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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  15 June 2022

Harrison Frye*
Political Science, University of Georgia, USA


This essay argues that online public shaming can be productively understood as a problem of technology. In particular, the technology of public shaming is ambiguous between two senses. On the one hand, public shaming depends on various technologies, such as social media posts or, more historically, pillories. These are the artifacts of shame. On the other hand, public shaming itself is a social technology. In particular, public shaming is a way for communities to promote cooperation. Ultimately, I claim there is a mismatch between the artifacts of shame and this important social technology of shame. Social media drifts toward disintegrative shame, which tends to corrode cooperation. This suggests that we must either realign the technology of public shame or reject shame as a legitimate option.

Research Article
© 2022 Social Philosophy & Policy Foundation. Printed in the USA

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Department of Political Science, University of Georgia, Competing Interests: The author declares none. I would like to thank Matthew Adams, Nora Benedict, Kirun Sankaran, and an anonymous referee for their helpful comments on earlier versions of this essay.


1 For example, A brief update in December 2021: The incident (and subsequent court case based on hate crime charges) continues to attract major media attention:

2 See Ronson, Jon, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed (New York: Riverhead Books, 2015)Google Scholar.

3 Billingham, Paul and Parr, Tom, “Online Public Shaming: Virtues and Vices,” Journal of Social Philosophy 51, no. 3 (2020): 383 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4 Aitchison, Guy and Meckled-Garcia, Saladin, “Against Online Public Shaming: Ethical Problems with Mass Social Media,” Social Theory and Practice 47, no. 1 (2021): 3CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

5 In this way, I’m interested in providing something like what Joseph Heath calls a “normative model” of public shaming. Heath, Joseph, “Three Normative Models of the Welfare State,” Public Reason 3, no. 3 (2011): 1314 Google Scholar.

6 On various uses of public shaming, see Thomason, Krista K., Naked: The Dark Side of Shame and Moral Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 181–82CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Billingham and Parr, “Online Public Shaming,” 1-2, 6–7.

7 John Braithwaite, Crime, Shame and Reintegration (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989). Billingham and Parr also discuss the reintegrative aspects of shaming, however they focus on reintegration in distinctly moral terms (e.g., what is wrong with disintegrative shaming is that it constitutes “a threat to the norm violator’s dignity”). Billingham, Paul and Parr, Tom, “Enforcing Social Norms: The Morality of Public Shaming,” European Journal of Philosophy 28, no. 4 (2020): 1005.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

8 See also Aitchison and Meckled-Garcia, “Against Online Public Shaming: Ethical Problems with Mass Social Media,” 9-10.

9 For example, Parr and Billingham, “Enforcing Social Norms.”

10 I am using social norm in a fairly broad and inclusive sense. In this way, I am setting aside the controversy about how social norms relate to moral norms. See Philippa Foot, “Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives,” The Philosophical Review 81, no. 3 (1972): 305-16; Southwood, Nicholas, “The Moral/Conventional Distinction,” Mind 120, no. 479 (2011): 761802 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; cf.Heath, JosephMorality, Convention and Conventional Morality,” Philosophical Explorations 20, no. 3 (2017): 276–93.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

11 Brennan, Geoffrey, Eriksson, Lina, Goodin, Robert E., and Southwood, Nicholas, Explaining Norms (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 34 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

12 Goffman, Erving, Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1963), 3.Google Scholar

13 For example, Braithwaite, Crime, Shame and Reintegration, 12–13.

14 For a milder account of stigmatization, see Joseph Heath, “A Defense of Stigmatization” (unpublished manuscript), available at On the complexities of the concept of stigma, see Link, Bruce G. and Phelan, Jo C., “Conceptualizing Stigma,” Annual Review of Sociology 27 (2001): 363–85.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

15 Some minor points worth noting: First, this account says nothing about the motivations of people who engage in public shaming. People can engage in public shaming for all sorts of reasons. People may publicly shame as a form of moral grandstanding, or as a way of trying to look morally good in the eyes of others. (On moral grandstanding, see Tosi, Justin and Warmke, Brandon, “Moral Grandstanding,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 44, no. 3 [2016]: 197217.)CrossRefGoogle Scholar People may publicly shame due to a retributive impulse and see punishing a rule violator as sufficient reason to engage in the act. (On the idea that human beings are “rule-following punishers,” see Gaus, Gerald, The Order of Public Reason: A Theory of Freedom and Morality in a Diverse and Bounded World [New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011], 103122.)Google Scholar And so on. The second caveat is that public shaming as a social phenomenon comes apart from shame as an emotion (or guilt for that matter) in the wrongdoer. Shame tends to refer to the feeling we get when we have failed in the eyes of others. (In contrast, guilt focuses on the feeling we get when we fail by our own lights). You can publicly shame a person without the person feeling any shame (or guilt for that matter). (On the distinction between shame and guilt, see Joseph Henrich, The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous [New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020], 34.)

16 A good example of the image of the pillory is in Robert Chambers, Book of Days, Volume 1 (1879), 832, “The Pillory,” available at

17 Stearns, Peter N., Shame: A Brief History (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2017), 2728.Google Scholar

18 Ted Poe, a judge in Houston from 1981–2003, would (in)famously inflict these kinds of punishments on convicts. Ronson, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed? 82–86.

19 Henrich, The WEIRDest People in the World, 76-78.

20 I suspect universities utilize the ritual of commencement in part to give a sense of obligation to the group and help promote alumni donations.

21 There is some similarity between the approach taken here and John Thrasher’s call for “comparative-functional analysis” in evaluating norms. See Thrasher, John, “Evaluating Bad Norms,” Social Philosophy and Policy 35, no. 1 (2018): 210–15.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

22 To say that promoting cooperation in this way is the fundamentally important function of public shaming is not to say that it is the only important function. Further, I cannot fully argue for the claim that promoting cooperation is the most fundamental function of shaming relative to others in this essay. Nonetheless, the next section makes the case for why promoting cooperation is a deeply important function of public shaming, and this is enough for my purposes here: to show how public shaming on the Internet works against a particularly important function of such shaming.

23 Bicchieri, Cristina, The Grammar of Society (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 828Google Scholar. Joseph Heath, Following the Rules (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 66–71; Greene, Joshua, Moral Tribes (New York: Penguin Press, 2013), 2225Google Scholar; Joseph Henrich, The Secret of Our Success (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016), 143-45; Tomasello, Michael, A Natural History of Human Morality (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016), 98103.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

24 Bicchieri, The Grammar of Society, 38–39.

25 This is an example of an actual act of public shaming. See Stearns, Shame: A Brief History, 44.

26 Braithwaite, Crime, Shame and Reintegration, 55.

27 Stearns, Shame: A Brief History, 26.

28 Bicchieri, The Grammar of Society, 11.

29 Braithwaite, Crime, Shame and Reintegration, 102.

30 Heath, “A Defense of Stigmatization,” 20.

31 On the motivational power of norms, see Kelly, Daniel and Davis, Taylor, “Social Norms and Human Normative Psychology,” Social Philosophy and Policy 35, no. 1 (2018): 5862 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

32 Heath, Joseph and Anderson, Joel, “Procrastination and the Extended Will,” in Andreou, and White, , eds., The Thief of Time: Philosophical Essays on Procrastination (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 233–53CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

33 Barner-Barry, CarolRob: Children’s Tacit Use of Peer Ostracism to Control Aggressive Behavior,” Ethology and Sociobiology 7, nos. 3–4 (1986): 281–93CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

34 Hobbes, Thomas, Leviathian, ed. Curley, Edwin (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1994), 90 Google Scholar.

35 Moehler, Michael, “Why Hobbes’s State of Nature Is Best Modeled by an Assurance Game,” Utilitas 21, no. 3 (2009): 319–26CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

36 Ronson, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed? 54–55; Stearns, Shame: A Brief History, 62.

37 Stearns, Shame: A Brief History, 62–65.

38 Ibid., 62.

39 This argument will be somewhat speculative. Whatever explains the decline of public shaming in Western societies in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is undoubtedly a complex, multicausal explanation. However, I want to emphasize some features of the shift that are illustrative for my purposes.

40 Hirsch, Adam, “From the Pillory to the Penitentiary: The Rise of Criminal Incarceration in Early Massachusetts,” Michigan Law Review 80, no. 6 (1982): 1223.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

41 Ibid., 1228.

42 Ibid., 1232.

43 See also Aitchison and Meckled-Garcia, “Against Online Public Shaming: Ethical Problems with Mass Social Media,” 5.

44 Waldron, Jeremy, The Harm in Hate Speech (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012), 3738 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

45 I thank Nora Benedict for this observation.

46 The Streisand effect is named after Barbara Streisand. Streisand sued a photographer for taking a picture of her house and making it publicly available. The lawsuit drew significant attention to the photo, which was largely unknown to the public. In an effort to suppress the photo, Streisand had, in fact, made the photo more famous.

47 Antoon De Baets, “A Historian’s View of the Right to Be Forgotten,” International Review of Law, Computers and Technology 30, nos., 1-2 (2016): 63.

48 I explore more fully the relevance of scale to problems of public shaming in “The Problem of Public Shaming,” Journal of Political Philosophy 22, no. 8 (2022): 188–208.

49 In So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed? Ronson does an excellent job surveying the deep impact these episodes have on individual lives.