Recently I was struck by an editorial exchange initiated by Dr. Joyce Brothers in Parade magazine, who suggested that the lack of respect and values seen in today’s popular culture is due to a “lack of shame”. This was followed by a rebuttal op/ed in The Houston Chronicle from Brene Brown of the University of Houston, who seems to equate shame with a lack of, or damage to one’s self esteem, as in “I am a bad person”. My take on this is that shame is a deeply embedded monitor, deriving from the original sin from which we all suffer, but which produces a salutary defense mechanism in us, unless it is overruled by the passions or by social pressures to be entirely “rational”.
Does this mean that I agree with Dr. Brothers? Generally, yes, in that there are some things, behaviors, etc., that are simply repugnant and that this fact alone should give us pause when we encounter them. Leon Kass, Chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics, believes we should be very attentive to those things that we find “offensive” or “repulsive”, because these feelings lead to deeper realities and wisdom, and he uses as an example the idea of cloning.
University of Chicago professor of law Martha Nussbaum strongly disagrees. She believes that shame and appeals to disgust have no place in public policy because they are connected with restrictions on liberty in areas of “nonharmful conduct”, and that even attempts by the criminal justice system that aim to reform the whole person are too intrusive, that they tend to stigmatize people. As Roger Kimball explains in responding, Nussbaum wants to remove all stigmatization and shame from penalties, so as to completely free law from the idea of sin and disenfranchise shame from any role in public life.
If postmodernists like Nussbaum can completely free our laws and our jurisprudence from any reliance on shame, moral judgment, or our natural feelings of repugnance, indignation, and disgust, can the police state be far behind?