Bernard Williams’ Shame and Necessity (1993) was an influential early contribution to what has become a broader movement to rehabilitate shame as a moral emotion. But there is a tension in Williams’ discussion that presents an under-appreciated difficulty for efforts to rehabilitate shame. The tension arises between what Williams takes shame in its essence to be and what shame can do—the role that shame can be expected to play in ethical life. Williams can—and we argue, should—be read as avoiding the difficulties stemming from this tension, but this requires a reevaluation of several of his central claims about shame’s role in ethical thought and experience. For instance, his broad claims that the “structures of shame” can “give a conception of one’s ethical identity” (93), and that shame “mediates … between ethical demands and the rest of life” (102), cannot be taken at face value. What emerges is a view that is in a sense less ambitious, but also more in tune with the spirit of Williams’ larger project. There may also, we suggest, be a more general lesson: We should be suspicious of the temptation to seek some special affinity between shame and ethical life, lest we distort our understanding of both.
Webster, A. K., & Bero, S. (2022). Shame and the Ethical in Williams. In A. Szigeti, & M. Talbert (Eds.), Morality and Agency: Themes from Bernard Williams (62-86). Oxford University Press