Aristotle on the Quasi-Virtue of Shame

In the ninth section of the fourth book of The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle discusses “shame,” which he calls a quasi-virtue.

Being shameless or incapable of shame when shame is called for is a vice, and being constantly ashamed — bashful, I guess, or of low self-esteem — is no virtue either. Ideally, you’ll be ashamed at the right things, to the right extent.

And so this looks like something that fits the template for virtues that Aristotle has established. But, he says, you only feel shame as the result of doing the wrong thing, so it would be a mistake to call shame a virtue.

In youth, particularly, shame is attractive, since young people are expected because of their inexperience to make mistakes, and responding to these mistakes with appropriate shame is admirable. In adults, though, who presumably have had opportunities to learn their lessons already, shame is not praiseworthy (though its absence, when appropriate, would be worse).

Given this troublesome nature of shame, I’m a little surprised that Aristotle didn’t try a little harder to fit it into his scheme. Changing the virtue from “feeling shame” to “having the capability to feel appropriate shame” or “judging oneself well” or “a capacity for self-criticism” would, I think, get rid of the “quasi-”.

I think Aristotle is trying to work with the similarity he sees between the emotions of anger, of fear, and of shame. In the case of anger, his virtue concerns being angry at the right things, in the right way, and so forth. In the case of fear, though, his virtue concerns courage — that is, responding to fear in the right way. But strangely, he explicitly notes the similarities between fear and shame (one makes you go pale, the other makes you blush, thus both seeming to have sub-rational roots), but then treats shame more like anger in the way he describes the (quasi-)virtue associated with it. It seems like he could have made the comparison to anger even more easily (anger makes your blood boil, makes you flush), and the parallel would have been stronger, but he doesn’t explicitly make the connection.

This concludes book four of The Nicomachean Ethics. The entirety of book five will concern the virtue of Justice, and promises to be a much more in-depth investigation than those of the virtues in books three and four — as well as one with lots of relevance to the hot topics of The Picket Line.

Index to the Nicomachean Ethics series

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics