Ethics of Shame (and Shamelessness): Buddhist and Western

Ethics of Shame (and Shamelessness): Buddhist and Western June 21, 2018

My friend Carissa Véliz from the University of Oxford has a great review up today on the Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews site (a wonderful resource for philosophers, East, West and otherwise). It looks at Krista K. Thomason’s new book , Naked: The Dark Side of Shame and Moral Life, and offers fresh insights into philosophical thought about shame.

Shame is a fraught topic in ordinary discourse: associated with crushing feelings of self-doubt or hate (and harm) and of often-excessive public flogging of wrongdoers thanks to the ubiquity of social media. As Véliz notes, “The book is particularly timely given how common public shaming has become in online settings.”

And yet, according to Thomason, the dark side of shame is outweighed by its benefits as a sort of locus for positive moral commitments. For example, when we overeat (as I did last night at a wonderful Indian restaurant), a bit of shame helps solidify the commitment to future moderation. If I tell people I’m going to run a marathon before I turn 40, my regard for others’ opinion of me will help motivate me to stay on track with training for worry of letting them down. That is, I think that most ‘shame’ we encounter isn’t the extreme end of the emotion, where one’s whole world seems to collapse inwardly.

However, great caution is due as shame is, I’m told, the most often mentioned emotion by people actively contemplating death by suicide.

For Buddhism, explains Bhikkhu Bodhi, shame plays a role in the Buddhist 3-fold path to awakening:

The Buddhist training unfolds in the three stages of morality, concentration and wisdom, each the foundation for the other: purified moral conduct facilitates the attainment of purified concentration, and the concentrated mind facilitates the attainment of liberating wisdom. The basis of the entire Buddhist training is thus purified conduct, and firm adherence to the code of training rules one has undertaken — the Five Precepts in the case of a lay Buddhist — is the necessary means for safeguarding the purity of one’s conduct.

Hiri and Ottappa

In Buddhism, shame is a revered emotion (here we have to be careful to note that translation is always contested). The term in Pali is hiri. It is paired with ottappa. As Bhikkhu Bodhi writes:

The Buddha points to two mental qualities as the underlying safeguards of morality, thus as the protectors of both the individual and society as a whole. These two qualities are called in Pali hiri and ottappa. Hiri is an innate sense of shame over moral transgression; ottappa is moral dread, fear of the results of wrongdoing. The Buddha calls these two states the bright guardians of the world (sukka lokapala). He gives them this designation because as long as these two states prevail in people’s hearts the moral standards of the world remain intact, while when their influence wanes the human world falls into unabashed promiscuity and violence, becoming almost indistinguishable from the animal realm (Itiv. 42).

From the review we see a similar, though not overlapping evaluation of shame from Thomason, who suggests “that shame is an experience of tension between one’s identity (who we are, which is partly determined by features of our histories and by how others see us) and one’s self-conception (who we think we are). When we feel shame, we feel defined by some feature of our identity that overshadows our self-conception; we suddenly feel like we are nothing other than what we feel shame about.”

Suddenly feeling that I am “nothing other than” that feeling seems to trend toward an extreme in my thought. Again, I think the milder (“oh, I ate too much, I want to do better than that, to be a healthy eater”) feeling is shame, but a milder and appropriate shame. It’s painful and due to my improper action, but not necessarily all-encompassing as this definition suggests (psychology today discusses shame vs guilt here and the difference comes up in the review).

Acknowledging the “dark side of shame” which can include violence and self-harm, Thomason runs again parallel to Buddhist thought in noting that shamelessness itself is a vice, “a failure to entertain other points of view about who we are” (p.151); and imperviousness to others’ criticisms.

A line I find particularly gripping here is, “liability to shame is partially constitutive of our respect for others as moral agents” (p.155).

Photo by Dan Musat on Unsplash
Photo by Dan Musat on Unsplash


We see its lack in so much of politics today. We also see it in some Buddhist attitudes toward those survivors of abusive leaders. I think a certain well-known Buddhist teacher might have come around a bit, but when he first wrote about the 8 students who spoke out about Sogyal Lakar’s abuse, his response that they’d been drawn in by shiny pamphlets and didn’t get the real teachings smacked to many of disrespect. Others who likewise jumped to Lakar’s defense demonstrated a disrespect and at times demonization of survivors.

We might see this as well in the Burmese military’s view of Muslim Rohingyas, this lack of respect for their humanity as moral agents. Certainly it exists in the monks such as U Wirathu who openly compared the Rohingya to dogs. Likewise in American politics, where people treat immigrants like less-than-human entities, or Muslims, or others.

Actions vs Identity

As Véliz  writes, “Thomason believes that the “same features of moral psychology give rise to both respect and to shame” (p.157) and endorses Rawls’s view that our emotions are interconnected in such a way that, if we were to get rid of one emotion, the rest would be “disfigured” (p.147).” However, Véliz is unconvinced due to the lack of empirical evidence behind this claim. She suggests that guilt could serve the same purpose as shame, as a way of looking always at our actions and not our identities.

This is certainly amenable to Buddhist philosophy, where we ultimately have no fixed self and we are “heirs to our actions (karma).” However, as most Buddhists and meditators know, elimination of ego/identity is not the first step of the path. First, one needs to get a clear sense of who we are, what our goals are (as individuals, as egos, with certain identities). Some discussion of a recent study on yoga and meditation boosting ego (shock!) has been around just this topic.

Shame, Véliz worries, focusses too much on the individual and too little on concern for others. However, this is definitely not the shame described in early Buddhism. As Bhikkhu Bodhi wrote, it is intimately tied up in relations with others. He begins his essay suggesting a “seamless interconnection” between self and others that is a starting point for morality, including shame’s place there:

Like the Roman god Janus, every person faces simultaneously in two opposite directions. With one face of our consciousness we gaze in upon ourselves and become aware of ourselves as individuals motivated by a deep urge to avoid suffering and to secure our own well-being and happiness. With the other face we gaze out upon the world and discover that our lives are thoroughly relational, that we exist as nodes in a vast net of relationships with other beings whose fate is tied up with our own. Because of the relational structure of our existence, we are engaged in a perpetual two-way interaction with the world: the influence of the world presses in upon ourselves, shaping and altering our own attitudes and dispositions, while our own attitudes and dispositions flow out into the world, a force that affects the lives of others for better or for worse.

Beyond Identity

Véliz challenges Thomason’s view of the indispensability of shame thus:

Thomason admits that if we were to find someone who was able to recognise other points of view and the limits of her self-conception without being liable to shame, her theory would be falsified, as it would show that shame is not constitutive of those commitments (p.166). Readers’ experiences will surely vary in this respect, but anecdotally, I can think of at least one person I know well who reports not feeling shame, in whom I have never seen symptoms of shame, and who is nonetheless clearly open to taking other people’s criticisms seriously and admitting mistakes and flaws.

As Véliz notes, this suggests that the topic is at least open to empirical study. I’d wonder if that “one person” isn’t an advanced Buddhist teacher or perhaps a mystical sort from another tradition, a person who has transcended ego and thus can deal with mistakes on an identity-free level. Even if this is the case, and shame is transcended (as seems likely in the Buddhist system, as the last vestiges of self-view are overcome with awakening), it doesn’t mean that shame is without value earlier on in the path as a way to regard ourselves in relation to others in a healthy, moral way.

In any case, this is yet another area of fertile ground for Buddhist philosophers and Buddhism-informed psychologists to interact with Western thought (and vice-versa).

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