The Self of Shame

In Mikko Salmela & Verena Mayer (eds.), Emotions, Ethics, and Authenticity. John Benjamins. pp. 33-50 (2009)
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Abstract

The evaluations involved in shame are, intuitively at least, of many different sorts. One feels ashamed when seen by others doing something one would prefer doing alone (social shame). One is ashamed because of one’s ugly nose (shame about permanent traits). One feels ashamed of one’s dishonest behavior (moral shame), etc. The variety of evaluations in shame is striking; and it is even more so if one takes a cross-cultural perspective on this emotion. So the difficulty – the “unity problem” of shame- turns out to be the following: is there a common trait shared by all shame evaluations that will allow us to differentiate these evaluations from those that feature in other negative self-reflexive emotions like anger at oneself or self disappointment? Some progress is perhaps accomplished if we say that, in shame, a given trait or behavior is evaluated as degrading or as revealing one’s lack of worth. Still, even if we agree with this last claim, truth is that these answers are less illuminating than we might wish. A theory of shame should surely further elucidate the aspect of one’s identity relevant for shame, namely, the self of shame. In this connexion, philosophers have referred to “self-esteem,” “self-respect” or the “social self,” significantly disagreeing thus on which aspect of one’s identity is at stake in shame. After critically discussing the different solutions to the problem, we offer our own. Shame, we claim, consists in an awareness of a distinctive inability to discharge a commitment that goes with holding self-relevant values. This conception solves the unity problem while illuminating other aspects of this emotion.

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Fabrice Teroni
University of Geneva

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