A Ku Indeed!

Shame (耻) and Guilt (罪) and the American Way

Posted in Analects, China, Chinese Philosophy by Chris on March 26, 2008

A student in my Confucian Virtue Ethics class today asked an interesting question about modern American culture in the context of ancient Confucianism. Specifically, he wanted to know if American culture was in any way a “shame” (ch’ih) culture (as the ancient Chinese culture was), or if it was primarily a “guilt” (tsui) culture.

The question came up as a result of our discussion of the concept of cheng (correction, governing). According to the Confucian, cheng is preferably achieved through internal shame on the part of a person who believes that he/she has failed to live up to a standard of living put forward by a given exemplar. So cheng in this case is “positive” and refers back to the importance of “modeling” within the Confucian philosophy as the method to effective behavior modification. On the other hand, there’s a negative aspect of cheng, which refers more to legal rules and frameworks. So, when shame doesn’t work, the law steps in and forces people to submit to some standard of behavior. The central analect is probably 2.3:

The Master said, “If the people be led by laws, and uniformity sought to be given them by punishments, they will try to avoid the punishment, but have no sense of shame. “If they be led by virtue, and uniformity sought to be given them by the rules of propriety, they will have the sense of shame, and moreover will become good.”

From here the basic distinction between shame and guilt is easy to see:

1. Shame is reliant upon an internal correction mechanism that utilizes the “internalization” of the other within oneself. So if you feel shame, it’s really the “presence” of some significant other within you that makes you feel bad. Shame, it is argued, results from a transgression against the kinds of ritual action that are constitutive of relational frameworks. So, if ritual X is a proper component that structures part of how fathers and sons meaningfully exemplify their roles towards one another, a failure to properly give X its due in the proper situation should result in shame, which is the voice of the other that you have let down.

2. Guilt is different, and relies upon an internal correction mechanism that stems from a recognition that one has transgressed against a law. So you might feel guilty that you blew the red light, or that you violated the ten commandments, or the categorical imperative (or whatever). So it doesn’t have to be legal in nature; instead, guilt simply refers to a feeling stemming from the recognition of the transgression against an external standard that compels one to submit. Thus guilt does not involve the internalization of any specific “others” to generate the corrective feeling.

From this perspective, shame is a clearly a device that requires a notion of community in the idea of “wrong”, whereas guilt is not clearly so reliant, as it relies merely upon a submission to laws and rules as opposed to rituals. Your direct relationship is to rules, not to people.

In any case, my student’s question is a good one. Given the fact that in American culture we don’t have a high level of respect for (a) the communal nature of the self, nor for (b) ritualistic ways of understanding our identities, how prevalent within American culture is shame as a corrective device? Is guilt the primary corrective element in behavior modification in our culture?

Personally, it seems clear to me that American culture contains shame as a method of cheng, but I seriously doubt that it is as prevalent as it was in ancient China (or maybe even modern China). It does seem that guilt does the heavy lifting. If this is true, however, what is the cause of the difference? Is it the rejection of (a) and (b) and the embrace of the modern autonomous picture of the self?


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