QA 21. (Feb 10) Crying shame (Thinking about race again)

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. Read more

QA 2. (Feb 08) A question of shame

A Cape Town woman, convicted – yet again – of fraud, was sentenced to stand in a public street wearing a sign that listed her crimes, and apologise to those she had harmed. A higher court reviewing the sentence overturned it on the grounds that such public shaming violated the constitutional principle of human dignity.

A preacher on the train was shouting about violent crime in the townships. How can these people do such terrible things? he asked. His answer: Because they have no shame.

A friend of mine said that shame is always useless and we should learn to get by without it. (Contrary to the preacher, he would have us all be shameless!)

Read more