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How do honor and shame motivate moral decisions?

How do honor and shame motivate moral decisions? March 9, 2021

Credit: Public Domain

In my first post, I noted four ways that we seek honor and try to avoid shame. This series lays the groundwork for considering how honor and shame influence our moral decision making.

Honor, Shame, and Motivation

In order to apply and respond to shame or honor in constructive ways, we need to understand how honor and shame motivate us, especially our moral decisions. I’ll note 4 levels of motivation, not all of them having equal value.[1]

1. Benefits (Inclusion)

At the most basic level, we make decisions and adjust our behaviors for the sake of certain benefits. In particular, we want to be included. The desire for inclusion and the fear of exclusion are fundamental human concerns. This motivation differs little from that of “guilt,” where people fear punishment for breaking a law.

2. Belonging (Validation)

One level deeper is the motivation of belonging. Being members of a group, people feel certain obligations. It is one’s duty to show loyalty. By acting in certain ways, a person affirms group ideals and gains a sense of validation. This motive might best be evidenced by the person who keeps to a behavior merely because of its tradition.

3. Belief (Value)

A third and deeper level of motivation concerns belief or values. A person with this motivation has internalized certain principles about what is honorable or shameful. Several practices or values are routinely found in H&S cultures. A few examples include filial piety, respect for elders, and hierarchy as well as stress on hospitality and harmony.

4. Being (Identity)

At the deepest level, honor and shame motivate people by appealing to their sense of identity. A person might think, “I do because I am.” I choose to live in this way because I am this or that sort of person. This level of motivation involves a diverse range of factors, especially dependent on one’s social interaction.

According to one researcher, when…

“examining the attitude of Chagga men in a Tanzanian diocese to excommunication, discovered that the men felt little guilt or shame at being excommunicated for fathering a child outside of marriage. However, they felt great shame at being childless. His conclusion was that they felt shame because childlessness was a matter of identity formation.”[2]

In summary, honor and shame can and do motivate so much of what we do, whether we are conscious of it or not. We need to understand our motivations if we’re going to see moral transformation in ourselves and in those around us. Grasping these four levels of motivation equip us to see the connection between our actions and our heart.

Why do we do the things we do?

Ideally, what we would call “Christian behaviors” are motivated by a genuine sense of Christian identity, that is of faith and love for Christ. I’m not suggesting that there is no value in the other motivations. Rather, the deeper the motivation, the more integrated the transformation we experience.

By reflecting on these four levels of motivation, we not only understand the work of character formation, but we also get a glimpse of the process that surrounds conversion, that is, the process of coming to faith and following Christ. (If you want alliteration, you could say “membership and maturity”).

We are reminded that everyone seeks to be included and desires a sense of belonging. Core values must be examined. We all live out of some sense of identity. This understanding can and should shape how we interact with others and share the gospel.

Need to Rewind?

Perhaps people who’ve not read some of my previous posts about honor and shame are scratching their heads and asking, “Can honor or shame really bring about anything morally good?” Fair question. Fortunately, Check out some of these posts and books that answer your question.


[1] These categories were initially inspired by Jonathan Worthington’s “Deep Motivation in Theological Education.” Themelios 45.3 (Dec 2020).

[2] Vahakangas, “Shame, Guilt, and Church,” 53–69. Cited in Mano Emmanuel. Interpersonal Reconciliation between Christians in a Shame-Oriented Culture. Langham, p. 80.


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