seems more apt to say that it’s a bit unnerving or frustrating to have people fixate on parts of. your personality or appearance in ways that suggest that they have more importance than you’d like them to have. Likewise, we can have absolutely positive reactions to these mismatches–finding out that people see us as more capable/assertive/empathetic etc. than we see ourselves can be really pleasant. What seems to matter, from the perspective of recognition respect, is that we have this standing disposition to treat other peoples’ assessment of us as having some normative authority–how we respond to those assessments when they don’t line up with our own, however, will be largely determined by what exactly those particular mismatches involve (whether they’re positive or negative, significant or insignificant, whether they involve attributes that are commonly objects of praise, censure etc.). This leaves open the possibility that shame may sometimes be a response to something other than the tension between self-conception and identity, in much the same way that other emotional reactions that we could have to this tension can be reactions to other things as well (e.g. we can be frustrated at the tension, but also at having to wait in line, fill out a glitchy online form etc.).

  7. Right, what I want to say is that a liability to shame is something that comes along with our recognition of other points of view in this way. I do think shame really is about this tension between self-conception and identity, but other people’s reactions to us can inspire or cause that tension where it might not have existed. And that tension isn’t just because my identity and self-conception don’t match up, but rather that I feel as though some aspect of my identity is overshadowing or eclipsing. I think I can feel that way about my green eyes if the circumstances are right, even though I know I have green eyes, this is not news to me, I don’t feel any particular way about them, etc. So, the mismatch by itself might cause lots of feelings: I might get angry or annoyed that someone keeps fixating on my eyes or I might feel flattered that someone finds them so striking. Shame starts to come on the scene when that mismatch starts to feel like overshadowing or eclipsing.

  8. Hi Krista, it’s great to see Peasoup doing this discussion. So happy to see the book getting this well-deserved attention.

    I’m wondering if you could talk about mismatches between your self-conception and identity where the identity begins to eclipse the self-conception but in a way that improves the self-conception. I’m thinking of cases, for example, where you receive praise that you didn’t think you merited, but the praise comes from enough sources that it begins to override and improve your self-conception. This seems more like it would inspire pride than shame. So is shame when the mismatch starts to feel overshadowing in a way that might push in the direction of lowering one’s self-conception, whereas pride is when the mismatch starts to feel overshadowing in the other direction? Or is the relationship more complex than this?

  9. Hi Zach! Thanks for commenting. This is a great question. Overall I agree with how you put it and I think this dynamic I describe can explain why pride sometimes makes us feel really self-conscious. Sometimes people experience compliments, awards, or recognitions as overall positive, but they can also have trouble accepting them gracefully because they also feel their self-conceptions overshadowed.

    One of my favorite examples of the trickiness of this dynamic is a story about my grandfather. Lots of people came to my grandmother’s funeral and my aunt asked him how he felt about seeing all these people who loved him and my grandmother. He said “Shame” and started to cry. I don’t think he thought of the love of these people as a bad thing, but I think he was so overwhelmed by the sense that all these people thought he was valuable and important that he just felt his sense of self swallowed up. So, I think I agree with your description. I also want to maintain that sometimes it’s hard to tell which direction our emotions will go in.

  10. Hi Krista, that response is really helpful, thanks. The story about your grandfather has helped me get clearer about what I had in mind with my earlier question. Basically, I was wondering if on your view shame is best understood as a severe case of self-consciousness (from identity eclipsing or overshadowing self-conception), or if it’s best understood as a severe case of self-consciousness where the identity’s overshadowing effect on self-conception tends to lower the self-conception. I was thinking it was the latter — and that the contrast with pride might help to highlight that (pride being the severe case of self-consciousness where identity overshadows and raises the self-conception). But the touching example of your grandfather seems to fit better with the first conception, that shame just is a sort of overwhelming self-consciousness regardless of the direction in which identity pulls the self-conception (sorry, I suspect this is clunky phrasing). If it’s the latter, then I’m still a little unclear about the distinction with pride. But I guess maybe your granddad’s example shows that the relationship between shame and pride may be more complicated than this. Anyway, thanks for an excellent book and for this interesting discussion!

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