Risking Evil, Doing Good

January 7, 2004 | 32 comments
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The title for this post is a little cryptic, I admit. But let me explain.

The Cheiko Okasaki thread is a really wonderful one, if you haven’t been following it. It has turned into a wonderful series of thoughts and arguments about the proper (that is, safely within LDS moral guidelines) boundaries for male-female associations, whether at work or in the church. I have some ideas about what, in practice, adhering to those boundaries ought and ought not involve, but (as usual), my thoughts have been sidetracked by a more theological concern. In one of his comments, Matt shared the following, very revealing anecdote–though what it reveals is not, I think, immediately clear:

“One of my exceptionally intelligent bishops once told our priesthood quorum that one of the apostles…refused a ride from his secretary when she found him standing in a downpour next to his broken-down car. He counseled us to never be alone with a woman. I spoke with the bishop about it later, thinking the story was too much, especially if it was the woman who was stranded in the downpour. ‘An apostle would wave as he drove by, rather than give his stranded secretary a ride?’ My bishop didn’t budge. ‘Once you’ve counseled as many people as the apostles have,’ he said, ‘you advocate steep boundaries, and follow them yourself to help those who need them most.'”

Let us assume the story is true, and not just folklore. (Not that it really matters: it is the unstated principle which is at issue here.) An apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ would, and should, bypass an opportunity to give a trusted friend and employee a much needed ride home, leaving her to sit in the rain until some other (female-driven, no doubt) vehicle could be arranged to pick her up. Why on earth would one who is responsible for conveying and representing the Master’s gospel ignore this call to service? Because of the risk: the risk of temptation, the risk of misunderstanding, the risk of evil. Giving her a ride could lead her to desire the apostle, or at least (perhaps) unfavorable compare her husband to him; it could lead to the kind of familiarity that would make the secretary seem a more appealing conversational companion than the apostle’s own wife, thus engendering disagreements; it could lead a bystander to suppose that if apostle’s can be so friendly with their employees that he should be too, but being a weaker sort of man his now-lowered standards will bring him to sin. In other words, there is so much that could go wrong: heightened tension, unfair (even if unspoken) comparisons, false presumptions, all of which could lead to maritial conflict, loss of feeling, even infidelity. Better not risk it. We’ve all heard this counsel before. Fly high above the treetops; don’t skim them. Drive close to the cliff wall, not out toward the edge. Have a strong grip on the Iron Rod before you reach out a helping hand. And so forth.

Allow me to pose a quasi-Lutheran* rejoinder: Maybe you should do it anyway. If this is a fallen world, then there is no reason to assume that evil will not always accompany good. The apostle who bypasses the secretary plants in the secretary’s mind doubts about the apostle’s senstivitiy, which leads to doubts about the certainty of his calling, which leads to doubts about the church. The husband of the secretary has had a bad day, and learning that he has to go out to pick up his wife in the wet, cold rain (after she has trudged to the phone booth and called him, since the apostle had forgotten to recharge his cell phone and figured he just contact someone from his house, but then got tied up in traffic, meaning the secretary waited there for quite a while before giving up on her employer) makes him angry, and he speak harshly to his kids on the way out the door, planting seeds of resentment. The bystander who observes the apostle’s action replicates that same standard in his personal life, therefore refusing to offer immediate assistance to someone who really needed a ride to get to the hospital where her mother was dying; having missed the moment of her passing, she feels regret and bitterness for the rest of her life. And so on.

Yes, all of the risks of taking action I mentioned above are real; but aren’t those which result from inaction just as likely? If the possibility–nay, the probability–of evil abounds, exactly what is the point of invoking standards to elimiate any contact with it from our lives? Is there not a certain sort of arrogance, an moral isolationism, involved in the determination to live rigorously and uncompromisingly according to certain standards? As if wickedness was only out there, but not in here! As I see it, I am in no position to ascertain whether the good (or evil) which will certainly follow from my every act necessarily, in the eyes of God, is always worse (or better) than the evil which I tried to (or did not try to) avoid through inaction. To insist upon purity in one’s actions is only to guarantee a minimum of action, if not the complete absence of such. Refusing to associate with prostitutes is a very, very good way of making certain that you will never be sexually involved with a prostitute; it is also a guarantee that you will never, ever, lead a prostitute to the gospel. Is that worth it? Is that actually what God asks of us? I kind of doubt it.

Does this mean I’m going to let my girls grow up and date all the bad boys, because there is no way to be certain what the real, ultimate spiritual outcome will be? Not in the least. Like Gordon, I feel the pull of age; having children has made me far more aware of some things, and I will no doubt react to those things by drawing hard lines, and lecturing my girls about how the Holy Ghost goes home at midnight, etc., etc. I will do my damndest to isolate them from all the risks of evil in the world. But I do not know how I can do so without distancing them, and distancing myself, from the real possibility of doing good. Perhaps I will comfort myself by justifying my actions by way of playing odds with some hierarchy of sins: “Yes, it’s 100% certain that I didn’t give this woman a ride who may have really, really needed it, but there is also a 10% chance that I just prevented a case of adultery, and since one act of infidelity more than outweighs ten potential acts of Christian service, I’m squared away.” I suspect, however, that such formula won’t be acceptable at the judgment bar.

*The “Lutheran” reference is to one of his most famous, and I think most often misunderstood, statements: “Sin boldly!” Why would you want to do that? Because, as Luther saw it, you can’t not sin. And if you can’t not sin, that means complicated attempts to avoid all sin are ultimately identical to attempts to avoid the work of living with and serving one’s fellow beings. Not that sin isn’t bad; it’s terrible. But since it is our lot, to be paralyzed into inaction by it is foolish indeed. Do I agree with Luther’s theology on this point? Not really. But I think it’s a powerful rejoinder to all our standard-setting, nonetheless.

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32 Responses to Risking Evil, Doing Good

  1. Nate Oman on January 7, 2004 at 3:20 pm

    Russell: As your phrase the question, doesn’t it turn on emperical questions. Indeed, what you articulate sounds a lot like the famous formula for negligences from Carrol Trucking. If b

  2. Kaimi on January 7, 2004 at 3:31 pm

    Nate:

    I don’t think Russell is arguing that action is per se better than inaction. I think what he is doing is suggesting that the answer is an empirical question which cannot be answer simply by pointing to some of the harms of action.

  3. Jim F. on January 7, 2004 at 3:57 pm

    Not particularly to disagree with anything said so far and at the risk of repeating what are sometimes empty phrases, at least as we often use them, isn’t the question a spiritual question: there is no rule for when I should act or not act; rather I ought to do what the Spirit enjoins me to do and avoid doing what the Spirit enjoins me not to do. The rejoinder that it is difficult to know what the Spirit enjoins is merely a recognition that following the Spirit isn’t a rule-based procedure. Rules can give us reasonable guidelines to consider as we decide, but they can’t really tell us what we ought to do.

    The problem with the advice to avoid all possibility of sin is, as Russell points out, impossible to follow since every moment can be an occasion of sin. But isn’t it also a problem because it tries to replace the good news with a rule, love/mercy with a law? If our lives are to imitate that of Christ, then we will live according to love and mercy rather than according to rules.

  4. Russell Arben Fox on January 7, 2004 at 4:09 pm

    “But isn’t it also a problem because it tries to replace the good news with a rule, love/mercy with a law?”

    Why Jim, you’re more Lutheran than me. (Or is that Augustinian? Or maybe just Pauline.)

  5. Jim F. on January 7, 2004 at 4:46 pm

    Russell, I think it is Pauline first and only Lutheran or Augustinian because they read Paul fairly well. I don’t know how Pauline you are, but I’m pretty Pauline (a phrase which can have a quite different meaning if “Pauline” is a name rather than an adjective).

  6. Jeremiah John on January 7, 2004 at 5:03 pm

    The Luther example is very appropriate here. I just finished a Luther paper which I’m presenting this Friday in New Orleans.

    Luther instructed us to “Sin boldly!” in large part based on his personal experience. More than anyone *I’ve* ever met, in his youth he actually tried to live life as far as possible in strict obedience and “away from the edge of the cliff”. Problem was, he discovered that this is impossible, and that hugging the side of the mountian, as it were, has its own set of temptations, in particular that to pride.

    Paul is also very interesting on this issue–he tells us to avoid the appearance of evil. Not for our own sakes, but for the weak in faith! He amazingly proclaimed that “nothing is unclean in and of itself”, but that ‘if food is a temptation to my brother, I will never eat meat.’

    Jesus himself is the last example (how frequently do we forget this one!). Nothing he ever did smacked of any kind of temptation-calculus or even rule system. He also had little problem with bucking the conventional wisdom on what kinds of relationships were dangerous or seemly. On this point Luther, Paul, and Jesus seems to agree, that all our boundaries, standards and rules may just as well be set up in flames if they stand in the way of devotion to God or love of neighbor.

  7. Russell Arben Fox on January 7, 2004 at 5:33 pm

    Jeremiah, please send me a copy of your paper. You’re going to the Southern Political Science Association conference, correct? I’m not going (just as well; Alison’s nocturnal habits have robbed Melissa and I of the capability of coherent thought), but Luther (and Protestantism generally) and political thought is a topic of real interest to me.

  8. Adam Greenwood on January 7, 2004 at 5:42 pm

    Jeremy,
    Do you think that Paul and Christ were perhaps more resistant to temptation than the general run of us?

    I’ve always treated Paul as talking to me and some unspecified group as my weaker brethren, but now that I think of it I’m not sure that I’m not the weaker brother in question. What then?

  9. Matt Evans on January 7, 2004 at 8:07 pm

    First off, let me note that I was never persuaded by my bishop’s counsel. But because of my tremendous respect for him and the life he’s lead and leads, every time I’ve been inclined to dispute it, I’m torn by my feeling that he’s a better Christian than I am, which leads me to doubt.

    Anyway, a very related topic concerns the rules for missionaries. While I was a missionary I was disturbed by the conflict between my duty to follow Christ and mission rules which towed the Pharisaic proscriptions Christ abhorred. It’s essentially an institutionalized form of the apostle/secretary dilemma. The justification I’ve heard for the missionary rules is always a form of the harm calculus.

    So, should missionaries work among the prostitutes, like Christ did?

  10. clark goble on January 7, 2004 at 8:26 pm

    I’ll start to sound like a broken record, but I think part of being Christlike is recognizing our weakness. If God won’t tempt us beyond what we are capable who are we to decide to tempt us beyond what we are capable. Yet I see in this an uncomfortable tension. The only way to expand our capabilities is to move beyond that. And that risks failure.

    Failing to job 5 miles or climb 5.11d is one thing. Failing in a serious moral situation is quite an other. That means we have to come to know ourselves. But the only way to know ourselves is to encounter temptation… It’s a vicious tension I can’t seem to escape.

    I think they way out is common sense. I think we all recognize this and there likely is a divide between our more “theoretical views” discussed here and our actions in practice. (Both for good and ill) The danger is discerning when we are deluding ourselves. I suspect we all had friends who thought they were stronger than they were and fell. I have a friend who was Elder’s Quorum President and now is a junkie. I had friends on my mission who were sent home for adultery.

    It’s hard to tell if we are judging ourselves too optimistically or too harshly. Perhaps that’s the point of the spirit…

  11. Matt J on January 7, 2004 at 10:00 pm

    New to the board — Nate’s brother-in-law.

    I guess I’d fall on the side that favors following the Spirit’s directions rather than a hard rule for every situation. Avoiding any one-on-one time with the opposite sex would certainly go a long ways towards not committing adultery (at least the act if not the thought). Others might think of the good relationships and discussions they would have missed if they followed this rule.

    A small example from my life. When I watch sports I tend to get worked up more than I would like. This leads to a short temper and the inability to focus on my family. I’ve decided to cut back on sports, or to watch games on mute while I’m doing other things. I’ve noticed a great improvement in my life because of this. However, I don’t feel everyone else should do the same, but I know some people who would probably benefit by doing so.

    Now, if I were inclined to share this ‘success story’ in sacrament meeting, some might find it useful and others would think I’m just a loose cannon who can’t control himself because for them sports are just fun entertainment, no big deal. If I were a general authority and shared this experience, people would start talking about whether we should watch sports just like we are now talking about going on lunches with coworkers.

    Perhaps part of us wants to condemn a ‘harmless’ behavior that we have a weakness with because we are envious of others who apparently don’t have that weakness. If I’m going out of my way to never be alone with a woman, I certainly don’t my neighbor to be able to! It’s necessary to be reminded of the will of God and what can help to obey Him, but particulars are often best left to the individual.

  12. Nate Oman on January 7, 2004 at 10:07 pm

    Matt! Fun to see you here. I think that you make a good point about the problem of over reading GA statements. I suspect that this is one of the reasons that in many ways they aren’t as interesting as they used to be…

  13. Nate Oman on January 7, 2004 at 10:10 pm

    Matt: when I was on my mission, my companion and I DID give a first discussion to a prostitute. I spent several months in a waterfront area and they (along with potential sailor customers) were rather thick on the ground. Just for the record, however, we did the discussion in a public place along with a male “friend” (potential customer?). She was very polite, but alas, not interested.

  14. Nate Oman on January 7, 2004 at 10:12 pm

    First Matt is to Matt Jacobsen. Second Matt is to Matt Evans.

  15. Kaimi on January 7, 2004 at 10:14 pm

    Matt/Nate:

    If you’ve read my comments to date, you know that I largely agree. However, I think it’s important to point out the potential negative consequences.

    We have suggested that standards are better than rules because they allow for proper customization and flexibility.

    At the same time, rules can be a valuable way to force people to disregard a short-term gain and focus on long-term gain.

    From the rules/standards literature that I’ve seen (not a lot, to be sure), rules proponents tend to focus on people’s inability to make good decisions when it counts.

    E.g., one benefit of rules is that when the gorgeous woman from work asks if you want to go to a work lunch, you can “just say no” without wondering whether you are really agreeing to lunch because you want to catch up on work, or whether you want to spend time with a very attractive woman.

  16. Jeremiah John on January 7, 2004 at 11:19 pm

    Adam: I agreed with Clark in the other post when he said that we shouldn’t be so sure about who is the weakest among us. It could be us. On the other hand I don’t think that Jesus and Paul based their explicit ethical teachings on their own level of resistance to temptation, which was probably extraordinary.

    My point with Paul was that his teaching seems to be that while the Old Adam, to put it in Lutheran terms, never goes away, that the New Life in Christ operates on different principles. If the main substance of our ethical lives is risk-avoidance, then I think we are missing something. I’d rather avoid a compromising situation because it could hurt another’s faith, might cause pain to a loved one, or because it is so shabby that as a Christian I don’t want to be involved, than because I imagine some unknown temptation lying in wait to steal my virtue away.

    Still, I basically agree with the kinds of precautions that you’ve described.

  17. Jim F. on January 8, 2004 at 1:04 am

    Matt J: Our stake patriarch was a college ball player (for BYU’s NIT championship team some time in the 50s). When he was our bishop, he played on the ward team and, more than once, was ejected from the game for his temper tantrums. When he attended BYU games or UVSC games, where one of his sons played, he would come unglued yelling at the refs. Then he was called as patriarch and couldn’t go from that kind of experience to the experience of listening to the Spirit so as to give a blessing. He gave up basketball altogether. But, as you point out, it doesn’t follow that we should all give up basketball. Of course, it wouldn’t be hard for me to do so. I am so uninvolved in basketball that I don’t know what it would mean to give it up.

  18. clark goble on January 8, 2004 at 2:53 pm

    Reading between the lines a bit, I think that Paul simply had a strong personality. Consider his fight with the Elders in Jerusalem, for example. I’m sure we’ve all met people like that. I’m not sure that translates into his being so great at avoiding all temptation. We have to be careful in assuming too much from his letters about the person.

    I’d also say that what some might call the “Pauline” approach of living in the spirit would also direct him to avoid those places where he was weak. I’d also point out many places where Paul seems to advocate certain practices for the “weak.” (His funny “it is better to marry than burn” is one example)

    Regarding the comments of GAs. A friend of mine had a great anecdote on this from Harold B. Lee. He had just given a fiery speech on not dating non-members. My friend went and talked to him after the conference about it. Apparently Lee had said something about it leading to marrying non-members and the dangers of marrying non-members. My friend asked if he meant that this was as bad as he said. Lee said not really, that there were plenty of good mixed marriages, but that those who most needed to hear what he said would be the same one quickest to justify themselves as the exception to the rule had he taught it that way.

    Take that third hand anecdote for what its worth. I think, however, that this explains a lot of comments by GAs. A lot of public speeches are written recognizing that the people who are strong in faith probably don’t need to hear it while the weak do. The phrase in D&C 89 always struck me. “…adapted to the capacity of the weak and the weakest of all saints, who are or can be called saints.” I think that if you consider how the Word of Wisdom works that makes sense. It is very easy to drink in moderation. But there is a significant group who can’t moderate themselves. I suspect the same is true of many elements of the word of wisdom. But we all bind ourselves to it even if we *could* drink in moderation.

    Perhaps the same is true of the other things we are speaking of.

  19. Taylor on January 8, 2004 at 4:39 pm

    Ah, Paul- I think he is extremely relevent to this question. In 1 Cor 8 he deals with a controversy between the “strong” and the “weak” on the issue of eating meat sacrificed to idols. He agrees with the strong that there really are no idols, so there is no deleterious effect to actually eating the meat, but tells them that they should abstain from it anyway because it offends the weak. This is an extremely interesting ethical argument.
    When I was working at EFY (no, seriously…) one of the speakers told us that he doesn’t drink root beer because it was the same color as cola. He didn’t want one of his seminary students to see him drinking it in a restaurant and lose their testimony.
    I think that the apostle/secretary story may have a similar argument behind it. There is nothing wrong with riding in the same car with a woman, but what if someone is offended?
    My advice is the same as Pauls: if eating lunch with a female business collegue isn’t a weakness, fine, but “don’t let your freedom become a stumbling block to the weak.”

  20. clark goble on January 8, 2004 at 4:53 pm

    First off I think not drinking Root Beer is a bit extreme. (Reminds me of a roommate I had who wouldn’t eat anything with vinegar in case there was alcohol in it — I didn’t have the heart to tell him about cold medicine or vanilla) First of cola isn’t against the word of wisdom. It is addictive, so I can understand some counsels against it. (As I’m almost certainly addicted to diet Pepsi)

    But anyone who left the church because they saw their seminary teacher drinking a dark fizzy liquid was just looking for an excuse – any excuse – and would have found one quicly.

  21. Adam Greenwood on January 8, 2004 at 5:08 pm

    I’m not sure I understand. Isn’t root beer against the Word of Wisdom anyway? Why would it matter if it looks like Coca-Cola?

    It’s root BEER, people. Snap out of your dream worlds.

  22. Nate Oman on January 8, 2004 at 5:17 pm

    Sounds like a seminary teacher with grand delusions of their own importance.

    Taylor Petrey as inspirational EFY speaker — there is a thought.

  23. lyle on January 8, 2004 at 5:48 pm

    I’ve probably just missed the fact that this point is already made, but I figure I’ll be blunt.

    I like the discussion re: the personal/relative strength of the individual to obey/avoid temptation coupled with the bpl analysis and the social implications of being a bad example.

    So…basically we are having a discussion about bright-line vs. balancing tests/rules, right? While going 76 in a 75 doesn’t necessarily lead to more accidents, it does break a bright-line…yet one that isn’t likely to be enforced, and may lead to others following the ‘bad’ example. Yet…it probably should matter, even if it doesn’t, if a ticket is given, whether the speeding is done by a good/bad (i.e. strong/weak to temptation), or even drunk, driver. Eventually more and more people start driving faster, and the 5 mile over safe harbor norm becomes institutional unless the cop feels mean/has a quota to fill.

    Point: Each individual is different, and the ‘law’ is set up to help each of us be righteous/go home to Father. So, maybe Nate could do the ‘work’ lunch, while I probably shouldn’t, and someone else could, but wouldn’t ‘mess up.’ Like the word of wisdom, it is set up for the ‘weakest’ of members…so…shouldn’t we follow the bright-line rules unless the spirit counsels otherwise (i.e. nephi/laban), or when we feel that spending time ‘in’ the world of smokers, drinkers, prostitutes, etc. will help show love/compassion and the way to these of our brothers/sisters? Perhaps we shouldn’t compare ourselves to others so much…i.e. X is doing action Z, so…it is ok/not ok for me to do also.

  24. Russell Arben Fox on January 8, 2004 at 5:51 pm

    Paul did in fact counsel the faithful to abstain from eating sacrificial meats, but he did so in a context of a specific, public, contrary belief: that is, there really were people, quite a few of them in fact, who took the idols seriously enough to be offended by the consumption of said meats. And given that we are to love and have compassion for one another, giving offense is to be avoided where possible. Thus, I take his counsel to be less a desire for establishing standards that would be able to contain even the “weakest” within the faith, but rather an effort to promote greater ethical concern between all those in the covenant. I think the “stumbling block” he warns us about has more to do with obstacles to our drawing closer together, both “strong” and “weak,” than with any one individual’s chance of salvation.

    If our spiritual lives are governed by an alternately paranoid and/or condescending worry about some hypothetical weak-willed saint who might be driven to sin by the appearance of another member consuming dark fizzy liquids–or sacrificial meats–then we’re right back to risk-calculation being the sum total of morality. I can understand refraining from certain actions out of compassion for the feelings and faith of others, but I can’t take that as a command having to do the salvation of myself or others: that is, as something having to do with how best to keep myself or someone else free of sin. Such only moves the embrace of the law from a personal to a group level. On the other hand, I can take it very seriously as a sign of charity, as the way fellow saints should treat one another.

    Bottom line: I don’t like the idea that, for example, I ought to turn down all invitations from close friends to gatherings where alcohol is present simply out of fear that I, or someone I associate with, might thereby be lead to drink. If it’s a real weakness (i.e., I know that I’m a recovering alcoholic), then obviously I should be concerned. But otherwise, such calculation sounds like basically a kind of spiritual isolationism to me. However, I can understand being cautious about how I would advertise the acceptance of such invitations to those I love and associate with at church, in case some of them would, through a possibly unwarranted overreaction, nonetheless be distanced from me.

  25. Kaimi on January 8, 2004 at 5:53 pm

    Russell:

    Is this another way of saying “be in the world, not of the world”? If we isolate ourselves too much (become LDS hermits or monks in a mountaintop monastery), are we really in the world at all?

  26. chris g on January 8, 2004 at 6:03 pm

    I think some people can get carried away in what they do to not give offense. For example, I could be offended at the consequences that occur from such a worry over superficial appearances. Extreme worry about the way others will perceive your actions is, in my mind, not a self sustaining position. In many cases, it is equivalent to building a shell of a character with little true comprehension and growth underneath to support it.

    I think this relates back to some ideas I have been having concerning the evangelical view of faith causing works versus the mormon view of works leading to more faith. I think one of the underlying keys to both issues is motivation. If you are acting out of consideration for the offence that others may take, then the learning you get out of the experience will be biased towards this social interaction. If you are acting out of consideration of the law or rule itself, then your learning will be biased towards an understanding of that rule. Now perhaps part of the underlying discussion here is revolving around what is more important – worrying about others or yourself. Personally I think we have to experience both, however I would hate to see people only learn one type of lesson in life. I think this is what I meant by creating a shell. If we always worry about what others will think, we will be very knowledgeable about offense, but perhaps weak in other areas.

  27. Russell Arben Fox on January 8, 2004 at 6:42 pm

    Kaimi, I wouldn’t want to come absolutely out against monkhood; I’m not sure there aren’t such things as “holy men” or “saints” (St. Francis of Assisi? Gandhi? Lowell Bennion?), and I kind of suspect there may well be a powerful kind of spiritual life which is only available to those who more or less renounce and retreat from the world. That said, no one reading this is really “out of the world”; we’re in it, which means we (like the world) lieth in sin. The commandment to be “not of the world” is, I think, not best understood in terms of building hedges up around ourselves, purifying our own personal environments (though I readily and hypocritically admit that, when it comes to my daughters, I will likely to everything in my power to create a purified little world for them to dwell in); rather, it suggests we are to be “strangers” in this world, pilgrims traveling through it, enduring (and, as appropriate, responding to) it as we make our way to a better place.

    Chris G., I think the way you frame the inherent tension this whole thread is about is really interesting. Learning how to negotiate the world in terms of rules, vs. doing so in terms of social interaction; that’s something I’ve never thought of before. You may be right that, on some level, this tension between risk and rules is good for us, in that it helps us not to, as you put it, “only learn one type of lesson in life.”

  28. clarkgoble on January 8, 2004 at 6:57 pm

    Russell, how do you reconcile that view with the general LDS view of making everyplace you go a heaven? It seems that whether or not it explains the “not of this world” quote there is a similar notion that can be arrived at. (Plus it has the connection to Joseph’s “deepest coal pits of Nova Scotia” quote that I like so much, being from Nova Scotia)

  29. Nate Oman on January 8, 2004 at 6:59 pm

    Are there such things as standards as opposed to rules?

    In his tour de force on the philosophy of rules, Fred Schauer argues that rules consist of three aspects:

    1. A purpose
    2. An emperical generalization
    3. Entrenchment

    Imagine the rule “No vehicles in the park.” We might say that such a rule has the purpose of keeping the park safe from children. The rule contains the emperical generalization that keeping vehicles out of the park makes it safer for children. The rule is entrenched to the extent that it operates as an independent basis of decisions. One way of thinking about this facet of the rule is to say that it is entrenched to the extent that we do not question its emperical generalization, e.g. we ban remote control cars from the park.

    Now a standard is thought of as being something different from a rule that allows us more play and decision making, etc. Suppose that the standard would be “Keep the park safe for children.” However, upon reflection this just turns out to be another rule. There must be some purpose behind it, e.g., make the park and inviting place for families. There is the emperical generalzation that a place that is safe for children is inviting to families, and then we ask the question of how entrenched the rule is, e.g., do we prohibit fireworks displays launched from the back of the park on July 24th?

    I would submit that a standard is simply a rule that is imperfectly entrenched or has a fairly abstract emperical generalization.

  30. clark goble on January 8, 2004 at 7:03 pm

    One brief comment on rules. Rules are often taken to apply to the individual but may only make sense in the aggregate. Consider a rule about not walking on the grass. It really doesn’t make sense for any one individual. In the aggregate though people walking destroy the grass. The problem then becomes the tension between the general and the particular. And everyone thinks *they* are the exception.

    I remember while at BYU having a lively discussion on this in Chauncey Riddle’s class.

  31. Nate Oman on January 8, 2004 at 7:12 pm

    Clark, interesting point, but you make it a little too strongly. Some rules, e.g. do not hit your coworkers, clearly have bite in the individual case as well. The BYU grass example seems to illustrate the tragedy of the commons. You can solve it by regulating all behavior or granting property rights. One could also see it as a collective action problem, which is one of the problems that law is meant to solve.

  32. clark goble on January 8, 2004 at 7:18 pm

    I didn’t want to suggest that was the majority of rules. Just that a lot of rules fit that form. I suspect that if most Mormons were righteous spiritual giants like the GAs the structure of the church and its counsels would look rather different than the church filled with incompetent sinners like ourself. (Well, at least like myself – perhaps the rest of you are far more competent than myself)

    In this case the meaning and effect of any rule can’t be understood with respect to individuals, as we’ve been doing thus far. Merely in the aggregate. The problem is that if the “spiritual giants” publically break the rules then that can justify rule breaking with unfortunate consequences in the aggregate.

    Obviously this can be taken too far. (And scarily, I’m starting to sound a little too much like what I’ve read of Leo Strauss) So take this as just one component to add to what we’ve already discussed.