When being shameless is shameful

When being shameless is shameful November 25, 2019

Have you ever noticed the peculiar way we talk about shame? We don’t want people full of shame, yet being shameless is considered a bad thing. In fact, it’s ironic that being shameless is equivalent to being shameful.

Our language, or manner of speaking, is one reason so much confusion surrounds the topic of shame. People tend to think of one aspect of shame or one way of talking about it. Consequently, they lose sight of other dimensions of shame. For example, the average person is familiar with subjective, psychological shame but forgets about objective types of shame.

To help us sort through possible confusion, this post looks at Bongrae Seok’s Moral Psychology of Confucian Shame: Shame of Shamelessness (MPCS). Although it focuses on Confucian notions of shame, its contents are relevant for everyone. Seok gives language to aspects of shame that are routinely neglected both in the West and in the church. It’s a bit pricey so I hope distilling a few ideas will prove helpful to you.

There are so many helpful insights in this book that I find myself simply wanting to cut and paste vast portions of text. Honestly, some books are easier understood when summarized or rephrased. Not so with this book. It’s super clear.

So, I will modify the format of this post. I essentially conduct an “interview” with MPCS, posing questions and letting Seok’s writing speak for itself.

Shame as a “Moral Emotion”?

JWu:  Readers will certainly have several presuppositions when opening the book. So, what are key words one should understand and how does the book define them?


We should understand “moral emotions” as those “emotions that promote self-regulative or other-regarding prosocial behaviors” (p. 31).

A few examples mentioned in the book include contempt, anger, disgust, empathy, compassion, gratitude, and awe.

JWu:  How should we distinguish being shameless from shamefulness?


Shamefulness is “a state of feeling one experiences during self-humiliating events” (p. 35). It’s a “reactive shameful feeling” (p. 36). By contrast, being shameless is they “well-established psychological tendency or fully habituated disposition to inappropriate behaviors” (p. 35). It’s an “active moral disposition” (p. 36).

Internal Shame & External Shame

JWu:  There’s at least one more distinction that is critical to the book––“internal shame” and “external shame.” Explain what you mean.


“Most discussions of Confucian shame focus on internal, rather than external, shame. Internal shame is a sense of shame caused by one’s inner awareness of or concern for one’s moral integrity. [T]his special form of shame is the foundation of a morally idealized virtue of shame in Confucian tradition. One can, of course, take an external stance and feel shame from the perspective of others. I call this type of shame external shame. External shame is a shameful feeling caused by one’s awareness of others observing one’s inappropriate behaviors” (pp. 36-37).

“A virtuous person should overcome external shame… On the contrary, internal shame does not arise from the viewpoints or evaluation of others. It is caused by one’s inner awareness of, and motivation to protect, one’s moral integrity…. Confucius praises people who overcome their external shame and cherish their internal shame” (p. 37).

“According to Xunzi, a virtuous person is not shameful of not being trusted or liked by others, but is ashamed of not being cultivated to her own standard of ideal moral excellence” (p. 38).

“Shame, here, refers to a feeling of a personally and emotionally invested moral sense or moral judgment. It is very different from a fearful or stressful feeling of one’s failure. In other words, Confucian shame is not a fear of failure but an active expression of one’s moral integrity” (p. 38).

JWu:  By “external shame,” you essentially refer to “social shame,” the emotional reaction to others’ judgments.

MPCS:  Yes.

“Basically, social shame is a self-conscious emotion only available to agents with… a sense of self from the perspective of others. This form of shame brings otherness to one’s inner self so that one can be responsive to others’ expectations and cultivate successful interpersonal relations. But too much self-critical pressure makes one dependent upon others’ viewpoints and their expectations” (pp. 39-40).

“If social shame evolves out of one’s fear of social failure, moral shame is one’s self-reflective awareness of moral excellence. Here, shame is not an emotional punishment for one’s wrongdoings but an emotional promotion of one’s moral integrity and moral excellence. If social shame is dependent upon others’ viewpoints and expectations, moral shame is dependent upon one’s ideal goals” (p. 40).

Idealized Moral Authority

JWu:  Shame is inherently public, not private. So, what role does an external authority play in shaping this moral shame?


“…shame is typically associated with external authority that shamed individuals look up to as their superiors or their moral role models. It is, however, important to note that in Confucian moral shame the external moral authority is not necessarily external or physically real but an internalized moral authority.

Heaven and idealized role models, such as Confucian sages, are projections of one’s inner moral ideal. They don’t have to be real. Nor do they have to be physically powerful, socially popular, or politically potent. They are idealized moral authorities” (p. 69).

JWu:  A passage often cited in MPCS comes from Analects 2:3, where Confucius says,

“If the people are led by laws, and uniformity among them be sought by punishments, they will try to escape punishment and have no sense of shame. If they are led by virtue, and uniformity sought among them through practice of ritual propriety, they will possess a sense of shame and come to you of their own accord.”[1]

This quote describes the advantage of shame over the mere use of laws. Explicit rules help people feel a sense of guilt. Can you explain the difference between people having a sense of guilt versus feeling shame in the moral, Confucian sense?

… to be continued in the next post.


[1] Analects 2:3. Translation comes from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, n.p. <http://plato/stanford.edu/entries confucius>.

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