Why are so many bloggers talking about modesty recently? Prepare to know.
As a young man writing about human nature David Hume analyzed several common virtues. When he got to modesty and chastity he ran into a problem. On the one hand, society needs healthy families, but on the other, men have a lot of reasons to avoid being good husbands and fathers. What happens when a man finds out the child he thinks is his isn’t? That’s a problem. Hume saw that men won’t be good fathers if they don’t feel reasonably confident that their mouths-to-feed have a biological connection to them (leaving adoption aside). Men need a guarantee. So how do we rest their fears? Hume’s solution is modesty.
Well, chastity really solves the issue. If women stay virtuous, there won’t be any problems (since women always know who they gave birth to, unchaste men won’t cause them confusion). But Hume was a practical man. People have sex in private. He knew that society can’t constrain lascivious acts done behind closed doors. Hume advised that society should shame women into modesty so that they’ll be more chaste. As modesty increases men will feel more assured that their wives stay faithful. The men will then believe they sired the children the women produce, and the great wheel of social order will continue. No joke.
Let’s not crucify Hume for such an uneven approach to modesty. While blunt, Hume hardly broke new ground. In fact, some readers might applaud Hume’s insight. They shouldn’t. Using modesty to curtail chastity issues creates other serious problems, which I will come back to later. We can do better with both virtues by unhinging them and reimaging them. In this series I’ll present how.
This discussion couldn’t be timelier. Mormon modesty rhetoric has exploded in the last decade. In the 1990s only three General Conference speakers discussed modesty. In the 2000s that number shot up to twenty-one. The next highest decade after the 2000s was the 60s, with only eight speakers discussing modesty. BYU devotionals show the same trend. Nearly as many speakers discussed modesty in the last decade as the three previous decades combined (ten and eleven respectively). There are also more articles in the church magazines now more than ever before, especially The Friend. Almost every speaker focused on female modesty, and most of them linked it to sexual purity as Hume did.
Church leaders have connected female modesty to they way they dress for decades. Brigham Young may have been the first to link the two. Here is a selection of his that modern leaders sometimes quote: (more…)