Shame, shame!

April 13, 2007 at 4:45 pm Leave a comment

In Japanese philosophy class on Wednesday, Dr. James made the case that Japanese culture is a shame-based culture, whereas Western (Christian) culture is founded instead on the idea of guilt. The difference is as follows:


Shame is relative—relative to the perception of other human beings. It’s based on what other people think of you. Here, there are no absolutes: something “wrong” is not intrinsically so; it’s “wrong” because other people think badly of you for it. (It follows that if you can hide your misdeeds from others, your behavior isn’t actually immoral.)

Guilt, on the other hand, is objective—and absolute. You can’t hide from it; guilt is real even if no one else knows what you’ve done. It exists not because your community will disapprove of your behavior, but because you’ve violated some cosmic order of the universe.

This distinction as applied to Japanese culture vs. Western culture may not be completely accurate, but it’s still a good summary of two different foundations for moral behavior.

So what’s legit?

In the minds of many, absolutes don’t exist, so a guilt-based understanding of morality isn’t workable. Which is fine, according to many of these people, because guilt isn’t even desirable.

The problem with a shame-based approach, though, is that it’s bankrupt. After all, what matters with respect to shame is not what you’re like on the inside; all that matters is that you preserve a façade. Thus, shame provides a rationale for saving face (through deception, if necessary), but it can never provide a justification for true inner integrity.

For this reason, the Christian understanding of guilt strikes me as the only sensical foundation for any society that wishes its citizens to have genuine integrity—and isn’t this what all societies want?

Questions to consider:

1. In how far would you agree that Christian culture is guilt-based, and in how far do you think it is shame-based?

2. Is there a legitimate place for shame?


Entry filed under: Uncategorized.

Were you there? Guilt is good, shame is bad

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profile.jpgI am working on my M.A. in Religion at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. Besides having a big interest in theology, history, ethics, and the deep stuff of life, I am also very fond of Mediterranean food, snow, and the color red.

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