Shame Ethics, Nietzsche, and James Gilligan

I am reading Why Some Politicians are More Dangerous Than Others by James Gilligan.  The book presents an interesting thesis.  He shows data that correlates a rise in violent crime with periods when a Republican occupies the White House.  The analysis of why this is the case is the interesting part of the book.  I recommend reading this book.

I have reached an argument in his book that I think needs to be checked, however.  It really will not affect his thesis one way or the other, but I don’t think his conclusions are correct.  I am looking for help with this one if anyone reading this blog has ideas.

Specifically Gilligan draws a comparison between what he calls Shame Ethics with Nietzsche’s Master Morality.  He says people who identify with the Shame Ethic also identify with Nietzsche’s Ubermensch, or Superman.  (Pages 104-110)  I don’t think this is quite right as Gilligan is trying to frame his argument.

(You want to reference Human, All Too Human and Thus Spoke Zarathustra…or good notes!)

Gilligan, in his book, argues that people identifying with a Shame Ethic are more likely to resort to violence to deal with shame.  “Shame Ethics is a moral value system in which the greatest evil is shame and humiliation, i.e., dishonor and disrespect, and the highest good is the opposite of shame, namely, pride and honor (respect).  (105)  He identifies Republicans with this ethic identification.  “Guilt ethics is a moral value system in which the greatest evil is guild (also called sin), and the highest good is the opposite of guilt, namely, innocence.”  He identifies Democrats with this ethic identification.

Gilligan then makes the generalization that conflates his Shame Ethic with Nietzche’s Master Morality where he says Nietzsche’s Master Morality would justify “being a slave-owner (as in the Old South, in the US), and violence in general (e.g., warfare, revenge, sadism).”  (108)

I don’t think this is correct.  In fact I think Gilligan is resurrecting old stereotypes that haunt Nietzsche scholarship and don’t accurately explain Nietzsche’s criticism of morality and society.  To put it simply, the Übermensch isn’t a sort of ethical free-for-all.  Rather it is living a life that accepts life for what it is and is able to choose based on that alone, not on some arbitrary moral code.  The Übermensch is a sort of ideal of control and self-realization, not a bully.

Inflicting one’s will upon others, which is what Gilligan seems to be saying, is not rising above “Good and Evil”, for example, but participating in it and participating within the social structure that Nietzsche critiques.

In the context that Gilligan is talking about ethics and morality, the slave or Christian morality can be faulted because it is an identity founded on an idea of ressentiment — roughly resentment or spite, there is no perfect word for the idea in English — where the nature of power is misunderstood and therefore becomes evil.  I think Gilligan interjecting Nietszche in his argument as he has muddles the distinction between Shame and Guilt ethics that he is trying to make.  In short, I don’t think he has it right as he applies Nietzsche as an example.

So that’s my aside as I read James Gilligan’s book.  Maybe someone with more expertise — and a more lucid writer — can add some thoughts about this.

By the way, I should add that I find Gilligan’s assessment of political identity and moral identity very convincing.  It isn’t an entirely new idea, but overlaying this correlation with United States presidential administrations reveals the importance of politics in quality of life.  I think there is a bit more of a chicken or egg question that should be kept in mind while considering these things, but Gilligan is on a path with others in his assessment of moral identity and politics.  George Lakoff comes to mind.

Back to the book.


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