Are the rules of Mormonism constitutive or regulative? The distinction comes John Searle’s justly famous article “How to Derive ‘Ought’ from ‘Is’” (Searle borrowed the terminology from Kant). He wrote:
Some rules regulate antecedently existing forms of behavior. For example, the rules of polite table behavior regulate eating, but eating exists independently of those rules. Some rules, on the other hand, do not merely regulate but create or define new forms of behavior: the rules of chess, for example, do not merely regulate an antecedently existing activity called playing chess; they, as it were, create the possibility of or define that activity. The activity of playing chess is constituted by action in accordance with these rules. Chess has no existence apart from these rules. . . . Regulative rules regulate activities whose existence is independent of the rules; constitutive rules constitute (and also regulate) forms of activity whose existence is logically dependent on the rules.*
Mormonism, it seems to me, is at least in part a normative activity. It has certain rules. The question is what sort of rules are they. Are they rules that simply govern how one behaves in a Mormon context, or are they in fact that context? My working hypothesis is that certain sorts of Mormon rules are simply regulative, while others are constitutive. This matters because it changes how one thinks about breaking theses rules. Consider, for example, the rules governing baptism and the rule that you ought to wear a white shirt while passing the sacrament. It would be nonsensical, I think, to sprinkle an infant while insisting that one was performing a Mormon baptism. On the other hand, it would be equally nonsensical, I think, to suggest that someone who passes the sacrament in a blue shirt has not “really” passed the sacrament. Thus, it seems to me that constitutive and regulative rules have differing claims on us. To violate a constitutive rule is at a very fundamental level to repudiate the practice that one is engaged in. The violation of regulative rules, on the other hand, simply involves a repudiation of the particular pragmatic judgments embodied by those rules.
It is tempting at this point to think that the distinction that I am getting at is normative, ie constitutive rules are rules that I think are good while regulative rules are rules that I think are bad. However, I think that the distinction has more analytic bite than that. For example, even if I believe that the sacrament prayers would be better were they phrased in less exalted and inaccessible language, it is nevertheless the case that I can’t use an alterative prayer of my own composition and still claim that I am blessing the sacrament in the Mormon sense. Ordinances are, of course, the easiest sort of constitutive rules to identify, but I think that we would make a mistake if we thought that the distinction simply tracked the distinction between rules of ordinances and other rules. The most powerful illustration of this is the simple fact that the method of performing ordinances has evolved over time. The question then becomes how one identifies the proper formula for an ordinance. The answer to this question, of course, is Church Doctrine (whatever that might mean). If this is right, however, then the fact that we think of certain aspects of Mormonism as being governed by constitutive rules — ie ordinances — necessarily implies that Church Doctrine operates as a set of background constitutive rules, which means there is an important sense in which to reject Church Doctrine is to reject the practice of Mormonism at a very fundamental level. It is not simply a matter of disagreeing with this or that policy, but rather is more akin to playing checkers rather than chess.
*John R. Searle, “How to Derive ‘Ought’ From ‘Is’,” 73 Philosophical Review 43, 55 (1964).