Don‘t Underestimate the Utility of Shame

The modern social justice movement is very concerned about shaming, particularly with “slut shaming” and “fat shaming,” i.e. behaviour that makes people ashamed of sexual promiscuity and obesity. Two notions seem to be contained in the vehement opposition to slut shaming and fat shaming. First, that there is nothing wrong with promiscuity and obesity, and second, that shaming itself is wrong. I won’t address the first objection here, although much could be said about it, and will instead focus on on the second, which is more widely held in today’s society.

Shame is a deeply unpleasant emotion, so evoking it in others should only be done with good reason. However, negative emotions serve important functions: pain helps us avoid injury, disgust helps us avoid disease, fear helps us avoid danger, hunger motivates us to eat, and shame motivates us to better ourselves and to avoid behaviours that are harmful to ourselves and others. While it is good to have nothing to be ashamed of, being shameless is not.

Shaming then is a powerful mechanism by which society can incentivise certain behaviours and disincentivise others. It is a tool which can be used for good or for ill. Shaming should not be employed against behaviour that is meritorious or harmless, but should be reserved for what is genuinely harmful. Shaming is particularly appropriate for harmful behaviour that isn’t bad enough to justify preventing it by violent means (which making it illegal would entail). For example I think it is quite appropriate to shame people for infidelity in relationships, and particularly in marriages, but I would not want to criminalise it.

Shame is also, it seems to me, a vital ingredient of a functional welfare system. If people are ashamed to live off public assistance, unemployment will be more psychologically damaging, but there will also be a very strong incentive to find a new job. Remove the element of shame and low-skilled unemployed people have little incentive to look for work. After all, in many First World countries, people living on benefits have almost the same net income as low-wage workers when all benefits, subsidies, and taxes have been accounted for. For reasons that are beyond the scope of this post, I’d ideally like to get rid of governmental welfare systems altogether, but as long as we are stuck with them, the only way to make them work tolerably well is to shame people who take advantage of them. If the stigma attached to being on welfare ever disappears, I believe they will collapse in short order.

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