I think that shame is a powerful and important tool in maintaining honor and integrity.

My daughter and I were having a discussion on the subject of certain moral rules. More specifically, we were discussing whether or not it was ever okay to steal. First, of course, I made sure to define our terms – this is important with discussions of this nature! “Stealing” is when you take, without permission, something that rightfully belongs to another. The “rightfully” is important here; it’s not (in my view) morally wrong to steal money from a thief. (Of course, if you keep that money when you know who it actually belongs to, makes you no better.)

So, I told my daughter: “It is never ever right to steal from another. It may, on occasion, be necessary. There are situations I could imagine where I would do it. But it’s never right.”

She asked me to elaborate, and I gave her this example: “If you had been bitten by a snake and the only way I could get you to the hospital in time to save you was to steal a car, I would 100% do it. I would do it without hesitation. But that doesn’t make it right. Once your life was saved, I would accept a just punishment for my actions, which should include at a bare minimum fair compensation for use and potential damage to the car. I would hope that the circumstances would make my punishers a bit more lenient, but I wouldn’t say that those circumstances meant that it was right to steal. Just necessary.”

Why is this an important concept?

I think there are quite a few reasons why it’s vital that we never let “necessary” automatically assume “right.” First, “necessary” is a matter of personal circumstance and judgment; it can’t be clearly defined. So we can’t make policy around it. You can’t have a moral code that says “it’s right to steal if you need to,” because… well, who decides?

And that’s the next reason – “necessary” is also very, very slippery. Snakebite, hospital 20 miles away, only car in sight? Maybe few people would argue. But how about someone who’s really cold, and might die of exposure, so I steal them a nice jacket? It edges and edges.

So look, use your personal judgment. Steal the jacket if you really think, in that moment, that it will save a life. But accept the punishment. That will keep you honest.

That’s the point of the shame. You need to shoulder a little bit of burden, something that says “at least part of why I needed to do this is because I didn’t find an alternate solution, didn’t prepare for this, etc.” That, like the honorable acceptance of punishment, also keeps you from abusing the temporary hall pass that “necessary” might otherwise give you.

Don’t take pride in the low road, just because you may have to take it on occasion. It’s still the low road, and you should be inclined against it. If you start to justify it to the point where you don’t see a moral difference, then you’ll never take the high road again.

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