7th Pavia Graduate Conference in Political Philosophy – Abstract/Firth

Joanna Firth

What’s So Shameful About Shameful Revelations?

Jonathan Wolff, amongst others, has made the accusation that even in an ideal luck egalitarian society it would be shameful to admit that you are too untalented to obtain employment. It would be damaging to people’s self-respect to force them reveal shameful facts about themselves to the state, their co-citizens and themselves. A common belief (in egalitarianism) is that we ought to treat people with respect and not act in ways that undermine people’s self-respect (e.g. Wolff, 1998). So, since many believe that luck egalitarianism forces people to reveal shameful things, many find luck egalitarianism unacceptable. I believe, and it is uncontroversial to believe, that natural talents are an inappropriate basis on which to measure a person’s moral worth. I call this, for simplicity, the irrelevance of talents belief. In the ideal (luck) egalitarian society people would fully endorse the irrelevance of talents belief. In this paper I argue that if the irrelevance of talents belief really is accepted, then people cannot rationally feel ashamed of their lack of talent. I therefore argue that in order for the shameful revelations allegation to stick we must either i) accept that people simply cannot be brought to accept the egalitarian belief (which amounts to rejecting the egalitarian belief) or ii) maintain that shame is an irrational emotion. With regard to i), I assume rejecting the egalitarian belief would be too unpalatable to stomach. With regard to ii), I hope to show that this is implausible since we only rationally feel shame if it is connected to our belief about what makes a person morally worthy, and to feel shame when it is not connected to any of your beliefs would be similar to a phobia. I therefore think that unless we are prepared to reject the irrelevance of talents belief, the shameful revelations allegation is, at best, implausible.