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.