Monday, December 8, 2008

The Utility of Shame

Janet's post last Friday got me thinking about the connection between social and fiscal conservatism - something I touched on a bit here.

While we normally view economics as dealing with money, there are all sorts of costs and incentives that come into play when people make decisions. Shame is a very real cost that has been part of society since the origin of the human race. Most of our personal inhibitions come from a fear of shame or embarrasment.

For most of our nation's history, pre-marital sex carried a heavy social stigma. Becoming pregnant or fathering a child out of wedlock was something to be ashamed of. Families would quietly address the matter, but it was certainly not something to celebrate.

As time has passed, the the only unacceptable behavior today is to pass judgment on the behavior of others. We are told that the utmost harm we can do is to cause any bit of shame to come to others.

Please understand, I am not suggesting that pointing and laughing in derision at a pregnant unwed mother is correct - or even remotely helpful. What I am suggesting that without the fear of shame from society, there is little cost to a teenager considering sex. Teenagers place far more value on the here and now than the notion of losing their future. The fear of embarrassment is a cost that is especially weighed by young and old alike.

Just about everyone (including athiests) believe in some moral code. Much of that code is placed into our nations (and state) laws - despite the notion that you can't legislate morality. Most of the laws are directed at improprieties that harm others such as theft, assault, murder, etc.

However, we can't reasonably legislate against private behavior, so society is left to other means to deter self-destructive activities. Oddly enough, smoking seems to carry a greater social stigma these days than premarital sex. Smoking carries a stigma because most of us are now aware of its harmful effects - while nobody notices the plight of children raised to single mothers who have little income or the fathers who have skipped out on them. Children in single-parent homes are 4 times more likely to live in poverty than children of married parents.

I assume this is because the examples we DO see are actors, athletes and other well off folks whose wealth makes them relatively immune to the negative consequences both to themselves and their children. We see mothers doting on their children and since they seem fine - who are we to judge their behavior.

Once we remove the taboo from the behavior, we should not be surprised when more people partake - many of whom cannot afford the consequences.


  1. Not only have we removed taboos from society, we are now encouraging wrong actions through music and television. We (American Society)laugh off teen sex as if it were a a triviality, and make light of it in shows like "Gossip Girl" and movies like "Superbad". Teens now think that they are weird if they have not had sex by age 17.
    When the consequences of this generational culture manifest themselves in unwed births, broken homes, abortions, diseases, and divorce it's suddenly not as funny or entertaining.

  2. I've actually heard it suggested that public corporal punishment would be an effective deterrent to criminal recedivism among teenage criminals and gangmembers. Both still live in something like "shame cultures" and the thought of public humiliation is abhorrent to them. Strange thought.