United States, 1965. Photo by Wayne Miller/Magnum


The value of shame

Immanuel Kant held that moral education is hydraulic: shame squashes down our vices, making space for virtue to rise up

by Louise Chapman + BIO

United States, 1965. Photo by Wayne Miller/Magnum

Has the behaviour of another person ever made you feel ashamed? Not because they set out to shame you but because they acted so virtuously that it made you feel inadequate by comparison. If so, then it is likely that, at least for a brief moment in time, you felt motivated to improve as a person. Perhaps you found yourself thinking that you should be kinder, tidier, less jealous, more hardworking or just generally better: to live up to your full potential. If the feeling was powerful enough, it might have changed your behaviour for a few minutes, days, weeks, months, years or a lifetime. Such change is the result of a mechanism I shall call ‘moral hydraulics’.

The language of hydraulics belongs to a tradition in moral psychology dating back to Plato’s Republic, which aims to describe the interdependent relationship between disparate motivational drives. In short, hydraulics operate as follows: the elevation of one desire in a closed system causes a proportional diminution in another. Plato takes this hydraulic dynamic very literally, but the 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant presents it as a useful metaphor for capturing the seesawing nature of real psychological forces. In his view, the subordination of self-interest removes, or at least diminishes, hindrances to willing the good. For Kant, the denigration of one’s pathological interests is thus tantamount to removing barriers to acting well.

This pivotal mechanism of moral education could be classed as a form of sublimation or diversion, whereby inappropriate desires are channelled into higher pursuits. Such a model is endorsed by the father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud, who claimed that psychic energy can be redirected from lower aims to higher ones, at least when the patient herself recognises that the desiderative drive imperils her. In Freud’s picture, the painful recognition of one’s imperilling desires acts as what the American scholar Volney Gay in 1992 called a ‘moderating influence’ on that person’s psychology and behaviour. The effect of this recognition is that the patient’s behaviour and pursuits become more appropriate.

Why, then, should the ‘moral hydraulics’ of Plato, Kant or Freud be of pedagogical interest to us? Because they create a space for a kind of education that does not fit the traditional model of learning as the transmission of information and ‘transferable skills’, to use the parlance currently favoured by our educational systems. This much Plato knew well, hence his negative answer to the question ‘Can virtue be taught?’ in the Meno. Virtue can be learned through our interactions with moral exemplars, as I and Constantine Sandis argued in 2018. Nevertheless, the overused phrase ‘teaching by example’ fails to do justice to the complex psychological underpinnings of such education.

Kant illustrates this with a little-known story regarding the moral education of children. He claims that pedagogy should invoke a form of dialogue whose aim is to help the child grasp the nature of moral duty through the instructor’s painting of real-life examples of virtue and vice. While Kant is adamant that this dialogue is not Socratic (for children are not entitled to ask questions!), he insists that the child nonetheless draws moral principles from his own reason. In the spirit of lifelong education, I believe that we should broaden the moral of Kant’s story to all points in the life of any person falling short of Stoic sagacity. In order to see how this might work, we must first take a closer look at moral exemplars themselves.

‘Experimental’ moral education, as Kant describes it, involves exemplary individuals. These are people who have the ability to cause profound shifts in the motivational landscapes of their spectators. This is achieved through the ‘striking down’ of pathological character (the province of our lower drives), corresponding with the elevation of the rational side of our nature. By exhibiting moral goodness, exemplars thus effect the aforementioned seesawing ‘hydraulic’ motivational changes in their onlookers. In so doing, they also impart confidence in the power and practicability of morality. In Kant’s own words:

His example holds before me a law that, when I compare it with my conduct, strikes down my self-conceit, and I see compliance with it – and hence the law’s practicability – proved before me through the deed … the law – made intuitive by an example – always strikes down my pride.

A good example (exemplary conduct) should not serve as a model but only as proof that it really is possible to act in conformity with duty.

The above quotations clarify that the exemplar is not an ideal model one consults in an advisory manner, as put forth by Michael Smith in his book Ethics and the A Priori (2004). Rather, morality proves efficacious merely though our being exposed to it in the guise of a person with whom we involuntarily compare ourselves.

Involuntary comparison is a common, and often painful, experience. But while Kant claims that exemplars put our own weaknesses in clear relief, their effect is not wholly negative. For that reason, we should not seek to avoid encountering the spoils of inspirational peers. This is because our better, rational natures are raised up or ‘elevated’ (erhaben) through such unwilled comparisons. As such, psychological resistance is futile in the company of exemplars, Kant claiming that our spirits cannot but bow before noble characters.

They elevate us morally by causing us to feel shame, a pain-tinged contempt towards our own shortcomings

Kant’s claims are of particular contemporary interest when imported into the space of social media. In that space, it can be tempting to ‘unfollow’ peers and acquaintances with whom we cannot keep up. Kant would have urged us to keep those impressive folk abreast, however unpleasant it might be to receive updates about how splendidly things are going for them. For while they can stir up the pains of comparative humiliation, in so doing they strike down our tendency towards intellectual and physical torpor, thereby inspiring us to action. While we can negatively label this experience one of humiliation, more positively it is what Stephen Darwall in 1977 labelled ‘appraisal respect’. We need not discursively engage with exemplary individuals: it suffices that we bear witness to their excellences. However, as we shall see, moral exemplars are not merely the hydraulic handrails for the ethically immature. As I will explain, towards the pinnacle of this moral journey, we can dispense with external examples of morality and end up being examples to ourselves.

Given the externality of such moral exemplars, one might reasonably ask whether such a picture of moral education is not too paternalistic. After all, it can seem as though we have here a spectator being psychologically manipulated into her betterment – that is, against her will. How could Kant, who was obsessed with the value of autonomy, have endorsed such a coercive account of moral education? The happy answer is that he doesn’t. The events involved in being ‘hydraulically’ influenced do not amount to a sequence of deterministic moves. Ultimately, witnesses to moral exemplarity are in some metaphysical sense responsible for their interactions with exemplars, and for the subsequent changes they make to their behaviour. Furthermore, exemplars do not make any decisions for us: they merely elevate us morally by causing us to feel shame, a pain-tinged contempt towards our own shortcomings.

In this picture, we can think of moral hydraulics as being like a kind of radiotherapy for lower desires, whereby shame ranging over those desires shrinks them until psychological control is returned to the patient’s faculty of reason. Kant’s own word for this punishing experience is typically translated as ‘humiliation’, not in the everyday sense of being demeaned, but in the more literal sense of feeling humility. This amounts not to thinking less of yourself but to thinking of yourself less. The person so ‘humiliated’ becomes less self-centred: her ethical concerns bear witness to a kind of revolution through which her own private and peculiar desires lose credence and authority, a diminution that finally allows her to take notice of what is positively owed to others (as well as herself in her true, moral being).

Once the spectator has been shamed by the exemplar’s behaviour, external examples of morality are no longer necessary for continuing moral progress. The revolution in one’s character, or what Kant calls the ‘change of heart’, can now continue apace without the original exemplar(s). This is because, on Kant’s view, moral recognition suffices to morally motivate, and the example we initially saw in another has now become internalised:

What is it in you that can be trusted to enter into combat with all the forces of nature within you and around you and to conquer them if they come into conflict with your moral principles? Although the solution to this question lies completely beyond the capacity of speculative reason, the question arises of itself; and if he takes it to heart, the very incomprehensibility in this self-knowledge must produce an exaltation in his soul which only inspires it the more to hold its duty sacred, the more it is assailed.

Kant also raises the question of moral confidence in our being capable of morality. But why does he do so if one’s capacity to be moved by moral examples (in others, as well as in oneself) is merely a matter of reflecting on that example and enjoying its hydraulic, reordering motivational consequences? The need for confidence arises when bad desires inevitably attempt to coax us away from our duties. Losing confidence in morality just is losing the vividness of our impression of morality, which we initially glean from a moral exemplar.

Failing to keep a promise to oneself corrodes confidence in the practicability of the moral law

It is important to remember, however, that moral exemplars do not insert morality into the minds of their spectators’ ex nihilo: rather they help agents to Platonically recollect a native interest in morality, which is otherwise covered over by more worldly preoccupations and desires. By humiliating the lower desires of their spectators, moral exemplars remove these barriers to thinking morally. So, once freed from its worldly accretions, the Kantian soul is one that de facto wills the good.

Agents must, nevertheless, engage in various exercises to keep their externally gleaned impression of morality lively. The variety of exercises that can bolster an agent’s moral fortitude are enumerated in Kant’s final ethical treatise, the Doctrine of Virtue (1797). Without them, morality is in danger of losing its power over our motivational system. Should the image of moral exemplariness fade, we can begin to go adrift. Should such misfortune befall us, morality would appear as a mere figment of our imagination, and our duties would lose their normativity (after all, on Kant’s account, we only ought to do things that are possible for us). This makes sense of Kant imploring us to ‘pay attention’ or ‘take notice’ (literal translations of ‘Achtung’, routinely translated as ‘respect’), for that is one way among others that we can preserve our moral perception.

By contrast, the fast track to warping one’s moral compass, as Kant claims in his Lectures on Education (1803), consists in witnessing repeated examples in oneself and others of poor behaviour. One example he gives is that of failing to keep a promise to oneself. Such a failure corrodes confidence in the practicability of the moral law, dulling its shine and attendant hydraulic function. It is for this same reason that Plato wanted to banish art – failing as it did to depict human beings at their best – from his ideal Republic.

In light of all this, it seems that one can keep one’s impression of morality lively – as lively as it would be if one were witnessing a moral exemplar anew. We do this by conscientiously tuning into the demands of morality when the categorical imperative calls, such as honouring one’s promise to rise bright and early on a Monday morning. This is what it is to set an example to oneself.