Photo: H.L. Maibom: Chemamulles. Mapuche. Museo de Arte Precolombino, Santiago, Chile 2017.

Photo: H.L. Maibom: Chemamulles. Mapuche. Museo de Arte Precolombino, Santiago, Chile 2017.


Shame is often known as a moral emotion alongside such emotions as guilt, sympathy, and anger. What this means is that it is an emotion felt in situations where one believes one has morally transgressed. But philosophers and psychologists disagree over whether shame really is moral. Why?

Psychologists like June Tangney believes that shame is an ugly emotion and that even if it currently plays a role in morality, it should not. Instead, we should put guilt in the role of the primary emotion experienced in response to having done wrong. This is because guilt leads to reconciliatory behaviours, whereas shame leads to retreat and anger. One worry is that Tangney defines shame in terms of its tendency to lead to retreat, and guilt in terms of its tendency towards reconciliation. This means that her test of shame and guilt, TOSCA, is bound to find that guilt, but not shame, is useful. I share this concern about TOSCA.

Philosophers are worried that shame is the wrong kind of emotion to be truly moral. Not only do we often feel shame in situations or over things that are morally neutral, but we can also be made to feel ashamed about things we do not think are morally wrong. People are often ashamed about the way the they look, what has happened to them, or personal failures. This doesn’t really show that shame is morally suspicious, I think, because people often feel guilt about many of the same things. But nobody seems to question guilt’s moral status. Second, many philosophers say shame is a heteronomous emotion. That is, they are concerned that shame has to do more with one’s social standing and other people’s judgment of one, than it does with one’s reflective sense of right and wrong. People can therefore be made to feel ashamed of things that are neither right or wrong. But morality, these philosophers hold, is autonomous. It concerns, and ought to concern, only what we find to be right or wrong.

Should we suppose that morality is an autonomous enterprise? I say no. Morality is about our lives with others, and so to insulate ourselves from their judgment and criticism by insisting that morality is only about what I think is right or wrong constitutes a fundamental misunderstanding. Sensitivity to others’ judgment of what one does is partly what makes personal morality possible. But to be so sensitive does not mean one only cares about what others think. It does not show a lower level of moral functioning. It also does not mean that one cannot adopt different norms from the ones current in one’s culture. Being sensitive to the judgments of others is one part of the moral puzzle.

A fair amount of thinking about shame departs from rather ideological interpretations of the way it manifests itself in humans. This clouds the debate, I think. So I suggest we take a step back, and look at where shame came from. Dacher Keltner has done research on the behavioural expressions of shame and argued that it is similar to appeasement behaviours in nonhuman animals, what is often called ‘submission’. That seems right to me. Since we share a common ancestors with monkeys and apes that do exhibit such behaviours, we can suppose that shame in humans is a development of what I call proto-shame in some nonhuman animals. I think it is fair to suppose that an emotion similar to shame underlies similar behaviour in similar situations in some closely related nonhuman animals. This explains a range of puzzling features about shame, like why it is easier to feel ashamed by a superior than an inferior, why shame makes one feel small (when animals submit they often make themselves smaller), and why people are often ashamed of being raped, attacked, or persecuted by others (which will make them more likely to engage in submissive and appeasing behaviours to reduce the severity of the attack).

Read more: The Descent of Shame