BMCR 2021.06.06

Aristotle on shame and learning to be good

, Aristotle on shame and learning to be good. Oxford Aristotle studies series. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2021. Pp. 224. ISBN 9780198829683. $70.00.


The present book offers an examination of the place of shame in Aristotle’s ethical thought and seeks to show that shame has a uniquely important role in Aristotle’s moral developmentalism, building on work Jimenez has previously published on the topic. Jimenez takes standard interpretations of Aristotle’s explanation in EN 2.4 of how we come to be virtuous by doing virtuous deeds to be inadequate, for, as she reads him, we must not only do virtuous actions to become virtuous, but do them virtuously, where this requires something at least of doing the action for the same motive or reason the virtuous person would. While it is plausible enough that one could do virtuous actions without the relevant virtue (for instance under guidance), it is less obvious how one could do a virtuous action from the same motive as a virtuous person if one is not yet virtuous oneself. This problem, which motivates the entire book, Jimenez calls the moral upbringing gap. Chapters 1 and 2 motivate this problem and then offer two kinds of attempt she does not think work to bridge this gap and one previous work that has promise: Burnyeat’s “Aristotle on Learning to be Good” (1980). Chapter 2 closes with the view that Burnyeat is correct as far as he goes, and then proposes that what is needed to overcome some classic objections to Burnyeat’s account is something with the status of a quasi-virtue that would let the virtue-learner sufficiently get an “insider’s view” of how the virtuous person sees noble action and then come to inhabit that view herself. This quasi-virtue, according to Jimenez, is the sense of shame.

Chapter 3 motivates the view that there is a special place in Aristotle’s ethical thought for action motivated by shame, and that this fact makes plausible the claim that shame is a quasi-virtue of the needed kind. Chapter 4 responds to objections to giving shame this elevated status based on concerns that its characteristic object of attachment is shallow, superficial, or both. Jimenez replies by arguing that, for Aristotle, normal people who are not already hopeless reprobates care about what is actually noble or shameful, not simply what is perceived to be so, and so shame is not attached to a superficial concern. Further, while focus on praise and shame does put one’s focus on others’ opinions, this is right and proper for social animals who fundamentally exist in a state of epistemic uncertainty about their own moral qualifications, and so there is nothing shallow about listening to others’ opinions about the quality of one’s actions, particularly when one is also exercising agential authority in choosing whose opinions to trust on such important matters. Having argued that the public-facing nature of shame is not an indication of superficiality or shallowness, Chapters 5 and 6 address Aristotle’s core textual treatments of shame, EN 4.9 and 10.9. Jimenez offers plausible responses to worries that there is significant tension between these two passages, pointing out that, on her view, shame is a complex phenomenon and, as that which bridges the moral upbringing gap, it must have facets that seem in tension because they address different stages on the way to true virtue. There is no need to posit different senses of shame in Aristotle, for she has a unified account of shame’s significance to offer. The book closes with a positive account of shame which draws from both EN 4.9 and EN10.9. The discussion of 4.9 primarily focuses on what shame lacks such that, as Aristotle says, it is not itself a full-blown virtue, while that of 10.9 focuses on a final defense of the idea that shame is (a) what orients us toward the noble and away from the shameful, (b) gives people a “basic grasp of the noble”, and (c) allows one to “taste” what the virtuous do in noble actions and so to take the right kind of pleasure in the noble.

The book is a model of clarity in layout and argumentative structure. The order of chapters is logical, the breakdown into sub-chapters is enormously helpful both in following the thread of the argument and in later finding a point to which one wishes to return, and the transitional passages throughout the book make certain the reader knows what the author takes to have been proven up to that point, where she is going next, and why. Jimenez demonstrates a commanding knowledge of the secondary literature on her topic and strikes an excellent balance between the number of authors referenced and the amount of quoted material used to support her readings of their positions. The reader is certainly left knowing which authors Jimenez thinks have been on the right track (Burnyeat, of course, but also especially Cairns 1993 and Raymond 2017) and those who have made considerable missteps (Hitz 2012 and the commentaries of Irwin 1999 and Taylor 2006, for instance). Both for its engagement with the secondary literature and its own positive arguments, Jimenez’s book should rightfully be high on the reading list of anyone wishing to address Aristotle’s views of shame or moral development, as well as other topics like the kinds of pseudo-courage in EN 3.8 and Aristotle on pleasure (particularly the treatment of EN 10.1-5). There are, however, three points on which I think Jimenez needs to be pressed.

The first comes in Chapter 2, when Jimenez is discussing a pair of views that take pleasure and pain to be the tools by which to get a virtue-learner onto valuing the noble. The one I wish to focus on is called the Familiarity View. It relies on Aristotle’s dictum that what is made familiar through habituation comes to be pleasant, and posits that, in coming to be pleasant, the one gaining familiarity gains appreciation for the familiar thing in itself. Jimenez rejects this view, for, if the learner is being motivated by pleasure taken in that which has become familiar (in this case, virtuous actions), then they are not doing those actions for the reasons that the virtuous person does them, and thus a significant motivational gap remains. I think it is a common enough phenomenon, though, that learners of all types gain appreciation for an activity in its own right via gaining familiarity with the activity through repetition. The child being forced to take piano lessons initially gets pleasure, if any, that is extrinsic to skill at playing the piano. But as lessons continue, they come to enjoy playing the piano for its own sake, not for some pleasure extrinsic to the very activity of the playing. Why, then, can it not be that one coming to be familiar with the doing of virtuous actions comes to take joy not in some extrinsic pleasure, but in the very doing of virtuous actions? Jimenez’s treatment of this issue is too brief and, though likely unintentionally, a bit too uncharitable to what I take to be the most promising alternative to her account.

Perhaps the reason that Jimenez is too dismissive of the Familiarity View is that she draws a distinction between kinds of pleasures that seems dubious. Immediately after discussing the Familiarity View, she introduces her reading of Burnyeat’s view, from which her own substantive account really takes off. The central insight she finds in Burnyeat is that those learning to be virtuous must learn via the experience of the pleasures intrinsic to noble actions themselves (62-64; 69-70), which are different in kind from what she calls “appetitive pleasures”. It is never entirely clear what the range is supposed to be of the “appetitive pleasures”. The pleasures of food, drink, and sex, certainly, but what about the pleasure of reading a good book, or of watching talented athletes playing the game of their lives? Intuitively, I would not call these appetitive pleasures, or at least I would insist on having some kind of distinction flagged between these and the pleasures of food, drink, and sex, but at times it seems Jimenez recognizes only two kinds of pleasures: appetitive pleasures and “noble pleasures”, i.e. the pleasures intrinsic to doing what is noble. Her argument against the Familiarity View seems to turn on the idea that no matter what kind of activity one is becoming familiar with—opera, the latest first-person shooter video game, or actions generous and just—the pleasure one gets will be the same in kind, “appetitive pleasure”, unless the pleasure is “noble pleasure”, which only comes from doing virtuous actions the way virtuous people do them (which shame is supposed to allow one to experience before one is oneself a fully virtuous person). I think Jimenez needs to recognize at least three kinds of pleasure: appetitive, noble, and what I would call “technical”, which is involved both in mastering a technē and in watching a technical master practicing her craft. But with this third category in place, the argument against the Familiarity View needs further work to show that “noble pleasures” are not sufficiently similar to the pleasures of mastering a technē for the kind of learning involved in the latter to introduce a learner to the former.

The second challenge I wish to pose to Jimenez’s treatment has to do with the moral upbringing gap and at what age she is picturing people characteristically bridge that gap. Are Jimenez’s virtue-learners those on the young edge of the ones old enough to participate in Aristotle’s lectures on ethics, or are they those wholly lacking in experience with the practice of life? Jimenez does not seem to have a concrete answer, and indeed seems to move back and forth between life-stages a number of times. Sometimes she speaks of needing shame to train the affective side of people who can already deliberate, which I take to be a minimum of seventeen or eighteen years old. Yet when discussing the passages on shame in EN 10.9, she explicitly points out that Aristotle talks about shame in ‘neoi’, which, while compatible with eighteen-year-olds, suggests boys somewhat younger. But then she also uses those who are motivated by the sense of shame in EN 3.8, which would be men old enough to be fighting in wars for their city-states. Perhaps those of this last category are not meant to be learners, but men locked hopelessly into pseudo-virtue because they did not learn true virtue before becoming too old, but the reliance on them to make the case for shame as the bridge across the motivational gap leaves one wondering.

Finally, I was left concerned about Jimenez’s picture of the earliest origin of appreciation for the noble and what it means for the moral upbringing gap. Several times she writes that we have “right from the start” a basic appreciation of the noble and aversion to the shameful. I was left wondering if Jimenez’s view is that we are born with an innate ability to take pleasure in the noble (and by “innate ability” I mean a second potentiality, not a first). A central tenet of her book is that we need to maintain continuity of moral development toward virtue across the lifespan; it is putative discontinuity that she uses in Chapters 1 and 2 against competing views such as the Familiarity View. But if we are not born with an innate ability to take pleasure in the noble, then there must be a discontinuity in there somewhere, namely the point at which we gain the very concept of the noble. If, on the other hand, she does believe we are able to take pleasure in the noble as such “right from the start”, then she needs to explain how that is a psychological possibility. The perceptual faculty gives us the ability to cognize pleasure as good and pain as bad from birth. If we humans have an immediate capacity to distinguish the noble as good and the shameful as bad, we need a story about what psychological faculty could possibly provide that right from birth.


Burnyeat, M. F. 1980. “Aristotle on Learning to Be Good”. In A. Rorty, ed. Essays on Aristotle’s Ethics. Berkeley: University of California Press, 69-92.
Cairns, D. L. 1993. Aidōs: The Psychology and Ethics of Honor and Shame and Ancient Greek Literature. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Hitz, Z. 2012. “Aristotle on Law and Moral Education”. Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 42, 263-306.
Irwin, T. H. 1999. Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics. 2nd edition. Trans. and Comm. Indianapolis: Hackett.
Raymond, C. 2017. “Shame and Virtue in Aristotle”. Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 53, 111-161.
Taylor, C. C. W. 2006. Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics Books II-IV. Trans. and Comm. Oxford: Clarendon Press.