A New Interpretation of Fostering Virtue Through Character Friendship: Significance of Shame in Aristotle’s Idea of Friendship

Yi Lin Chen*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


This study focuses on addressing the following questions: How do friends help each other to improve character? What is the exact mechanism by which virtue is fostered through character friendship? From an Aristotelian perspective, this study investigates the moral value of shame. Shame is argued to be a desirable moral emotion worth developing. As a distinctive type of fear, shame reflects the fear of dishonor and disgrace caused mostly by one’s own voluntary actions as well as those of significant others. Aristotle analyzed shame in detail in terms of its eliciting causes, intentional objects, and personal feelings. Different from other emotions that are aroused directly by the confronting situation, shame is normally felt in front of other people. As the proverb goes, “Shame dwells in the eyes.” Specifically, the eyes literally refer to the witnessing by the surrounding people and figuratively signify the negative judgment made by other people on an individual’s actions. Thus, shame is not a moral virtue in itself. Precisely, shame is an intermediate emotional state between two extremes (i.e., bashfulness and shamelessness) and can be regarded, at best, as a quasi-virtue, in that it helps to constrain the actions of modest people. Therefore, shame is considered to be conditionally good, but not good without qualification. After clarifying the nature of shame, Aristotle emphasizes that the development of shame as a moPral emotion is worthwhile among young people because shame symbolizes a watershed and a critical turning point in one’s virtue development. From an Aristotelian developmental perspective of the inculcation of virtues, a young child is incapable of listening to and understanding rational argument and teaching; therefore, virtue education must begin with cultivating their “noble joy” and “noble hatred” through proper habituation of both virtuous emotions and actions. In so doing, their inborn, primitive, basic pleasures, and pains are gradually transformed and broadened, and by being led to attend to certain morally significant information and read it properly, more sophisticated and appropriate joys and hatred come into being. Among the various emotions, shame is a noble hatred, especially for one’s voluntary disgraceful bad behavior. As soon as an individual develops shame, it indicates that they have successfully internalized a social measure of differentiating right from wrong. At this juncture, the conventional concept of good and evil is established in their mind. The standard of social honor and the moral emotion of shame can be perceived as being two sides of the same coin. According to Colby and Kohlberg’s characterization of Aristotle’s stage theory of virtue development, “shame ethics” goes above and beyond the previous “fear ethics,” in that as a distinctive species of the main genus of fear, shame is not a fear of personal corporal pain but a fear of disgrace resulting from the transgression of social order. Nevertheless, for Aristotle, the goal of virtue development is full virtue interwoven with practical wisdom. The issue of concern is how the habituated virtue could be converted into full virtue. This question reflects R. S. Peters’s well-known “the paradox of moral education” to the effect that the goal of moral education is to develop an individual conducting themself rationally, intelligently, and autonomously, but the brutal fact of human psychology is that a young child is impervious to this form of education and instead the child must be raised through habituation, namely by following conventional behavior and tradition. In brief, in Peters’s famous words, “they can and must enter the palace of Reason through the courtyard of Habit and Tradition.” Are reason and habit compatible? How can the goal of rational morality be accomplished through habituation? In addition to the interpretation by N. Sherman of the very nature of habituation as a type of “critical practice, which dispels the misgiving that habituation and reason are incompatible, this study argues that Aristotle’s detailed analysis of shame in general and his notion of “shame before character friendship” in particular explains how the “habituated virtue” can be converted into full virtue through the critical examination of character friends’ practical wisdom. Specifically, this study describes the significant and positive meaning of “feeling shame before character friendship.” “Shame before character friendship” is argued to play a pivotal role in converting conventional shame into real shame. Conventional shame refers to feelings about bad things or evils defined by social conventions; real shame refers to feelings about genuine faults recognized by one’s practical wisdom. The mechanism by which full virtue is fostered through character friendship involves people feeling free to talk to each other, exchange ideas, and critically scrutinize their respective habituated virtues. Specifically, character friendship is developed between two virtuous people who love each other and wish well for each other’s virtue development. They enjoy living together by spending time on performing virtuous actions and having rational dialogues. In this manner, the so-called “virtue reassessment” occurs. That is, two virtuous friends freely and critically scrutinize the reasonableness and rational ground of their habituated virtues and their associated conventional shame. Thus, shame stops a person from dwelling in the eyes of others but dwelling in their own eyes. That is, bad things and evils are now measured by one’s own standard of value rather than the previously internalized traditional social standard of honor. This discussion on Aristotle’s distinction of two types of shame and his elaboration on the special meaning of “shame before character friendship” can hopefully be a response to Peters’s “the paradox of moral education,” elaborating how the transition from moral heteronomy and habituated virtue to moral autonomy and full virtue is possible. That is, the long-standing paradox of moral education is resolvable from Aristotelian perspective. In addition, the discussion has practical educational implications for explaining the moral value of cultivating the moral emotion of shame and developing character friendship.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)137-165
Number of pages29
JournalJournal of Research in Education Sciences
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2023


  • Aristotle
  • character education
  • friendship/philia
  • shame
  • virtue

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education


Dive into the research topics of 'A New Interpretation of Fostering Virtue Through Character Friendship: Significance of Shame in Aristotle’s Idea of Friendship'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this