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Shame and Morality

  • Is shame biological or is it shaped by society?
  • Is there any other animal that feels shame?
  • At what age do we begin to feel shame and why? Because it's innate or because parents, people and tutors give us negative feedback that eventually creates the feeling of shame?
  • Will there be shame in a future in which moral relativism has completed its cycle and nothing is bad anymore?
  • In every society there exists a tension between just freely enjoying the pleasures of life and restraining those pleasures in the name of a higher order, i.e. between decadence and morality.
  • This conflict starts at a very early age, when parents "teach" children how to behave and de facto forbid children to do what children enjoy
  • There is a "wild" aspect to childhood that older people want to remove, and there is a "wild" aspect to teenagers that older people want to remove. Every age group might have its "wild" aspect that needs to be restrained for society to operate. Religions embody this process.
  • The process of turning children into young adults consists in convincing them that they should go to school instead of playing and the process of turning teenagers into adults consists in convincing them that they should go to work instead of having fun.
  • Where rational discourse and intimidation fail, shame is the tool of choice: "aren't you ashamed?" And the truth is that most children are not until they are told that they should be.
  • However, adults are still tempted by the "wild life", by the desire to freely enjoying the pleasures of life, and each society and individual simply decides where the limit it (alcohol, smoking, hallucinogens, prostitution, promiscuity).
  • The reason why it is so important to limit pleasure is that traditionally it has hurt the community's chances of survival. If you study and work, you are more likely to support your family and help your community prosper. If you spend your time getting drunk and sleeping with prostitutes, you are more likely to become a burden for the community.
  • Habits that were considered "shameful" in the past are now tolerated or even encouraged if they provide benefits to a changed society or at least don't constitute a threat to well-being anymore (e.g., having sex with multiple partners)
  • Morality is hypocritical: it has always been about mutual benefits, the higher good being not paradise but a society that maximizes the benefits to all its members
  • Morality has always been utilitarian and is inevitably destined to become more utilitarian.
  • For example, technology will soon make it possible to keep people alive virtually forever, although completely incapacitated. Technology won't be able to resurrect the dead but in most cases technology will be able to support your bodily functions, to keep you technically "alive". The costs on society will be enormous: is it worth saving someone's life at all costs? This is likely to create a new form of shame: "Aren't you ashamed of being alive and costing society so much money?"
  • Morality is so utilitarian that the "winner" defines what is moral. The product of evolution is always good. Are Hitler and malaria good? If Hitler had won and if everybody had malaria, we would probably say "yes".
  • The enforcers of morality have always had the epic task of fighting utilitarian pressures to change morality in order to adapt to new perceived benefits. This happens whenever the old morality does not provide any significant benefit anymore, or a new morality would provide greater ones.
  • The enforcers of morality (religions, states but also millions of ordinary people) are in charge of promoting the existing moral laws as absolute values, not as relative to current benefits, otherwise moral laws would lose most of their power.
  • Morality maximizes its power when it presents itself as morality for the sake of morality.
  • Inevitably, changes to morality always imply a fight between the enforcers who believe theirs are absolute values and a new generation who view them as senseless superstitions.