On Privileges, Growth, and Gossip

April 6, 2004 | 50 comments
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In the legal world, the concept of confidential communication is expressed in certain privileges. The idea being that the communication in certain relationships needs to be protected by law, even if that communication would be relevant to a court proceeding. An example is the attorney-client privilege. Barring some dramatic exceptions (like a confession that the client plans to murder someone) anything that a client says to his/her attorney is protected by the privilege and will not be revealed in court proceedings.

Another privilege, that we don’t hear much about in the church, is the clergy-penitent privilege. A confession to a spiritual leader is protected and confidential.

Divinity students are taught about the nuances of this privilege before they begin their ministries. This privilege also applies to Mormon bishops. Again, with some rather dramatic exceptions, penitent communication with a bishop is protected.

This brings up some rather interesting questions in a church that is staffed with lay clergy, and which extends spiritual stewardship beyond one congregational leader. In some sense, while following the Savior’s mandate “If ye love me, feed my sheep” we all come in contact with the penitent, with the ailing, with the suffering, with the sinners. We all have opportunities, while fulfilling our general ward callings, and doing our visiting or home teaching, to minister to and serve those whose problems are sensitive. More accurately, at times we are the penitent, the ailing, the suffering, and the sinners. We are blessed to be served by those in our ward who selflessly follow Christ. The web of our stewardship and responsibility to our fellow ward and church members goes beyond that contemplated by the law. Our relationships with those who love and serve us, and with those that we love and serve is not legally protected, but shouldn’t we voluntarily be protecting them? Shouldn’t our network of lay-clergy and our tradition of informal service respect the dignity of the struggling while still promoting spiritual growth?

The problem is that our formal discourse, from Sunday School lessons, to Sacrament Meeting talks, to General Conference is peppered with “faith promoting stories.” We all gain inspiration from witnessing others conquer hardship. We have three hours of church every week to fill with uplifting material. We want to make our lessons and talks interesting and inspiring, and so we mine our life experiences–and mine the life experiences of those around us. To what levels should we attempt to protect the dignity of others? Personally I don’t think we try hard enough. I’ve heard stories that make me cringe, and I’ve told stories that now make me cringe–now that my attorney’s eye is focused on confidentiality issues.

I think that one aspect of my testimony is based on knowing that others have lived the commandments despite hardship. I don’t want to give that up. I don’t want to give up the community of spiritual discourse based on practical problems and their inspiring solutions. However, I think that the line between spiritual and sensational is thin, and the line between sensational and gossip is even thinner. Are we cloaking a certain amount of natural man curiosity about others–the same curiosity that causes rubber-necking traffic jams–in a guise of “righteous” teaching? Where do we draw the line? How do we check our behavior? How do we preserve our community of sharing, while valuing the principle of confidentiality?

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50 Responses to On Privileges, Growth, and Gossip

  1. Kristine on April 6, 2004 at 1:56 pm

    OK, so there are too many attorneys around here, but I’m guessing this was posted by Karen? Or was the name withheld for reasons of confidentiality?

  2. Julie in Austin on April 6, 2004 at 2:35 pm

    Karen–

    Very interesting thoughts. I have to admit that the first few times I went to a ward council meeting (in a previous ward and state), I just about dropped dead from the very sensitive information that, in my opinion, did not need to be shared with a dozen people.

    I have to admit that this has caused a tendency for me to circle the wagons whenever anything remotely juicy happens in my family. I don’t want to tell a soul at church, under the assumtion that to tell anyone is to tell the entire ward. I wonder if anyone else feels this way.

    I realize that this isn’t where you were going with your post, but I see it as a related issue.

  3. Julie in Austin on April 6, 2004 at 2:35 pm

    Karen–

    Very interesting thoughts. I have to admit that the first few times I went to a ward council meeting (in a previous ward and state), I just about dropped dead from the very sensitive information that, in my opinion, did not need to be shared with a dozen people.

    I have to admit that this has caused a tendency for me to circle the wagons whenever anything remotely juicy happens in my family. I don’t want to tell a soul at church, under the assumtion that to tell anyone is to tell the entire ward. I wonder if anyone else feels this way.

    I realize that this isn’t where you were going with your post, but I see it as a related issue.

  4. Aaron Brown on April 6, 2004 at 2:37 pm

    I’m not sure I’m seeing the problem as you’ve described it (whoever you are).

    Granted, there is a real problem (IMO) with gossip and inappropriate discussion about Church members that operates under the guise of “helping” members of the Ward. I am always a bit uncomfortable in Ward Council meetings, talking about the problems of other members. Why should I be learning about Brother So-and-So’s marital struggles with his wife? I know we want to help him, and understand his problems in context, but did I really need to know that about him? (And if I didn’t attend Ward Council, I’d probably be worried about what they might be saying about me!)

    That said, you’ve framed the issue as one of a fine line between faith-promoting story-telling and gossip. But in my experience, most people, when relating a story in a public setting, are usually adept at masking identities sufficiently, so as not to “out” specific people and their problems. At least that’s been my experience.

    My rule of thumb: When sharing stories about a fellow member, just always name the member “Bob.” I do this regularly. :)

    Aaron B

  5. Nate Oman on April 6, 2004 at 2:45 pm

    I am wondering if gossip is always really that bad. After all, doesn’t it provide some incentives to not engage in certain kinds of self-destructive behavior. The creation and maintence of strong social norms is not always a pretty process, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the norms aren’t still valuable.

    Note, I don’t think that this is necessarily inconsistent with strong statements against gossiping, so long as we understand the real social purpose of these statements is not to eliminate gossip, but simply to keep it a socially desirable levels. An analogy would be Gary Becker’s theory of crime, ie you don’t want to eliminate crime, you simply want to reduce it to the point where the marginal social cost of additional crime prevention is higher than the marginal social cost of additional crime.

  6. Kori on April 6, 2004 at 2:45 pm

    I think part of the problem is that people are too eager to share experiences that brought about spiritual growth. I think it is rarely appropriate to share such experiences over the pulpit—even during testimony meeting. (Of course, this is a matter of degree.) I am afraid certain cultural aspects of our religion encourage people to share deeply personal experiences to benefit the testimonies of others, and the intended testimony growth is rarely the result. These experiences are better shared with a few people during intimate moments, where the concept of “privilege” will be better understood and respected. So, I guess I fall more on the side of preserving confidentiality than preserving our community of sharing.

  7. Karen on April 6, 2004 at 2:55 pm

    Well, Aaron, I’m kind of surprised that with your very colorful background, you haven’t encountered this more. (Incidentally, I’m also wondering if I’ve ever been Bob…) But back to the subject, it happens all the time. Testimony meetings about someone’s sister who is inactive (but maybe familiar to certain audience members) Mission homecomings where someone’s WoW problems are discussed in detail, and their name is used, because hey, they’re in Guatamala, or stake meetings when the name isn’t disclosed, but enough information is that people know who you are (not) talking about. Not to mention ward council meetings, which are not always so confidential.

  8. Karen on April 6, 2004 at 2:59 pm

    Nate, interesting point…although if one was really struggling to repent of something, it might not be helpful to that process if everyone in the ward knows about it. Not to mention problems that are not caused by bad behavior, but should be kept quiet because they’re embarrassing. Sister X’s mother is an alcoholic, Brother and Sister Y are struggling with infertility. Brother Z has prostate problems. Deterrance is rather irrelevant in those circumstances…

  9. Nate Oman on April 6, 2004 at 3:19 pm

    Karen: But you have merely restated the old ex ante v. ex post dillema. Are you making the argument that we are committed per se to an ex post perspective?

  10. Karen on April 6, 2004 at 3:37 pm

    Really interesting comment Nate…here’s my initial reaction. The ex post v. ex ante argument is still irrelevant to the situations I’ve described where behavior modification is impossible. Those situations are outside the realm of considering gossip to be useful.

    As to the repentance situation, well….again my initial reaction, subject to change with better information/thought, is that in matters of a soul, aren’t we morally obligated to take the ex post view? Couldn’t the argument be made that whatever good comes from a “deterrant” community, is outweighed by the harm to the one? Isn’t this a variation on Christ leaving the ninety and nine?

  11. Frank McIntyre on April 6, 2004 at 4:40 pm

    Of course, gossip is really only a first step. Its deterrence power is limited by the fact that the individual may never know they were abused. I propose we all mock sinners and hurl rocks at them in an effort to encourage their repentance…

    Seriously, much as having bloodthirsty neighbors was an incentive to Nephite repentance, gossip may be useful to God’s plan given its existence. But that hardly justifies the gossiper.

  12. Charles on April 6, 2004 at 4:40 pm

    There is no real use that gossip offers. If the fear of having anyone gossip about my problems is my chief deterent for commiting those problems, then I am hardly living my life in accordance to the gospel. I am trying to avoid public humiliation. I’m not participating or avoiding acts because of their virtue or lack thereof.

    Secondly, gossip is more of a deterent to talk about your problems. How could you possibly go to a therapist or bishop to overcome a personal problem if you knew that gossip could occur and half the ward become aware of my personal struggles.
    Gossip as a deterent does not work and I would not stand for it.

    Then there is the entire issue of speaking ill about someone. If I hear gossip or any alleged fact about someone, how do I know the time frame involved. Sister X may have been struggling with alcohol but by the time I hear it, she could have conquered it. Now my view of her is tainted.
    Aren’t we commanded to avoid speaking evil of the lord’s annointed? Isn’t that what gossip is?

    Telling a motivational story without using names is fine, that’s not gossip. In most cases, such as conference, it is appropriate as the person speaking had a direct influence in the experience. For me to be telling a story about elder X when I don’t even know if the story is true crosses that line.

  13. Frank McIntyre on April 6, 2004 at 4:49 pm

    I figure as long as this blog has lawyer-speak, it might as well have economic models.

    To keep up Nate’s analogy to a rational choice model, the gossiper engages in actions that they think will please them, even if in the eternal scheme of things, they are wrong (about their utility function). This mistaken action has both negative and positive externalities. The existence of positive (deterrence) externalities doesn’t imply that any level of gossip above 0 is beneficial, because the negative externalities of gossip, plus the own unperceived damage to the gossiper almost certainly outweigh the positives in all but the most unique circumstances.

  14. Karen on April 6, 2004 at 4:57 pm

    Charles…very good points–particularly about the time frame…I had never thought of it in those terms.

    I am a little cautious about one of your statements though. I don’t think that changing the names is enough–and I think that our “privacy vigilance” really should go one step further to making sure that the subject is not identifiable. So many motivational stories (or “warning” stories for that matter) contain enough details that the subject is identifiable. It doesn’t help to call someone sister x, if enough of the other details clearly mark her.

  15. Karen on April 6, 2004 at 5:03 pm

    Oh geez, Aaron, I was just reading my comment, and realized that in saying “Well, Aaron, I’m kind of surprised that with your very colorful background, you haven’t encountered this more” I meant, “you’ve told so many fascinating stories about people you’ve encountered, that I’m surprised you haven’t witnessed this in the apparently very colorful wards you’ve lived in.” I’m sure you gave me the benefit of the doubt on that one, but I just want to assure the world that Aaron is definitely not “colorful” unless that means something good, then he probably is….along with a bunch of other effusively positive adjectives…. :o) (i.e. Sorry ’bout that!)

  16. William Morris on April 6, 2004 at 5:03 pm

    Where are all of you hearing this gossip?

    I’ve been to a couple of ward council meetings and nothing juicy came up. And my fellow ward members don’t talk about problems in classes or over the pulpit except for their own. Perhaps my ward is not the norm. Perhaps it’s because I don’t invite those sorts of confidences. Perhaps it’s because I’m a man. And it’s probably also because I’m kind of clueless.

    But like Aaron I just don’t see/hear the sort of sensationalism Karen describes. Is this a form of Mormon discourse that is more common in certain geographical, socio-economic or cultural areas?

  17. Kristine on April 6, 2004 at 5:19 pm

    Karen, I just thought you were talking about Aaron’s really interesting homepage link the other day…

    ;)

  18. Charles on April 6, 2004 at 5:35 pm

    William, I agree I have been in a few PEC and ward councils and so far nothing has come up that I would call gossip. We talk about some of the families we want to focus on and things we could try. If the bishop knows something about the family that would be helpful it is sometimes brought up, but most likely the bishop would say, we can talk about that later.
    Gossip is what happens after ward council when everyone goes and says, guess what I heard…

    Karen,
    I agree the entire idea of changing a name doesn’t do any good for anonymity if the situation could give them away. When I said change the name I think that was my internal short hand for what you stated better.

    Thats why all my stories take place in Switzerland, or in a galaxy far far away. On a lighter note Aaron, what if one of your stories was really about someone named Bob? He might not like you using his real name but if everyone knows you use Bob then suddenly change it to Tom, they might start looking at the Bobs they know.

  19. gst on April 6, 2004 at 5:51 pm

    Ward council meetings I have been in are on this model: auxiliary and quorum leaders sit in a semi-circle around the bishops desk and take turns divulging the problems of their charges. I have heard problems ranging from “primary kids need a ride to church” to “Jane Smith’s husband hits her.” Certainly the bishop needs to hear that, but why does the YM president? He doesn’t. I think that’s poor management on the bishop’s part.

    Maybe someone can answer a (sort of) related question for me: a member sends his tithing check, made out to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, directly to 50 E. North Temple, SLC, UT. He then declares to his bishop once a year in tithing settlement that he is a full-tithe payer (which he is). The bishop says, “Really? Because I have no record of it.” The member says, “Yes, I send it directly to the church because I don’t want anyone in the ward, including you, to know how much money I make. Nor do I want anyone in the ward, excepting you, to know how much tithing I pay, and the only knowledge I want you to have of how much tithing I pay is that it’s a full tithe.” Kosher?

  20. Adam Greenwood on April 6, 2004 at 6:16 pm

    Why all this fear about church people knowing things about each other? There’s lots of things that I won’t tell random church members, because that’s not our model so I put them in an uncomfortable position of not knowing what to do. But why not tell my hometeachers and the Bishopric, and have them discuss it in Ward Council, or mention things over the pulpit? These are all channelized and *family* communications, in which people know how they’re supposed to respond, if only to write our name down and pray for us. We need each other. And since these communications are somehow holy, people are less likely to abuse them in later gossip because they have the sense that they’re profaning something.

    Charles–
    You’re making the best the enemy of the good. You’re saying that unless people do good for absolutely pure motives we’re not interested in their goodness. Not so. God can and does sanctify mixed acts. He lets a person taste the fruit of righteousness and gradually removes the less worthy motives (like fear of social pressure)in new challenges to the righteousness until eventually the person stands alone and acts from pure love and righteousness. But it is the mixed motive that brings them there. What, do you suppose we’re ready to overcome our natural men at one blow? Not so. We move slowly, playing the natural man off against itself so that we can let righteousness in. Do you suppose that we even know of ourselves what righteousness is? No. We don’t recognize it until we see. Visible social norms help us see it.

  21. Charles on April 6, 2004 at 6:55 pm

    GST –
    I’ve never been in a ward council where someone divulged that kind of personal problem. The bishop never told me specifically as an EQ president to only discuss certain things discretely with him alone, but I think that it was implied.

    If EQ or RS has a serious issue like that they should discuss it with the bishop before or after the council. The bishop can then use his resources to help and if he decides to involve another member that is his call.

    To answer your second question, I would think that it is not appropriate. But I don’t know how the tithing works behind the scenes. I imagine that a portion of it goes to the church as a whole and a portion to the individual ward, but I don’t know for sure. If a portion of it goes to the ward then the bishop should know, unless by sending it to church headquarters they would automatically deposit it in the ward’s local acount.

  22. Charles on April 6, 2004 at 7:04 pm

    Adam,
    I for one believe very strongly in deterence. I believe that that is one of the main goals of criminal punishment, to deter others.

    I disagree, however, that gossip is the way to deter certain actions. As was discussed earlier there are some acts that cannot be socially detered by gossipping about the person involved, yet can cause embarassment to that person.

    There are also many things that I do not want to hear about other people. Imagine your playing racket ball and your buddy says “hey my wife and I went to that new XXX store out on the interstate, got some great stuff to spice up the night!”
    I cannot say EWW fast enough. Do I want to know about that. Do I want to look over during a temple session and see my buddy contemplating the universe and think back to that racket ball game?
    The answer is a resounding no. I don’t want that. That is precisely what gossip does.

    There are better ways to provide social deterent for innapropriate actions. Gossip will cause more ills than good.

  23. Karen on April 6, 2004 at 7:37 pm

    GST–

    Well, as to your second question. First, it made me laugh, which was probably not your intention…but I’m so amused by the irascible.

    Honestly, I don’t really see a problem with it (unless the delivery was defensive and disrespectful, but that’s an entirely different issue.) I guess it depends on where you draw the line as to what the bishop needs to know about you to effectively be your spiritual leader and judge in Israel. He needs to know your temple worthiness. He doesn’t need to know your blood type, weight, and cholesterol level. He needs to know if you are happy, but doesn’t need to know your GPA. Where does income fall on the continuum? I imagine in different places for different people, depending on how closely you guard the secret of how much you make and what your relationship with your bishop is. (Some people guard their income like a state secret, others discuss it at length. That’s probably a product of family upbringing, and has little to do with spiritual worthiness.)

  24. gst on April 6, 2004 at 8:08 pm

    As to me specifically, the bishop or anyone else who cared could find out how much I make by reference to publicly available National Assoc of Law Placement materials that make large law firm associates’ salaries almost as widely available as those of government employees. So this is truly one of those I have a friend…-type remarks that genuinely do not refer to the speaker.

    But about what the bishops need to know: we self report all other recommend questions, why not this one?

  25. Karen on April 6, 2004 at 8:19 pm

    GST– :o) I totally understand both your points. First, about the law salary thing. The least private number in the world. Second, I completely assumed that it wasn’t you. I was using “you” in the hypothetical, rhetorical sense. Sorry for putting that on a level that was falsely personal. My lack of writing skills, not a lack of respect for you.

    As to your question: actual salary really isn’t a recommend question. The question is whether or not you pay a full tithe. The implied question is what percentage are you paying…10%, 5%, O% etc. It’s not an algebra problem–no variables here. It’s not like he needs a number to verify…bishops don’t go looking up tax records to make sure you aren’t lying in tithing settlement. I refer back to the continuum idea in my previous post. I personally don’t have a problem with my bishop knowing my salary–never bothered me. But if it does bother some people, why let that sense of shyness or extra-sensitive privacy be a stumbling block to temple worthiness?

  26. gst on April 6, 2004 at 8:43 pm

    Let me quote Rev. Tim Lovejoy: Tithing is 10 percent OFF THE TOP, people! Please don’t make us audit.

  27. gst on April 6, 2004 at 8:51 pm

    I had a bishop at BYU who was at the time (and still is, for all I know) university treasurer. His signature was on all of my (meager) teaching assistant paychecks. I once asked in jest why tithing wasn’t just withheld, so long as its a condition of enrollment and employment. He replied, You’re not the first with that idea, and I’m sad to say it’s received a lot more support than one might hope.

  28. Jim F. on April 7, 2004 at 12:16 am

    I’ve known a number of people who have paid their tithing directly to SL–though without the defensive explanation–and there has been no problem. In North America tithing money goes straight to SL. In other countries, what happens depends on the currency laws.

    I’ve seldom heard inappropriate discussions in Ward Council or other meetings. A good bishop can prevent that fairly easily.

  29. Bob Caswell on April 7, 2004 at 1:41 am

    gst, nice try… tithing is not so cut and dry. It can be interpreted just like any other Gospel principle. Would you like examples? I’ll refrain for now as I’m sure many T&S regulars are already rolling their eyes. “Let’s not talk about that again!”

    BTW- We Bobs of the world have united and have unanimously decided that Aaron can use our name even if it is referring to us. And if it’s not, you can still think of us as the smoking, drunk, pro-abortion homosexuals in Aaron’s stories. We’re used to it. :-)

  30. Nate Oman on April 7, 2004 at 11:15 am

    “The existence of positive (deterrence) externalities doesn’t imply that any level of gossip above 0 is beneficial, because the negative externalities of gossip, plus the own unperceived damage to the gossiper almost certainly outweigh the positives in all but the most unique circumstances.”

    Frank: Doesn’t this depend on the size of the negative and positive externalities as well as the how one discounts the value of future deterrence? In other words, what you say makes sense as a matter of logic, but it depends of emperical assumptions that might be contested. For example, is the “soft” damage of caused by a certain low level of gossip really greater than the “hard” damage that might be caused by say a pre-marital pregnancy that could be averted by the fear of this low level gossip? It doesn’t seem as inherently implausible to me. Indeed, it seems to me that you cannot have a well functioning society without a variety of strong social norms and you cannot have social norms without various forms of social pressure. Ergo gossip…

  31. Nate Oman on April 7, 2004 at 11:25 am

    “But I don’t know how the tithing works behind the scenes. I imagine that a portion of it goes to the church as a whole and a portion to the individual ward, but I don’t know for sure. If a portion of it goes to the ward then the bishop should know, unless by sending it to church headquarters they would automatically deposit it in the ward’s local acount.”

    In the United States and North America my understanding is that tithing funds are deposited in the bank accounts of local wards and that the money is then transfered from these bank accounts back to SLC headquarters. My understanding is that once in SLC, the tithing money is almost immediately sent to New York, where it is invested in the stock market by an investment house retained by the church — the idea is to make sure that any cash reserves are earning a rate of return above what they would get in a bank account. BTW, I believe that Church employees have the option of rolling some of their individual savings in with the tithing money, thus taking advantage or the Church’s discount brokerage arrangment (and presumeably helping to maintain the discount, by increasing the volume of work that the Church steers to the managment company). Individuals wards are then given a budget allotment from SLC. The idea is to spread the wealth, so that cash from tithing funds doesn’t pool in wealthy areas.

    BTW, I would love to hear from any one who knows more about this. Can anyone else corraborate this basic model of cash flow?

  32. Charles on April 7, 2004 at 11:38 am

    I simply don’t see gossip as a viable deterent.

    Gossip is often behind the back of the person involved. Many times they don’t know that someone is gossipping about them. How does that deter someone? The fact that there “may” be talk? As someone who has had gossip brought up to my face, I question where it came from. People then begin to question if the gossip is accurate. There is simply no deterent.

    The real deterent is the removal of priveleges and issuing restrictions. Not allowing a person to participate in the sacrament. Not attending the temple. Deterences only work when the perpetrator is aware that there is a consequence that will happen for their actions.

    Again I would point out we are commanded not to speak evil of the lord’s annointed. That’s the basic definition of gossip. If you don’t know that something is true why talk about it. Its juicy yes, but so was the forbidden fruit.

  33. Nate Oman on April 7, 2004 at 12:02 pm

    Charles: I had never thought of disfellowshipment or excommunication as serving a deterrent function. On the other hand, I don’t see why the fear of gossip, even — or perhaps especially — gossip that you don’t hear, would be a deterrent. The fear is not that you will hear bad things about yourself, but rather that your social standing among others will be decreased.

  34. Frank McIntyre on April 7, 2004 at 12:17 pm

    Nate,

    Of course all interesting questions will sooner or later devolve into “empirical” questions. As a guy who plays with numbers all day, I am very much in favor of this. So my assertion that the positives won’t outweigh the negatives _was_ an empirical assertion on my part. So 2 points:

    1. The discounting of the future brings up a point that I think is worth mentioning, and you can tell me what you think. There is little justification for ad hoc time-discount for eternal questions. The typical motivation one gives for discounting of the future is that tomorrow might not happen because I might die (or something like this), in which case the discount is an “expected utility” calculation. We _know_ tomorrow will happen whether we die or not, because we are immortal. Thus one’s discount rate (in eternal questions) becomes a function of one’s faith in the immortality of the soul. Does God think the future is less important than now? Probably not. That doesn’t mean we behave the same at all times, because the costs and benefits of actions change over time. Sex a day before the wedding as opposed to a day after being an easy example.
    2. You are saying that there are positive externalities to gossip because it keeps people from doing bad things. There are many other ways to generate those social costs. We could cut off people’s hands. We could tax them heavily such as with cigarettes. We could mock them to their face. We could ignore them. We could reward them for good behavior and withhold the reward when they don’t. We could entreat them with the word of God. We could ex ante get them to value our opinion so highly that they are unwilling to let us down— which seems to be the essence of parent power beyond a certain age. We could excommunicate them (as is mentioned by Charles). All of these are potential mechanisms, some work better than others. Some mechanisms are noxious, and so the righteous avoid them in favor of other, more righteous means. To reiterate an obvious example, the fact that Lamanite aggression was an inducement to the Nephite righteousness doesn’t justify the Lamanites. They still shouldn’t kill Nephites even though God’s plan made use of their wickedness. You’re right, there are benefits to gossip, just not on net. From an eternal perspective, we shouldn’t gossip because the _costs_ outweigh the benefits.

  35. Frank McIntyre on April 7, 2004 at 12:43 pm

    To confirm Nate’s post on tithing receipts, many people know this stuff better, but I served a few years ago as a financial clerk. All tithing money goes to SLC. Budget goes, as I recall, from SLC to the stake, which divies it up to the wards. Fast offerings are retained to some extent at the local level, but this is flexible since some areas are net givers and some net receivers.

    As for paying directly to SLC, there are strong tax advantages to paying “in-kind” with appreciated stock. Since this is done through SLC and not the ward, quite a few members I knew would do this—I was living in Silicon Valley during the dot-com boom, so everybody had stock.

    Still, paying directly because you don’t want to reveal personal information to the bishop strikes me as a strangely confrontational attitude. This from a guy who studies how much money people make all the time, so I’m perhaps desensitized to the finer points of financial privacy.

  36. Charles on April 7, 2004 at 1:06 pm

    Nate,
    I know the deterent isn’t that I wouldn’t want to hear bad things about me. The deterent, as people seem to think it would be, is that poeple wouldn’t be talking and my social standing would not be lowered. The problem with this is that most poeple who gossip do not act in a manner as though they know the gossip to the person in question.

    If I know something about say “Bob” I probably won’t treat him any differently to his face. That seems to be the nature of gossip. Yes his social status may decline in certain circles when he isn’t there, but when he is, how is it a deterent if he isn’t treated differently?

    I’m not sure excommunication would be a good deterent. My personal understanding is that excommunication would occur to someone who is already struggling with thier testimony, not so much with the gospel itself but with the church. Removing someone from an organization that they do not believe in anymore as a penalty for something that organization ascribes as wrong, is probably not a good deterent of the “wrong” behavior.

    If someone has a real testimony but is told that during the repentance process they should not partake of the sacrament or go to the temple for a time, and they want to partake of those things, it would be a deterent. Deterents are temporal in thier nature. We all can agree (I think) that there are spiritual and eternal consequences to our actions. But sometimes those consequences are so far ahead of them we don’t see them. Deterents are closer to us now and often imposed in this world to help us decide not to do something.

    Gossip would not work because it does not impose anything on the subject. It is more times incorrect or exaggerated than not. It is not issued by a relliable source, and often is outdated. This does not provide the consistency necessary to pose as a deterent for wrongful acts.

    If anything it will only serve to deter people from talking about thier actions. I wouldn’t take a deeply personal problem to my bishop if I knew he were going to discuss it with the entire ward. I would bottle it up inside and if it were “my” problem, I might just keep doing it.

  37. Charles on April 7, 2004 at 1:10 pm

    Thanks to everyone on the input regarding tithing. I think it does shed some light on how things are done.

    I find it unfortunate that someone doesn’t feel comfortable talking to thier bishop about income. I have a great bishop and I’m glad he is in our ward. I feel pretty comfortable talking to him about most things. Part of what makes him great though is his reaction to certain things.

    If I said I didn’t feel comfortable discussing income and I payed directly to SLC I doubt that he would become defensive or suspicious. On the other hand he has never showed that kind of interest in anyone that I’m aware of.

  38. Nate Oman on April 7, 2004 at 1:30 pm

    Frank: Your idea that eternal discounting is a function of faith seems right to me, EXCEPT I don’t think it is the only function. It seems to me that you are discussing some kind of risk discounting — ie I value a promise of $1,000 tomorrow at less than $1,000 because I might be dead — and simply saying that people factor in some “risk” that the narrative of the plan of salvation may be false. Fair enough. However, it doesn’t seem to me that this is exactly the same thing as time discounting. It seems to me that I value $1,000 tomorrow less than $1,000 today simply because I value the now more than the future, even if I believe that there is a 100% probability that the future will occur.

    As to your second point, I agree that there are lots of ways of deterring dysfunctional behavior, and you suggest that gossip may not be one of the methods that is desirable. However, I am wondering to what extent your analysis really depends on your externality story and to what extent you are importing in some concept of “righteous methods” which cannot be captured in some sort of a social welfare function. IOW, it seems that you are ultimately going deontological and abandoning utility calculations. (Do they take away your ecnomist card if you do this?)

  39. Nate Oman on April 7, 2004 at 1:33 pm

    Frank: It occurs to me that an emperical implication of your risk theory of time discounting is that the natural interest rate
    (once you control for everything else, of course) should decrease as medical technology reduces various risks of death and increases life expectancy. Is there any evidence that this is the case?

  40. Grasshopper on April 7, 2004 at 2:20 pm

    It seems to me that the fact that much gossip is false may weaken its potential for deterrence.

  41. MDS on April 7, 2004 at 3:48 pm

    The attorney-client privilege is defended by reasoning that it allows the attorney to better represent/serve his/her client. Can we say that the clergy-penitent privilege does the same, that it allows the clergy to better serve the penitent? I don’t think this is terribly clear. As was pointed out in Karen’s initial post, it may be that the community of Saints needs to know about an individual’s problems in order to offer their support, love, help, etc. At the same time, I am very sympathetic to the desires of confidentiality that many of our members have. Perhaps the best way to treat it is to recognize that, as with the A/C privilege, the holder of the privilege is the client, thus allowing the individual to personalize the amount of disclosure to the ward community to that which they feel is necessary. As an example, I can imagine two members of the same ward treating a diagnosis of cancer very differently. One might decide this is a private battle that only the bishop needs to know about, while the other may ask publicly for the prayers of the entire ward on their behalf. The same dichotomy may be observed with respect to sins an individual is struggling with. Some keep it very private, between them and the bishop, and on some rare occasions, the ward is asked for prayers, fasting, etc. on a particular individuals behalf. As long as the invidivual is still the holder of the privilege, this seems fine to me.

  42. Frank McIntyre on April 7, 2004 at 3:55 pm

    last point first,

    death is the easiest example of risk-based discounting. but more generally it can be a simplification that the choices described in the model are only relevant with some probability because the world may be different tomorrow. it is a shortcut for regime change of any sort. it is an attempt to capture a whole set of uncertainty. has the interest rate fallen over the decade, hard to say given the caveat about controlling for everything. but interest rates in developing countries are far higher than the U.S., and discount rates are likely to be much higher too, because of death and a much greater uncertainty about the future.

  43. Frank McIntyre on April 7, 2004 at 4:13 pm

    Next, is it okay to arbitrarily value tomorrow more than today? I say no. Do we observe people doing that. Yes. This is the difference between welfare and utility. Utility maps out what we observe people doing. To make the leap and say that this is what makes them happy is actually unneccesary for most rational choice work. All you need to do is describe behavior, not prove that people are happy.

    An easy way to recognize the cheating involved in time discounting as a measure of happiness is to recognize that tomorrow you’ll always wish that the person you were yesterday had valued the future more. And you now value the past at 0! God sees all at once and so will we someday. Presumably this means that we will not time-discount but will optimize our eternal stream of outcomes.

  44. Frank McIntyre on April 7, 2004 at 4:21 pm

    Lastly, as a description of choice (not happiness) utility theory is a merry little tautology. Thus you can do whatever you want with it and keep your economist card. In order to get interesting results, one must give the theory some bite, like assuming that preferences don’t change arbitrarily from day to day.

    Regardless, once utility theory (a theory of choice) is separate from welfare theory (a theory of happiness), one can make statements like, “gossipers do something that they don’t realize is a bad idea, because they are misinformed about their happiness function.” This is the basis of missionary work— people are misinformed about what makes them happy. Within that context, I can bring “righteous” stuff into the model without trouble, because righteousness makes us happy.

  45. Nate Oman on April 7, 2004 at 4:41 pm

    Frank: I like it. BTW, I have a short, toungue-in-cheek paper on the problem of bickering between our present and future preferences. My argument is that contract law is a mechanism by which a promisor makes the promisee his agent in a suit against his future self.

  46. gst on April 7, 2004 at 7:07 pm

    I’m not sure why one couldn’t withhold knowledge of his income from the bishop without being considered “defensive,” “confrontational,” or otherwise “uncomfortable” with the bishop (all characterizations made here of the hypothetical tithing position). Isn’t possible to just not want to share it with the bishop because its None Of His Business? We can stipulate that the bishop would be the model of discretion, non-judgmental, etc. Also stipulate that when if and when it matters, like supposing that we revert to a system of individualized contributions to ward budgets, our tithepayer submits and discloses. Until then, can he not keep the information private just because it is information that is typically kept private (i.e., not shared outside of the family), without being characterized as obstreperous?

  47. gst on April 7, 2004 at 7:09 pm

    By “non-judgmental” in the previous post I mean, of course, in the bad sense of the term. Certainly we need our bishops to be judgmental as to relevant matters!

  48. Jim F. on April 7, 2004 at 10:24 pm

    One could withhold knowledge of one’s income from the bishop without being defensive, confrontational, or otherwise uncomfortable. But gst gave us a scenario in which the person withholding IS defensive and confrontational: “Yes, I send it directly to the church because I don’t want anyone in the ward, including you, to know how much money I make. Nor do I want anyone in the ward, excepting you, to know how much tithing I pay, and the only knowledge I want you to have of how much tithing I pay is that it’s a full tithe.” I assume that is why people have portrayed the situation as they have, not because they think that withholding the information is in itself defensive or confrontational.

  49. Frank McIntyre on April 8, 2004 at 9:44 am

    I agree with Jim.

  50. Adam Greenwood on April 8, 2004 at 4:00 pm

    How, exactly, is it none of his business? As I see it, with the little tithing settlements the Church has pretty much made it his business. In any case, the collection of tithing seems like a temporal and therefore Aaronic priesthood function, the local head of which the Bishop is. I am really appalled by this idea of maintaining one’s membership through the mails.