Why you should fear dishonor but not shame

On Saturday, December 21, 2014, while driving in the right hand lane, I was given a ticket for passing a police car stopped on the shoulder.

At first I was angry because I thought I was innocent but then he explained that there was a law that required that I move over. He explained the reason for the law and I realized I was wrong. (See: moveoveramerica.com.)

I went to court on January 21 to plead guilty and thank the policeman because they don’t receive enough gratitude for what they do.

There were many people ahead of me.

First up was a young man accused of possession of marijuana and driving under the influence of alcohol. The judge asked if he wanted to be represented by counsel and he said, “No, your Honor.” How did he plea? “Guilty, your Honor.”

I thought back to a time when my son was in high school and a friend of his was caught dealing drugs. His parents hired a lawyer who got him off. My son asked if he were caught dealing would I hire him a lawyer. I said, “No way.” If he wants to sell drugs then he’d better save his proceeds and hire his own lawyer.

I take parenting seriously so I treated a half dozen other parents to a dinner and I posed the problem to them. They all said they’d hire the lawyer because, as one man said, “I believe in unconditional love.” I asked, “How about murder?” The same response. Really? For how long has helping someone get away with murder been called “love.”

Next up in court were five deadbeat tenants accused of non-payment of rent. They all admitted they owed what they did and one corrected the judge and explained that he owed more than he’d been accused of. The judge asked each of them why they were not paying and they all said it was because they did not have the money. He gave them all another month to try to make good.

I thought back to a man I knew who was living rent-free in an illegal sublet. He pulled off the stunt by threatening to rat out his landlord who would then lose his lease. We both had MBA degrees from New York University, where we had taken a required class on ethics. I don’t know what grade he got, but this man was proud of himself nonetheless.

Next came a middle-aged man from Ghana. He was accused of doing 80 in a 65 MPH zone. How did he plead? “Guilty, your Honor.” Why was he going so fast? He gave a plausible explanation. The judge said, “I’m changing your plea to ‘not guilty.’” The Ghanaian was visibly distressed, “But I am guilty, your Honor.” The judge said he could not grant leniency unless they went to trial. The man said, “But I’m guilty; I’m guilty.” The judge said, “OK” and fined him $400 plus points.

I remember that whenever some high official would get caught lying, cheating, or with the hand in the cookie jar, my mom would say, “Have they no shame?” Nixon’s “I am not a crook” speech really took the cake.

Next came a man accusing a convenience store of defamation of character. A few months ago he’d bought two coffee mugs when they were running a special that granted inexpensive refills if you had one of their mugs in your possession. He gave one to a 13-year-old neighbor. When the teen presented his mug, the clerk asked where he had gotten it. When the young man told him who had given him the gift, the clerk said, “I know that guy; he probably stole it.”

The man told the judge that he was suing because he had lived honestly his entire life and he had to defend his honor. No one from the convenience story was there so the judge issued an order requiring they show up or show cause because otherwise he would rule in the man’s favor.

I remember how my dad hated it when people would pay fines but not admit guilt. If you are guilty you must feel shame, confess, apologize, and take your punishment. But if you are falsely accused you must defend your honor, because without honor what is there?

My parents believed that there is no honor in dishonor. But there is no shame in shame because we all do things wrong every so often and that is what shame is for; to let you know without someone having to tell you.

I was the only one to plead innocent that day.

I did it because the policeman was not there. However, he would be ordered to appear at the trial, and then I could thank him and change my plea to guilty.

On the way home from court that day, I heard on the radio that Standard and Poor’s had been accused of behaving badly in 2011 and 2012 in the same way they had done previously, when they helped bring down the financial system with their questionable asset ratings. They did not admit guilt, but they paid a $77 million fine.

I remember that a high school guidance counselor once told me that poor parents behave honorably but the rich ones think all is fair when it comes to getting their kids into college. For them there is no shame in cheating on a test or hiring someone to write an admissions essay. But shame on you if you don’t get into Harvard.

I am glad for my day at court, because it is good to know there are still people who behave with honor and can feel shame.Too bad there are more of them at the bottom of society than at the top.

Don’t fear shame; it is what you are supposed to feel when you screw up, and we all screw up now and again. Being afraid of feeling shame when something bad happens makes no more sense than fearing crying when something sad happens. It is all part of being human.

But if you do dishonorable things shamelessly then that makes you a sociopath, and we don’t need any more of them.

Brooke Allen wants you to have a philosophy of life. Find his at: BrookeAllen.com.

We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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