The Hope in Shame

���We have lost a sense of moral clarity that would give rise to the fear that certain actions���whether we privately feel guilty about them or not���could lead to disgrace. For they don���t. If enough, and enough well-placed people do them, the only disgrace you need fear is the failure to get away with it.��� ���Susan Neiman, Moral Clarity

In 1994, Quentin Tarantino���s Pulp Fiction was released and immediately bent the needle of the outrage meter. No matter. It went on to win an Oscar and solidified Tarantino���s bad-boy status. Critics said it glorified violence, but they were not quite right. It didn���t glorify violence, so much as trivialize the pain behind the violence.

After the outcry died down I went to see it, lured like anyone else by the promise of sex and violence. In one scene, John Travolta turns on a guy in the back seat of his car and threatens him with a gun. But the gun accidentally goes off, splattering the guy���s brains all over the back window. Travolta���s reaction provoked an instant response in the theatre: almost everyone laughed. Nervously, at first, and then in embarrassment, but laughing nonetheless.

I felt three reactions in rapid succession: shock with revulsion, spasmodic hilarity, followed by shame and embarrassment. It was the shame that stayed with me long after the plot line had faded. I was trying to understand why I, and so many others, had reacted that way.

It���s not hard to figure that we cover our embarrassment with laughter, but why are we embarrassed? It���s not as if we need to apologize to the character, a fictional being after all. Would we have laughed watching it by ourselves? It occurred to me that one reason for our shame and embarrassment was that we didn���t want others to think we were heartless, stone-cold bastards. On reflection, I came to think that these were the appropriate responses. It means that there���s still something in us that can���t bear to watch someone���s humiliation at their most vulnerable moment.

���Guilt,��� says philosopher Susan Neiman, ���is the internal sense that you���ve done something wrong, even if no one ever discovers it. Shame records your consciousness of wrong before a community whose values you honor.���

There it is: our moral behavior has a powerful social kick behind it. We want to do right, to be in favor with God and man. Like it or not, we carry the community with us and we measure ourselves up against its approval; ���approbation��� is what philosopher Adam Smith called it in his Theory of Moral Sentiments.

Smith thought that we were basically good people, but he saw the approval or contempt of society as a means for keeping our conduct in line with social norms. It was in our interest to do right and receive the praise of others just as the implied threat of community anger at our actions would fill us with shame. That depends, of course, on whether we cared at all what others thought of us. Smith was pretty sure most people did care, leaving out the insane and the psychopaths. And just as his ���invisible hand��� guided the spirit and function of capitalism, so his ���moral sentiments��� appealed to our self-interests as well as the interests of a stable society. The balance and order was kept because most of us had both the need and capacity to love and be loved as well as the need to avoid the disapproval of our community.

Neiman makes a persuasive case that shamelessness is pervasive in our culture and our lack of shame is what made such violations of human rights as Abu Ghraib possible. ���If the ideal of human rights is destroyed by the violations that were said to be needed to realize it, our children will pay the price. Many of them are already paying, for they believe in next to nothing.���

It���s easy to lose sight of the presence of human decency when we face into the perfect storm of perversity in the media every day. I���m not ranting about particular TV shows, films, fashions, musicians, Wall Street shysters, TV evangelists, or politicians. What I���m trying to get at is the underlying tone of mockery at the human plight that runs through so much of media culture. You can���t avoid it at movie previews where upcoming films, all PG-13 at least, are reduced to slapstick or thunderous exhibitions of firepower. It was there in the photos of grinning soldiers posing with heaps of humiliated and terrified Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. It is there when Lance Armstrong, a symbol of courage and endurance to millions, bullies his way through years of doping, lying, and degrading the sport. And it is there whenever we read another derisive tweet from the President of the United States.

Neiman believes that the only way to reverse the erosion of shame is to ���return to the language of good and evil.��� In a culture such as ours, in which a helpless relativism reduces moral dialogue to diatribes or a pouty solipsism, this is strong stuff. The word ���evil��� is over-used and abused, trivialized and rendered almost meaningless when it is applied where it does not belong. But even more threatening to our own sense of human dignity is when we refuse to apply it to our own actions���we frail, bumbling, confused and pitifully arrogant human beings.

Kant thought the foundational principle of right action was this: Act so that you never treat other people as a means to an end, but always as ends in themselves. That means that we treat ourselves with respect and treat everyone else, even our enemies, with respect also. To demean and demonize them means first of all that we could wish for such a world in which everyone did just that.

We have the means but not the wisdom nor the right to call anyone evil. But recognizing our limitations in that regard does not mean we should give up on trying to understand why we���and others���may do evil actions. We are so easily drawn into situations in which evil actions are the consequence of fear and ignorance; we need a reverence toward words and language such that we could choose to speak of good and evil again.

The degradation of our humanity sometimes pulls us down through enormous events such as genocide or systemic rape and exploitation of women. But if we regain, as a society, the capacity to be ashamed of our evil actions, there is hope. We can retrace our steps, make amends, learn humility, and receive grace.

If evil is not in our nature, but in our actions, there is hope. We do have choices, tragic though they might be at times. But if we wish to remain human we cannot be passive. Our humanity erodes, slips away, sifts through our fingers when we look only to our own self-interest. This freedom to shape our responses in situations both mundane and extreme is what separates us from lentils and aphids. It truly is the image of God in us.

Barry Casey taught religion, philosophy, and communications at Columbia Union College, now Washington Adventist University, for 28 years. He is now adjunct professor in ethics and philosophy at Trinity Washington University, D.C., and adjunct professor in business communication at Stevenson University, Maryland. This essay originally appeared on the author���s blog, Dante���s Woods. It is reprinted here with permission.

Image Credit: / Toni Oprea

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As American demographics move to a more secular society, with fewer observant / practicing Christians / Jews, there is less societal pressure to conform to Judeo-Christian mores / values.

As one writer recently opined : A gun owning Christian will be a responsible gun owner, whereas a gun in the hands of a non believer, may produce mayhem, as in Las Vegas recently.

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Currently I teach English in a public high school. None of my students could tell tell me what the words “moral,” “repent,” or “forsake” ment. Our extreme view of separation of church and state has permitted paganism to replace all Christian narratives. None of my students could give me one of the Ten Commandments. When I explained some of the Commandants the 7th one left some students confused as to why anyone would follow this. This week is Zombie celebration at school. Moral values and ethics are nearly absent from curriculum. School rules and civil laws form the bases of what is right and wrong. The problem is there are few absolute right and wrongs.

I know that not every high school student is so uninformed on morality. But this is a macro trend evident where I teach in California. Another trend is hiring uniformed police officers in schools, which we have along with two security guards. This is the morality our high school kids know.

What saddens me, is we have a society that is runaway pagan. While our church argues over whether women or gays have equal rights–a non-issue for secular teens. A repellent for them to ever embrace religion. I would not tell my teens that SDA’s don’t believe women have equal rights–they might dismiss the church for life.


No question, society has been getting desensitized to violence (thanks to Hollywood despite its outcry against guns); however, relying on conscience or feelings is not necessarily a barometer of morality. Like J.B. Phillips points out in Your God is too Small, the conscience can easily be trained to coincide with culture. The “crowd” can influence reactions. No one wants to go contrary to what appears to be “the norm”. Kids are especially vulnerable to peer pressure, but that pressure doesn’t come to a screeching halt once we turn 21. It plagues us throughout our lives. People who tend to be contrary are a nuisance to society - especially when it shows up in a classroom situation; however, kids who are difficult to manage are also difficult to bully into compliance. This relates directly to our spiritual experience and becomes a problem when we follow the crowd, even when it’s a religious crowd.

…Centuries of Christian tradition have so permeated our life that we forget how our moral sense has been conditioned by a dilute, but Genuine Christianity.

…there are many, even among professing Christians, who are made miserable by a morbidly developed conscience, which they quite wrongly consider to be the voice of God. On the other hand, the middle-aged business man who has log ago taught his conscience to come to heel may persuade himself that he is a good-living man.

_Surely neither the tactically over-developed nor the falsely-trained, nor the moribund conscience can ever be regarded as God, or even part of Him. For if it is, God can be made to appear to the sensitive an over-exacting tyrant, and to the insensitive a comfortable accommodating “Voice Within” which would never interfere with man’s pleasure. _J.B. Phillips



This trend is part of the Mystery of Iniquity that was already taking place in Paul’s time.

Modern Christianity is responsible …and to a certain extent SDA are too with their, INTIMIDATED, PEER-PRESSURED emphasis on anti-legalism.

Christianity has trashed the 10 commandments…in part because they are hostile to Sabbath and thus can’t settle for 9 commandments so have to reduce to 2 commandments.

Even on this forum we read those who post hostile hits against Sabbath.

What we hear so often also is "We are not under law but grace, Christ is the end of LAW, the law was just our school master."
All of the Rom 8:7 crowd are part of the rebellious group who make up the antinomian mob.


Both of these unpleasant experiences are highly socially conditioned, are they not (which is not to say they are not rooted in moral instinct, as well)?

Is it not also true that different subsets of culture are conditioned (and perhaps constitutionally inclined) to feel guilt and shame around different behaviors?

Perhaps it’s time to step outside the moral matrix?

I’ve posted this TED talk by psychologist Jonathan Haidt a number of times on this forum:

But I'm here today to give you a choice. You can either take the blue pill and stick to your comforting delusions, or you can take the red pill, learn some moral psychology and step outside the moral matrix.

The Moral Roots of Liberals and Conservatives

Haidt names five loci of moral reasoning:

  1. Harm/care
  2. Fairness/reciprocity
  3. In-group loyalty
  4. Authority/respect
  5. Purity/sanctity

It’s not too hard to sort these into “liberal” versus “conservative” values, is it?

I couldn’t agree more, and I could say a lot more about that, but, let me just ask:

Which side of the moral matrix do you think “the ideal of human rights” falls on, “liberal” or “conservative?”

I could say a lot more about that, but let me also ask you this:

Which side of the moral matrix do you think Kant’s Categorical Imperative falls on, “liberal” or “conservative?”

For a moment, let’s narrow the focus from the “culture” to “Adventism.”

Has Adventism abandoned the language of good and evil?

Has Adventism surrendered dialogue for diatribe?

If there is a perceived problem here, is it due to “helpless relativism,” or perhaps something else?

Are deontological ethics themselves at fault?

Or perhaps we just need a more complete vision of the deontological moral matrix?

Or, just a thought, is deontology waxing old like a garment, and are we in travail to birth a new vision of ourselves, the cosmos and God?

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Great comments. I’ve always thought that many of us who were raised Adventists were closet Kantians—after we were old enough to know what that means. “Be as true to duty as the needle to the pole . . .” I find I have to use both deontological and utilitarian ethics throughout my day. Neither one is enough on its own; both have significant weaknesses. Perhaps we’ll need to develop a hybrid ethic or a new form. Something that comes out of humility, kindness, courage, and nobility.