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April 10, 2009


Don't read something into that that isn't there.

Simply because moral behavior may be a means to bolster moral self-image (and let's face it, there were no others options presented to do so), does not mean that a strong sense of moral identity "leads people to feel licensed to act immorally."

I think this passage from Norm Stamper's "Breaking Rank" makes a good case for the constructive power of making people feel bad about themselves:

On the trial date I sauntered into the county courthouse, sidled up to the deputy prosecutor, and suggested with a wink and a poke that he dismiss the case. "Why?", he demanded to know. Because it was a skinny pinch, I told him. He asked if the kid had actually been drunk. What kind of a question was that? "No, not really. But he was a puke. He called me a pig."

The attorney peered at me through his tortoiseshell glasses and said, "Does the Constitution of the United States mean anything to you, Officer Stamper?"

I was furious, as angry as I'd ever been in my life. But my rage quickly turned to embarrassment. How could I have come so far from my pre-cop views and values? By the time I slithered down the stairs of the courthouse and out into the bright sunshine, I was saturated in shame.

That slap-down in the courthouse, coupled with other developments in my personal life [...] triggered an abiding commitment to reform. Of myself, initially. Then of everyone else, the whole rest of that tainted, unholy institution called American policing.

How about making information on Kitty Genovese's murder part of Social Studies curriculum in middle school?

This is very counterintuitive, and I think it needs to be fleshed out a bit more (ie perhaps focusing on negative attributes might only lead to altruism if someone has a fundamentally secure view of oneself). Just anectodally, some of the kids I teach in Juvy seem to have pretty a low self-esteem and seem to not feel important unless they draw attention to themselves by acting out. Pscychological feelings are a difficult thing to test, but I would like to see more research in the area.

Immediate alternate explanation that comes to mind without having read the paper: positive/negative feelings about oneself lead to a greater/lesser feeling of desert, hence greater selfishness/altruism.

The word people are looking for is Shame. People who do not feel shame about their actions (because they are children, psycopaths or simply not brought up "properly") won't correct their behaviour to the norms of society.

The society that decides what's normal, with Shame being one of the tools used for making us conform. This is not a bad thing, it just is. It stops us from pouring ice-cream down the necks of each other all life long, or worse.

But some are more receptive to shame than others, for whichever the reason (biological, social, political etc.) and those who do live a more "moral" life. Those who do not just do whatever they fancy...

On the topic of Genovese, I recommend this Mind Hacks post.

I second Upandaway on the utility of shame. I think much of the modern denigration of shame comes from people signalling that their high-status exempts them from shame.

"So when can it be good to make people feel bad about themselves, so that they will be good to others?"

Every Sunday morning, right?

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