Arterscham: The Phenomenon of Species Shame

species shame

Shame and embarrassment have long been considered uniquely human emotions since, as psychologist Marc D. Hauser has argued, these feelings “depend critically on a sense of self and others”, giving us “a moral sense that no animal is likely to attain.” Without self-awareness, in other words, there can be no shame. However, biologist Marc Bekoff believes higher primates such as chimpanzees, as observed by primatologist Jane Goodall, have exhibited behaviour indicative of embarrassment, and some suggest dogs may truly experience the emotion of shame (and not just appear to show it through our anthropomorphisation of them). 

But whether or not some non-human animals experience these purportedly human emotions, or some degree of them, it is doubtful that other animals experience more complex and highly specific variations of embarrassment and shame. Here I have in mind species shame. This is embarrassment or shame felt for humanity or the human species. In contrast, non-human animals cannot have the abstract notion of their ‘species’ in mind and feel a sense of shame around it. While it is possible that other highly intelligent species that appear in the future on planet Earth or which exist elsewhere in the universe may experience this kind of emotion, the term species shame is used to refer exclusively to the experience of Homo sapiens

There are other specific variations of shame, such as Fremdscham, which is the German word for shame felt for actions done by someone else, otherwise known as vicarious or secondhand embarrassment. Species shame is like a more expansive version – an all-encompassing version, in fact – of Fremdscham; it targets not individuals but humanity as a whole. (This is not to say that people who feel species shame blame every single individual for a particular problem, but the blame is still nonetheless placed on the common or highly impactful actions of people; but more on this later.)

In the spirit of John Koenig’s book The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows (see my review), in which the author encourages readers to create neologisms, as he has done, I think the phenomenon of species shame deserves its own word, like Fremdscham, which I’ll call arterscham, from the Swedish/Danish/Norwegian for ‘species’ and the German for ‘shame’. Humans can feel arterscham because we can make moral judgements about the notion of ourselves as a species, which non-human animals are unable to do. While this capacity is an old one, and perennially expressed, the feeling of species shame seems more common than ever, owing largely to the climate crisis and the harms this involves, such as habitat destruction and the decline and disappearance of species. 

Anthropogenic climate change, as the name tells us, is human-caused, and so the accountability lies with our species alone. It is unsurprising, then, for the climate crisis to cause not just climate anxiety in many people but also species shame. It is considered an embarrassing fact that humans have, for so long, led the sorts of lives that degrade precious ecosystems and make the planet inhospitable to many lifeforms, including (if things don’t change soon) ourselves. Even if the blame should (justifiably) land on the drivers of climate change (just 100 companies and governments failing to act), this doesn’t mean species shame will no longer be felt. Such shame can still arise from the recognition that many people do not care about climate change, or at least not in a way that is proportional to the actual threats facing us, thereby leading to appropriate action (although psychological reasons, differences in education, and climate misinformation can help account for this lack of concern). 

While the climate crisis may be the most obvious cause of arterscham, and perhaps the most widespread instance of this form of shame, there can be, have been, and still are, other causes of species shame. These include the use of conflict of minerals in technology, the trillions of non-human animals we exploit and kill every year for food, and countries owning nuclear weapons that would be catastrophic or existentially threatening if deployed. In response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Martin Amis wrote:

Our best destiny, as planetary cohabitants, is the development of what has been called “species consciousness” – something over and above nationalisms, blocs, religions, ethnicities. During this week of incredulous misery, I have been trying to apply such a consciousness, and such a sensibility. Thinking of the victims, the perpetrators, and the near future, I felt species grief, then species shame, then species fear.

Species shame is a negative emotion, one that arises in response to catastrophic, abhorrent, or civilisation-threatening events uniquely caused by the human species. We might think we should avoid adding negative responses to negative events, but this kind of shame, as with other kinds of shame, can be useful and purposeful. Shame and embarrassment signal to us moral failings – what has gone awry, what should have been avoided, what should not occur again. It is true that species shame, like climate anxiety, can compound suffering; along with the harms that cause such shame, the shame itself may be accompanied by damaging and counterproductive attitudes like helplessness, hopelessness, and misanthropy. 

But this is not the only path. Shame, like anxiety, can be productive. Arterscham does not have to lead to a sense of powerlessness, resignation about our imminent extinction, or hatred for humanity. It can instead create a sense of responsibility and act as fuel for urgent change. Species shame may, after all, arise from the (realistic) vision of how humanity can situate itself better on this planet, living in a harmonious – not discordant – relationship with the natural world, and with each other. 

Arterscham is a human emotion that has the potential to protect us against the selfish drives and cognitive biases that are currently leading us astray. We should be wary of excessive species shame, or shame without action, but when we turn this form of shame into a desire to learn, act, and cooperate, its value becomes clearer.

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