Monday, December 09, 2013

Modesty of Attire

Calah Alexander of "Barefoot and Pregnant" has an excellent series of posts on modesty in clothing:

Nuking the Modesty War, Part I: Control Yourself, Not Women
Nuking the Modesty War, Part II: Stop Treating Men Like Pigs
Nuking the Modesty War, Part III: Stop Thingifying People

I've always thought it one of the many signs of the corruption of the modern age that when we think about immodesty in clothing, we start babbling about lust; when our ancestors thought about immodesty in clothing, they worried about vainglory and greed. When Chaucer's Parson, for instance, goes off on an absurd rant about men and women's fashions, what is riling him up is not indecency in our sense but the fact that rich men and women are using their clothes not in a useful or practical way but as a way of treating themselves as superior to ordinary people. While Chaucer is partly making fun of the Parson, he is able to do so largely because it's an exaggerated version of a type of rant everyone would have been familiar with in his day, because immodest dress was associated in everyone's mind with vainglory.

We see this in Aquinas as well, despite the fact that Aquinas has a quite conservative view of the matter. Aquinas notes (ST 2-2.169) that modesty in dress is not a matter of what you wear but of the way you wear it; you are modest in dress precisely to that extent that you wear your clothes moderately. Then he goes on to identify ways in which you could fail to wear your clothes moderately:

(1) By deliberate violation of customary law. In any society there are things that are just taken by people in general to be completely unacceptable to wear under particular circumstances; and if you deliberately disregard this, this is one way of being immodest.

(2.1.1) By excessive attachment to clothes due to the pleasure taken in them that arises from vainglory. This is precisely the case I already mentioned.

(2.1.2) By excessive attachment to sensible things due to the pleasure taken in them that arises from comfort.

(2.1.3) By excessive attention to one's own attire in one's practical reasoning, arising from imprudence.

(2.2.1) By inadequate attention to clothes due to the pleasure of disregarding them that arises from self-indulgence.

(2.2.2) By inadequate attention to attire due to the pleasure of disregarding it that arises from vainglory.

(2.3) By the use of clothes with the deliberate intention of provoking lust. Note, incidentally, that it is the deliberate attempt to provoke the vice of lust, not sexual desire; Aquinas is quite explicit that there are circumstances in which it is entirely reasonable to dress sexually, as long as you still show some sense in doing so.

And note, in particular, that the issue of lust only enters into the picture when we are talking about the deliberate attempt to provoke it. In any case in which someone is not deliberately trying to provoke lust, immodesty only arises from vainglory, or self-indulgence, or imprudence.

The basic principles of modesty of attire are quite simple, actually, and are touched on (organized in a different way) in Calah's discussion:

[1] Modesty and immodesty are matters of character, and thus what one is deliberately doing in wearing them, not matters of what one wears. If we are using 'immodesty' in some sense that does not have to do with personal character, we are not using it to talk about a vice, and thus it is of at most secondary moral importance.

[2] Modesty as a virtue must have two extremes, involving excessive regard for clothes and deficient regard for clothes. If we are talking about some kind of 'modesty' that does not have two extremes, we are not talking about a virtue, and thus it is of at most secondary moral importance.

[3] The seriousness of different kinds of immodesty must be related to the seriousness of the vices they express; and thus the most serious kind of immodesty occurs when people are immodest as a way of expressing the most serious vice. This is vainglory. The temptation that really matters most when it comes to immodesty is the temptation to use clothes as a way of trying to make the situation all about you and how great you are. This is something that can be done with any kind of clothing.

[4] Another person's lust cannot pollute your character; the only way it is relevant to the question at all is if you are deliberately trying to provoke it. Anyone who says otherwise is like those people who think they have a right to shut down anyone's opinion just by insisting that other people could be offended by it; it is one thing to say that people should not deliberately try to be offensive, and another thing entirely that people should let their lives be controlled by people whose capacity to take offense knows no bound. That is forcing everyone to kowtow to vice, and it is necessarily unjust.

[5] Like every other virtue associated with temperance, modesty in attire consists chiefly in love of balance, in regarding levelheadedness as beautiful and acting accordingly, and secondarily in being ashamed to act in a way that is inappropriate to the kind of rational animal we are. It's all about reason and good sense, taking the circumstances you face and living in a way appropriate to them. And that means all the circumstances you face. Yes, other people's opinions are part of those circumstances, but so is the cost of clothing, so is what people usually wear, and more important than all of these is whether it is practical or useful for doing good things. Demanding that other people dress in ways that make it harder for them to do good things is irrational and vicious -- it's a sin against both prudence and justice -- and, ultimately, the primary authority on whether a certain type of clothing is necessary or most useful for the kind of thing being done is the person wearing it. To be sure, they may choose more or less wisely, more or less safely, but it is morally vicious to demand that people only use the safest means. (Such a demand is known as tutiorism or rigorism, and it violates prudence and justice. You are perfectly free to advise what you think is a morally safer course; it is morally wrong, however, to demand that people only follow what you think is the morally safer course, because there may be riskier courses that are nonetheless perfectly fine if done right, and you have no right to attack people for acting prudently merely because they could have acted more prudently.)

So if you

(1) are not deliberately trying to shock and scandalize people by the inappropriateness of your attire;
(2) are not deliberately using your clothing to treat yourself as superior to other people;
(3) don't make clothes a huge part of your life;
(4) try to wear clothes that make sense for what you are doing; and
(5) are not using clothes as a means for making other people do bad things

then, chances are, your clothing is perfectly modest, even if you happen to be wearing nothing but a short grass skirt or form-fitting spandex. Modesty is not a virtue concerned with the value of clothes; it is, like every other virtue associated with temperance, concerned with the value of people, yourself and others, as rational creatures capable of acting with good sense and proportion. And, of course, prudence and justice require that we tailor our assessments of other people's clothing accordingly.


  1. Mark Johnson5:37 PM

    I have discussed this issue with people before, and had rather a hard time understanding Calah Alexander's side of the argument. But after having read the three threads of hers that you link to, supplemented by your own post giving the Thomistic perspective, I think I now have a better grasp.

    In fact I think I can say that I don't disagree with anything that Alexander says. But I'm still a bit puzzled and wonder if you can help clear up my confusion.

    The basic argument seems to be, that a woman is not harming any man by dressing in whatever way she may choose. Whether or not a man lusts after her is an internal affair of his own. You can't draw lines or make rules about what is and is not acceptably modest dress. It's not up to women to make the world safe for men who are unable to moderate or control their lustful propensities.

    All this is fair enough. But what I'm left wondering is, on what basis then does a woman decide where to draw the line in terms of what she wears? (The last line of the last post, with the graphic diagram regarding whether women are wearing leggings or pants, though obviously facetious, seems to be making the point that women wearing leggings in public is ... well, immodest. Am I misreading her point?) It should not be based on whether men are going to find her dressed immodestly, and perchance lust after her. What then should it be based on? Is there no objective line, and therefore whatever is acceptable to society at large, is acceptable for a Christian woman?

    What if it became the fashion to go topless? I anticipate the response that in some societies it has been the fashion to go topless. Can't women in such societies be Christian? OK, but what if it became the fashion to go topless as well as bottomless? What if it became the societal norm to cover or not cover any part of your body, as you please? Would it then be morally acceptable for Christian women to go around naked, or, say, in thongs? Should men be expected to handle themselves such that no possible mode of dress, or non-dress, would constitute an occasion of sin for them?

    Maybe they should. I'm just having a hard time believing that there really is no objective line.

    No doubt I'm committing some fallacy or other. If so, I would welcome you pointing it out to me. Thanks!

  2. MrsDarwin8:42 AM

    "I sometimes think that cases like this are a sort of proof of the existence of the devil -- it's just so fiendishly clever. Tie up time and resources in trivial discussions of clothes disproportionate to their moral importance, blind men to the fact that they too are in danger of immodesty by making it sound entirely like a woman issue, thus simultaneously making it look indistinguishable to outsiders from misogyny and do so in a way that so mires people in inconsistency that they can't get out of it unless they step back and think for a bit."

    This is the most concise, excellent summary of these types of discussions I've ever seen. This comment deserves to be its own post.

  3. Mark Johnson1:16 PM

    I appreciate your detailed response.

    I'm not sure if I'm not making myself clear, or if I'm just missing your point.

    I agree with the following:

    1. Lust is not something that only occurs when women are wearing particular kinds of clothes. Taken in general and setting aside idiosyncratic quirks, men can lust after a woman no matter what she's wearing.

    2. [T]he general principles governing modesty for Christian women are exactly the same as those governing modesty for Christian men.

    3. It's all an illusion that ... modesty as measured by lust is objective and modesty as an actual virtue of one's character is subjective.

    But granting these things, I'm still left wondering whether women need ever consider whether the clothes they choose to wear might constitute an occasion of sin for a man. Granted that this doesn't speak to the woman's modesty: granted that she has no intention of inciting lust in a man by what she chooses to wear.

    Maybe I should approach it from another angle: Suppose a woman does intend to incite lust in men by what she wears. How does she decide what articles of clothing will do the trick and what won't? There is evidently some standard that she has in mind. Following that standard may or may not accomplish what she intends, but the standard is there.

    You sometimes hear women, even some who are not particularly Christian in outlook, talking disparagingly about how sluttily another woman dresses, how much cleavage she shows, how short her skirt is, etc. This seems to be evidence that there is some line that women can cross in how they choose to dress, that they themselves are aware of. Granted that it may vary from one culture to another, nevertheless most cultures presumably have some such line or standard. And presumably the standard has something to do with how women are likely to be perceived by men.

    My question is -- setting aside whether it has anything to do with modesty in themselves -- do Christian women have any obligation to not cross that line? To not dress in ways that society in general acknowledges are designed to, or at least tend to, or are understood to, appeal to the baser side of men’s natures?

    For clarity's sake, let's say that by "dressing" I'm referring to how women dress for routine activities in public: Work, school, shopping, etc., not how they dress at home or while doing activities that call for particular modes of dress for functional reasons.

  4. Mark Johnson1:18 PM

    I agree, it's a brilliant analysis and has clarified the issue for me like nothing else ever has.

  5. branemrys2:15 PM

    Obligation? No, except where it is a matter of conforming to customary law, which has an obligatory force deriving from common good (but Christian women who are even remotely likely to be considering the question are also unlikely to be in any danger whatsoever of deliberately violating major taboos of the society in which they are found). This is different, of course, from the question of whether it is morally safe or morally advisable, which it will often not be; but, as I noted in the post, that question is not one about obligation, will depend on the circumstances, and is the sort that needs to be handled by prudence assessing the means and ends of practical activity in particular contexts rather than general rules dealing entirely with external dress rather than internal disposition. And I think if we are setting aside actual modesty, this just gets more obvious: there are no external circumstances involving clothes that are in themselves wrong, since in every imaginable case there is some possible circumstance in which it would be perfectly fine, morally speaking. The major restriction on clothing is only that of modesty itself, which is that clothes have to be appropriate to living a virtuous life in other ways. Where could the obligation possibly derive from?
    It is possible and morally right to avoid deliberately occasioning sin, setting oneself up to be an occasion of sin; but this is radically different from avoiding being made by others an occasion of sin, which is generally impossible, since anyone can be made an occasion of sin by other people regardless of what one does. Christ was made an occasion of some pretty serious sins; it was not particularly morally important for him to avoid this. The apostles ditto; many of the saints the same. The reason is that if the things you are doing are themselves virtuous, it simply doesn't matter that other people take it as a reason to be vicious. And anything else ends up, I think, with vice being allowed to bully and browbeat virtue, which is unacceptable.

  6. branemrys3:54 PM

    Part of the problem might be just an assumption (which is common) that if there is a moral reason for not doing something, it must be an obligation. There are circumstances where that would be a safe assumption, but I would reject it as a universal rule, because it would eliminate the role of the virtue of prudence. And because clothes are essentially just an external means or instrument for doing things, saying we have any obligations that directly concern them is like saying that we have obligations directly concerning what vehicles we can and can't drive or what knives we can and can't use. It's trying to put obligations in a place where they are neither suitable nor needed. Our general obligations to do other things can be relevant to cars or knives or clothes, in particular cases; but a lot of times even that will be very indirect, and there will always be cases where they aren't relevant. But most of moral reasoning about cars or vehicles or knives in most cases will be simply a matter of 'best fit', not sharp lines -- our best assessment of the degree of appropriateness of these vehicles or knives or clothes for whatever morally permissible or genuinely good things we are trying to do. That is, it's not directly a matter of right or wrong in the strict sense but of something like a moral weighing, a sliding scale of how much it is a moral 'good idea' when everything is taken into account. There are going to be types of attire that would only be morally reasonable under very particular kinds of conditions, and types of attire that are going to be morally reasonable almost always, and almost everything in between, just as there will be with anything that can be possessed and used externally.

  7. Mark Johnson6:11 PM

    You write, "And because clothes are essentially just an external means or instrument for doing things, saying we have any obligations that directly concern them is like saying that we have obligations directly concerning what vehicles we can and can't drive or what knives we can and can't use. It's trying to put obligations in a place where they are neither suitable nor needed."

    Ahhhhh-ha. I see. : )

    You write, "There are going to be types of attire that would only be morally reasonable under very particular kinds of conditions, ...."

    On what grounds would they be, and not be, morally reasonable?

  8. branemrys10:11 PM

    On what grounds would they be, and not be, morally reasonable?

    It would depend on the actual circumstances; that's precisely my point.

    Think of cars again. I could easily say, "Some places one might drive would only be reasonable under very particular kinds of conditions, some places are going to be easonable to drive almost always, and almost everything in between." And that's true. But the grounds by which one would make such assessments are not singular -- there is no single set of grounds to pick out -- because we have to consider everything relevant to what we are doing. That will include whatever practical task we are doing, common custom, common courtesy, unusual conditions, etc., etc. 'Morally reasonable' is not fundamentally different than 'reasonable': and being reasonable can't be set to an external rule, but has to be an adaptation to all the relevant circumstances and conditions together. And reasonableness is, again a matter of degree: A can be more reasonable than B, and yet B still be entirely reasonable. Indeed, A might be more reasonable than B in general and yet B might be more reasonable than A under particular conditions. On what grounds would a buying a certain amount of food be reasonable or not? Some amounts of food will tend to be only rarely reasonable to buy merely because it's going to be rare for people to be doing anything that required that much. Other amounts of food will tend to be reasonable for all sorts of occasions and situations. On what grounds do we determine this? On whatever grounds we can think of as relevant; and if we come across anything relevant that we hadn't thought of before, we just factor those in as well. And even with the same grounds there are degrees of reasonableness: A might think such-and-such amount of food unreasonable under the circumstances, and reasonably refuse to buy it; B might think that same amount of food reasonable under the same circumstances, and even more reasonably buy it; it's perfectly consistent to say that A's decision was reasonable but B's decision was more reasonable (this sort of thing happens all the time).

  9. Mark Johnson11:19 AM

    I guess my real question was whether you could give an example of "types of attire that would only be morally reasonable under very particular kinds of conditions".

    To play devil's advocate: A lot of people would say that, for example, uncovered leggings or leotards or spandex pants (whatever they're called) would only be "morally reasonable under very particular kinds of conditions"; which implies that most of the time they're not morally reasonable. And since it seems clear from what you've said, that whether something is morally reasonable is a matter of opinion -- each person assessing the options under the circumstances -- what would be wrong with people holding, and expressing, the aforesaid opinion about uncovered leggings?

  10. branemrys12:10 PM

    (1)No, I've already told you this; I'm defending objectivity in these matters against people who are trying to tie them to judgment that has no connection with objectivity. Whether something is morally reasonable is obviously not "a matter of opinion"; it is a matter of appropriateness to circumstances as rationally determined by the practical judgment of a prudent person, which is the way objective matters are determined by human beings, and is not determined by subjective judgments based on things like peoples' subjective tastes or distastes, or lustful (and thus subjectively distorted) perception, or any such thing. This is why I called it "morally reasonable". Who in their right mind thinks that 'reasonable' means 'whatever your opinion is' just because 'reasonable' involves people making judgments appropriate to circumstances? Or think of the analogy -- there's a reason why I keep pointing to them. Who thinks it's just a matter of opinion whether it's reasonable to drive on the sidewalk under ordinary conditions, or whether there might be conditions where driving on the sidewalk is the reasonable thing to do?

    (2) The types of attire that would only be morally reasonable under very particular kinds of conditions will not be matters of taste, but the sort of extreme wear violating customary law -- that is, clothes that practically no one in the society would deliberately wear, or wear under certain conditions, unless they were deliberately attempting to shock, insult, or act maliciously toward people. I already mentioned this before, as well.

  11. branemrys3:55 PM

    There will be a range of practical judgments, yes, but this is (1) because there are a lot of circumstances that can be relevant, and different people will have different backgrounds and situations, and thus be taking into account different circumstances; and (2) more fundamentally, for the reason noted above: reasonable/unreasonable are not two sharply determined categories but a spectrum, involving degrees of fit. One can indeed have more 'conservative' and 'liberal' assessments of how morally risky or morally safe different things are. What one cannot reasonably do is treat people as being in the wrong for going with morally riskier or morally less safe conclusions, as noted in [5] in the post. It would always be unreasonable, as well, to make one's judgments in such a way that one takes the perceptions of a vice to trump those of prudence.

    it seems obvious to me...all else being equal, people *should* wear clothing that is as non-revealing as possible

    So you think it's obvious that everyone should always wear burqas? I don't think you really mean this at all. At the very least, 'revealing' is a useless term here, not a basis for judgment but a label we put on things after we've already made the judgment. Likewise, I very much doubt that you think women should wear burqas because of how Arab men might view them or the feelings incited in men's minds by being able to see women's sexy faces. Again, this just makes it all subjective, and not something governed by any objective moral standard at all.

    On customary law, sure, one can have differing opinions on what should be customary law. This really is just a matter of opinion, though; customary law grows organically out of the views of everyone working together as a society. It's not something anyone can just dictate. Indeed, it's not something people can just agree on, either; it's something that they have to arrange their lives to conform to.

    If there is no objective standard for what is morally licit in clothing, it seems like the customary law can only be arbitrary and therefore there is no valid basis for wanting boundaries to be either conserved or extended.

    Since there are objective standards for what is morally licit in clothing, namely, those of good sense or reasonableness or prudence, and, indeed, this is the only possible objective standard for it other than customary law, this isn't a problem. And, as I noted before, customary law doesn't get you very far: on this sort of issue it only deals with situations that people overwhelmingly regard as too extreme. (And customary law is itself subject to limitations that have nothing whatsoever to do with items of clothing that prevent it from doing much more while still remaining just enough to have obligatory force.)

  12. Brendan Hodge8:29 PM

    It strikes me that an issue that gets mixed up in all this is that in our culture there are very rapidly changing standards of fashion and social acceptability such that things which would not that long ago have been worn almost only if one had the intention of inciting lust are today completely socially acceptable.

    Cultural conservatives both remain attached to the older set of standards (and thus tend to impute to people an intention to incite lush where not exists) and are often consciously trying to shift standards in what they see as a less sexual direction. As a result, there's a strong desire among cultural conservatives to set standards that seem objective in regards to dress and insist that others follow those standards.

  13. branemrys8:42 PM

    That does seem right. The danger, of course, is that rushing to set standards can result in oversimplified standards, or oversimplified application of them.

  14. Mark Johnson1:14 AM


    "[T]hings which would not that long ago have been worn almost only if one had the intention of inciting lust are today completely socially acceptable."

    Yes, that's sort of what I had in mind when I asked whether there was room for disagreement as to what the "customary law" ought to be. The customary law today is looser than it used to be -- is it impossible to say whether that's a good thing or a bad thing? All other things being equal, don't you pretty much have to think that looser standards are a good thing, since they allow people more freedom of choice? Yet some of us are uncomfortable with the new standards -- are we simply being irrational? Is there no legitimate, objective basis for our discomfort? Is it mere nostalgia?

  15. branemrys8:32 AM

    All other things being equal, don't you pretty much have to think that looser standards are a good thing, since they allow people more freedom of choice?

    All other things being equal, yes; it's the old moral principle that liberty is in possession -- trying to impose arbitrary obligations on people is usually unjust. As for the rest, I've already discussed this more than once. There's a world of moral and rational difference between holding that X should be the standard as a matter of one's own taste and treating X as if it were the moral standard to be applied. There's nothing wrong with being uncomfortable with the way things are, or holding that something else would be better, or advising, when you have the right to advise, something different; it's merely that your discomfort is not an adequate basis for moral criticism of others. I have no idea whatsoever whether there is a legitimate, objective basis for your discomfort; how could I? That will vary from person to person and I simply don't know you enough to say anything about that. But having a legitimate, objective basis for an opinion or judgment of taste doesn't make it any sort of obligation for others.

    None of this is actually very difficult; it looks very much like you are simply making it so in order to give yourself permission to engage in moral criticism of others on this topic. At least, moral criticism of others is the only thing that's actually on the table here. If you're just wanting to know whether your opinions about fashion are reasonable, that's not really the topic in view here, and not really something I can help you with.

  16. Brendan Hodge12:02 PM

    Or in insisting that arbitrary or cultural standards ("necklines for women should go no lower than three fingers below the clavicles!") are objective standards of modesty.

    Cultural standards do shift for the better over time, too; note that we're no longer fighting over the appropriateness of men's codpieces.

    When I lived in the dorms at a Catholic college, there was a sign posted on the full-length mirror in the hall: "What would Mary wear?" I always thought that was a ridiculous question; the gospels didn't seem to think it important enough to give us details of her dress, and it beggared belief that the RAs expected us to wear first-century Palestinian garb.

  17. branemrys12:19 PM

    The WWMD question is interesting, because it carries on the face of it a lot of the ambiguity of the discussion. It could mean that one should take Mary as a model for virtue; but of course, it's more obviously taken to be about the clothes, rather than the character. To make good sense of it you'd have to understand it in a sense in which it would make just as much sense to say it to a man as to a woman; but, in context it's clearly not being used that way. It's like the whole problem in miniature.

  18. MrsDarwin12:41 PM

    I wish I could remember where I read that questions such as "What would Jesus do?" function mainly to pigeonhole Jesus (or Mary, if the question relates to her) into a narrow historical box. The question one should be asking is, "What would Jesus have ME do in this situation?" -- a question that requires application of prudence and all other virtues. Prudence, however, seems a virtue that makes people nervous, perhaps because it admits of a range of possible solutions, increasing the likelihood that it will lead others to make choices different from one's own preferences.

  19. Brendan Hodge12:44 PM

    (This time it really is Brendan.)

    "Is there no legitimate, objective basis for our discomfort? Is it mere nostalgia?"

    I would tend to say that there is a legitimate basis for the discomfort and it's not mere nostalgia, but that the basis is not objective, it's subjective to the particular history and issues in our culture.

    I certainly have no problem with enforcing cultural standards, and rejecting for my daughters clothing which would not put them outside the spectrum of things which are worn fairly commonly in our culture. However, I reject these fashions because I don't like the cultural connotations which go with them. I don't think that it's objectively wrong to wear such clothes, in that I think many people might wear them in many circumstances blamelessly. Nonetheless, I ban them, and I don't think I'm unreasonable to.

  20. branemrys12:55 PM

    I think you're right about prudence; I think one of the problems the modern world has is a difficulty with giving space for prudence. This is a bit weird, I think, given that autonomy is given many of its functions; but perhaps that's the difficulty -- there's a feeling that if it's a matter of prudence, it's just doing whatever you feel. Refer something to prudence and suddenly it's as if we're laxist; whereas in reality prudence in such cases brings in some very high standards -- it's just that the standards are more subtle and less obvious than many of the rules people prefer.

    One sees this everywhere; a lot of Catholics will classify things as 'prudential', by which they really mean 'as you see fit', which gets the whole thing wrong. And I couldn't count the number of atheists I've argued with who think that if you insist that moral judgments often need to be tailored to circumstances that you've just conceded moral relativism.

  21. Mark Johnson11:09 AM


    If my motive is that I want to be able to criticize people, I'm not conscious of it. To my own mind my motive is the clearing up of confusion in my own mind.

    I am actually placing a sort of "faith" in what you're telling me, analogous, I guess, to someone who accepts the teachings of the Church on faith, but still wants to analyze and understand them, in order to better assimilate them intellectually. I feel intuitively that you're right, but it's not enough, obviously, to just concede that you're right. I also want to work out my mental stumbling blocks.

    It seems to me that associating less-revealing clothing with virtue and the preservation of chastity in thought and deed, is pretty well ingrained in our culture, or at least American Christian culture. In any event it's ingrained in my mind and seems to need some rooting out, which I'm not finding easy. I'm not even sure what I'm basing it on, it has just always seemed obvious.

    I think I will print out your post and all the comments and spend some time reading them straight through in order, and do some more pondering. Hopefully that will help to clear up my thinking, and if not then you'll hear from me again, if that's OK.

  22. branemrys12:32 PM

    But the post is about standards with respect to which people generally can be held and criticized; that's why, for instance, it's a completely separate issue from whether we have good reasons to work for this or that standard, and why it's a completely separate issue from whether one has good reason to hold oneself to stricter standards. If you're not approaching it from the angle that the post is, it's not going to help you clear up any confusion at all -- it will just end up muddling things further.

  23. Mark Johnson1:33 PM

    "If you're not approaching it from the angle that the post is, it's not going to help you clear up any confusion at all -- it will just end up muddling things further."

    Gosh, I thought I was fairly smart but you're really making me feel dumb. : ) I didn't realize I had strayed from the topic. I think I sometimes focus on the last comment and lose track of the big picture, so I thought that re-reading the whole thing might help me to see where I have been missing your point.

    I get that the post is about "standards with respect to which people generally can be held and criticized". But isn't "whether we have good reasons to work for this or that standard" relevant to that topic?

    Among the standards you list is not included anything about how short skirts should be, what proportion of the body should be covered, etc. My problem is that I have always taken for granted that there is some objective standard in that regard. This discussion has helped me to focus on the fact that what external standards exist are those that are agreed upon by the culture or society in which you are reared (which I suppose I knew on some level), but that there is no standard outside the society by which to judge the society's standard. But somehow that seems wrong to me, because I find it hard to believe that it could ever be appropriate for Catholics to go around, say, naked, if that was a standard which our society ever happened to agree upon (which I don't put past it).

    I thought this was relevant to the question of whether there are standards concerning dress with respect to which people can be held. Because if there were standards outside the agreed upon societal standards (by which to judge those standards), then maybe Catholics should adhere to those rather than the ones that society thinks are OK.

    As I write this I hear you saying that there simply can't be a "global" standard with regard to lengths, proportions, etc., because you have to judge each situation as it presents itself: what you're doing, who you're with, etc., all have to be taken into account and not just measurements.

    That's fine and I agree. But how exactly do you take these things into account? Don't you have to have standards by which to judge what is appropriate to this situation, these people, etc.? What if you're a man who will be the only man among a group women. I assume you might adjust how you dress accordingly. Maybe with all men you would go shirtless, but with women you wouldn't. But why should that matter if there is no obligation to judge how you dress based on how other people might react to it?

    Maybe you would say, you should take their reactions into account, the point is that they have no right to impose a standard on you that is based on their own subjective reactions; and you have the right to place other considerations above their subjective reactions if you judge them more important in the circumstances.

    Am I starting to get it?

  24. branemrys3:43 PM

    The way Disqus organizes comments probably doesn't help much.

    I get that the post is about "standards with respect to which people generally can be held and criticized". But isn't "whether we have good reasons to work for this or that standard" relevant to that topic?

    I don't think so; just as the legislative deliberation about what should be the law is generally a different matter from what the law is.

    But how exactly do you take these things into account? Don't you have to have standards by which to judge what is appropriate to this situation,these people, etc.?

    I think 'standards' is potentially ambiguous here. There has to be something that whatever-is-appropriate is appropriate to. But this is the final cause, or end, or purpose. 'Standards' could also suggest that there's some formal cause, a general rule in this case. There are ends -- they are what the prudent person judges about -- although they often differ from case to case; but any rules we could formulate would simply be practical simplifications (rules of thumb), not genuine standards.

    We see this all over the place. Lady Godiva in the story was not acting inappropriately when she went riding nude through town; whereas no doubt if someone did the same in our society it would probably only be an attempt to act inappropriately. The difference is that Lady Godiva's end was justice,and in the circumstances ; she was fulfilling, albeit in a way that doesn't usually come up, a responsibility she as a noblewoman had to the people, to protect them from oppression. And, indeed, this is the whole point of the Lady Godiva story, and it's why late legends about it also made Peeping Tom a derogatory label, because he failed to treat her action with the proper respect. That's an extreme case, but we see here the right structure: it was the reasonable end in view, not the amount of clothes she wore, that made Lady Godiva able to ride nude through town without immodesty, or anything that can reasonably be criticized.


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