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Learning from Failure: Shame and Emotion Regulation in Virtue as Skill


On an account of virtue as skill, virtues are acquired in the ways that skills are acquired. In this paper I focus on one implication of that account that is deserving of greater attention, which is that becoming more skillful requires learning from one’s failures, but that turns out to be especially challenging when dealing with moral failures. In skill acquisition, skills are improved by deliberate practice, where you strive to correct past mistakes and learn how to overcome your current limitations. A similar story applies to virtue acquisition, as moral failures will be a part of anyone’s life, and we will all have to learn from these experiences. However, despite the importance of being able to learn from our mistakes, this is very difficult in practice, given that failure of any kind can be distressing, and especially so for moral failure. The distress created by a recognition of moral failure often prompts responses of anger, avoidance, or defensiveness; rather than attempts to make amends and when necessary to work on self-improvement. The most potentially distressing response to moral failure is shame, as it is often associated with defensiveness. It is here where emotion regulation will be important to manage that distress, and I focus on the skill of emotion differentiation. I argue that emotion differentiation is a promising strategy for distinguishing the emotions we may experience in the wake of failure, including shame, and to encourage those emotions that motivate self-improvement. Thus, emotion regulation is important for virtue acquisition.

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  1. Annas 2011; Sosa 2007; and Stichter 2017.

  2. This article draws from chapters in my book: The Skillfulness of Virtue: Improving our Moral and Epistemic Lives, Cambridge University Press (Stichter 2018), reprinted with permission of Cambridge University Press © Cambridge University Press.

  3. Self-regulation is broader in scope than ‘self-control’ (which is merely one aspect of self-regulation, and is often associated with virtues such as temperance or courage).

  4. Given limited space, I will confine my discussion to implications for moral skills, though there will also be implications for epistemic skills.

  5. Some failures, of course, are simply accidents, and while making amends may be appropriate if someone was harmed, it does not necessarily indicate that one has to work on oneself. But failures that indicate some habitual problem will require a focus on self-change. The problem could be one of vicious habits that need to be broken, but also could simply be that one needs to further develop one’s current degree of virtue.

  6. Bandura 1999, 176. This does not mean, however, that such anticipation is necessarily conscious to the agent.

  7. Bandura 1999, 180–181.

  8. Connected to the issue of self-efficacy beliefs are people’s beliefs regarding whether the abilities needed to reach the goal are ones that are relatively fixed and unchangeable, or are rather malleable and capable of improvement. To the extent that one views an ability as fixed, setbacks will tend to undermine efforts at improvement, for one does not believe that one can do much to change that ability. See Dweck and Leggett 1988.

  9. It could be that the goal itself is complex and requires many intermediary steps to accomplish, or that the goal itself is abstract and frequently requires a more concrete specification to act on. See Carver and Scheier 2003, 189.

  10. In fact, this is how many virtue theorists view the relationship between virtues and living well. Virtues are not merely means to the end of living well, but rather the virtues are constitutive of what it means to live well.

  11. Bandura 1989, 19.

  12. That is, not all acquired abilities are necessarily skills. Some tasks are so simple, such as tying one’s shoelaces or opening doors, that once you have done it a few times there is nothing else to learn. The need to acquire sophisticated competencies such as skills arises when dealing with complex issues, since the skills enable one to handle the complexity by progressively developing one’s abilities (via deliberate practice). As such, my view is similar to that of Ellen Fridland, as she claims that “skills as the subclass of abilities, which are characterized by the fact that they are refined or developed as a result of effortful attention and control to the skill itself.” Fridland 2014a.

  13. Horn and Masunaga 2006, 601.

  14. This also supports Fridland’s view, which takes “attention-governed, practice-related improvement as a criterion of skill”. Fridland 2014b, 2740.

  15. There are 6 primary mechanisms. The first three are ways of using discourse and language, often involving moral concepts and theories, to reframe actions. It might involve inventing moral justifications or rationalizations to frame the action as having been the right thing to do, using advantageous comparisons to suggest that it was the best thing one could have done given the alternatives, or using euphemistic language to sanitize the action of any implications of harm. The fourth mechanism is one of turning a blind eye to the consequences of one’s action; the fifth involves displacing responsibility for the action to some other person or group; and the sixth involves dehumanizing the victim so as to suggest that they are not deserving of full moral status. See Bandura 2002.

  16. Kristján Kristjánsson has described this in terms of “prospective” and “retrospective” roles of shame. He uses this distinction to undermine an argument that Aristotle gives as to why shame could not be a virtue. Aristotle argues that an ideal virtuous person would not need shame, as she would not commit any actions to be ashamed of. But, as Kristjánsson notes, even if an ideal virtuous agent would not have any need for shame in the retrospective sense, presumably she would still need shame in the prospective sense. Certainly Bandura’s work on how affective self-sanctions help to keep us adhering to our standards would support Kristjánsson’s view on the necessity of shame in the prospective sense. See Kristjánsson 2014.

  17. Though by ‘moral standards’ here I do not intend to set up a contrast with ‘immoral standards’. Rather, the disengagement is relative to one’s own internalized moral standards (however appropriate or corrupt they may be). It is of course important to internalize appropriately justified moral standards, and much of ethical theory is devoted to figuring these out. But this other aspect of moral behavior, preventing disengagement from even justified moral standards, is a relatively neglected topics in contemporary ethics, which is especially surprising given that widespread moral wrongdoing often involves moral disengagement.

  18. By ‘negative’ here, I mean both in the sense of a negative evaluation of one having failed to live up to an important standard, and in terms of this being an unpleasant affective state. So the worry here is that the negative evaluation might give rise to an overly intense negative affect, which the agent then wants to avoid. However, these two senses of ‘negative’ need not always go together, as Kristjánsson (2003) has aptly noted.

  19. Paciello et al. 2013, 7. Also, one of the reasons why someone might feel distress specifically in response to others in need is a lack of self-efficacy beliefs about one’s ability to help.

  20. Both guilt and shame are feelings one could have in response to recognizing a moral failure. While they are often linked, they can come apart. One way of differentiating the two is that guilt is focused on the act, while shame is a concern for how the action reflects on oneself. Some mistakes may be mere accidents for which one is still responsible, but which do not indicate a problem with who one is as a person. I focus on shame for two reasons. First, I take eliminating vice and acquiring virtue to be working on our moral identity, rather than a one-off reaction to a particular action we have taken. Second, shame is seemingly the more distressing of the two emotions, for calling into question not just our actions, but also our identity as a moral person.

  21. Kristjánsson (2014) also recently set out to resolve some of the conflicting interpretations of shame found in multiple academic discourses.

  22. Gausel and Leach 2011, 469.

  23. Gausel and Leach 2011, 475, their emphasis.

  24. Furthermore, this distinction between pro-social and genuinely moral behavior don’t seem to be accounted for in studies on shame, as any kind of overtly pro-social behavior is often considered good, which is likely another reason why there is conflicting evidence about responses to feeling shame.

  25. Gausel and Leach 2011, 476.

  26. Gausel et al. 2012.

  27. Kashdan et al. 2015. Kashdan et al. are referring to ‘negative’ emotions in the sense of intense negative affect.

  28. It is important to note that moods are different from emotions in several respects. Where moods are diffuse, emotions have specific intentional objects (e.g. being angry about something in particular), and emotions have propositional content, which is why they can be differentiated from each other. For these and other differences, see Kristjánsson 2003, 353.

  29. Lennarz et al. 2017.

  30. For example, cognitive behavioral therapy offers strategies for emotion regulation.

  31. Smidt and Suvak 2015. They also intend by ‘negative’ that the feelings are negatively valenced.

  32. Cameron et al. 2013.

  33. Alfano 2013; and Miller 2013. It may also be the case that even positive connotations of an event can invalidate the moral evaluation of an event (as it doesn’t have to be merely negative like with disgust), by leading one to make less severe moral judgements that one ought to (rather than more severe as with disgust). If so, emotion differentiation may also be needed to help counteract the effect of positive moods influencing one to make less severe moral judgments than one ought to. My thanks to a reviewer for pointing this out.

  34. Cameron et al. 2013, 720.

  35. Cameron et al. 2013, 722.

  36. Cameron et al. 2013, 723.

  37. Aristotle 1941.

  38. Smidt and Suvak 2015, 50.

  39. Kashdan et al. 2015, 11.

  40. I should note that overcoming our limitations need not necessarily imply that any mistakes have been made, as it takes practice to try new tasks or to do existing tasks more efficiently. Thus, the learning process is not limited to only fixing errors.

  41. It is worth noting though that Cameron et al. were not looking at this from the perspective of employing better self-regulation strategies once the negative affect has been specified, beyond discounting the disgust as irrelevant to the moral judgment, because they were looking at judgments of transgressions by others. This would not produce as much distress as when it is your own (or your in-group’s) transgression, and it is the distress resulting from that recognition that needs to be regulated.

  42. Kashdan et al. 2015, 13.

  43. Lickel et al. 2014, 1059.

  44. Kashdan et al. 2015, 12.

  45. Tessman 2005.

  46. Gausel et al. 2012.


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Stichter, M. Learning from Failure: Shame and Emotion Regulation in Virtue as Skill. Ethic Theory Moral Prac 23, 341–354 (2020).

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  • Virtue
  • Skill
  • Shame
  • Emotion
  • Self-regulation
  • Moral disengagement