Morality, Shame, And The Acquisition Of Virtue

“But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,” (Matthew 6:3)

The experience of shame has many dynamics, permeating the larger part of human behavior. Though some psychologists have dubbed it the “master emotion” it is often unacknowledged and unrecognized. It should come as no surprise that much that is described as “morality” has little to do with the acquisition of virtue, while having almost everything to do with avoiding the torment of shame.

Psychologist Joseph Burgo (Shame, 2019) has described four “paradigms of shame” that provide a simple way of thinking about these dynamics. They are: unrequited love; exclusion; unwanted exposure; disappointed expectation. Each of these experiences, in their many varieties, serves to initiate the painful feelings of shame. It is worth noting, in this regard, that shame is sometimes described as the “unbearable emotion.” Of all the things we feel, it is the one we seek to most avoid. As such, it is a deeply powerful force in shaping our personalities and behavior. Only a very conscious effort, with ample emotional support, is able to confront shame and move past its dominance. In Burgo’s list, it is the power of exclusion (and its contrary, inclusion) that carry the most weight in world of morality.

In 1905, Max Weber, one of the fathers of modern sociology, coined the phrase, “Protestant work ethic,” to describe a social phenomenon that had evolved within Protestant nations and cultures. There was no assertion that Protestantism taught people to work hard and save their money. Rather, it was a culture that came about in the absence of the Catholic medieval world that it had replaced. Famously, that Catholic world had presented a clear affirmation of good works. Prescribed prayers, the giving of alms, prayers for the departed, fasting, and such, were all seen as productive of the work of salvation. If you were anxious about your salvation, there was something to be done about it and a clear path to follow. Protestantism had swept all that aside, insisting that salvation was purely gratuitous and that human beings could contribute nothing towards that end. In the Calvinist form, which was far more dominant across the whole of the Protestant world than is today acknowledged, salvation was purely a matter of election. If God chose you, you were chosen. That can leave a great deal of unresolved anxiety.

That anxiety, Weber, opined, gave rise to a different set of “works.” No Protestant would have claimed that their hard work and frugal lifestyle earned anything from God. However, the result of such living, its prosperity and uprightness, were seen as outward tokens of one’s election. The anxiety of salvation was answered with the reward of belonging. Gone, however, were the ritual and ecclesiastical aspects of this salvation. Indeed, as the 20th century progressed, much of the religious connotations of this process had disappeared. What remained (and remains to this day) is the social dynamic. [note – some suggest that yesterday’s “elect” has become today’s “elite.”]

One way to describe this social dynamic as it functions in our own time is the strong “moral” sense that marks those who belong to the “elect.” The “work ethic” once had a strong moral component (and may still have for many). Working hard is something “good” people do. Those who are lazy or refuse to work clearly lack something. My mother had a condemning phrase to rebuke unwanted behavior, “They’ll think you’re some of Uncle Pick’s people.” I discovered late in life that my “Uncle Pick” had not done anything illegal or harbored bad sexual tendencies. Instead, he “didn’t want to better himself,” my mother said. Of course, no one “taught” my mother how to be “good” or to “better oneself.” It was learned in a society of shame. To not better oneself was to risk exclusion, to be numbered among the people of Uncle Pick. It must be borne in mind that my father was an auto mechanic and my mother had worked in a sewing room, hardly the stuff of the American middle class. We had little and we were never going to acquire much. It was not wealth that marked the belonging – it was our “moral sense” that mattered. The “morality” that marked this belonging in the 1950’s of my childhood, was so mild-mannered that it could easily have been mistaken for a tame version of Christianity. However, it was already the case that someone could be seen to “belong” to this moral class while holding no particular religion at all. In some quarters, the word “Christian” simply meant a “gentleman.”

Of course, public “morality” was gone through a number of radical shifts since my childhood. Time was that what could be described as moral could also be described as generally Biblical in nature. The relations between men and women that were considered proper were those that, in one manner or another, had existed for quite some time. The sexual revolution of the 60’s was not revolutionary in its activity. Rather, it was revolutionary in its morality. What had once been fornication, adultery, and the like, now just became “sex” – and sex was good. Those who criticized it were slowly marginalized into the “basket of deplorables.” More revolutions followed, creating new standards for the culture. The content of “morality” has changed, but not its dynamics. The cities of America’s Northwest are at least as “moral” as any New England Puritan could have imagined. Our gibbets, stocks, and scarlet letters simply have a more updated form.

Acquisition of VirtueThe demands of contemporary morality, particularly in their swift and ever-evolving forms, reveal the character of the morality (both old and new) that has long governed American society. The morality of belonging is best described as “moral sentiment.” More than anything, it describes the set of opinions which we hold. I am certain that moral sentiment can serve in almost any political or social corner of the culture, so long as there are sufficient people who will serve to reinforce its shaming demands. Of course, this is a deeply disturbing thought to consider in a culture whose opinions are largely shaped by various media experiences. I have seen the entire country turn on a dime in a matter of less than three years with regard to several moral sentiments, a change that, for the life of me, does not seem to have happened as a result of new discoveries or carefully reasoned debate.

The nature of true morality does not consist in our sentiments – how we feel or imagine ourselves to think about right and wrong. It does not even consist in how we act. Rather, true morality consists in who we are. Another way of describing this is to understand true morality as the acquisition of virtue, the forming and shaping of our character in the image and likeness of Christ. Mere moral rules and norms in the hands of a person whose character is flawed is similar to a child with an AK-47. The outcome is always predictable.

In the strident chaos of our present time, morality has become a weapon of the streets and many of our public institutions. This, however, is not the formation of character and the acquisition of virtue. Instead, the dynamics of shame, of exclusion and inclusion, are wielded in the on-going battle for dominance in the culture’s cold war. The first casualty, unacknowledged and un-mourned, is the character of those who participate, or are caught up in this dynamic of shame. It is a battle in which certain sentiments, declared to be “good” and desirable, are used in a manner in which their acquisition, through the dynamic of shame, will, in fact, deform the character of the person who acquires them. It is a “moral” activity that makes its practitioners immoral.

The true acquisition of virtue is a long, slow process shaped in the practices of a lifetime. It is marked by the integrity of our inner life united with the actions of our outer life. The commandments of Christ direct us towards this fundamental integrity. For example, His commandments direct us in actions for those in need. They do not, however, enjoin us about moral sentiments for those in need. That you feel caring for the poor is a good thing may mean next to nothing. Indeed, action driven by moral sentiment may have no more value than an inner drive to avoid shame. That same inner drive will likely impel a person to judge and despise those who do not affirm their actions or oppose them. Their care for the poor becomes an engine of hatred towards others.

In Christ’s teaching, attention is given to the inner life: we are to love our neighbors, our enemies, and to do good even to those who hate us. What kind of person loves their enemies? That kind of person lives as a revelation of true virtue? Shame studies show that rather than enduring the experience of shame, people most often transform their shame into anger or sadness. Both of these responses are an accurate description of our public mood. We have become the kind of people dominated by anger and sadness: we have become the kind of people who inhabit and perpetuate a shame-based culture.

Repentance and the acquisition of virtue requires that we disengage from the dynamics of shame (both creating and reacting) and take up, intentionally, the practice of the gospel as received from Christ. That means intentionally observing the commandments of Christ, both inwardly and outwardly, with simplicity and humility. To a great extent, we overcome the culture of shame by willingly bearing the shame directed towards us. For Christ’s sake, we become fools, freely accepting the condemnation of the world that we might be approved by Christ.

It is a life well-described by St. Paul:

“by great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love; by truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; through honor and dishonor, through slander and praise. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything.”(2 Corinthians 6:4–10)

Source: Glory To God For All Things

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