Shame is the painful emotion occasioned by the realization that one has fallen far below one’s ideal self—the person that one wants to be. Although shame no doubt originally involves a concern with being observed by others (its link with embarrassment), such observation need no longer be a part of shame once ideals of the self have been internalized.
Shame and Guilt
Shame is perhaps best understood initially by contrasting it with guilt. Both are painful emotions, but the relationship of shame to morality is more complicated than is the case with guilt. Guilt is necessarily a moral emotion, since it is essentially a painful negative self-assessment with a moral basis—namely, the belief that one has done something morally wrong. One may, of course, be mistaken about the actual moral status of what one has done—one may, for example, have mistaken moral beliefs—but this is a moral mistake.
Even those feelings of guilt that we classify as irrational or neurotic are typically labeled as such because we believe that the person experiencing the guilt has made a moral mistake—for example, our belief that the conduct is in fact not wrong; or our belief that the person is assuming responsibility when not really responsible; or our belief that, even if the conduct is wrong, the guilt that one feels is radically disproportionate to the nature of the wrong.
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So we might classify great guilt over, say, masturbation as irrational or neurotic. We surely would not, however, label as irrational or neurotic the Nazi death camp commandant who comes to feel great guilt over his evil acts.
Although shame may also have a moral dimension, this is not necessarily the case. Shame is best understood as the painful negative self-assessment that arises when it is brought to consciousness that one’s actual self is radically at odds with the ideal that one has of oneself—what Freud called one’s ego-ideal.
Although shame typically involves an ideal self that is at least in part constructed from social norms, these norms are frequently not moral in nature; and thus it is quite common that one may feel great shame over aspects of oneself that are morally innocent and over which one may have little control.
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Examples are shame over one’s appearance, weight, social awkwardness, or poverty. Although such shames can sometimes prompt people to do things that are good for them (e.g., diet), they can also be so destructive of self as to be properly labeled toxic. This does not make them moral, however. Not everything that is important—even very important—is moral in nature.
Shame becomes a moral emotion when one’s ideal self, one’s ego ideal, is moral in nature. If one seeks to preserve an image of oneself as a decent person with largeness and generosity of spirit, for example, then one will feel great moral shame when it is brought to consciousness that one has revealed a nature that is in fact petty, grasping, and indifferent to the hurt that one may cause others in pursuit of one’s own narrow interest.
The gnawing pain of bad conscience—the agenbite of inwit, some medieval writers called it—may be seen as guilt over the wrong that one has done, coupled with shame over something about oneself that the wrong has revealed: the kind of person that one is, and how far this person differs from the moral person one thinks one ought to be. “Shame creeps through guilt and feels like retribution,” as the novelist William Trevor puts it.
Given these important differences between guilt and moral shame—the former directed primarily toward wronging others, the latter directed to flaws of the self— one can see why the agent’s healing and restorative responses to the two feelings tend to be quite different as well. Guilt typically engages such responses as apology, atonement, restitution, and even the acceptance of punishment. Moral shame imposes an even more difficult burden, however: the construction of a different and better self.
Because of its potential for moral transformation, moral shame deserves more respect than it often receives. Critics of shame tend to focus on non-moral shame, and they are quite right to stress the potentially toxic nature of some instances of non-moral shame. Some instances can even be toxic, and quite literally so, to the body. Witness the large numbers of young women who get sick and even die of eating disorders (anorexia and bulimia) because they are ashamed of their body image.
Shame and Punishment
Respect even for moral shame should not lead to uncritical enthusiasm, however. We should be suspicious, for example, of the trendy movement in late twentieth century American criminal law toward shaming punishments—for example, making prisoners wear signs saying “I molest children” or dressing them in black-and-white striped uniforms and putting them on public chain gang work details.
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However they may be described, such practices are often merely exercises in cruel and vindictive public humiliation—something more likely to harden the heart rather than transform it in morally admirable ways. (Shaming punishments have been given their most powerful defense by Dan Kahan  and their most powerful critique by Toni Massaro .)
As John Braithwaite (1989) has pointed out, some impressive results have been achieved with shaming punishments in small homogeneous societies that provide for rituals of reintegration. The homogeneity guarantees that one is being shamed before a group in which one values membership and whose good opinion one values, and the rituals of reintegration provide a hopeful light at the end of the tunnel. It would be a fantasy to think that modern American criminal law satisfies either condition, however.