Shame, guilt, and ethical orientation

Access full-text files




Dolan-Henderson, Alvin Augustus

Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title



Traditional views of negative, self-referent emotions such as shame and guilt never questioned the utility or necessity of these painful feelings. In fact, both shame and guilt were seen as crucial to maintaining appropriate modes of conduct, propriety, and keeping in check selfish strivings or self-aggrandizement. Modern psychology has long treated both shame and guilt as pathological and, given its emancipatory, individualistic focus, has sought to rid persons of both of these self-conscious emotions without considering the possible negative consequences of such a project. A key component of the pathologization of negative emotions is the increasing emphasis placed on the individual, as both the primary psychological and political unit in American society. Mainstream psychology has placed the self in the center, both reflecting and reifying the dominant social ethic and political philosophy, liberal individualism. Psychology, with its emphasis on the individual, has had the effect of inculcating an often hypertrophied self-awareness, as well as expanding individual freedoms and potentials. This self-awareness, with its inevitable self-comparison, vulnerabilities, and clamor for validation, is the fountainhead of shame (and shamelessness) for modern persons. The relationships between shame and guilt, depression, individualism and communitarianism, empty narcissism and Meaningful Connectedness, and responses to anger provoking scenarios were investigated in a sample of 150 upper division undergraduates using measures of the dimensions of interest. In general, shame-proneness was significantly related to externalization, depression, and malevolent anger. Guilt-proneness was significantly related to constructive anger and Meaningful Connectedness. When grouped according to level of individualistic ethical beliefs, highly individualistic participants were significantly more shame-prone and more likely to endorse an empty, selfish and disconnected approach to life. The highly individualistic group was significantly less likely than either the moderate or low groups to experience a sense of meaningful connection to others or a community, which may exacerbate feelings of alienation and shame. A communitarian ethical orientation was significantly related to a sense of Meaningful Connectedness. There were no significant relationships between individualism and malevolent, destructive anger.