• Ideas
  • Humor

I’m Making the Case for Public Shaming

4 minute read

I think killing beloved lions is horrifying. That’s not because I care about hunting or lions or beloving. It’s because I’m afraid of you.

For decades, Americans were free to say whatever we wanted since our society had become too lazy to gather in mobs armed with pitchforks, partly because so few of us have pitchforks anymore. But now, thanks to social media, public shaming is easier and more popular than ever. When an American dentist recently killed an African lion named Cecil that American tourists liked, people rallied against him on Facebook and Twitter. He’s closed his practice and gone into hiding after receiving death threats and having lion killer graffitied on his vacation house and pigs’ feet scattered on his driveway. Animal lovers need to tighten their message a little.

Let me be clear that I think shaming is awful, because I don’t want to be shamed by the anti-shamers. It has indeed ruined many people’s lives, filling their Google searches with scarlet A’s and making it hard for them to date, work or, far sadder, experience the joy of Googling themselves. But all this shaming has also done some good. While the ethical collateral damage is unfortunate, attacks on specific people have quieted anti-vaxxers, California water wasters, parents who spank their kids with a switch and Bill Cosby.

Still, I wasn’t sure if public shaming was something I should start doing. For advice, I called Joshua Knobe, a professor of philosophy at Yale who runs experiments to see how people come to their moral judgments. As soon as we started talking, Josh wanted to be very clear that he likes lions. I ran my theory by him: that when society comes to an agreement on a new moral rule–slavery is wrong; gay marriage is good–the fastest means of signaling that is to publicly destroy the life of one randomly selected transgressor. It turns out there are few thrills greater than horrifying a person who professionally explores moral judgments.

Knobe told me that most studies prove the opposite: the best way to get people to change behavior is to communicate that the majority of people like them are engaged in positive behavior. I told him that made sense to me. If you wanted change to happen really slowly and were a total wuss.

Once society makes a new moral decision, we’ve got to quickly mop up the resisters. Yes, it’s Martin Luther King Jr. who gets America to change its mind on racism, but it’s Michael Richards who finishes the job. “The rate of change with gay marriage is much swifter than other things, such as interracial marriage. The mechanism that you’re suggesting could explain that rate of change,” Knobe said. “I so hope you turn out to be wrong.” That’s because it would be pretty embarrassing for a major ethical philosophical breakthrough to come from a humor columnist.

Before I submit this column to the Philosophical Review,[superscript 1] I wanted further academic backing. Robert Kurzban, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, studies morality from an evolutionary perspective. One of the first things he said in response to my theory on Cecil the lion was, “I’m a person who loves the outdoors and want ecologies that are beautiful to be preserved.”

Kurzban doesn’t think people scold for the rush of superiority. He thinks they do it because taking down others makes space at the top of the social order for them. Which made sense until I wondered who is lower on the social order than dentists.

Still, because this motivation is selfish, not only can the victims of shaming be chosen randomly, but so can the morals themselves, as in the Salem witch trials. “Moral psychology has a very sinister property,” Kurzban said. “The dangers of in-group/out-group psychology is that it allows us to gang up on people different than us. Moral psychology allows us to gang up on people who are even like us.” Marijuana psychology allows a person to gang up on himself.

Maybe it’s best to stop shaming others. Sure, that will slow progress, but it will prevent fascism. Unless a lot of you disagree with me. In which case, I totally think whatever you do.

[superscript 1]It requires footnotes.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.