The vital role of shame in society

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Liberals are horrified by a new New York City ad campaign to discourage teen pregnancy, said Richard V. Reeves. The ad pictures a tear-stained young child who declares to an unseen mom, “I’m twice as likely not to graduate high school because you had me as a teen.” Planned Parenthood condemned the ad, saying it was trying to “shame” teens into responsible sexual behavior. But what’s wrong with shame? “Shame is an essential ingredient of a healthy society,” nudging people toward good behavior rather than compelling it. Some people would prefer a world without any moral judgments, but teenage pregnancy really “is a bad choice, for the parents, child, and society.”

Society could try to convince teens of this with statistics and rational arguments. But human beings are primarily emotional, not rational, creatures. It was shame, not rational argument, that made millions of people give up smoking. It was shame that changed public attitudes toward drunk driving. Shame also made racism and homophobia unacceptable. People should feel bad about some things they do. “We need a sense of shame to live well together.”