Guilt, Shame, Private Indiscretion and the Public Sphere


One of the more common questions arising in areas of political and media ethics today is ‘are the public entitled to know of the private activities of public figures?’ As the media continue to push the boundaries of privacy, and as the rise of social media permits anybody with a camera phone and internet access to expose a person’s behaviour to the world, the question is constantly asked: how much of a public figures life should be public knowledge?

However, whilst this question is important, the focus that it has been given has, undermined another important question associated with the public exposition of a person’s behaviour: the psychological ramifications it can have on an individual. In this paper I discuss, with reference to a number of recent ‘public outings’ of behaviour, the moral dimension of guilt, and how social perception and guilt can affect self-perception in a way that can be damaging to the individual who is the subject of it. Informed by this account, I examine whether, where the publicising of private activity is argued to be a call to a ‘higher standard’ for public figures, such action is successful, given the overwhelming change to self-perception that can manifest as a result of public shaming. This paper evaluates whether the media can be considered to play a moral-pedagogical function in society, or whether the publicising of private activity represents an unethical crippling of a public figure’s moral-psychological wellbeing and self-perception.


guilt, shame, media, ethics, morality, politics, education, punishment, journalism, public, private, shaming, redemption


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