November 22, 2019

Is There an Upside to Shame?

“Has the behaviour of another person ever made you feel ashamed? Not because they set out to shame you but because they acted so virtuously that it made you feel inadequate by comparison. If so, then it is likely that, at least for a brief moment in time, you felt motivated to improve as a person. Perhaps you found yourself thinking that you should be kinder, tidier, less jealous, more hardworking or just generally better: to live up to your full potential. If the feeling was powerful enough, it might have changed your behaviour for a few minutes, days, weeks, months, years or a lifetime. Such change is the result of a mechanism I shall call ‘moral hydraulics’.

The language of hydraulics belongs to a tradition in moral psychology dating back to Plato’s Republic, which aims to describe the interdependent relationship between disparate motivational drives. In short, hydraulics operate as follows: the elevation of one desire in a closed system causes a proportional diminution in another. Plato takes this hydraulic dynamic very literally, but the 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant presents it as a useful metaphor for capturing the seesawing nature of real psychological forces. In his view, the subordination of self-interest removes, or at least diminishes, hindrances to willing the good. For Kant, the denigration of one’s pathological interests is thus tantamount to removing barriers to acting well.

This pivotal mechanism of moral education could be classed as a form of sublimation or diversion, whereby inappropriate desires are channelled into higher pursuits. Such a model is endorsed by the father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud, who claimed that psychic energy can be redirected from lower aims to higher ones, at least when the patient herself recognises that the desiderative drive imperils her. In Freud’s picture, the painful recognition of one’s imperilling desires acts as what the American scholar Volney Gay in 1992 called a ‘moderating influence’ on that person’s psychology and behaviour. The effect of this recognition is that the patient’s behaviour and pursuits become more appropriate.”

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