The Descent of Shame1


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     Thanks to audiences at the fellows seminar at the Princeton University Center for Human Values, audiences at the conference ‘Understanding Other Minds and Moral Agency’ at the College of the Holy Cross, audiences at the Sapientia talks at Dartmouth College, where earlier versions of this paper was presented, and an anonymous reviewer for this journal. Special thanks to Jill Frank, Bernie Gert, Jonathan Haidt, and John Kulvicki.
     This bulk of the paper was written whilst in receipt of a Laurance S. Rockefeller Visiting Fellowship at Princeton University Center for Human Values, and finished whilst enjoying a sabbatical at Dartmouth College. Throughout, I have receiving funding from the Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. Thanks to all!


Shame is a painful emotion concerned with failure to live up to certain standards, norms, or ideals. The subject feels that she falls in the regard of others; she feels watched and exposed. As a result, she feels bad about the person that she is. The most popular view of shame is that someone only feels ashamed if she fails to live up to standards, norms, or ideals that she, herself, accepts. In this paper, I provide support for a different view, according to which shame is about failure to live up to public expectations. Such a view of shame has difficulties explaining why an audience is central to shame, why shame concerns the self as a whole, and why the social rank of someone affects their ability to shame others. These features, I argue, are best explained by reference to the descent of shame in the emotion connected with submission in nonhuman animals. The function of submission—to appease relevant social others—also throws light on the sort of emotion that shame is. From the point of view of other people, a subject who experiences shame at her own failing is someone who is committed to living together with others in a socially sanctioned way. The argument is not that we must understand the nature of shame in terms of what it evolved for, but that its heritage is important to understanding the emotion that shame has become.