Are Supererogatory Acts Possible for Latter-day Saints?

November 30, 2004 | 52 comments
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King Benjamin teaches us that we “should not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition . . . in vain.� This is not merely passing advice we can choose whether to follow or ignore without consequence. In fact, Benjamin warns that those who stay their hand in the face of such requests have “great cause to repent and except he repenteth of that which he hath done he perisheth forever and hath no interest in the kingdom of God (Mos 4:18). According to this text, giving money to the beggar on the street is a duty, required of us by the Gospel with penalties attached to its omission. It is clear that imparting of one’s substance to the beggar is obligatory. However, what is not clear is whether there is a limit to this sort of obligation. If administering of our substance is required then perhaps bringing the beggar home to stay at your house permanently where he could more easily partake of your substance is also obligatory. Why would it not be? At what point, if ever, does obligation turn into non-obligatory, merely optional action?

Moral philosophers call actions that go beyond duty supererogatory. In his book Supererogation David Heyd explains that the concept of supererogation has historically been defined by three central characteristics. First, a supererogatory activity fulfills no obligation or moral duty so supererogation refers to doing more than one is required to do. Second, works of supererogation have moral value and are thus morally praiseworthy. Third, supererogation suggests that its lack is not morally blameworthy. On this definition there is a wide range of actions that might be considered supererogatory. For example, heroic acts of self-sacrifice to protect or save another would be considered supererogatory as would moral feats like extending forgiveness or mercy even when one has been gravely wronged. More everyday actions like generosity and kindness would also fall into the category of supererogation. While moral philosophy has given this framework to supererogation, the idea originated in Christian theology.

This particular conception of supererogation is not discussed as such in the New Testament; however, the Latin term from which we derive supererogation makes an appearance in the Vulgate’s record of the parable of the Good Samaritan. When the Samaritan pays the innkeeper to take care of the wounded man he adds ‘whatsoever thou shalt spend over and above (quodcumnque supererogaveris) I, at my return, will repay thee (Luke 10: 35). While one might try to interpret this text to mean that the Samaritan was acting out of duty until this moment when he went beyond what was required, the parable itself is not really interested in a distinction between obligatory and non-obligatory action since Jesus tells the story to demonstrate what it means to “love thy neighbor.� Despite the fact that they do not explicitly invoke the term supererogation, other New Testament texts have more bearing on the questions at hand.

One such passage which seems to indicate the difference between obligation and supererogation is the story of the rich young man found in Matthew 19:16-24. In this passage the rich young man asks, “What good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?� Jesus answers “if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.� Jesus then adds, “If thou wilt be perfect, go sell what thou hast and give to the poor . . .� Some Patristic and Medieval exegetes discerned a distinction in this passage and others between norms which are commanded (thou shalt not commit adultery) and norms which are only recommended (sell what thou hast and give to the poor). It is Thomas Aquinas most notably who offers a philosophical account of supererogation based on the distinction between what he calls precepts (commandments which imply obligation) and counsels (which are left optional). The precepts, according to Aquinas, are necessary for salvation but the counsels are superfluous unless one is seeking a better end than salvation, namely perfection, which is not required.

Yet there are biblical texts which counter Aquinas’ account of supererogation. The most obvious example is found in the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus admonishes his listeners to “Be ye therefore perfect.� Perfection, whatever kind is meant here, seems to make little sense in the deontological framework that supererogation presupposes. Supererogation refers to acts that go beyond duty. But, an ethics derived from the Sermon on the Mount seems to indicate paradoxically that it is our duty to act supererogatorily, thereby rending the concept of supererogation meaningless. Indeed, if biblical theology seems to disallow the possibility of supererogatory works, the problem is compounded for Latter-day Saints.

Are supererogatory acts possible for Latter-day Saints within a theology that defines becoming like God as the ultimate human telos? If it is our religious duty to be “anxiously engaged in a good causeâ€? and “do many things of our own free will,â€? then the paradox of supererogation is real for Latter-day Saints. How can any morally praiseworthy action be non-obligatory if we are striving for perfection? The easy answer is to deny supererogation altogether by saying that there is no morally praiseworthy action that is non-obligatory. It is fairly easy to dismiss supererogation from a theological perspective in this way, but it is more difficult to dismiss it practically.

Our moral intuitions tell us when we have an obligation to respond to someone’s needs. Yet our intuitions also seem to allow us not to respond quite frequently. Why is it that our intuitions don’t seem to match up with what might be considered an anti-supererogationist theology? Is it because supererogatory actions, which are beyond our religious duty and thus optional, really do exist? If so, how do we reconcile supererogation with LDS theology? Another possibility is that since our moral intuitions are corrupted through sin such that we yield to the natural man’s conventional morality instead of rising to an ethics of covenantal love taught in Scripture they should not be used as a measure. What think ye?

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52 Responses to Are Supererogatory Acts Possible for Latter-day Saints?

  1. Frank McIntyre on November 30, 2004 at 5:23 pm

    I think King Benjamin clearly does lay limits on our responsibility in Mosiah 4:27. He also exempts those that give not because they have not.

    I suppose how this fits into a discussion of supererogation depends on how one defines terms. I think one could come up with an analogous principle to supererogation for the Church, magnifying one’s calling comes to mind, even though I agree that the stated definition of supererogation may not work for us.

  2. Kaimi on November 30, 2004 at 5:26 pm

    Very interesting thoughts, Melissa. Perhaps the question can be answered by the LDS idea of different standards of law.

    For example, the telestial law says not to harm my neighbor. So we just coexist peacefully, and as long as I’m not beating on him with a baseball bat, I’m in compliance with the law. Any extra help is supererogotary under this legal standard.

    However, the celestial law commands us to serve and treat our neighbors as we would ourselves. Under celestial law, just coexisting — not helping — is deficient. So yes, celestial law treats these acts as mandatory.

    We’re generally not required ot live the celestial law. We will receive some degree of exaltation if we merely obey the telestial law. But we will only be fully exalted if we take those additional supererogotary steps.

    Other examples abound — to use one that Jesus mentioned, look at not committing adultery versus not lusting. The former is sufficient to check off the box on the telestial law checklist. But the supererogatory act (under telestial law) of not lusting is actually a mandatory act under the celestial law.

    Or perhaps I’m just trained to see everything as a question of legal standards . . .

  3. Joel D. on November 30, 2004 at 5:46 pm

    I really struggle with what Melissa describes in the first paragraph. Is King Benjamin really saying that every time I pass a panhandler on the streets or subway of Manhattan I must give something until I am on the brink of poverty myself? Is there no consideration for people whom I feel to be swindlers?

    I have pondered this scripture numerous times and I always feel simulataneously guilty and confused. The only somewhat reasonable conclusion I have been able to come to is that I have to let the Spirit be my guide as to whether I should give to the beggars who come across my path. Perhaps I’m not in tune, but I find that the Spirit only rarely prompts me to give something to the beggar. By the way, I do try to give a generous fast offering and contributions to the Humanitarian Aid fund as well as participate in other quorum service for needy people, although I recognize that these do not directly relieve me from King Benjamin’s injunction.

    I imagine many others struggle with this. Any helpful ideas?

  4. David King Landrith on November 30, 2004 at 5:57 pm

    Surely, the King Benjamin administration (which apparently provided Benjamin himself with a meager, if any, salary) had not made it quite so lucrative to live in squalor as the modern welfare state has.

    That aside, I do not believe that Mormon morality is based on moral obligation. I believe it is based on some notion of eternal progression or fulfilling the measure of one’s creation. We learn to do what is right and overcome our weaknesses for our own good; if we are going to obtain any degree of glory, then we’ll need to overcome some weaknesses at some point anyway. But learning to do what is right and overcoming our weaknesses (the very purpose of mortal probation, right?) is always its own reward, whether we look at it that way or not.

    In this sense, learning to do what is right and overcoming our weaknesses is like being potty-trained. Although we might get potty-treats from Heavenly Father for showing good progress, the ability to control one’s bowels is truly its own reward.

    This doesn’t mean that some people don’t have better reasons for getting potty-trained than others. Indeed, I think that talk of different levels of law concerns both the standards of self-improvement that are required and the motivation for pursuing them. But none of this changes the basic framework of progression or fulfillment.

    This is not to say that Mormon’s do not believe in moral obligation. It’s just that such obligations don’t form the basis of our morality, only one possible motivation for doing what is right (and doing what one knows is right for any reason is better than doing what one knows is wrong).

    And so I believe Mormonism is an anti-supererogationist theology.

  5. Nate Oman on November 30, 2004 at 6:01 pm

    Melissa: It seems to me that your questioning the existence of a supererogation in Mormon theology rests on a very Pelagian account of how one gains salvation. Furthermore, it assumes that God always acts in supereorogratory ways (at least from our point of view). Here is what I take to be your argument:

    1. Moral duties are those actions necessary for salvation.
    2. Salvation is gained by conforming ones actions to the standards of those beings who live in a saved state.
    3. In LDS theology salvation consists in deification, ie becoming as God is (in a really literal sense).
    4. God always acts in ways that are supereogatory from our point of view.

    Ergo, there are not superogatory acts in LDS ethics. All is required.

    It seems to me that 1,2, and possibly 4 are all controversial. For example, there are certain formal requirements for salvation (e.g. temple ordinances), which don’t seem to be best conceptualized as moral duties (ergo 1 is doubtful). A rejection of Pelegian Mormonism in favor of some more robust concept of grace based on the Book of Mormon seems to be the theological order of the day (ergo 2 is doubtful). 4, I admitt, seems less controversial, but even here I would want to think about things a bit more.

  6. clark on November 30, 2004 at 7:24 pm

    Benjamin’s address has always been one of the “hard sayings.” I’m never sure what to make of it. Are the beggers discussed, those physically unable to work? How do we deal with the beggar guilds that historically were omnipresent? It’s hard to figure out.

  7. Ivan Wolfe on November 30, 2004 at 7:32 pm

    If we are to give to every beggar who asks, why does the Salt Lake Temple have an official church sign (near the exit) that says we should give to charities rather than panhandlers?

    Is the church ignoring King Benjamin?

  8. David King Landrith on November 30, 2004 at 7:40 pm

    Ivan Wolfe: If we are to give to every beggar who asks, why does the Salt Lake Temple have an official church sign (near the exit) that says we should give to charities rather than panhandlers?

    Evidently, the King Benjamin’s admonition to give to beggars has been rescinded (like polygamy) by a modern prophet.

    Or perhaps giving to the right charities counts as giving to beggars (albeit indirectly), and maybe panhandlers aren’t necessarily needy. (Though I admit that this stance has something of a “Blessed are the cheesemakers” feel to it.)

    And what if King Benjamin was wrong? Are there parts of his speech can we safely consider to be political, and therefore merely advice from a wise king rather than the admonition of a prophet?

  9. Rusty on November 30, 2004 at 8:00 pm

    Joel D, I struggle with that same thing, man. I pass no less than three beggars every day on my way home in Brooklyn. There are career beggars (an apt description, being that they work hard at it) on my route and I sometimes lip sync their pitch. Not that that means they aren’t in need, but it makes me question if we are truly obligated to give to them. I don’t give to many people that are offering me products or services, why should I give to someone who offers me neither? Don’t get me wrong, I truly give to those who I feel are in need, but they usually aren’t the three that I pass by every night.

  10. Julie in Austin on November 30, 2004 at 10:15 pm

    No, we don’t have to give to every beggar on the street.

    I have a stewardship over the resources I have, and the responsibility to administer those funds, well, responsibly. If I give them to someone on the street, I may very well be enabling his drug addiction.

    I take very seriously the job of researching worthwhile charities. There are several good websites out there, including the BBB one, Worth Magazine, and others that evaluate charities.

  11. Joel D. on November 30, 2004 at 10:26 pm

    I appreciate your perspective, Julie. In your opinion, then, does giving to charities absolve us of our need to give to beggars (absent some overriding spiritual prompting to give in a particular situation)? Perhaps if we limit the universe of charities to those who directly help indigents? If you could cite some authority on that, it would certainly solve a lot of my problems with this part of the gospel.

    This reminds me somewhat of Maimonides and his various levels of “charity”. If I am recalling it correctly, he argues that helping the poor indirectly so that the needy person is not made ashamed by face to face help is the more charitable course. Are charitable institutions the way out of our dilemma? While I hope the answer is yes, I have a feeling that King Benjamin can’t be gotten around that simply.

  12. a random John on November 30, 2004 at 11:16 pm

    Joel,

    I am under the impression that if you pay a generous fast offering that you are off the hook from the King Benjamin situation. Of course I have no reference to back this up, so any help would be appreciated.

  13. Susan Malmrose on November 30, 2004 at 11:31 pm

    I think King Benjamin’s words are aimed more at our attitudes toward material possessions and money than anything else. Do we *really* believe and feel that our substance belongs not to us, but to God? I’ve had periods in my life where due to unemployment it became very obvious to me just how reliant on God we are for our lives and our living.

    I don’t think we’re required to give to every beggar we pass on the street. But we are required to feel compassion for them. For five years I worked in a neighborhood in Seattle full of homeless people, and I’d often pass the same panhandlers everyday–one in particular who was obviously mentally ill. I gave when I had extra change–and when I felt safe doing so. (I’d often put some extra change in my pockets so I wouldn’t have to go digging through my purse in front of him. To be honest, I don’t really care if he was spending it on alcohol–although I don’t think so. I’d often see him in the deli I frequented buying a muffin and some coffee. If I were elderly, mentally ill, and homeless in a place like Seattle, I’d probably be getting drunk regularly myself.) But I think more important than the giving is whether we are viewing those around us with compassion.

    I’m sure there’s a way to bring this around to the law of consecration but my kids are fighting again. :)

  14. lyle on December 1, 2004 at 1:33 am

    David: I like your suggestion re: superceded by modern revelation. However, why then is this scripture still used in general conference, sunday school, etc.?

    Nate: I like your #3. So, if we are becoming like God, doesn’t the standard answer to the problem of Evil have a standard agency caveat that would also apply to acts of charity also?

  15. Clark on December 1, 2004 at 2:55 am

    Ivan, I think the real question is how many who see that sign at temple square actually give to charities. I’ll confess that I haven’t, although in years past I have worked at the local soup kitchen and other charities. I’ve heard that the United Way has a hard time in Utah because so many people feel that once one has paid their tithing the rest is theirs. Yet we have fast offerings and many other charitable offerings ranging from those bottles for sick children at convenience stores up through the Access Fund, the Sierra Fund, the Missionary Fund, or various Catholic Relief agencies.

  16. Melissa on December 1, 2004 at 11:43 am

    Frank—

    Mosiah 4:27 says that we should not run faster than we have strength. Doesn’t that imply that if we *can* do something morally praiseworthy then we *ought* to do so? This verse seems to strengthen the argument that there are no supererogatory actions in LDS theology. It seems to say that there are no morally praiseworthy actions within our power to perform that are not obligatory.

    Kaimi—-

    I think your analogy to the law here is right on. Some moral philosophers argue that supererogation isolated from specific contexts is nonsensical. There are things required of people certain vocations, for example, that would be considered supererogatory for those who did not have that vocation. I think this is related to what sort of law one is living by. Another way to think of this is in biblical terms—under the Old Law, where certain things were required, one could go beyond religious obligation but under the New Law, which isn’t rewally deontoligical in the same way, nothing is “required by duty” but rather more, much more is expected by love. (the Good Samaritan parable applies here).

    Joel, Clark, Ivan, Julie and Lyle—–

    King Benjamin’s words are indeed “hard sayings.” But they are not his sayings alone. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus tells us to “give to him that asketh thee.” (Matt 5:42). This admonition is given in the context of Jesus saying that when we are asked for our coat we should give our cloak as well. I think it is difficult to say that modern revelation has superceded this injunction of Jesus’. Not only because I haven’t seen any evidence of it (I don’t think the signs at Temple Square constitute such evidence) but also because I think “superceding” Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount would be ruled out theologically.

    Susan,

    You are absolutely right that on the level of practice this is complicated. Last February on a particularly bitter day I gave my lunch money to a beggar near Brown and then watched him go into a convenience store. I followed him out of curiosity and watched him buy a lottery ticket. I felt angry and approached him about this. He gave me back the money feeling ashamed—and then I felt ashamed. I said I’d take him anywhere he wanted for lunch. He chose Starbucks for coffee and cake. I sat down with him and for half an hour I asked him questions about his situation trying to find a longer term solution. It was one of the most discouraging conversations I’ve ever had because it became clear to me that there was very little long term that I could do to help him short of bringing him home to my own home. Was this my religious obligation? Growing up we always had people off the street who lived with us–sometimes for years at a time. Was this beyond my parents religious obligation—was it supererogatory? Or, was it required by the highest standards of the Gospel?

    More later to David and Nate—I’ve just run out of time.

    MP

  17. Joel D. on December 1, 2004 at 12:19 pm

    Melissa,

    Your point is well taken. I think that for most of us, the hard question is not “whether” we should “give to him that asketh thee”, but “how” (and by extension, “how much”). Can we fulfill this injunction by giving money to a charitable institutions that will help the poor and (hopefully) be in a better position to effect a long-term solution to a person’s impoverished condition? Or must we directly give money (or food or whatever) right to the beggar? Or must we do both?

    As a corollary, does the “do all things in wisdom and order” clarification by King Benjamin give us guidance only on how much to give, or does it perhaps give us some guidance on the manner in which we should give as well?

  18. lyle on December 1, 2004 at 2:15 pm

    Melissa: Can/Would Christ over-rule Christ?

  19. Melissa on December 1, 2004 at 2:46 pm

    David Landrith King—-

    Your point about LDS ethics not being based on obligation is exactly the issue I have in mind here. If a right-based ethic (a deontological ethic) doesn’t make sense in LDS theology (which is still a live question on this thread based on Nate’s comments) then what framework does make sense? Some might say some form of utilitarianism or even some sort of virtue ethics is best. However, I am beginning to think that none of the traditional secular models really work—that we need something else. I think an effective LDS ethical model might be developed on the idea of covenant love (Hebrew “chesed”). Of course, any ethical model we might construct would need to take account of the role that the Spirit plays—and this is tricky.

  20. Melissa on December 1, 2004 at 2:55 pm

    Joel,

    I think the questions of “how” to give and “how much” to give are big and important questions that are not easily answered by any sort of general rule. When I lived in New Haven I followed the example of friends and carried copies of the address and schedule of the local soup kitchen around with me to hand out when I got asked by the homeless for money for food. That solution seemed to work in that specific context, but other contexts are different and call for something else.

    At least for the purposes of this discussion I’m not as interested in either the epistemological questions of how we can know whether someone is really in need or in the more practical questions of when, how, and how much to give. What I am really interested in are the meta-ethical and theological issues regarding obligation and supererogation. These issues are broadly applicable to our thinking about any religious duty—not just giving to the poor.

  21. Melissa on December 1, 2004 at 3:29 pm

    Nate,

    I was somewhat confused by your post. My guess is that the point of confusion lies in the unclarity of my original post so let me clarify. I think Latter-day Saint thoelogy may not have room for supererogation precisely *because* I think we have (or should have?)a robust concept of grace.

    Pelagianism opposes original sin. As a result the Pelagian position rejects the Augustinian claim that the fallen human has a radical need for grace. The Reformers rejected Pelagianism (to Luther Pelagianism was the worst of heresies) for the same reason they rejected supererogation. On their reading, supererogation, like pelagianism, leaves no room for grace. If we have the ability on our own to achieve salvation by going beyond religious duty and storing up our good deeds (Luther called this a “treasury of merit”) then we do not obtain salvation by the grace of God—we have, at least in part, bestowed it upon ourselves. This was, of course, anathema to the Reformers since they believed that salvation comes by God’s grace alone. On this line of reasoning the possibility that one could perform praiseworthy actions outside the confines of obedience to God’s laws was troubling since such acts of supererogation open up the possibility of being justified by one’s works instead of by faith.

    Whether LDS theology indicates that we are saved by faith or works or some combination thereof is a big question and one I can’t discuss right this minute. However, I will say that some Latter-day Saints may make relevant the distinction between salvation and exaltation at this point—suggesting that even if salvation comes through faith and grace, exaltation (becoming like God and having God’s sort of existence) requires a different sort of framework, one in which one can “go beyond” the formal obligations necessary to achieve salvation. That “something more” is necessary. I’m not sure I agree with this sort of reasoning because it seems to me that the ability to transcend the requirements of obligation (if there are such limits on duty in the first place) is also the result of grace. It is only because of the covenant relationship that we are in with God that we are enabled (strengthened, empowered, changed, altered, reborn) such that we are able go the extra mile or love our neighbor (think Moroni 7:45 ff) in Good Samaritan sort of ways.

    I think there is good evidence that LDS theology assumes this sort of ethic (an ethic of covenant love instead of a deontological ethic which includes supererogation) since most of us can’t even manage to fulfill our duty (i.e. keep the commandments) very well on our own. We need Christ to strengthen us even to achieve our religious obligations. When we can’t even fulfill our duty on our own, the idea that we could do anything above and beyond duty by our own strength that would accrue to our merit seems contrary to experience.

  22. Jim F on December 1, 2004 at 3:48 pm

    Melissa, I don’t have time to say more than “amen” to your suggestion that the usual categories of ethics may not work for us, that instead we may have to think in terms of covenant, something which few inside our outside the Church have done.

  23. Melissa on December 1, 2004 at 4:08 pm

    Nate:
    ” I thought that you were suggesting that conceptually within Mormon theology you were making the claim that there was not good deed that was not also morally obligatory because we are required to become as God is. If I understand you, you are making the more posiac point that there can be no superegatory acts because such acts by defnition indicate an excess of goodness on our part and no such excess is possible, because any good we do is by God’s grace and therefore not excessive.”

    I actually haven’t really made any claims. I have, however, raised both of these points as questions to discuss. Both of these are potential problems for the concept of supererogation in LDS theology.

    More later tonight.

  24. Joel D. on December 1, 2004 at 4:41 pm

    Sorry, Melissa, for my inadvertent attempt to hijack your thread. However, I have much more interest in discussing the practical implications than I do the philosophical ones, as I am not particularly well trained in philosophy. Perhaps one of our permanent bloggers can start a new thread to discuss this for those of us who’d like to continue the discussion along the practical lines.

  25. Melissa on December 1, 2004 at 5:25 pm

    Joel,

    I didn’t take your comments as threadjacking :). We can have the practical conversation here too. I think you are right that Benjamin’s address can’t be gotten around simply.

    I always try now to carry some cash for people that ask me but when I lived in New Haven these requests were so frequent that I handed out soup kitchen schedules instead. What have you found is the best way to handle these daily sorts of situations?

  26. Ivan Wolfe on December 1, 2004 at 5:25 pm

    Clark –

    I have wondered the same thing about the sign at the temple – how many members do actually donate to charity.

    However, when I first saw it, it actually did spur me to begin searching out and donating to worthy charities and service organizations. But I wonder if I am a rule or an exception……

  27. clark on December 1, 2004 at 5:37 pm

    An odd question related to this arose out of this Business Week discussion of Warren Buffet and philanthropy. The issue is whether giving immediately is the best use of resources. I recognize that for most people this iisn’t the issue. If they aren’t giving that money to the begger on the street you’re probably going to spend it on fast food on an Xbox or something selfish. But at the same time the Business Week story made me think of the parable of the talents. If I build up billions by not giving to the poor and give it all at the end to the poor, haven’t I actually given more?

    I recognize that this is problematic since none of us know the future terribly well. That ignorance ought to inform our giving.

    Yet at the same time I think this affects how we read Benjamin. If we agree that we ought to give and give generously to the poor, doesn’t how we give count a lot? For instance if I build up a halfway house where homeless people can stay, obtain food, and have an address for looking for work, haven’t I done more for them (given them more) than handing them money every time I see them?

  28. Joel D. on December 1, 2004 at 5:47 pm

    Melissa,

    I wish I could say that I have found a way. I should do some more pondering on what would be best. In the past, I’ve only given cash when powerfully prompted by the Spirit (a rare occurrence) and I have only somewhat less rarely offered to buy someone a meal. In the latter case, I’ve been occasionally turned down. My conclusion thus far has been that I just need to let the Spirit guide me, but in examining my life I find that I so rarely am giving anything that I probably need to face the fact that I am not as in tune with the Spirit as I need to be to follow this course. Thus my desire to try to find some pattern of conduct that can at least fill in the gaps when I’m not paying attention to the Spirit.

    I like your idea of handing out soup kitchen schedules. Perhaps a card with the address of a homeless shelter? Maybe my best course would be to search out a reputable shelter whose policies I find most salutary and donate to them on a regular basis and hand out cards with their address to panhandlers.

    Part of my problem is that I’ve learned to mostly ignore them as part of the urban landscape. Wow, looking at the last sentence makes me seem so bad!

    The other hard question is how much to give. I’ve brainstormed this in lots of ways. My favorite idea (simply for creativity value) was to take the 8 million people in New York City and figure out what the per capita share would be to provide a subsistence income for each of the estimate 30000 (I’m not sure if I’m remembering this statistic right) homeless persons. My calculations work out to around $115 per year per NYC inhabitant. This would be my “fair share” and I might adjust it up to take into account that I likely earn more than the average person in NYC (although I have a terrible negative net worth with all my law school loans!) and donate it to a charity that cares for homeless people.

    Melissa, back to your idea, how do the panhandlers typically react when you give them a soup kitchen schedule instead of money? Do they typically receive the paper? Did you find this effective, or was it mostly a gesture to soothe your conscience because you tried to help?

  29. Russell Arben Fox on December 1, 2004 at 6:18 pm

    “If we agree that we ought to give and give generously to the poor, doesn’t how we give count a lot?”

    I think it absolutely does, Clark. However, I think it is at least arguable that the proper, scriptural response to that “how” challenge isn’t necessarily what I suspect you’re suggesting it is. Your example seems to imply that the reason why “how” we give to the poor matters is because we want to be effective in our giving, productive in our giving, maximized and efficient and strategic and focused on the long-term and the bottom line. That is, we want our giving to “work.” But should we, in fact, want to be those things? Maybe what we should want to be is the complete opposite.

  30. CJ on December 1, 2004 at 6:53 pm

    Everyone,

    Just gotta go with the Spirit and your own best understandings about what is right for you on this one. I really feel that the Lord’s standard is absolute on some thing and infinitely adaptable (per individual, circumstance, challenge, upbringing, et al) on others. I’d have to say this falls into the latter class. If YOU feel you are living worthy of the Spirit and feel morally justified in ignoring a beggar or two, then follow what your heart dictates. The Lord will never hold you accountable for you best of intentions to align your actions to His will.

    For the record, I work for the Church as an lds.org programmer, and I too have whispered to myself the repeated, never-changing petitions of the career beggars on Temple Square. One has been there for over four years. Anyway, HTH.

  31. CJ on December 1, 2004 at 6:57 pm

    Couple typographical slips on that last post… in the first paragraph, should be “some things” (plural) and then later, “The Lord will never hold you accountable for acts done (or not done) with proper intent. If we’re striving daily to aling our actions with His will, that’s all He expects of us.”

  32. CJ on December 1, 2004 at 6:57 pm

    hahaha, bad day. Should be “align”, not “aling”, obviously. My apologies everyone.

  33. Clark on December 1, 2004 at 8:01 pm

    Hey CJ, any chance of a 12 questions regarding the church’s website? (Which is excellent by the way – the increase in quality of programmers for the church has been huge the past few years)

    Russell, I’m actually not taking a stance. Indeed I think the way Benjamin presents things what counts is less effectiveness than the giving. i.e. he would have a conniption over Warren Buffet. I confess that I find Buffet’s stance extremely problematic, as I do many major rich Democrats, who seem quite willing to force charity but are unwilling to freely give a lot. But that’s a whole other kettle of fish…

    The whole issue is really problematic to me since it seems a place where so many gospel principles collide and conflict. For instance the principle of equality seems quite incompatible with the principle of immediate giving, since the principle of immediate giving seems doomed to negate any possibility of equality. (It will usher in a slave mentality)

    My personal sense is that many scriptures assume a kind of ascetic ideal – like a monastic order. Yet that is often incompatible with our idea of progression and so forth.

  34. David King Landrith on December 1, 2004 at 11:49 pm

    Melissa: If a right-based ethic (a deontological ethic) doesn’t make sense in LDS theology (which is still a live question on this thread based on Nate’s comments) then what framework does make sense? Some might say some form of utilitarianism or even some sort of virtue ethics is best. However, I am beginning to think that none of the traditional secular models really work—that we need something else.

    I see the basis of Mormon Theology is something closer to Godwin’s idealy placed impartial observer. (Of course, this presuposes the legitimacy of a reasonably developed western moral sentiment, but never mind that for now…) The justifications for acting according to the observer’s judgment are twofold: (1) we often get rewarded in the short run for doing so, and (2) we will certainly get rewarded in the long run for doing so.

  35. CJ on December 2, 2004 at 3:18 am

    Clark,

    If you guys want to hit me with the questions, I’ll do what I can. I could even do a little investigative reporting with some colleagues to gather information I don’t have off-hand. They never read blogs anyway so if I said too much I’d be alright. I was actually helping teach a few of ‘em what RSS is the other day. I really think newsroom.lds.org or the Church news site should have an RSS feed. We’re still far from being on the cutting edge with such things. You know the Church mindset when it comes to many such things though: “slow, steady, and safe”.

    But, I digress. I’d be willing to do what I can. By the way, did anyone see the BYU NewsNet story on the upcoming lds.org redesign? In case not, here it is: http://newsnet.byu.edu/story.cfm/53705. I agree that the current content is great, but the navigation is horrendous. The redesign should make it much easier to use and find what you need. I’ll probably be several months still, but something to look forward to.

    Maybe after I’m out of law school (apps pending :)), I can post with the conceptual profundity of the rest of you. HTH.

  36. CJ on December 2, 2004 at 3:20 am

    Note to self: Proofread comments before submitting. “It’ll be several months still”, not “I’ll be several months still.” Sheesh.

  37. Clark on December 2, 2004 at 5:21 pm

    Alas CJ, I’m not on the board of directors for the blog. I was merely a guest blogger. Kaimi? How about a thread?

  38. CJ on December 2, 2004 at 5:25 pm

    Ahh, gotcha. Kaimi?? Bueller…???

  39. Leslie on December 2, 2004 at 8:54 pm

    CJ’s appeal to following the Spirit in deciding how to behave morally is a cop-out.

    If one believes that God makes decisions rationally, then using reason we can discover what the Spirit would tell us to do. It does not matter that in real situations we may not know all of the relevant information.

    We can posit hypothetical situations in which we mandate all of the information. From this we may discover what is the relevant information to our moral decisions and what our moral obligations are. In the context of this post, we can determine if superogatory acts are coherent in Mormonism.

    Letting the Spirit make decisions for us in theoretical discourse hinders our discovery of why the Spirit would instruct us to act one way or the other.

    In real life following the Spirit may be useful. However, learning why the Spirit says what she says is much more interesting.

    Pardon the disgression on method. I merely want to point out that the question of whether we have superogatory acts is one we have to confront, not sidestep.

    Leslie

  40. Clark on December 2, 2004 at 9:05 pm

    The difference Leslie is God’s omniscience. Our lack of data entails many ethical decisions can’t be reasoned out.

  41. CJ on December 2, 2004 at 9:47 pm

    If following the Spirit is considered a “cop-out”, maybe I’m on the wrong board. Pardon my candor, but I feel there is no more intelligent decision than to recognize one’s own intellectual and spiritual limitations and defer to those of an infinite, omniscient Being. Thinking it possible, or plausible, that man is capable of understanding the whys and hows of all of God’s dealings with man is a claim both grossly unrealistic and lacking in deference to Deity. While it is true that God makes decisions rationally, it is based on a rationale far superior to our own. Thinking oneself insightful enough to decipher and map out all such logic is preposterous. Granted, we are to employ the understanding and intelligence that Heaven has endowed us with, but there are many, many instances where the SPIRIT reigns and our minds must follow, all the while ignorant as to the rationale behind it. Were we omniscient and aware of all time, circumstance, and everything else past, present, and future, than maybe we could make such a supposition. But man is man, and is meant to, nay COMMANDED, to follow Heaven’s instruction–all the while unclear as to the exact “why”. This is called faith.

  42. CJ on December 2, 2004 at 9:51 pm

    Any idea why the RSS feed for comments stops coming through after about ten or so? I would assume it should continue to update, irrespective of the number of posts. And, should’ve been “then maybe” instead of “than maybe” in that last post.

  43. Joel D. on December 2, 2004 at 9:58 pm

    CJ,

    I agree that following the Spirit is the ideal solution to dealing with indigents (as well as any situation). Unlike Leslie, I don’t think that answer is a cop-out. My difficulty is that I have not progressed enough that I always recognize the Spirit. Indeed, in many ways I think that God recognizes this, and gives us commandments to tell us how to act in certain situations–we’re just not advanced enough to always follow the Spirit. Thus my quest to discover some practical guides to action with regard to panhandlers.

  44. CJ on December 2, 2004 at 10:18 pm

    Joel,

    I agree completely. My comments were in theory, not PERSONAL practice. I wish I could say I’ve progressed to the point where I recognize the Spirit always, but I’m confident I fail to do so the vast majority of the time. God’s commandments probably serve more purposes than we even realize, and acting as a form of direction for those of us less in tune makes perfect sense. For me, if it’s someone I’ve never met before, I’ll just go with a “gut” feel–call it the Spirit, Light of Christ, integestion, or what you will. :) With those I see every single day outside Temple Square, though, I’m a little more stingy. I really feel, though, that it’s a personal judgment call. “He who must be commanded in all things…”

  45. Leslie on December 3, 2004 at 1:32 pm

    Appealing to the Spirit in answering moral questions does sidestep the issue.

    Suppose I say to you, it is wrong to gratuitously torture Johnny Smith, a six-year-old. You ask how I know that it is wrong. I say the Spirit told me so. You ask why the Spirit would tell me that. I respond by saying that I don’t know. God’s rationale is far superior to mine and beyond my understanding.

    This gets us nowhere in understanding right and wrong. It merely places that burden on the Spirit. We can discover reasons for not torturing children that are sufficient to condemn the practice regardless of whether God has additional reasons. In a hypothetical situation we are omniscient. Their purpose is to avoid the problems of not knowing all of the relevant factors. In practice, this may not be possible. Hence, appealing to the Spirit is acceptable.

    Leslie

  46. CJ on December 3, 2004 at 1:39 pm

    Leslie,

    I guess I can see your point to an extent. If I understand you correctly, you feel that setting up hypothetical, ideal situations in which we know all circumstance would allow purely rational analysis on the moral right and wrong of potential actions without the need to appeal to a higher Source. I don’t really have much of an opinion on this, seeing as a) I’m not sure we can EVER say we’re omniscient about really much of anything–there could always be a higher law at work that we’re failing to recognize and b) I don’t know what practical use knowing what to do in such a situation has if there are in reality no such situations. But thanks for giving at least a little cred to the idea of seeking divine guidance.

    -Chris (CJ)

    Does anyone else’s RSS feed for these comments not update?

  47. Leslie on December 3, 2004 at 1:44 pm

    Concerning superogatory acts, let me advance a criterion.

    An act is superogatory in Mormon theology if the act is praiseworthy AND one could still achieve the highest kingdom of Celestial glory even if one did not do it.

    Here is a hypothetical example: Suppose that one may choose between two careers. One involves a lot of self-sacrifice like that of Mother Teresa. The other does not involve nearly as much self-sacrifice. In both careers, one is able to do the same amount of good and obtains the saving ordinances. One also ends up being Christ-like to the same extent in both careers. Pursuing the career that involves self-sacrifice would be morally praiseworthy because one is putting others in front of oneself. However, Mormon theology would say that one could obtain the hightest degree of exaltation regardless of which of the two careers one chose. Hence, pursuing the self-sacrificing career would be a superogatory act.

    Leslie

  48. CJ on December 3, 2004 at 2:40 pm

    Leslie,

    I’ll get behind that. Seems sound to me, and probably a little more on target with the original point of the thread. My comments dealt more with the specific beggars/King Benjamin issue.

    CJ

  49. Ben Huff on December 4, 2004 at 8:23 pm

    I think Kaimi and Melissa covered the question pretty well, but here’s a little different angle:

    If we are to devote all our efforts and resources to the building of God’s kingdom (consecration), then there’s nothing “super” the “erogatory”, if the celestial law is the standard.

    But so long as we are working toward being able to live by that standard, our lives will be riddled with occasions where we would morally praise someone for doing X, but not blame them for not doing X. Two main reasons for this come to mind: (a) we frequently can’t presume to know whether X is really the morally best course, and so shouldn’t blame people for not doing X; and (b) lots of those around us have not entirely set their minds to abiding a celestial law, so blaming them for not doing so will be more likely to annoy them than achieve anything constructive. As Kaimi points out, there are different standards of conduct, and in choosing when and how to praise and blame people, we need to be mindful of the standards they acknowledge as binding on them.

  50. Marie on December 5, 2004 at 10:05 pm

    More problematic than most of the issues raised by others (do I have to give to every beggar on the street? isn’t the welfare state morally corrupt which means I am not obligated to give? isn’t my fast offering enough already?) is the question about what kind of society we are called to as Saints. My Mormonism always expected a “becoming Christlike” journey, which means more than simply counting how many good acts I made this past month or year. Our living in this highly individualistic society of the twenty-first century has framed our understanding of salvation as something pursued individually and separate from others. How would King Benjamin be interpreted by people living in a more cooperative society?

    King Benjamin’s sermon is not just about how an individual should behave towards others. The sermon describes what relationships should exist between people in a truly moral society. This presents us with an even more difficult issue. For not only must we give to the beggar (or at least contribute generously to fast offering funds and the local food bank if you would rather not encourage pan handling), perhaps we ought to be thinking about how to create a more cooperative society in which those who are without do not have to be without. Please remember, given the way we have structure benefits in our current welfare system, children make up the largest category of recipients.

  51. Aaron on December 7, 2004 at 4:19 am

    Here in Utah in many sacrament meetings on Sunday (5 Dec. 2004), a letter was read from the First Presidency encouraging Utah members to donate to the Utah Food Bank or other local food bank, citing an increase in need this Christmas season. What a perfect opportunity to put into action a portion of King Benjamin’s sermon.

    As a member of a ward where in most months more fast offerings are paid out to those in need than are received in donations, and as a Utah ward where 80-85% of the households are LDS (if not all active), I have witnessed the generosity of ward members who have towards those who have not. It is heartwarming, and helps me want to reach out and do more.

    I hope that for me, I can learn to live worthily, enough that should a stranger petition me on the street while I’m busily on my way elsewhere, I can ask for a portion of the Spirit to help me discern how best to succor, hopefully without enabling or contributing to an alcohol or drug problem. But far, far more likely is that in my own ward and my own neighborhood, or at work/school/etc. there are those I can get to know around me, and whose needs I will be in a far better position to know and possibly be of service to.

    Hey, that sounds an awful lot like Home Teaching and Visiting Teaching. Maybe I’d better repent…

    Have a Merry Christmas!

  52. Rob Briggs on December 7, 2004 at 4:54 am

    The first time I read the thread I thought I was just dumb. But reading it a second time, I’m still having this problem: trying to mesh the categories Melissa created in the original post with Mormon categories. I confess that it sometimes takes me a year to spot a fallacy in an argument. Still, I have this nagging feeling that we have a category problem.

    The different categories of supererogation as defined/described don’t seem to be coextensive with the categories of Mormonism. The risk is that adopting these foreign categories may do some unintended violence to Mormon categories & understandings.

    Of course, Melissa, I’m not “attacking.” I just can’t seem to get the two systems to sync.