Happy is the person who has nothing to be ashamed of. But unhappy is the one who doesn't know what it means. That is one of the dilemmas of our times. We feel free of cruel old fashioned restraints, but we wonder if it is too easy nowadays to forget the difference between right and wrong. Here Ian Jack begins by recalling when shame was a tiger at the gate and wonders if it still should be
Many things have happened in my life which when I remember them cause me, to quote the Shorter Oxford, " the feelings of humiliation or distress arising from the consciousness of something dishonourable or ridiculous in one's own behaviour or circumstance, or from a situation offensive to one's own or another's sense of propriety and decency". I groan aloud when I think of them. I am not going to describe them, for while most can be turned into harmless anecdote, complete with period detail and the hammy confessionality which (for me) makes Woody Allen so unendearing, the truth is that the more important episodes make me fear, again to quote the Shorter Oxford, "disgrace, loss of esteem or reputation". I have broken, so far as I know, no public laws, but transgressed a few private ones. I do not wish to stand up on the Oprah Winfrey show. I am too ashamed.

People like me may be in decline. The superficial evidence suggests that shame, as a regulator of behaviour, comes from a lace-curtain way of living and has been shoved to the back shelf in the supermarket of the humours by a new item labelled "guilt", which can mean almost anything to its user (he was guilty of murder; I feel guilty about not returning your call) and may be more amenable to treatment on Oprah Winfrey or the therapist's couch. Feelings of guilt and shame may be impossible to disentangle when you experience them, but there is one important difference in their cause. Shame, at least in its simplest sense, has social rather than purely personal origins. It stems from what, in the view of you or others, is poor behaviour. It comes when you are found out.

When I was growing up, women who smoked on the street were said to be "shameless". Men watched their language. Money was rarely spoken of. Self- restraint was declared a virtue. Unmarried girls gave birth to babies secretly. John Profumo slept with a prostitute and then, in what now seems a spectacular amount of shame, paid penance by giving over the rest of his life to good works (and, notice, good works conducted entirely privately). In all of this there was, of course, deception, humbug and sometimes cruelty; the culture of keeping up appearances, babies taken away from mothers who wanted them. But that was how, in those days, one obtained the good opinion of others and avoided certain kinds of shame. It may have led to conformity - it is no coincidence that shame and conformity both still feature prominently in Japan - but would conformity be such a poor swap for the brazen misconduct and greed which now seem to mark so much of British commercial, political and everyday life, where shame and the impulse to resign or reform seem to have evaporated? Might it not be worth Cedric Brown's pay-off, Michael Howard's resignation, a vandalised housing estate, the sight of Covent Garden's administrators making berks of themselves on television? Could a new fear of shame restore civic virtue, politeness, reticence and those quaint words in the dictionary definition: decency, propriety, reputation?

According to an American psychoanalyst, Stuart Schneiderman, more shame is exactly what his country needs. In a new book, Saving Face: America and the Politics of Shame, Schneiderman argues that cynicism, selfishness and disdain for convention have replaced the idea of "saving face" and preserving reputation. Exposure carries no penalties; it may even, in terms of talk-show confessionals, bring esteem and rewards. The result is a society where self-restraint and civility have broken down, where social irresponsibility (drugs, unattended children) flourishes, and where lawyers make money out of general public distrust.

Schneiderman's book belongs to what might be called the "why gee why" school of American authorship, in which sorrowing diagnosticians give a wide variety of solutions for the country's social condition. He may be right, but I wonder if it is not so much that shame has disappeared but rather that the things which make us feel shameful have changed. Women smoking on the streets may now be virtuous; they may be ashamed to smoke in the office or at home. Less virtuously (but then, conformity has no necessary relationship with virtue), a boy may start taking crack because his friends expect him to, a sense of shame instilled by peer group pressure. Susie Orbach, the psychotherapist, has written very well about shame - she believes it to be vital as "a regulator, a source of morality, a set of stories and a standard that a culture creates for itself to live by" - so I asked her about Cedric Brown, the chief executive of British Gas. Would he be ashamed?

She said, quite properly, that it was impossible to say. We might feel that his vast salary and perks were shameful; he might not agree. Shame does not always arise simply because other people think you should be ashamed, even if the clamour of shame roars through Press and Parliament. And paradoxically - here she referred to Robert Maxwell - a deep and unreachable sense of shame may well produce and prolong more shameful behaviour, in the way that people who feel most vulnerable sometimes become most violent.

A tricky subject then, shame, though I at least am easier with it than guilt. As someone from Scotland, I have often been told that Calvinist guilt is my birthright. I have gone along with this publicly - if we are all to have psychological stereotypes, Calvinist guilt suits me fine - but privately I am more attracted by another Scottish idea which has more to do with social approval than Original Sin. It comes from Adam Smith, who in his Theory of Moral Sentiments (published in 1759, 17 years before the Wealth of Nations), devised a character called the Impartial Spectator who lives, or at least can be cultivated, within all of us as a scrutineer of our behaviour, his judgements formed by sympathy with the society our behaviour will likely affect. He can, if we pay attention, overcome self- deceit and self-interest. Smith wrote: "If we saw ourselves in the light in which others see us, or in which they would see us if they knew all, a reformation would be generally unavoidable. We could not otherwise endure the sight."

A new biography of Smith by Ian Simpson Ross points out that Robert Burns read Smith's book some time before he wrote the lines:

O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us

To see oursels as others see us!

It wad frae mony a blunder free us

And foolish notion.

My parents used to have this verse as part of the house decoration, embroidered and framed and hung on my bedroom wall. It struck me as a trite little homily then, but, as the new life of Adam Smith shows, it was in its day a modern thought. Perhaps, if shame is losing its grip on the regulator, it needs to be made modern again, to serve in our perpetual struggle against what Smith termed "this self-deceit, this fatal weakness of mankind"