The Other I

December 18, 2014

The Peacock Question


I was reading a blog post recently exploring the question of whether people who discourse extensively on questions of morality are necessarily more moral when it comes to practice rather than merely preaching or teaching.  This would be a difficult question to explore in terms of solid scientific research:  are men and women the same?  are there cultural or religious differences?  does age have an influence?  what, specifically, would one measure, especially in terms of practice?

Nonetheless, the post did remind me of something which I know from personal experience:  the clothes I am wearing can effect not only what other people think of me, but possibly more significantly, what I think about myself.
I was a nun for nine years, most of which time I wore a full habit from head to toe.  I would have said that it represented my commitment to a life of love and service.  When I left the convent, however, and was negotiating New York City dressed like everybody else, I noticed two things.  People weren’t always as considerate as I had thought they were when I walked the same streets wearing a habit.  That might not be too surprising.

But what I also discovered was that I wasn’t nearly as morally superior as I had thought I was when I was wearing a habit.  I began to see that apparently quite ordinary people were often un-ostentatiously living lives of huge generosity and love and sacrifice.  I hadn’t seen that so clearly when I had thought that I was the one who had chosen to live a life of superior virtue.  I suspect religious garments can be a particularly powerful influence on this kind of self-perception.  Or self-deception.

The appearances we choose for ourselves have deep evolutionary roots.  The appearance of animals and even plants has profound survival purpose.  It might say “look at me, I’m sexually very attractive.”  “Or look at me, I’m very strong,” or “very dangerous,” or “very cute and cuddly.”  For us humans, the clothes and ornaments with which we adorn ourselves can send these and many other messages about social status and how one expects, or wishes, to be treated.

As I say, I don’t know in every case how far it is that “the clothes maketh the man.”  I know even less whether preaching might fool the preacher him/herself.

But now that I’ve written this post on morality, perhaps I’ve earned a pre-dinner gin & tonic?  I’ll dress for it, of course.


  1. As always interesting, thought provoking. Thanks.


    Comment by tskraghu — December 19, 2014 @ 1:44 am | Reply

    • Thank *you*

      On Fri, Dec 19, 2014 at 1:44 AM, The Other I wrote: > >


      Comment by Terry Sissons — December 19, 2014 @ 12:36 pm | Reply

      • I have written 72 posts on this blog under the category Life as a Nun. If you have any suggestions about topics or experiences worth elaborating, I would seriously entertain them.


        Comment by theotheri — December 23, 2014 @ 5:33 pm | Reply

  2. Very interesting. I don’t doubt you could write a great deal about those days, and it would make fascinating reading.

    I wrote something about clothing myself (badly title “Homo Habilis”) for Eclectica:

    I’d love to hear it you agree.


    Comment by Thomas J. Hubschman — December 23, 2014 @ 4:33 pm | Reply

    • I have just read Homo Habilis. It was well-worth the read. I already agreed with your main proposition – that we are animals. This is not the put-down it is so often meant to deliver. It makes us part of this world of creation and helps heal the alienation that our separatism so often supports.

      Besides enjoying it, I learned something I didn’t know we share 50% of our genomes with bananas! I’ll approach my breakfast with greater respect in the future.

      On Tue, Dec 23, 2014 at 4:33 PM, The Other I wrote:



      Comment by Terry Sissons — December 23, 2014 @ 5:28 pm | Reply

  3. I have been wanting to post a detailed response here for a long time. The corruption and abuse scandals that have been rocking the religious world are rather saddening. As an outsider with next to no knowledge about monastic life, I would have imagined that religious garments, being antithetical to individuality and excessiveness, would instill humility in the people adorning them. Does this effect actually exist? Has it been overridden by the moral superiority effect in some monastics? These are questions I would really like to see some research on. In any case, researchers have conducted studies suggesting that what people wear do affect how they feel about themselves: What remains to be ascertained is whether and why people react differently to the same garments in some circumstances.

    Indeed, you were probably right to emphasize in your response to my blog post that not all monastics gain a sense of moral superiority through their garments. In fact, I would go further to argue that we should be careful not to automatically label people who advance moral viewpoints as hypocrites. Unfortunately, some executives in the corporate sector do precisely that, to the extent of declaring that those who raise moral issues at the start of talks make the most dangerous business partners. Yet the thing is, in at least some corners of the business world, morality has been pushed too blatantly to the back of the mind. We cannot let some black sheep (i.e. double-faced preachers) destroy the will to improve corporate governance.

    Lastly, some degree of moral self-esteem may actually be good. My impression is that too poor and too strong an opinion of self can both lead to an indulgence in antisocial behavior. So the kind of small gains in moral superiority you described in your comment ( may have been just sufficient enough to encourage prosocial actions instead of “licensing” immoral acts. Again, though, the quantitative differences in gains among individuals (as far as self-esteem can be measured through some proxies) are worth some research.

    But of course, my intuitions in these areas cannot possibly match yours with your extensive professional experience in psychology! I hope to learn more from your posts after Christmas and in the new year ahead. Good night!


    Comment by The A-Philosopher's Chair — December 25, 2014 @ 6:26 pm | Reply

    • Thank you for your thoughtful comments on this question. Like you, I think research into the question of factors that affect our moral behavior would be extremely valuable, and Pine’s work is an example of how clothes can affect us both positively and negatively. Most of us, I suspect, have our preconceptions and biases, and so are doubly shocked when we discover that in many cases clothes seem to increase hypocrisy or self-deception. But sometimes clothes have an important positive effect. Knowing a little bit more about when and how is what research could help us with.

      I’m looking forward to reading more of your thoughts both here on and on your own blog in the new year. I have every expectation that I will learn something of value.

      Liked by 1 person

      Comment by theotheri — December 25, 2014 @ 9:03 pm | Reply

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at

%d bloggers like this: