In his highly readable book, A Blissful Journey, Geshe Kelsand Gyatos suggests that instead of being a punishment, shame restrains us from doing that which the person that we wish (or ought to wish) ourselves to be ought not to do.
In this context shame is not a painful conclusion, but a joyous opportunity.
For Buddhists, shame is the frontline defence against inappropriate actions. Such actions not only produce negative karma (locking you into the painful cycle of rebirth) but also lead to difficult rebirths.
But even non-Buddhists find inappropriate actions to be trouble. Folks tend to get annoyed when one steals, murders, and cheats. Likewise, they shy away from those who frequently lose their temper and fail to honour their commitments. Indeed, during the course of a single day, you are confronted with a whole host of activities that someone considers inappropriate. If you wished to comply with all of them, you might as well just stay home.
The reality of life is that we cannot always abide by an external set of rules when deciding what we should or should not do.
Yet assuming that you want to be ethical, what standard might you use?
I suggest using your own ‘sense of shame’.
Assume that you wished to use your mobile phone in a place where it was prohibited. You might be tempted to do it anyway – especially if you were (1) in a hurry, (2) pretty sure it wouldn’t harm anyone , and (3) fairly certain you wouldn’t be caught. If – prior to giving way to temptation – you considered how you’d feel if you were caught, you’d have your answer.
If you’d feel embarrassed or guilty, then deep down you know that you ought not do it. This is regardless of the logical arguments you might make to the contrary.
However, if you truly wouldn’t be fussed, then you might as well give it a try.