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The Dartmouth
May 29, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Prof. examines ethics of shame

Should businessmen guilty of the crime of public urination be forced to scrub the soiled street corner with their toothbrushes? Is it socially generative to stigmatize drunk drivers by making them display placards marked with DUI on their vehicles?

According to Martha Nussbaum, Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago, such acts are fundamentally incompatible with liberal societies. She contests the recent wave of communitarian literature advocating the reclamation of public humiliation as an appropriate means of punishment.

"Shame, stigma and punishment" were the subjects of the Timbers Lecture presented by Nussbaum. Exploring the "primitive foundations" of shame, Nussbaum presented a Freudian analysis of the social practice of branding deviants from normalcy.

She explored the historical and evolutionary roots of shame and then applied psychoanalytical analyses of the concept to debates about the utility of shame as deterrence from criminal behavior.

"Infantile narcissism," Nussbaum said, gives way to shame as "blissful totality gives way to external dependence in the world objects."

Drawing a distinction between shame and guilt, Nussbaum pointed out that while the former sentiment is fundamentally destructive to the "subtle interplays" that she identified as a crucial element of the human condition, the latter is not always bad. She looked at guilt as a productive emotion, one that shows a recognition of wrongs committed against others and tends to encourage remorse and reconciliation.

Studies of Greek and Roman history "show that shame is an unreliable and imprecise means of punishment," she said.

Punishment, according to Nussbaum, should reflect the differential effects of shame and guilt. While practices in criminal justice that instill shame in offenders are counterproductive, she also highlighted ways in which punishment could be modified to promote healthy feelings of guilt that would deter future infractions without creating antisocial tendencies.

Community service and rehabilitation were favorable options, Nussbaum said, and she even proposed "humanization" of penal system that would make imprisonment compatible with the ethics of liberal societies.

Nussbaum also drew a link between shame and liberal ethics in relation to the treatment of disabled students in public education systems. Claiming that handicaps are "social constructions," she said that disability is defined in relation to a consensus of normality.

"One definition is the statistical concept of normality," said Nussbaum, which refers to a location within a distribution of subjects that coincides with the mean of that sample. The other definition is normative; "normal" tends to be associated with an ethical conception of standard, good.

The link that society forges between the two concepts, according to Nussbaum, causes people with physical, mental, or behavioral differences to be systematically marginalized.

"Individualized considerations of 'handicapped' students," Nussbaum said, can lessen the shame instilled by being "cast into a group of people labeled as 'stupid' or 'slow.'"

Only a tiny percentage of the population, said Nussbaum, possesses every characteristic necessary to be considered fully normal. Even for those few white, heterosexual, college-educated, Christian males living in the northeast who experience a brief moment of socially-constructed "normalcy", this status will soon fade due to circumstance, or even time.

Her consideration of the implications of shame on public law was accompanied by a discussion of the theory of social branding.

"Acceptance of incompleteness and uncertainty" concluded Nussbaum, "are needed to create a liberal society."