Can there be virtue in shame? Does shame have a place in our society today? In his contribution to the New York Times, Richard Reeves makes quite a controversial case for using shame to curtail teenage pregnancy (“Shame Is Not a Four-Letter Word,” Op-Ed, March 16).

Reeves writes:

Libertarians might want a world without moral judgments, in which teen pregnancy carries no stigma at all. And paternalists might want the state to enshrine judgments in law — perhaps by raising the age of sexual consent or mandating contraception. True liberals, though, believe we can hold one another to moral account without coercion. We must not shy away from shame.

The question is where and when shame ought to be applied. Should we shame drunken drivers? Yes: they might kill my children. Of course drunken driving is also illegal. But it’s a hard law to enforce, so moral pressure is vital too: stigmatizing, as well as criminalizing.

Shame can also regulate behavior that is legal, but unwise. It has, for example, become an important ingredient in antismoking campaigns…

Why is shame so effective? We like to think of ourselves as rational creatures, but the truth is that emotions like fear, disgust or shame can often have a more powerful effect on human behavior than objective information and careful reasoning. Most of us think twice about making a choice that will make us feel ashamed. Feelings count for as much as facts.

In his famous “harm principle,” the great liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill argued that laws should not inhibit personal behavior unless there is a direct, assignable harm to another. But Mill also insisted that many personal choices, while legal, were legitimately “amenable to moral disapprobation in the proper sense of the term.”

People are free to make bad choices; otherwise they are not really free at all. But bad choices they remain — and they ought to feel bad about them.

I would agree. Shame is an extremely powerful motivator; people make bad choices that they ought to feel bad about. We must ask, however, where and when shame ought to be applied.

Sure, we can use shame to prevent drunk driving, to prevent teenage pregnancy, to achieve whatever goal we deem will be beneficial to society, and yet it seems rather ironic that shame is our weapon of choice in a culture that is becoming increasingly shameless. We do what we want; we watch what we want; we enjoy what we want. Obscenity is a thing of the past. Sex scandals seem to have become a norm among some of the most influential members of our society. And we wonder why middle school girls are dispensing sexual favors on school buses and at birthday parties. I am not saying I am above any of this; I do think, however, that it is important to realize that as a society, we are quick to blur the boundaries between what is and is not acceptable when it is most convenient. Are we the ones who should really be deciding what is shameful? We, who so quickly have abandoned virtues that were once held sacred. If we are to regard shame as legitimate, we must also consider the moral authority to which we are to appeal.

What is the sense in shame if there is no belief in God – why be moral at all? Nietzsche put it this way: “When one gives up Christian belief one thereby deprives oneself of the right to Christian morality. For the latter is absolutely not self-evident: one must make this point clear again and again, in spite of the English shallowpates. Christianity is a system, a consistently thought out and complete view of things. If one breaks out of the fundamental idea, the belief in God, one thereby breaks the whole thing to pieces: one has nothing of any consequence left in one’s hands.”

With this in mind, we must ask, what exactly does Reeves mean by “well-directed shame”? If we eliminate God, who is directing this shame?

Reeves states that “teenage pregnancy qualifies for some ‘moral disapprobation.’ It is a bad choice for the parents, children, and society. The principal solutions to teen pregnancy lie in traditional policy areas: better sex education and greater availability of contraception.” Shame seems to be a convenient tool to prevent a burden to society – to prevent something that will be an undesirable cost. Yet, even though our society may acknowledge the value in this sort of shame, we have become too scared to actually deem any act shameful. We are no longer allowed to distinguish between art and trash, and we are frowned upon when we praise modesty over sexual promiscuity. It seems that shame has become a secular sin. Anything goes, and nothing is left sacred.

When we choose to appeal to an authority other than God, we being to pervert the nature of shame.  We begin to find acceptable that what which was meant to be shameful, and we find ourselves ashamed of that which was not meant to be shameful. Shame is powerful. Perhaps it is worth considering appealing to an authority that is not as fickle as our man-made culture when establishing our moral code.

Reeve’s concludes, “A society purged of shame might sound good in theory. But it would be terrible in practice. We need a sense of shame to live well together.” I completely agree. Unfortunately, though, we have become a society that dispenses shame when it is convenient to do so. The Bible, however, reminds us that shame is not to be regarded so lightly.

The concept of shame is one woven into the very fall of man. Before sin entered the world, Adam and Eve “were both naked and were not ashamed” (Gen 2:25). After their act of disobedience, Genesis 3 provides a portrait of the shame that accompanied their sin: “[T]hey knew that they were naked…And [Adam] said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself” (Gen 3:7, 10). In this context, shame is a product of guilt. Because  this sort of shame results from sin, it is necessarily present in our imperfect world. It is a realization of our brokenness apart from God. Shame makes us feel exposed, and there is a part of us that cringes at the thought of our inadequacy being displayed in the light.

We should be wary of becoming a part of a culture that never admits that it is wrong or that never admits that anything can be wrong– a culture of no regrets, one that is shameless. As Christians, we must not dissociate sin and shame.

I am reminded of the warnings in Jeremiah: “Were they ashamed when they committed abomination? No, they were not at all ashamed; they did not know how to blush. Therefore they shall fall among the fallen; when I punish them, they shall be overthrown, says the LORD” (Jer 6:15; 8:12). And of Paul’s warning in Romans: “ And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice…Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them” (Rom 1:28-29, 32).

It is not enough to recognize shame as a motivating force to compel individuals to comply with an arbitrary set of moral standards. Shame was not given to us to dispense at our leisure. In fact, the Bible shows us that shame was never an end goal; it was meant to point to something greater. Shame is meant to be a reminder that we, as sinners, fall short; it is meant to convict us and to plague us when we transgress moral boundaries. It serves to guide us when we are acting in ways that do not bring God glory. It is meant to drive us to repentance and to remind us that we have been forgiven and made right with God. Biblical shame reminds us of God’s grace.

When we eliminate shame, we eliminate the faculty of judgment by which we distinguish what is obscene and what is not. And maybe you are okay with the promiscuity of 14-year-old girls, and with grocery stores selling sexually provocative magazines alongside the candy bars at the cash register. But how far are you willing to push the boundary between what is acceptable and what is not? How long are you willing to say morals don’t matter before you start feeling uncomfortable?