When to Shame? When to Honor?

When should we honor (or shame) someone?

This question is complex and has many facets. However, the book Economies of Esteem (OUP, 2004) offers interesting insight into “esteem equilibrium” (pages 126-29). As an economic theory, their model is descriptive, not prescriptive. However, I think their insight can help us in the areas of moral and community formation. The authors are professors of philosophy and economics, so their explanation is technical. Here is my summary.

Basically, whether we esteem or disesteem (their terms for honor or shame) a certain behavior depends on the rate of compliance in the group. So, if I do something virtuous that nobody else is doing, you will likely honor me for such unique behavior. However, if everybody already engages in that behavior, I do not receive honor simply for doing what others already do.

However, if most people already perform the positive behavior (i.e., “a high rate of compliance”), then I do not lauded for engaging in the behavior; though I do get shamed for not keeping the norm. In situations with high rates of compliance, my ethical motivation is the avoidance of shame, not the earning of honor. In short, we honor people for something exceptional, and we shame people for not doing what is standard. (See their Figure 7.1 below, from page 128.)

The authors present recycling as an example of this phenomenon. In the 1970s, waste recycling was rare. The practice took effort, and so it required a (admirable) commitment to the environment. Now, in 2020, recycling is a common and easy practice. “Once normal, however, it no longer reflects any particular credit on its practitioners, so positive esteem evaporates. At the same time, those who don’t recycle now begin to become conspicuous” (p. 127). Thus, it becomes embarrassing to not recycle.

In the New Testament, consider how Paul honors those who sacrificially travel (Phil 2:29) or host others (Rom 16). These were extraordinary behaviors that merit recognition. Then consider examples of people whom Paul shamed—fornicators (1 Cor 5) or Gentile-avoiders (Peter in Gal 2). Their behavior deviated from the normal expectation of Christian behavior, and so it had to be exposed (with the ultimate aim of restoration).

That is the basic idea. What are your thoughts? Share below!

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