Sunday, August 28, 2005

For Shame

In a recent TV interview, a disabled guy was asked what he wanted to do to people who poach disabled parking spots. His answer: attach a hard-to-remove bumper sticker to the car, announcing what they had done (e.g. "I stole a disabled park", or whatever). It's not a bad idea, really. I mean, these people know what they're doing is wrong -- when stopped and challenged by the disabled guy, they seemed quite embarrassed, and grasped at flimsy excuses ("oh, I'm in a hurry, and I was only going to be a minute..."). But they refuse to face up to this fact, hiding their selfishness from themselves and from the world. It would be fitting for such behaviour to be made public, and hidden no longer. More generally, I want to argue that society ought to make better use of shame to promote ethical behaviour.

Now, shame has a bad name amongst liberals, and I'll grant it's been misused in the past. The problem is that shame serves as a method of general norm enforcement, but of course not all norms are worth enforcing. Indeed, some quite explicitly ought not to be! Still, despite its shady history, I think it's time to bring shame back, and put it to use for good instead of evil. As citizens, we should shame each other into behaving with more community-mindedness and less selfishness. (Feel free to discuss in comments any specific examples which you think would or would not be appropriate for "shame treatment".)

Why should we use shame as a punishment? Well, as a utilitarian I think there's only ever one justification for punishment, and that is that it works (i.e. has good consequences). Humans are social animals, we care a great deal about our social status, so any threat to that is going to serve as a powerful deterrent. And with the advent of the internet, publicizing misdeeds has become that much easier. Just consider the case of dog poop girl: when a woman refused to clean up after her dog pooped on the subway, someone took a photo and posted it on the net, where it spread like wildfire and made the poor girl infamous. Now, one can feel sympathy for her due to the disproportionate response. But if such public shaming were more widespread, no one event would get such disproportionate attention. Rather, one hopes, jerks would get shamed just the amount they deserve.

So far I've mainly been thinking about social digressions, but shaming might also be appropriate for some criminal behaviour. Convicted drunk drivers might have to attach bumper stickers to their cars announcing the fact. You can probably think of other examples. Remembering how terribly inefficient prisons are, we should be looking for possible alternative punishments. But some claim that institutional shaming would prove counterproductive - and if they're right, then we shouldn't do it. Some people advocate public shaming for purely retributive purposes, but I don't agree with that. If it doesn't work, we shouldn't do it. But I do think we should be looking into whether or not it would work. Because maybe, just maybe, it would. It certainly seems plausible that it would serve as a powerful deterrent.

Others claim that even if it works, we still shouldn't do it, because it's "dehumanizing". But that depends on how it is done. Forcing criminals to march around town naked might be inappropriately degrading. (Then again, I don't see why such degradation is so much worse in kind than depriving them of their freedom.) But the sort of appropriate shaming I have discussed is nothing like this. It merely involves forcing people to take responsibility for their actions, rather than hiding behind the urbanite's cloak of anonymity.

There is nothing even remotely dehumanizing about getting people to own their actions in such a way. Quite the opposite, in fact. When the jerk hides behind the cloak of anonymity, he hides the full import of his actions not just from others, but also from himself. This is evident from the embarrassment the carpark-poachers felt when challenged by the disabled guy. Deep down they knew they were behaving wrongly, but they didn't want to face it. To force them to face it is thus to help them to become a more authentic individual, with a more accurate appreciation of their own moral nature. The sort of shaming I have in mind actually promotes, rather than degrades, the recipient's full humanity.


  1. You are arguing here in favor of bumper stickers and the like, which we might call public disclosure as a form of upholding laws and social norms via shame (and probably not merely via shame, since other people's responses to the publicized information could have real consequences for the person). The goal here is to make information of the person's wrong-doing readily accessible, so that others will learn of it. Let's be clear: are you only advocating this information-based kind of shaming, or are you also in favor of other forms of public shaming like spectacle-based shaming? It is true that there is not a clear boundary between them - methods of publicizing shameful behavior shade into spectacles, as with making someone stand on the street corner wearing a sandwich board that displays what they've done, so there is also the question of where to draw the line.

    Another concern is that your utilitarianism is not being indirect enough. Assuming that you are correct to say that there is good shaming and bad shaming, do you really think that we could keep the government away from the bad form? There are clear slippery slope concerns. Especially if not many people share your views on what shaming is good and what is bad, and if people are drawn to spectacles more than to proportionality and effective governance, you might be better off not opening this can of worms. At the very least, you should try to draw as bright a line as possible around the good cases of shaming to distinguish them from the bad. The line I suggested earlier in this comment seems like a good one to me - public disclosure should be the only legal form of shaming. What do you think?

  2. Yes, that's right, I'm only advocating the information-based shaming. And you're probably right that we should try to make the distinction as clear-cut as possible to avoid slippery slopes. As you note, certain forms of publicizing information are themselves spectacles, and we should want to avoid those. It seems intuitively clear when spectacle is involved, though ideally we should want more precise guidelines than "I know it when I see it."

    Given these concerns, I'm certainly open to the idea that it'd be best to keep government out of the shame business altogether. I'd really need to see more arguments from either side before coming to any firm conclusions.

    A distinct issue, which the present post focuses more on, is that of "decentralized" shaming, where the government is not involved at all. Rather it is citizens in a community who enforce their norms for themselves through the non-coercive means of shame and stigmatization. This also has a great deal of potential for misuse. (Some conservative groups might want to shame gay teachers, or people found visiting sex shops, etc., which seems an unacceptable violation of privacy.) Perhaps it could only work in a predominantly liberal neighbourhood, such that any conservative busy-bodies would themselves get stigmatized for violating privacy rights and poking their noses into other people's business.

  3. Gidday; some random thoughts--
    Useful sentiment. But it only works in a homogeneous society. In our diverse land, attempts to shame people are just laughed at. People are totally autonomous -- with the help of a benevolent welfare state that mitigates the effects of poor choices (but I would rather live here than a regimented land such as Germany that demands conformity).

    Because of traumatic early experiences, some people develop a deep feeling of shame -- that they are somehow a wrong PERSON. Healthy shame would stigmatize wrong ACTION but not devalue the person.

    As a Christian, potential 'busybody' I find it unfortunate that attempts to stigmatize are usually directed at anyone who speaks up against discarding the moral norms inherited from a more civilised age.

  4. I think shaming is good (as is rewards must have carrots to go with sticks) BUT disabled parking is almost certainly not worthy of our "shame time" to protect.
    In the world of crime parking in a disabled spot comes about 50 millionth I have 49 million 999 thousand 999 other crimes I want to shame first and i don't really want disabled parking to get in the way of that. i see that sort of thing relitively close to giving someone a sticker for wearing a black dress after labour day (or whatever).

  5. I think shaming is good (as is rewards must have carrots to go with sticks) BUT disabled parking is almost certainly not worthy of our "shame time" to protect.
    In the world of crime parking in a disabled spot comes about 50 millionth I have 49 million 999 thousand 999 other crimes I want to shame first and i don't really want disabled parking to get in the way of that. i see that sort of thing relitively close to giving someone a sticker for wearing a black dress after labour day (or whatever).

  6. @GeniusNZ
    That objection, that there are other crimes, kinda misses the point with Richard's parking example. It's an example. Plus, it's also a good one. It would be really effective if those trolley guys at the super market had that power. Shit, if I were a trolley guy, I would want something to spice up my life.

    Plus, as I will argue below, shame needs to be for those minor crimes - because we already have police for the big ones! Read on.

    I don't think a heterogeneous society can't shame others into changing their behaviour. I would like to see you bring yourself to wear a gimp suit to work, or stand on the footpath outside of a kindegarten all day. I believe that potential shame is having a pretty big impact on your reasons to say no.

    Also, the heterogeneous does enforce its moral standards on others by the method of shaming. Consider the Destiny Church or other groups who claim our society is going to the dogs. We, as a heterogeneous society, associate Destiny with the Nazis. We associate them with intolerance. We associate them with bigotry and ignorance. All up, we shame them.

    Another example comes from politics. Each faction consistently tries to shame the other. It's baseless argument when it comes down to it, but it wins votes.

    (sidetracking further) Consider opposition to the legality or morality of homosexuality on the basis that it's unnatural. That's a form of shame attack. "We are natural, normal and right. You are unnatural, immoral and deviant." Apart from the biological and historical evidence that homosexuality could be considered natural, saying something is unnatural is hardly a reason to say something is illegal or immoral. Should we ban toothpicks?

    Therefore, shame is used all the time in our heterogeneous society.

    The slipperly slope argument is probably the best one, because it's true. Arbitrary authoritarian power is not the new black. Like peasant says, there are some pretty nasty consequences if people feel overly shamed. But it also unjustly says that people can't think. Shaming, like all methods of power control, can have safeguards.

    The safeguards will be subtle however. Remember, that it is society that does the shaming, and not necessarily the government. As society changes, so does the shaming. Perhaps a counter-shame?

    The instituition of shame seems to lead to two things. 1) privatisation of justice and 2) justice for the powerful. In effect, I am criticising you from a slipperly slope point of view as well.

    1) If bumperstickers on parking offenders and publishing photos of dog poop girl are okay, should private individuals be allowed collect speeding tickets? (Personally, I think it's a neat idea - but I don't drive) And so on, etc. Please illustrate your justified distinction.

    I think that line could be drawn at things like taking photos and posting them. Name and shame, baby!

    2) Shaming people is good, if you have the power to do so. Contol the avenues of shame, and you control what is right and what is wrong. If you carry out a name and shame campaign, you better hope that your opponent can't throw some mud back.

    Also, shaming can be justified on Kantian grounds also. Remember that Kant justifies capital punishment, because criminals have left themselves morally unprotected. I'm sure he can justify impacting on the rights of other individuals, given that they choose to impact on others.

    Lastly! Some other good examples of shaming is P2P file transfer, and geek world institutions. You don't wanna be a leech, and you sure as hell don't want to be found bandwidth stealing when you create a website.

  7. Actually, I very much agree that liberals need to recognize the utility of moral language. "Shame" provides a form of negative reinforcement, not only for the person caught and humiliated, but as a lesson to others who see the humiliation and who form an aversion to performing the same type of act. "Punishment" is a private act and, as such, is much less efficient as a tool for social conditioning.

    Blar's question about where to draw the line applies to all systems of justice. With respect to punishment, we have to make decisions as to what acts warrant punishment, and how much punishment fits the crime. "Where do we draw the line?" There are cases of wrongful imprisonment, unjust laws, excessive punishment, and punishment that is too lenient. It is sometimes hard to tell where to draw the line, but this is not an argument against trying.

    People in some communities try to "shame" prostitutes and their customers by publishing their pictures in the paper. This is an example of shaming people for acts that ought not to be punished at all. (Note: Breaking a promise to a spouse, or putting others at risk of obtaining a sexually transmitted disease, should be shamed -- but not sex per se.)

    I disagree with Peasant's claim that shame should attach to the action and not the person. Neither is true. Shame should apply to the character trait, and only to the person insofar as the person continues to possess that trait. A liar, for example, should be shamed for being a liar until she resolves that she will take greater care with the truth. Then, the shame no longer applies. The problem with attaching shame to the act is that the act is done and in the past, and nothing can change it. Shame should not be directed at that which cannot be changed, but at that which can be changed for the better. Character traits are the legitimate target.

    GeniusNZ offers a reasonable concern. We do not want "shame" to be such an activity that more serious wrongs are drowned out in the noise of minor trangressions.


Visitors: check my comments policy first.
Non-Blogger users: If the comment form isn't working for you, email me your comment and I can post it on your behalf. (If your comment is too long, first try breaking it into two parts.)