In this paper, i argue that most philosophical accounts miss an important dimension of shame: The power dimension. This dimension becomes obvious when we look at the descent of shame: Shame evolved from submission signals (Maibom 2010). Building on Heidi Maibom’s evolutionary account and drawing on the psychological mechanisms to resolve cognitive dissonance and internalize stereotypes, i present a picture of shame that explains why there are social status differentials in the ability to shame (572). Ultimately, i present an ethics of care approach that allows us to counteract stereotypes. This approach does not rely on shame since i argue that shame is not a useful moral emotion because of its problematic tie to the status quo.
The claim that shame is not helpful must sound audacious in light of the prevalence of philosophical writing that argues shame can be useful as a moral emotion (see, e.g., Van Norden 2007). I will not argue against these viewpoints. Rather, i assert that shame is not useful with a certain end-in-view in mind: A democracy that is incorporated into our daily lives (McKenna 2001). This two-strand democracy is more consistent with an ethics of care, which dissolves hierarchies and stresses connections between humans (Green 2008). The empirical evidence i review suggests that shame is a powerful emotion that too easily has negative consequences, including ethical, making it a “moral dead end” (Noddings 2010, 140). This becomes particularly obvious when we look at the impact of internalized stereotypes. Although not all shame might stem from stereotypes, stereotype-induced shame allows us to see the power dimension most clearly. Together with stereotypes, the evolutionary account of shame provided by Maibom suggests that shame plays an important role in upholding social hierarchies.