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Shame and Other Cases of Modularity without Modules

From: Canadian Journal of Philosophy
Volume 36 (2006) Supplement [vol. 32]
pp. 231-254 | 10.1353/cjp.2007.0033

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On the surface, self-centred emotions like shame or pride are related to subtle understandings of one's own identity and relevant objects (Taylor 1985; Ben Ze'ev 2000). Changes of beliefs about these objects often result in changes in the related emotions.

If I am very proud that, on the first of April, I won the Jacques Chirac Prize for moral philosophy and then realize that it was just an April Fool's joke, my pride will probably vanish. I will probably be ashamed that I believed it. Cases like this support the idea that having beliefs is a necessary condition for feeling pride or shame.

If this is true and if we endorse Jerry Fodor's views about modularity, it follows that shame can't be modular because, according to these views, no beliefs or other central mental processes are supposed to be involved in the operation of modules (Fodor 1983). Further, contempt, derision, or avoidance are supposed to be typical causes of shame, but they may trigger other emotions as well: hatred, anger, self-pity, or sadness, etc. Shame is supposed to result in withdrawal behaviour, hiding, disappearing, or even suicide in the most depressing cases, but it may as well result in attempts to reconstruct or improve oneself or in aggression against others, etc. (Elster 1999). Due to its disjunctive form, the scenario of complex emotions like shame is not totally predictable.

Again, if this is true, and if we endorse Jerry Fodor's views about modularity, it follows that shame can't be modular because, according to these views, modularity implies automaticity, that is, a predictable response of the kind we have in reflex reactions (Fodor 1983, 52–64).

In the specialized literature, we find standard objections to these stories, supporting the view that shame and other emotions of this kind could be modular after all. Some of these objections are empirical. For example, it seems that very young children can be ashamed or exhibit symptoms of shame (Deigh 1992). If this is true, then it is not the case that shame demands subtle understanding of one's identity and clear consciousness of possible objects. Another empirical objection reminds us that typical expressions of shame like blushing are beyond our control. Other objections are of a more conceptual nature. Some suggest that representations governing shame do not deserve the name "judgment," which sounds too conscious and considered. It would be more appropriate to call them "appraisals" or "proto-representations," for instance (Griffiths 2003). Others tell us that the relation between shame and its typical causes and its typical behaviour is such that it rules out the possibility of different scenarios. What we call "shame" is just what is triggered by a specific cause, say the feeling that we have failed to live up to an ideal, and it results in specific behavioural tendencies, such as hiding or disappearing. Whatever does not fit this pattern can't be called "shame."

I think that these standard empirical and conceptual objections are not irrelevant and may support the view that at least some forms or some aspects of shame are modular, even on Fodor's conception of modularity. I could add that I have personally tried to defend some of them (Ogien 2002), in order to reject the mainstream intellectualist view of the distinction between guilt and shame, advocated by John Rawls (1990), among many others.

In this paper I explore a totally different route and raise non-standard objections to the idea that shame could not possibly be modular.

These objections aren't based on what can be called the "phenomenology of shame" (though I will say something on the subject) but on the epistemology of modularity.

I will borrow from the debate between supporters of Fodorian modularity and defenders of other, broader or less demanding, conceptions of modularity. What I have in mind here are conceptions advocated by evolutionary psychologists like Steven Pinker (1997) and evolutionary anthropologists like Scott Atran (2001), Dan Sperber (1996, 2002), Lawrence A. Hirschfeld (1994), Leda Cosmides and John Tooby (1989, 1992), according to which modules are not encapsulated processors, categorically sealed off from information that could be relevant to them, but...

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