Monday, January 12, 2009

Engineering in a Shameless Culture

Shame has a bad press these days. You rarely hear parents these days saying to a son who's just spilled syrup all over the breakfast table, "You should be ashamed of yourself," because it might damage his self-esteem. Shame in our minds is associated with extremes such as the stereotypical Asian who, when his wrongdoing is publicly exposed, goes into his room and falls upon his sword. Yet I would like to put in a good word for shame. I miss it. Here's some reasons why.

Let's do a little thought experiment. What would be the consequences of living in a totally shameless culture? For one thing, people wouldn't hesitate to do things in public that the prospect of being ashamed would otherwise keep them from doing. Though it has nothing to do with engineering ethics as such, the story of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich comes to mind in this connection. The FBI has publicized recordings of him as he allegedly tried to betray his public trust of appointing someone to the Senate seat vacated by president-elect Obama, by bargaining it away to the highest bidder. (I put the word "allegedly" in there because anyone is innocent in the eyes of the law until proven guilty.) When asked about this, he calmly says he's done nothing wrong and goes on about his business, at least unless the Illinois legislature convicts him in the ongoing impeachment proceeding.

And what is happening in that case is typical of what goes on in a shameless culture. When people have a reasonably developed sense of shame, they tend to be self-correcting. Maybe they will slip up every now and then, but their sense of shame will kick in and stop them before too long. They might even apologize to those who were offended or harmed by the shameful behavior.

But in a shameless culture, the self-restraint imposed by shame is gone. If society intends for people nevertheless to refrain from doing shameful things, it can no longer rely on the emotion of shame to do its job. So society has to use other means: ostracism (which rarely works—shameless people can be quite popular), or, more commonly, the law.

Have you ever wondered why we have so many lawyers in the U. S. compared to the population? One reason may be that we have substituted legal proceedings for the function of shame. If Gov. Blagojevich had a stronger sense of shame, he might have behaved more like former New York State Gov. Eliot Spitzer did when Spitzer's sexual misconduct was exposed (again by a federal wiretap, so we are still relying on law enforcement to some degree). Former Gov. Spitzer's words as he resigned are significant: "Over the course of my public life, I have insisted – I believe correctly – that people take responsibility for their conduct. I can and will ask no less of myself. For this reason, I am resigning from the office of governor." Of course, if Spitzer had possessed a more developed sense of shame, he wouldn't have visited prostitutes in the first place. But at least he had the decency to be ashamed enough to resign when his malfeasance was exposed.

A piece of advice I received from an older engineer is worth considering in this connection. In discussing the writing of technical reports, he said, "Never write anything down that you wouldn't mind being published on the front page of the New York Times." No one who follows this rule is going to make a lot of money from publishing their memoirs in their old age, unless they positively enjoy embarrassing themselves and other people. But on the other hand, if you follow this rule you won't be embarrassed, or shamed, if during an investigation connected with a lawsuit some of your emails come to light and get read in a courtroom. or at a Senate hearing.

Notice that following that writing rule requires an act of imagination: you must ask yourself, "What if everybody could read what I'm writing, including the people I'm saying nasty things about?" Now sometimes engineers have to say negative things, if for example you are evaluating a bad design and have to give an honest opinion. But there is always a way to deliver bad news without engaging in personal attacks or insults.

We do not yet live in a totally shameless culture, though an argument can be made that we are headed in that direction. But remember that shame has its uses, especially if it is internalized so that you can imagine being ashamed before you actually do the thing that you would be ashamed of. If you can do that, a little shame now will go a long way toward avoiding a lot of shame later.

Sources: The quotation from Eliot Spitzer is from the eponymous Wikipedia article.

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