Shaming Has No Place In Libertarian Society

Libertarianism, like all ideologies, has a vision of the ideal society. One particular aspect of the libertarian project is the transference of various important functions from the state to alternative institutions (the market, voluntary associations, “society at large”). One potential practice in this project is shaming: public, intentional behavior, targeted at individuals deemed to have committed some wrong, which aims to create feelings of shame, for the purpose of enforcing moral beliefs.  When it comes to enforcing morality, shaming is ostensibly friendlier to libertarian values than alternatives such as prison sentences, yet usually receives a critical reaction whenever discussed in libertarian circles.

This essay explores whether shaming has a place in a libertarian society. A “libertarian society” is one whose moral culture is predominately built upon “libertarian values,” which in turn, are simply values which occupy a prominent place in libertarian thought. If shaming upholds these values, or at least does not undermine them, then there is good reason to believe shaming could occupy a legitimate place in a libertarian society. This essay argues, however, that shaming undermines important libertarian values and thus is inappropriate in a libertarian society.

In order to be useful, the values we consider need to be relevant to the purpose and nature of shaming. Shaming’s main purpose is to enforce a particular moral code, and its nature is the creation of shame based on attitudes about different behavior and beliefs. So, the values need to address the morality of creating shame and how we respond to differences in belief and lifestyle. There are numerous values that might fit this bill, but “anti-coercion,” pluralism, and humility are particularly well-suited.

I. Anti-Coercion(?)

Though usually presented as “voluntarism,” using the term “anti-coercion” highlights the criticism of shaming as coercive and the debate over the nature of coercion: what counts as coercion, and is all coercion wrong? It’s beyond the purpose of this essay to explore this debate, but a few comments are necessary. However one defines coercion, we can probably agree that the essence of coercion is the attempt to manipulate a person into choosing a particular option by putting the person in an unpleasant situation, or the threat thereof. Infliction of physical harm is the most obvious form of coercion, but the infliction of psychological harm can be coercive as well (after all, the threat of physical harm is a psychological harm). Because shaming is (ostensibly) an attempt to manipulate behavior, and inflicts psychological pain through the creation of the unpleasant feelings of guilt and embarrassment, if not humiliation, it is coercive.

Typically thought of as bad, coercion is sometimes seen as justifiable: primarily, when used in defense of one’s physical well-being, property, etc. But is shaming one of the justifiable uses of coercion? To be justifiable, the act of shaming another person must be in response to a legitimate wrong or harm. Like other acts of “responsive” coercion, shaming is motivated by a perceived sense of harm or offense, and seeks to prevent future harm. But in the vast majority of cases, the behavior in question comes nowhere close to constituting a legitimate wrong/harm. Two contemporary examples of shaming—“slut shaming” and “fat shaming”—are excellent examples. In no way do consensual sexual behavior or one’s body shape violate the rights of others, nor do they create the kinds of harms that justify the infliction of pain. It is this fact—that most instances of shaming rest on stunningly unreasonable justifications—that explains why shaming gets such a bad rep.

So, shaming as it is often practiced is illegitimate coercion. It gets even worse when one considers that shaming is often done not so much to manipulate other’s behavior, but rather to take sadistic pleasure in humiliating others while reaffirming one’s morally superior status. When considering other libertarian values, the case for shaming only gets weaker.

II. Pluralism

If tolerance is the willingness to let people practice lifestyles and beliefs different from one’s own without molestation from the government or society, then pluralism is the view that differences in lifestyles and beliefs are desirable. Libertarians embrace pluralism, in that we do not just believe the government ought to refrain from telling people how to live, but that a diversity of habits and beliefs is good for society. Mill’s well-known argument that liberty is beneficial because it allows us to discover which ways of life work and which don’t comes to mind; and for the more rights-oriented folks, the existence of varying beliefs and lifestyles signifies respect for individual rights.

Shaming undermines pluralism through its hostile approach to difference. A vicious cycle of anti-pluralist – indeed, anti-tolerant – behavior is involved: while many people need to view shaming as acceptable (and thus not value pluralism) for it to be widespread,  the life quality of the targets deteriorates and people become toward differences the more shaming takes place. As “us versus them” thinking spreads, diversity—and its benefits—will wilt, with more blatantly coercive policies coming to be seen as more appealing. Ultimately, it encourages the development of hierarchical societies where the “morally upright” dominate and the “sinners” are marginalized and excluded from society.

IV. Humility

Like the concept of “sinners,” the final virtue usually appears in (religious) conservative thought, but it is actually quite prevalent in libertarian thinking. Humility—the acknowledgement of the limitations of one’s knowledge, abilities, and importance—can be found in the aforementioned Millian view of uncertainty about the best way of life, which itself is one example of the Hayekian knowledge problem. Indeed, virtually all of the critiques of state-centric planning policies include an indictment of regulators’ hubris.

Because shaming operates from a position of certainty, however, it can easily run afoul of humility. Judgments about the “correctness” of the behavior of others all too often rest on the scarcest of evidence.  Even when the shamer is well-informed about the the behavior of others, to assume that one’s own preferences are right for everyone else is the height of arrogance (and ignorance). Thus, because it often makes unfounded claims of the universality of one’s preferences and one’s superiority, shaming is corrosive to humility.

V. Does Shaming work?

The obvious reply to the argument that shaming undermines libertarian values says, “why not shame only that behavior which violates libertarian values, along with uncontroversial, ‘everyday’ morality?” If we shamed only statists, racists, thieves, etc., then wouldn’t libertarian values actually be reinforced?

Maybe so, but at this point we need to consider shaming’s effectiveness. Regardless of the motivating behavior (to an extent), shaming is unlikely to be a successful tool of enforcement due to the obvious fact that the shamed are likely to feel attacked. Furthermore, since shaming relies more on inflicting emotional pain than argument, it isn’t likely to be a very persuasive technique. As a result, some combination of the following will happen: the shamed will continue their offending behavior; they may comply, but at a severe psychological cost; and will most certainly develop hostility towards the shamers. This is especially likely when a pre-existing dislike towards either shamer or shamed exists, or when the shamers are strangers. In short, shaming, instead of ending the target behavior, is more likely to create self-hatred and resentment.

Shaming thus fails to uphold important libertarian virtues. Even when used in way that libertarians might find appropriate, it is unlikely to work.  That said, nothing above ought to give the impression that public criticism of immorality is inappropriate. Quite to the contrary: we have a duty to call out immorality when we see it. But since our goal is the creation of a certain kind of society, we need to act in constructive, not destructive ways. Two ways to do this are to focus on discussion, not accusation and humiliation, and to rely more on personal, discrete confrontations rather than public ones whenever possible.

Libertarianism offers the best possible society, but no matter how strong our arguments are, we will not achieve such a society if we do not conduct ourselves well. We must be sure that our behavior does not contradict or undermine our values, either on the way to a libertarian society or within one. With this in mind, shaming has no place in a libertarian society.

Follow William Smith on Twitter. Image courtesy of Big Stock Photo.

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