Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Moral Prudence vs. Moral Law in the Modesty Debate

Brandon had a great post over at Siris the other day dealing with modesty. He rightly points out that the way in which we talk about "modest dress" in our current day and age is actually only a small subset of the issue which was traditionally discussed. Modesty was primarily discussed not in terms of being overly revealing but rather in terms of vaingloriousness. Another too-seldom-discussed point which came up for discussion, however, was the difference between moral law and moral prudence.

In our modern culture there is a great tendency to behave as if all moral questions are relative. "Well, that's not right for me, but of course for some other person in some other culture..." Christians rightly react against this and point out that certain actions are wrong in and of themselves, although someone's knowledge or culture may make them less culpable for violating such moral laws.

However, having found the moral hammer, as it were, there's a certain temptation to see every moral situation as a nail. And yet, not everything that you might advise someone not to do for moral reasons is inherently immoral. Indeed, many aren't. Many are instead morally imprudent.

I think part of what causes the confusion is that we fall into the habit of thinking of things which we tell people not to do (or which we choose not to do) as simply being bad. For instance, when I take my daughters shopping, I shoot down outfits which I consider to look sexually suggestive, whether it's by the cut and fit or by featuring phrases I consider inappropriate. (Aside from obvious things like the large "JUICY" across the bottom, the two I recall striking me as most appalling were "Sweet Tart" and "Melts In The Mouth" on snug little tween shirts.)

However, the reason I don't let them buy those clothes (whose defects at 10 and 11 they are oblivious to) is not that it would be sinful to wear those clothes, but rather because it would be imprudent. You do not have a moral obligation not to wear such clothes, and someone might very well wear them quite blamelessly, so it's important that you do not assume that someone who is not following your prudential standards is doing wrong or lacking in morals. However, that doesn't mean that it's the best choice.

Unfortunately, this idea of prudence seems to be very difficult for many people. In our liberty-based culture, people seem to want to think that either no one should do something, or else there is no reason why you shouldn't do it.


BenK said...

We live in a legalistic culture; which started because (in my opinion) people attempted to outlaw anything that was (in their opinion) wrong. The equation between illegal and wrong is impossible. The law is such a brute instrument of negativity and punitive force that such a system is bound to fail miserably.

Lisa said...

So a woman who dresses in such a way as to purposely entice a man to impure thoughts is not, in your opinion, liable for sinning in any way? Granted, not mortally... But, with the intent of "attracting" this kind of attention, a woman is without fault? Or are you just saying that children with poor parents who allow them to wear suggestive clothing are blameless? I do believe that we're held accountable for how we lead others to sin through temptation -- to a greater or lesser extent, of course, depending on our purposeful it is. But, nevertheless... I think there's more than mere prudence to be considered here.

Brandon said...

Someone who deliberately sets out to try to get another person to sin is, in fact, committing a mortal sin: it is an act that is simply inconsistent with love of God and neighbor, which is the very definition of mortal sin. But that precisely shows the problem with your argument: the sin in this act has nothing to do with the clothes. The same sin could be committed by dressing conservatively. It could be committed purely verbally, or by images, or by any other way in which human beings can signal anything at all to each other. It has nothing to do with the clothes.

When we're dealing with clothes, we aren't dealing with anything that carries the sin around it; we're dealing with a means to various ends. And thus the only real question with clothes is: Do they make sense as a means to good ends? A parent who did not consider whether the children's clothes were sensible means to good ends (like the safety of the child or not encouraging dangerous misinterpretations) would be erring, but not because of the clothes, but because of the lack of prudent guidance. So there doesn't seem to be anything else but prudence here. But both these cases -- women setting out to get men to sin, and parents not giving any guidance at all -- are in most cases not really going to be at issue.

I think it's dangerous, as well, to talk about 'mere prudence'. There is no such thing as 'mere prudence'. Prudence is the single most important moral virtue, without which there is no virtue at all, and with which all moral virtues become possible; and other virtues only arise through its exercise. The reason prudence is at issue is that its primary province is cases where there aren't hard and fast rules that are easy to apply, but people have to make judgments based on experience, advice, and sense of the situation. And that's precisely the sort of thing one gets with clothes.