Shame and Virtue

Shame is arguably the first human emotion.  At least in the Biblical account, the shame of Adam and Eve at their nakedness is the first sensation they experience after eating the forbidden fruit.  In the Eastern tradition, the great Confucian teacher Mencius is clear that not only is shame central to the human experience, but also that “the sense of shame is of great importance” as a precursor to good action.

Shame is an age old notion that seems oddly lost in our modern world.  In the 1990’s our political leaders abandoned the notion of falling on one’s sword when Bill Clinton our impeached President, and Newt Gingrich our first Speaker officially reprimanded for an ethics violation, continued to hold high office after their respective finger-wagging and lecturing.  Soon it followed that pop culture icons – from steroid-powered star athletes to the defiant and abusive movie actors – forsook the obligations warranted by shame.  Today, an utter lack of shame has become a vehicle to achieve fame and fortune as reality television and “leaked” sex tapes propel unknowns to hero status.

We, as a culture, have no shame.  Yet, lack of shame is not the problem.  Lack of shame is a symptom of the problem.

Shame is a strong feeling that comes from a failure to live up to the expectations of a community.  Shame is a sense of regret that we have fallen short in fulfilling our obligations to ourselves, our family, and our society.  Thus, only a person with some sense of propriety, with some semblance of honor, can feel shame.

We have lost virtue, and we have done so by ceding the duties of virtue to something other than ourselves.  By seeking an ever larger government to manage and administer the responsibilities we have to ourselves and others, we diminish our opportunities for virtue, and therefore erode the trigger that would ignite our shame.

Already I can hear my friends on the Left suggesting that this is exactly why we need things like socialized health care.  They argue that we all ought to pay more taxes to provide more care thus acting as a virtuous community.  This is faulty reasoning.  A virtue cannot be a compelled – forced – action.  Something is only a virtue if it is freely chosen.

Each of us has no choice but to pay our taxes or face punishment.  Thereby, paying taxes – even if the money is used for “the greater good” is no virtue.  Charity is a virtue.  Charity is the self-aware act of giving not because one must, but because one should.  Charity is a choice.

As we have enlarged our government, we have diminished the individual.  Consider the now well-known evidence that proves that those who put more faith in government – liberals – give far less money to charity than do those who do not – conservatives.  Conservatives generally give about three times more to charity than do liberals (or Progressives) in raw dollars, and despite (based on place of residence paired with voting habits) living in places with much lower per capita incomes.  Pretty much everyone gives more to charity than Vice President Biden who averages $369 a year for the past ten years.

Today, about half of the American public pay no federal income taxes, and many collect more from the government in payments than they provide in taxes.  Yet we are barraged by calls for the “rich” to pay their “fair share” of taxes despite the fact that the top 10 percent of earners provide more than 70 percent of all taxes collected.

The size and scope of government can and does affect private choices.  Policy makers know they can affect behavior by a series of incentives and disincentives.  Perhaps unintentionally, they have developed a system that squashes the opportunity for virtue while themselves providing myriad examples of lives lived successfully with shame.

Political arguments that excuse us from our obligations while scolding others to do more have no place in a republic.  Contrary to what Joe the Plumber was told, taking from some to give to others is not good for everyone – it is in fact good for no one.  As our nation reaches Greek levels of public debt and our society descends to Ancient Roman levels of decadence those who shape our public policy should be ashamed… if such a thing still existed.

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