Samantha Vice, a philosopher at Rhodes University, has been thinking about the moral condition of white South Africans. Is it possible to live a virtuous life here, given the continuing privilege that comes with whiteness? Believing that this will be “very difficult”, she argues that shame is “the morally appropriate emotion to feel”. She concludes, “If the self is as morally damaged as this suggests… a plausible strategy is… the ancient practice of ‘care of the self’, in which one’s moral attention is directed inward towards the self”. She thinks this will require “public silence and humility”.
This is my response. First, if shame is “appropriate”, it’s only according to a particular story (which is after all a story) of moral worth: that having is generally the honourable result of earning. We get what we deserve and deserve what we get. So what happens when we discover our wealth is derived from a long season of racist injustice, which continues to advantage us? We’re not as worthy as we believed. To her credit, Vice admits this as shameful. No denial, no squirming to get off the hook. Neither does she cast shame on those who feel differently. Her work is courageous, careful and – as evident from the response at the conference – provocative.
But it’s worrisome. Continue reading