Claims that China is a ‘‘shame culture’’ tend to presume that guilt is the superior moral motivation. Such claims characterize guilt as internally motivated and operative even if no outsider is aware of any wrongdoing. By contrast, they assume that shame occurs only when someone is observed. The observer represents the moral opinion of an outsider, and, as a result, shame is said to be externally motivated. In this view, genuinely moral motivation is internal. Internality is seen as a requirement for moral autonomy (the ability to make decisions independent of particular social norms), and only guilt cultures are thought to provide it. In response to allegations that China is a shame culture, scholars of Confucian ethics have made use of new studies in psychology, anthropology, and philosophy that present shame in a more favorable light.2 These studies contend that shame involves the internalization of social moral codes. By adapting these new internal models of shame, Confucian ethicists have reinterpreted the emphasis on shame in early Confucianism. Instead of reflecting a fear of external judgment and retribution, they argue, shame represents a motivation that is internally inspired.3
Copyright © 2004 University of Hawai'i Press. This article first appeared in Philosophy East and West 54:2 (2004), 21-37.
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Geaney, Jane. "Guarding Moral Boundaries: Shame in Early Confucianism."Philosophy East and West 54, no. 2 (2004): 113-142. doi:10.1353/pew.2004.0004.