The Philosopher’s POV: Shame

April 1, 2012 5 Comments

Earlier in the year, two films were shown at local theaters whose titles are single words designating different psychological states: Melancholia and Shame. We all know roughly what these words mean, but what precisely do they mean? Is melancholy the same as depression? Or is it more like sadness? And can melancholy be rational, as it seems depression can? Isn’t it rational to feel depressed when you’ve lost a loved one or heard that you have terminal cancer? How about feeling melancholy because you think the earth is an evil place and there is no afterlife and no God, as the main character in Melancholia believed? Is that rational?

Let’s leave melancholy behind and think about shame. We can ask of anything: (1) what is its essential nature, (2) what are its typical causes, (3) what are its typical effects, and (4) is it a good or a bad thing. Take a simple notion like being a bachelor. What are the essential properties of being a bachelor? Being a male and being unmarried are two essential properties. Is an unmarried male infant a bachelor? It seems not. So maybe another essential property is being of marriageable age.  How about the Pope? Is he a bachelor? Many people think he is not, though he is an unmarried male of marriageable age. Perhaps the third essential property of being a bachelor is being of marriageable status, and the Pope lacks that property. We could also ask what, if anything, are the typical causes of being a bachelor (being self-centered, wanting to have many sexual partners, being dirty, rude and irresponsible?), and what, if anything, the typical effects (not staying home on New Year’s Eve, having your own bank account?). Finally, we could ask if it is a good or a bad thing to be a bachelor. Probably here we will answer that it is good for some, bad for others.

Let’s leave bachelors behind. I want to ask some of these questions of shame. The first question concerns its essential nature. What, essentially, is shame? Perhaps we can get a better idea by considering the kinds of things people can be ashamed of. People can be ashamed of being poor, their social status, their race, their appearance, their actions, and even their name (say, if one’s name were John Dick!). John Deigh in a famous essay (1983 in Ethics) titled, “Shame and Self-Esteem: A Critique” cites Stanley Cavell who says that shame is commonly felt over trivial things: one’s accent, one’s ignorance, one’s clothes, one’s legs or teeth, and even (says Deigh) over slurping one’s soup or having a clubfoot. People can be ashamed of being Italian or living in a trailer park and having low social status. And, of course, we can be ashamed of our actions, say, taking money out of the collection plate at church or betraying a friend by revealing a secret, and doing it just to win favor with the “in group” you so want to be part of.

How does shame differ from guilt and embarrassment? In 1953 psychoanalyst Gerhart Piers distinguished shame from guilt in roughly the following way: shame is felt over shortcomings; guilt, over wrongdoings. Shame directed to our actions is similar to embarrassment in that both involve feeling badly (not guilty) about something we have done, but shame can be directed toward the sort of person we are (or are not) while guilt cannot. Further, we can feel ashamed in the privacy of our own homes but can feel embarrassed only in front of others. A woman might feel embarrassed if she has a “wardrobe malfunction” and her breast is exposed in public. But she cannot feel embarrassed when she is all alone at home and her breast falls out of her blouse, unless the embarrassment is a result of recalling some earlier public embarrassment. Of course, she can feel shame over failing to guard against such a public mishap, or for being the sort of careless person, or exhibitionist, that she is. It’s possible to feel shame without feeling embarrassed, and vice versa. Deigh claims that embarrassment does not include a “diminishment in one’s sense of [self] worth” while shame does.

What do the different instances of shame have in common? I think what they have in common is that the person feels badly about himself because he believes that he is not the sort of person he values being, or believes he is the sort of person he disvalues being. Some people do not want to be someone who has a clubfoot. Some don’t want to be Italian, perhaps because they live in a neighborhood where nearly everyone is Irish. And people are morally ashamed of their actions because they don’t want to be the sort of person who would take from the collection plate or betray a friend. Despite not wanting to be a certain sort of person, they find that they are, and so are ashamed of it, or of the actions that they have performed and that they beleive are of the sort a person of little worth would typically perform.

Guilt is different. While we can feel guilty about our actions, we cannot feel guilty about our social status, our poverty, our race, our appearance, or even our car, though we can feel guilty about certain actions if they helped bring about those states of affairs. We can feel guilty about actions that we are not ashamed of. I can feel guilty about being late to an appointment, but not ashamed of it, if I do not believe I am a tardy person in general, and believe that this is just a rare anomaly. Can I be ashamed of an action that I do not feel guilty about? Perhaps. I might feel ashamed of watching the Kardashians or engaging in certain kinky sexual behavior in private without feeling guilty about those actions because I do not believe that they are in any way wrong. You cannot feel guilty unless you believe that what you did was wrong, or in some other way inappropriate (such as going off your diet), but you can feel ashamed without believing you did anything wrong or inappropriate. Shame is essentially related to your belief about what sort of person you are and what sort of person you value being, while guilt is not.  Shame can attach to many things besides actions while guilt cannot.

Was Brandon in the film Shame ashamed of himself? Assuming that he was helps explain some of his conduct. Why couldn’t he have sex with “good girls”? Well, one plausible explanation is that in the past he had sex with his sister, or at least wanted to and still does. He is ashamed of that action, or at least of that desire. He disvalues being a person who wants to have sex with his sister, believes that he is that sort of person, and is ashamed of it. Having sex with good girls reminds him of having sex with his sister. So he feels shame when he tries to have sex with good girls. That shame prevents him from actually performing the sex act. It’s bad enough that a person wants to have sex with his sister, but to actually carry through with the act would be even worse, even more disgusting! So Brandon’s psyche saves him from being an even more despicable person than he already is, simply in virtue of wanting to have sex with his sister.

Why does he have sex with prostitutes and “bad girls”? Why is he so angry when he does? Why does he masturbate in addition, everywhere and often? He has strong sexual desires, which he hates because they are the source of his desire to have sex with his sister. In The Republic Plato tells the story of Leontis who was angry at himself for going to look at the bodies of some criminals who had just been executed because he thought it was disgusting for him to give in to those base desires. Plato has him saying when he ran up to see the bodies, “There you are, curse you; feast yourselves on this lovely sight!” Brandon is like Leontis. He basically says to his sexual cravings, “There, you bastards. Fill yourselves up with the slop in this trough. Maybe like hunger and thirst if I let you gorge yourselves and drink to the dregs, you will be satisfied and leave me alone!” Of course, they don’t. And in a scene near the end of the film, Brandon is shown in a threesome with two prostitutes where they wallow like pigs: sweating, slithering, and sucking, oozing semen and saliva. In this scene, Brandon has given in completely to the desires he detests. And this follows upon what?

It follows on his being beaten up after intentionally coming on in a sexually crude and explicit manner to someone else’s girlfriend. Why would he do that? Because being ashamed of himself, he believes he deserves to be punished for being the lowlife that he is. After being beaten up, he goes to a sort of gay brothel that is dimly lit with red light where drug addicts and alcoholics hang out. Someone gives him oral sex, and the next scene we see is the one with the two prostitutes. At this point it seems that Brandon is consumed by shame and self-hatred, both wanting to be punished for being the person he is and at the same time wanting to completely give in to the desires he hates. Had he not received a call from his sister, and eventually heeded it, he would have soon self-destructed.

In Brandon’s case, his inability to have sex with “good girls,” his obsession with having sex with “bad girls” and masturbating, and his desire to be punished, are all best explained by his shame over his desire to have sex with his sister and the self-hatred that it engenders. We have reason to think that he wanted to have sex with his sister because of the way they interacted with each other and the one occasion where he actually tried to have sex with her. We first see his sister naked in the shower in Brandon’s apartment. She surprised him by being there, and he burst into the bathroom thinking some intruder was in there taking a shower. She is frightened by his sudden entry, but stands naked in front of him not trying to cover up her private parts, and he, it seems, stands there staring at her. Further, when they sit on the couch together, she puts her head on his shoulder in the way that lovers do. She also crawls into bed with him in the middle of the night. Lastly, he tries to have sex with her as she lies on the couch. Though she swears at him and pushes him away, it clearly shows that Brandon would like to have sex with his sister.

We are left to speculate whether they actually had sex with each other as children, or young adults, and left to speculate why they did, or wanted to, in the first place. In any case, there is reason to think that their relationship was not merely Platonic and, of course, that Brandon’s desire to have sex with his sister, whom he also truly loves, persists.

Shame is a bad thing in Brandon’s life. It makes him hate himself and prevents him from having fulfilling relationships. And it’s easy to think of other instances of shame that are bad for the person who is ashamed. It’s bad to be ashamed of your social status, poverty, race, looks, the house you live in and the car you drive. These things are not shameful, that is, not worthy of being ashamed of. They don’t really matter, and people shouldn’t think they do. But what about moral shame? Shouldn’t people be ashamed of being a racist or cruel or unjust or betraying a friend?  I think they should, and similar remarks apply to feeling guilty for acting in certain ways.

However, some philosophers have argued that these emotions are not good to have. What recommends them is that they can prevent people from doing, or even wanting to do, certain bad things, but they claim that those benefits can be had without the burdens that shame and guilt bring with them. Some think that reflection and resolution can serve the same functions as guilt and shame. If I do something wrong, or if I have certain shameful traits, I can resolve not to act that way in the future and talk to a therapist, or associate with people whom I admire, to help rid myself of those shameful traits. If, instead, there are things I am ashamed of that are not in themselves shameful (say, being poor, being of a certain race, looking a certain way, having a clubfoot, etc.), I should reflect on the fact that there is nothing shameful in having these traits or in being this way. That, plus the help of therapists and friends, can rid me of my unfounded shame. On this view, we can have the benefits that derive from moral guilt and shame without the self-punishment and self-hatred that accompany them. Like jealousy and envy, the benefits of shame do not outweigh its costs…or so say its critics.


Dr. Bruce Russell is a philosophy professor at Wayne State University who has written extensively on epistemology, morality and the problem of evil.  His most recent interest in film has  generated an array of  topics filled with controversy and rich discussion.  His exploration of  Steve McQueen’s controversial film “Shame” is no exception.

The Philosopher's POV
5 Comments to “The Philosopher’s POV: Shame”
  1. Although it is hypothetical, we can also suppose that Brandon’s shame-producing wish to have sex with his sister is fueled by more than just his mega-watt sexual drive….I would bet that someone had sex with Brandon when HE was younger setting off the confusion that results when children are sexually abused by the people they love–Shengold called it “soul murder”…what a mess… and the child-now adult (Brandon and his sister) meanders through a maze of confusion and longing that feels shameful and guilt-provoking….Director Steve McQueen leaves us with a chard of a glimmer of hope about their futures that many missed….but is reflected in the closing lines of your thoughtful and cautiously optimistic paper….

  2. Bruce Russell says:

    A friend of mine commented that he thought my account of the typical causes of someone’s being a bachelor was, at most, a stereotypical account of those causes. Many people are bachelors because they have not found the right woman for them, are still very young and so their search for the right woman has just begun, and some may be gay and are unable to marry in the current legal climate. The charge is that I give an unjustified, and unduly harsh, view of the typical causes of someone’s being a bachelor. I agree; I do! Similar remarks might be made about what I say are the typical effects of being a bachelor. I agree again! But I hope people will recognize the importance of the four distinctions I made, and their relevance to discussions about shame. Keeping these factors separate can help avoid confusion, and talking past each other, in discussions about shame, guilt, embarrassment, etc.

    Second, at one point I said, “It’s bad enough that Brandon wants to have sex with his sister but even worse, and disgusting, if he actually did.” I was there trying to indicate what Brandon thinks about these things, not actually endorsing these views myself. I think that incest between siblings can be morally permissible, and is not disgusting. But I think Brandon thought such incest is wrong and disgusting. I should have explicitly attributed these beliefs to Brandon so no one would think that I actually share them.

    I defer to Jolyn in her speculations about why Brandon has the sexual desires, and drive, that he has. She is aware of the relevant empirical evidence, but I am not. Other experts in the field should weigh in if they disagree with her.

  3. Mark Huston says:

    I believe a more complete analysis of the movie, in relation to shame, needs to include the shame of the sister. She seems to be ashamed of her life and, although not as obviously, ashamed of her feelings toward her brother. Relating shame to the sister helps make sense of her attempted suicide.

    In addition, Brandon’s boss, and his lack of shame, serves as an interesting contrast. Surely he should feel shame, but appears not to, which provides an interesting parallel to Brandon’s struggles.

  4. I agree that the sister plays a pivotal role in understanding the shame so omnipresent in the film…..the time given to her song(New York, New York) supports her central presence…she sings slowly, pleading her way “to make it anywhere” through what is generally an up tempo feel good song.we don’t have the strong feeling that she will make it there or anywhere……the single tear that rolls down Brandon’s cheek in response to his sister’s song may be the only genuine feeling he experiences and communicates…there’s a hidden story there between the sibs for sure and the unspeakableness of it surely suggests the shame they share…..I agree that the boss is there for comparison–and not just comic relief as a buffoon…..nice comment!

  5. Bruce Russell says:

    Glad to see that you are visiting the blog. I think you’re right about the sister, but do you have specific things in mind when you say she seems ashamed of her life? Is it because of her failures with men or because she does not have a successful career? Or both…not being able to make it anywhere? Or her past relationship to her brother?

    I think I agree with what you say about Brandon’s boss, but did you mean “contrast” rather than “parallel” to Brandon’s struggles? Is it that he SHOULD feel ashamed but doesn’t while Brandon does feel ashamed but SHOULDN’T?

    In an interview, the director said that he wanted to leave the relationship between Brandon and his sister ambiguous, suggesting “a hidden story,” as Jolyn says, without making explicit what that story is.

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