Shame again

The Objective, June 12, 2022

In his scientific defense of western culture (The WEIRDest People in the World), the Harvard economist, psychologist and evolutionary biologist Joseph Henrich portrays us as the weirdest people on the planet. One key to this is that, unlike most other cultures and over the centuries (to a great extent, thanks to the moral innovations of medieval Christianity), our culture has replaced shame with guilt as the foundation for our rules and moral sentiments.

In cultures based on shame, codes and standards of behavior are external to the individual, who is subject to the group. A recent example is the murder of two Pakistani sisters from Barcelona for refusing forced marriages to their cousins, a sort of reprisal that seems to be proliferating. But, above all, this sort of marriage is key to sustaining the power of tribal clans and was eradicated among us by Christianity many centuries ago.

In cultures based on guilt, the individual internalizes the moral code, and this provides efficiency and flexibility. This achievement made it possible for the first time for humans to base their social organization on granting the leading role to individuals rather than to the social group. This release of individuals’ energy enables productive competition within the group, speeding up technological change and economic development.

Whether or not this hypothesis is generally valid, it has exceptions and has seen many relapses, such as the Fascist and Communist collectivisms of the past century. And today things do not look promising. It is worrying that the West is suffering from a remarkable lack of self-confidence, an evolutionary regression, because of two parallel, and perhaps related, phenomena.

On the one hand, we see a sudden disintermediation in the construction and enforcement of the moral code, because of the growing importance of the internet and social media. These have hugely expanded the capacity of any individual (even if just following the flock) for influencing the processes that should define moral principles and, often, enforce them.

This increase in direct participation by individuals leads to greater “moralization” of the legal order, in the sense that moral obligations become relatively more important than those that stem from formal laws. Because of its individual, decentralized and mass origin, such moralization is relatively emotions-based.

But, on the other hand, not everything can be blamed on the social media. Everywhere, good and evil are defined based on emotions to the detriment of reason—from the junk TV that dominates our screens, to universities that establish moral codes of dubious legal status allowing them to call dissenters to order, to judges who have no qualms, even in civil law jurisdictions, about including ethical (and, therefore, subjective) justifications in their sentences.

Not to mention the Trojan horse of “corporate social responsibility”, whose resurrection ties in perfectly with the argument behind the regression from guilt to shame. It is based on the shame of employees, customers, managers and even shareholders, and adds new obligations to those that already exist legally, without respecting the democratic controls of the legislative process and, all the while, using market forces as the driver for imposing minority political goals.

The confusion about this replacement of guilt by shame as the key to the emotional arc of morality is stressed by the fact that one of the popular books on this topic, How to Do Things with Emotions, by Duke University philosopher and neurobiologist, Owen Flanagan, proposes that shame should be restored in order to enforce his favorite moral code.

Authors such as Flanagan seem to believe there is no superiority in our culture with regard to the relative weight of guilt and shame. Their relativism thus welcomes the reborn importance being placed on shame by the social media, with the well-worn argument that we should not consider Western solutions as if they were universal.

This approach has two limitations. On the one hand, shame functions only within the group: it requires a standardized moral code. Without it, the group breaks up and such emotion is only activated within each fragment, a process that might be related to the growing polarization seen in the United States, perhaps just because US society, in this field as in many others, is a few years ahead of Europe.

More importantly, this approach assumes that cultural evolution does not exist, so the emotional architecture and hierarchy of different cultures can potentially lead to similar results. But one culture does not need to be “superior” to another to give completely different results, and we used to think that assessing such results was more of an individual than a collective task.

The consequences we face are serious. Not only because of the risk of ending up being less individualistic and more conformist than the group dictates, a risk that we in Europe are well aware of. But, also, because we are replacing the rational and democratic creation of codes of conduct with a condensation of what are merely emotional impulses. The most primitive emotionalism has taken over and we have hardly noticed.