Prompt: How and when (if ever) should we take it upon ourselves to punish someone in our lives for a moral failure? How does this vary depending on various possible relationships we might have to the the morally guilty party? Consider, for example, how or whether we might punish our friends, our partners, our parents, our colleagues, strangers we encounter, etc. What sorts of values and principles should guide us when we presume to take it upon ourselves to be moral enforcers?
(Note that we are not considering the moral education of children or the role of the state here.)
As a rule, we should not punish others for moral failures. We should not take it upon ourselves to be moral enforcers. Rather, we should act as moral counselors. We should work with others to improve their behavior.
Yet it is something of a fantasy to pretend that we never punish others for perceived wrongdoing. In fact, we punish others all the time. If you’ve ever cursed a reckless motorist, you’ve engaged in shaming. It may not have been efficacious, but this is a time-honored form of punishment.
If someone does something wrong, you may shame them for it. This can be done privately, such as with a lover, a spouse, a relative or a close friend. It can be done publicly if the person is not so close to you. Shaming can be gentle, loving and playful; it can be subtle and understated; or it can be harsh.
In the case of the most egregious moral failings, you may shun the person. Refuse to have anything more to do with them. This may be particularly difficult if the person is intimately related. This should be considered only as a last result, when repeated shaming has not worked.
It’s tempting to assert that shaming and shunning aim solely to change behavior. In reality, they may not be effective in changing behavior, yet they may serve another purpose: namely, establishing and reinforcing social norms. When we publicly shame someone for a moral failing, we are also communicating to others that such behavior is wrong.
As with any attempt at social control, shaming and shunning can of course be used to enforce an oppressive moral code. For example, a professor at West Virginia University was publicly humiliated at a football game when a student mocked his sexual orientation. The student apparently subscribed to a moral code that classifies homosexuality as sinful, and he took it upon himself to act as the enforcer of that code. Such a moral code is, in fact, immoral. Shaming and shunning must not be used to dominate or bully others into submission.
Furthermore, a person should not be shamed for who and what they are. For example, do not shame someone for having different abilities or a different appearance. Do not shame someone for being poor or lacking education. Shaming should be a response only to choices the individual has made.
Finally, it’s worth reiterating that this brief article is not about corporate or state-sanctioned punishment. That’s another topic for another day, perhaps.