Recently, guilt and shame were topics in a New York Times column by David Brooks (3/15/2016). When my blog on the same issue appeared a month later, (Blog 4/25/2016), a reader emailed me a copy of those earlier remarks. Not crucial but immediately evident was a difference in the definitions of the two states. Guilt in Brooks’ essay was the result of conscience. Shame arose from the values of society. He had taken his understanding from a book by Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind. My understanding came from material printed in Scientific American Mind (May/June 2016).
What matters, perhaps, is not the definition of each but the recognition that these two states exist and are sometimes at odds with each other. Brooks begins by repeating Bloom’s criticism of attitudes at the time: that college campuses “were awash in moral relativism.’’ According to Brooks, Bloom felt individualism had replaced the concept of universal moral principles. In its place, questions of right and wrong were left to be decided by the individual.
If I understand Brooks’ comments correctly, what Bloom reflects is an inaccurate view of moral relativism. While the notion does hold that a sense of right or wrong varies between and within cultures as well as among individuals, it does not suggest that “anything goes.” One must have a moral compass to make decisions, but those decisions should be embraced in a manner that respects the values of others. Ultimately, the lesson of moral relativism is that tolerance is of prime importance in a culture.
In any case, Brooks seems to agree with Bloom’s criticism about moral relativism, describing it as “the atomizing thrust of the past 50 years.” Yet he is equally critical of a growing trend: group morality as it emerges from social media. Brooks insists “people’s identities have to be based on standards of justice and virtue that are deeper and more permanent than the shifting fancy of the crowd.”
I’m not sure where Books gets his faith that permanent standards of good and evil exist, or how he distinguishes a crowd from a society. I do know at the conclusion of his essay he retreats into what appears to be moral relativism, calling for each of us “…to discover and name our own personal True North, a vision of an ultimate good, which is worth defending even at the cost of unpopularity and exclusion.”
That Brooks’ argument reflects ambivalence isn’t surprising. Most of us share a common discomfort in our human condition. The prime directive of our DNA is for personal survival. Yet, frail creatures that we are, we require a society in which to survive. The challenge for us, as a species, is to find that delicate balance between personal needs and the needs of the group. Culture imposes values which may appear “unmerciful to those who disagree,” says Brooks but he offers the consolation that when justice is applied, the intention is to show “hate for the sin but not the sinner.”
Brooks’ sense of compassion is one I’ve never understood. What consolation does it offer the witch, left to stand upon a pile of burning faggots, to know there’s nothing personal in her execution? Still, he raises an oblique point, implied but left unstated, with which I can agree. The unifying force of any society is neither guilt nor shame but the promise of redemption.