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Have you no shame? Because it could help you be a better person

Unthinkable: Philosopher Owen Flanagan believes shame can have positive effects

Great crimes have been carried out in the name of shame. Look no further, says Irish-American philosopher Owen Flanagan, than the operation of mother and baby homes which “make sense only in the context of a perfect storm of the entirely sexist shame attached to female sexuality and the additional shame of unwed pregnancy, combined with the shame of poverty”.

So why, you might ask, has Flanagan written a book in praise of shame?

“Shame is indifferent to whether it serves good or bad values. In the Irish homes for unwed mothers, it served bad ones.” But elsewhere, he argues, it is capable of serving good ones.

It is not a return to suffocating, church-led shame that he is advocating but rather a transition to what he calls “a mature sense of shame” – a sense that is more commonly found today among countries outside of “the north Atlantic”.


Flanagan, who has ancestral roots in Mayo-Roscommon, has followed an unusual academic path for a philosopher, flitting between cognitive science and psychology and dabbling in Buddhism (although he describes himself as an “atheist Catholic”), all of which has coalesced into something called cross-cultural philosophy.

His curiosity about other traditions stretches back to his childhood in New York in the 1950s and 1960s where he experienced a very different family “ecology” to his Jewish or Italian-Catholic neighbours. “The Garguilo and Mancuso men, for example, hugged and kissed each other. We Flanagans did not do that, although my brother and I do now,” he writes in How to Do Things with Emotions.

The book’s thesis can be summarised in a line. Across secular societies: “Anger is overutilised. Shame is underutilised.”

To convince of us of his case, he urges us to look upon shame anew; to view it not as a corrosive feeling, nor as a cruel attack on one’s character, but rather “a positive self-monitoring emotion”. He explains further as this week’s Unthinkable guest.

Why exactly do want to rehabilitate shame?

Owen Flanagan: “With this book, I wanted to say two things about emotions in general. There is this idea that emotions are reflexive but there is evidence that different cultures do the emotions in different ways.

“With respect to shame, what I have been thinking about for a long time is that we are really down on shame. I got that; shame can be weaponised.

“But you can [use shame] without humiliating or shaming people. That requires a moral education which says: We as a society have reached a social consensus that certain things are wrong, like to lie for convenience.

“My other idea was this: [Immanuel] Kant tries to build a morality on reason but he has this idea, and I think it’s common in the Abrahamic traditions, even the secular versions, that we should run our morality on guilt, where guilt is kind of the internalisation of that which grounds morality, which is God’s will [in such traditions]. We internalise that, and then we have a conscience that is relatively severe and punishes us for our sins. I call that a vertical foundation of morality.

“What I like about shame – and I don’t love it, by the way, I just think it’s one of the instruments that is underrated – is that it operates more horizontally. You see this in non-Abrahamic religions. For example, in the Confucian case, shame is something appropriate to feel when you violate well-considered principles of social morality.

“My thought was this; at a time when even very religious countries are becoming increasingly less so, it will become harder and harder to convince people that they should follow morality because of an internal guide of conscience that functions in this theistic way, or secular-theistic way. But convincing people that, over time, we have developed conceptions of rights and duties, and so on, could develop into something [that is more lasting]; a mature sense of shame.”

You say this mature sense is 'largely internal' and sets moral 'boundaries'. How does parenting play a role because many care-givers would not want their children to feel ashamed?

“When I was a little boy in a very Catholic family, our parents would say things like ‘if you don’t stop, or if you don’t share your toys you should be ashamed of yourself’. I never took that as a comment on my character, that I’m a failure as a human being. I took it as a very specific piece of information that my selfish way of playing with my sister was not what good people do, as defined by my parents.

“When I think about it, my parents never said things like ‘you should feel guilty’ when I lied, although I knew you should confess lies. They were calling on me to change myself and do what Confucians would call self-cultivate – make myself a little better. It’s like practising as an athlete.”

How do you respond to those who say keep culture out of morality; things are either right or wrong?

"I would say this: I'm in favour at the level of political philosophy doing what [Canadian philosopher] Charles Taylor called reaching unforced consensus.

“I think two great things that happened in the recent world were the 1948 UN Declaration of Human Rights and, in 2015, 193 countries agreed the 17 sustainable development goals. In both cases we reached an unforced consensus.

“I am not calling upon us to do cross-cultural [philosophy] or to look at variety of personality for those things. But I do think, with respect to thinking about virtue, moral education and norms and scripts for the expression of emotions, it [cross-cultural philosophy] can sometimes be very helpful.

“Take anger. People say it’s a reflex. I say, no, notice what happens when you look at other people. When children misbehave, American and German mothers get angry. Japanese mothers get sad and disappointed; that is the way they train their children to improve their behaviour.

“So if you think that an emotion, or a way of living, is causing trouble sometimes it’s useful to look around and see if there are other options that might be better for you.

“Another example: take greed. It used to be a deadly sin. In America now, it is re-described in the everyday language of universities as entrepreneurship or innovation.

“You might say, huh, are there any cultures who don’t think fighting to be innovative, entrepreneurial and accumulating a lot of stuff is a virtue? And the answer is yes, there are plenty; you just happen not to be in one.”

What aspect of your own Irish-Catholic upbringing do you find impossible to shake off?

“What I have learned out of being raised in a morally serious, spiritual tradition like Roman Catholicism is that a happy life is good if you can get it but a meaningful and morally serious life where you are present for your loved ones and friends, and present for helping to sustain the common good, is closer to something Aristotle would call eudaimonia but it [the meaningful life] is thickened out by the values I learnt from my Roman Catholic upbringing.

“That is why I say: I am still that boy deep down inside.”

How to Do Things with Emotions: The Morality of Anger and Shame Across Cultures by Owen Flanagan is published by Princeton University Press