One Thing Damon’s Article (Probably) Gets Right

December 27, 2006 | 107 comments
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Damon Linker’s TNR article “The Big Test” came out last Friday. Despite the holiday, his argument about Mitt Romney’s all-but-certain presidential candidacy and the problems which at least some Mormon beliefs pose for people looking to decide who to vote for has already caught the eye of many, and will no doubt be talked and argued about for some time to come. If you’re looking for a lengthy take on his argument…well, I’ve put one up on my blog here. But here, writing for T&S’s Mormon audience, let me pick out one paragraph of Damon’s article, and see what I can make of it.

Damon argues that one of the reasons someone might legitimately worry about a Romney presidency is that faithful Mormons believe that the prophet can reveal new truths regarding politics and morals, and since those new truths need not be “grounded” in anything other than’s God’s will for His children–our prophets are not expected to appeal to philosophy or science or majority preferences or anything else for “supporting arguments”–they could require radical changes in policy, even what some might consider unconventional or immoral changes in policy, that Romney himself would not subject to critical examination, much less democratic procedures. This is, to be certain, a rather extreme claim, and gets some important things about Mormonism wrong. But there is one part of Damon’s article that accurately echoes a great deal of current Mormon philosophy. He writes:

Unlike the God of Catholics and Protestants–who is usually portrayed as the transcendent, all-powerful, all-good, and all-wise creator of the temporal universe out of nothingness–Smith’s God is a finite being who evolved into his present state of divinity from a condition very much like our own and then merely “organized” preexisting matter in order to form the world. As a result of this highly unorthodox revelation, there is simply no room for a natural morality in Mormon theology, since Mormonism tacitly denies that the natural world possesses any intrinsic of God-given moral purpose.

Compare this to what Louis Midgley has written on the subject of the Mormon faith and the “Law of Nature” (Encyclopedia of Mormonism, pgs. 986-987):

LDS scriptures…speak of God’s commandments, statutes, and ordinances, of God’s plans and purposes, of the ordering of the world (including its metes and bounds) of law given by God, and so forth. The laws mentioned in the scriptures seem…to be instances of divine positive law, though they are not arbitrary, since as moral prescriptions they form the terms of the covenant entered into in the hope that blessings will flow from obedience to God….Though Latter-day Saints sometimes speculate about the reasons for the positive law given through divine revelation and also about the moral sense of mankind, a moral natural law is not clearly delineated in the LDS canon. Some suggest that rough equivalents for a moral natural law might be elicited from scriputre. But theology, grounded in philosophical speculation, is typically seen as a competitor to divine revelation….Hence, there is little talk of a moral natural law among Latter-day Saints.

Damon attributes the “positive law” aspect of Mormon belief to our particular concept of God, and our disbelief in there being any kind of natural moral order possible in a universe where God Himself is an evolved, contingent actor within that universe. Midgley, by contrast, attributes our lack of a naturally grounded moral thinking to the way we understand the scriptures, rejecting theological readings in favor of seeing in the Bible and the Book of Mormon a series of highly specific–and thus non-systemizable–promises and penalties that arise contextually in the relationship between God and His children. However, I think they are ultimately saying the same thing; while Midgley goes further than Damon in putting the positive law upon which we arguably rely in our moral thinking into its proper context, basically both claim that Mormons don’t think much about nature when considering basic moral problems, but rather think about what the scriptures and prophets and The Ensign says. Descriptively at least, I think they’re both right.

There is much to be said in favor of the Mormon way of thinking as described by Midgley. For example, the upside of our “unnatural” reading of scripture is that we–as the argument usually goes–are able to read the words of God fairly literally without having to test or intellectualize those readings so that they can fit seamlessly in with an overarching moral whole. (Sometimes the scriptures suggest that the Anti-Nephi-Lehis have the right idea about dealing with one’s enemies, sometimes they imply that Captain Moroni’s approach is best, and we just roll with it.) Thus we embrace a scriptural seriousness that doesn’t require us to constantly explain away inconsistencies; we just assume that God has told different people different things at different times, and, well, He knows what He’s doing. But there is a downside to investing so much authority in the specific, positive dictates of God (or the prophet, or our local bishop, for that matter): it makes it difficult to develop a way of thinking about morality that would appeal to people who haven’t already accepted the Mormon reading of things. Figuring out what we believe Mormon temple presidents and bishops and members should think about same-sex marriage is a (relative) snap; just turn to the words of the prophet. Figuring out what we believe others should think about same-sex marriage, or what all of us collectively, as a community or state or country or world, should do about same-sex marriage, is…well, harder.

The question of Mormism and natural law is one of the oldest of all Times and Seasons discussions, going all the way back to our first month of existence. It has shaped–even in its absence–discussions on this blog regarding not just same-sex marriage, but also abortion, family size and planning, divorce, war and peace, adoption, gender relations, child-raising, and a dozen other topics. Damon, I suspect, would argue that there is a good reason for this. Stepping outside one’s immediate community of belief and engaging a wider public in moral discussions often seems to require some sort of theological or philosophical ground if only so that one can explain oneself to someone else in mutually comprehendable terms; natural law discourse is hardly the only way to do this, but it is certainly one of the most tested and refined ways of doing so, having an intellectual tradition that extends all the way back to the Greeks and Romans. Of course, it’s not necessarily a democratic tradition; claiming that there is some sort of moral purpose to the natural world and that we are organically beholden to that purpose in our lives and relationships is a pretty good way to invest an ethical system with some real authority, but it isn’t guaranteed to move the application of that authority any closer to the sort of liberal environment Damon wishes to see in America. Still, Damon connects the basic project of philosophy and theology to some of the key elements of Western politics, and he has a point in doing so: if morality in public life really does depend upon arguing publicly about the reasons for one’s beliefs, then perhaps our inability to talk about morality “naturally” limits our ability to articlate our beliefs, and thus to participate in public life.

Now there are a few assumptions in all of the above that I think are quite wrong (and I plan to go into them in my own response). But for the moment, consider this:

In recent years, mostly–but not solely–in association with the church’s efforts to pass state and federal laws opposing the legalization of same-sex marriage, more than a few general authorities of the church, as well as politically active members of the church, have begun to employ same “natural morality” language that most socially conservative Protestants and Catholics do. (See here and here for examples.) Romney has come to speak that way himself. According to Damon, Mormons can’t sensibly use such language, because our concept of God cannot be squared with moral principles existing outside or alongside the commands of our working-it-out-as-He-progresses-in-glory God; according to Midgley, we shouldn’t use such language, because even if there are such eternally-existing-and-morally-binding principles (and Midgley implies there are not, writing that at most Mormons believe the “laws of nature” to be morally neutral descriptions of simple “regularities” in the universe), we can’t know what they are through the scriptures, and so, he concludes, “[s]uch speculation remains tentative and problematic.” We could, of course, assume that Elder Hafen and Professor Wilkins and Governor Romney are speaking that way without embracing, or perhaps even fully understanding, the philosophy or theology behind it. (This is actually my suspicion.) But we could also give them the benefit of the doubt, and assume that they’ve thought through all of the above, and yet don’t see any problem with connecting Mormon belief to natural principles apart from specific statements of the prophets. There could be, as I see it, a few ways to make this work:

1. Perhaps Damon is wrong; perhaps Mormons don’t actually believe in a God who is an evolved being in the midst of a universe without any intrinsic natural purpose. Perhaps the King Follet Discourse–which, it is worth noting, has never been canonized or made binding upon members of the church–is one of those odd remnants of Smith’s teachings that we just elide in our moral thinking, thus making it easy for politically concerned Mormons to affirm the existence of a God-endorsed fully natural law. (There is also the possibility that the KFD has been wrongly interpreted all these years and doesn’t actually imply the existence of a God who gives moral edicts separate from the nature of the universe around Him; see Blake Ostler’s arguments on this point.)

2. Perhaps Damon is correct, but his inference is wrong; perhaps Mormons do worship such a “once-a-man-now-a-God”-type of God, but that doesn’t prevent us from employing natural law thinking. Much theorizing about natural morality assumes that “nature” has an objective, propositional quality: that what is moral about is inscribed in it somehow, and can be made manifest by simply getting one’s test or questioning of nature correct. (“Will children raised by same-sex couples flourish, yes or no?”) This sets up an either-or dynamic to our understanding of the natural world: either one is dealing with a prejudiced (“pre-judged”) take on the universe, or one has come to the original truth. But this dynamic greatly reduces our own interpretive contribution to moral thinking, turning our impressions and intuitions into distractions and illusions. Hermeneutic philosophy teaches that we can’t get a grasp on anything–including “nature”–without subjectively recognizing certain “givens” in our understanding. If this happens to be the case, then why should one assume that the covenants which God establishes through positive edicts with us aren’t every bit as natural as any other kind of claim?

3. Moreover, perhaps Midgley is wrong; perhaps between our lay organization, our teachings about the apostacy, and what Terryl Givens’s has called our “dialogical” approach to God’s word, we have allowed ourself to become blinded to the degree to which the scriptures and revelations do invite us to develop general moral theories grounded in nature. It has become common amongst some LDS thinkers to downplay the efforts of early Mormons to systematize our faith and present Smith’s and others’ revelations in the form of public treatises (as was done here and here and here)…but maybe they had the right idea after all: maybe they, writing before what many historians would refer to as our era of “assimilation” (basically the early 1900s through the 1960s), appreciated as we do not today the potential value of expressing to the world a unique Mormon theological perspective on major religious and moral problems. If Romney’s incipient candidacy suggests, among other factors, that Mormons today are prepared to enter into political contests on our own terms, then the ability to discern in Mormonism a set of broadly applicable moral arguments may be necessary, and constructing a moral law out of the standard works doesn’t seem to pose any greater obstacles than the Bible alone did.

To anyone who has read this far (my posts on political theology always tend to run long)…any thoughts?

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107 Responses to One Thing Damon’s Article (Probably) Gets Right

  1. John Mansfield on December 27, 2006 at 1:02 pm

    Since you ask for thoughts, I’ll repeat my advice on how Romney could address queries about polygamy. The future former governor could express his confidence in the Church responding to continual revelation. He could express his faith in the divine guidance under which Joseph Smith initiated polygamy and Wilford Woodruff and Joseph F. Smith abandoned it. He could express his appreciation that Gordon B. Hinckley stands at the head of the Church today to lead us in whatever unforeseen directions may be demanded by God. Laban’s severed head could be worked into this somewhere. That should do the trick.

  2. Aaron Brown on December 27, 2006 at 1:30 pm

    My apologies for failing to engage with the bulk of your post (which was very interesting, by the way), but I want to ask this question: What exactly is “extreme” or “wrong” about Linker’s argument as you’ve summarized it in your second paragraph? Perhaps we all think we know the Church leadership’s political sensibilities well enough to confidently predict that they’d never put Romney (or American Mormons generally) in the awkward position of having to wrestle with new political mandates from Salt Lake while an LDS member occupied the Oval Office, and perhaps the notion that an LDS President would fail to engage in “critical examination” is unnecessary insulting. But as I read Damon’s article, I found him articulating many of the concerns that I imagined an informed non-Churchmember might have with a Mormon President. Please clarify.

    (Does this sort of count as a threadjack?)

    Aaron B

  3. Jettboy on December 27, 2006 at 1:56 pm

    I think we do have “Natural Law” in our religion, if I understand what that is. After all, God isn’t god only because He decided to become one. Jesus did not suffer and die in the act of the Atonement because he felt like it. As the D&C and Lehi in the Book of Mormons says, every action has an opposite reaction with different laws for different spheres. In other words, there is “Natural Laws” of a moral nature, but we mortals simply are not familiar with every premutation of them. Hence, God acts WITHIN “Natural Law” or He wouldn’t be God, even if we have no idea exactly what all those laws might consist.

  4. sr on December 27, 2006 at 3:23 pm

    I include some BoM passages below. The upshot is that God himself is bound by natural moral laws which dictate the balance between justice and mercy. The passages suggest that, as Jettboy remarks, a Mormon doctrine that natural moral law is not created by God but exists independently of God. I therefore think Damon’s claim that “there is simply no room for a natural morality in Mormon theology” is a little questionable (although not having read the article I can’t be sure what he meant by this). His argument also seems to rely at least partly on the KFD, which is somewhat controversial, to say the least.

    But I do think that Mormon view of “natural law” would tend to be less specific than that of Protestants who might view the entire Bible as part of a “natural law.” For Mormons, obeying natural law means tempering justice and mercy, trying to be fair and follow God, etc.

    On the other hand, the church’s ban on smoking cigarettes — or Family Home Evening, or even the ban on killing or abortion or homosexuality or polygamy — are commandments that the Lord is allowed to qualify and modify from one era to the next. These cannot be considered to be Natural Morality.

    Aaron B.,
    I think your comment is a bit of a threadjack. You’re asking the Mormon version of the question, “Can a Catholic politician believe in a faith that declares the pope to be infallible while at the same time disagreeing with and voting against the pope on the most pressing moral issues of the day?” Most people know the answer is yes for Catholics (certainly for Kennedy and Kerry), but not everyone is so sure what the answer is for the analogous question about Mormons. I think it is pretty clear that the answer is yes for Mitt Romney (though I’m not sure he would put it that way himself). Anyway, this has been discussed at length in other posts and isn’t directly relevant to the question of defining what Mormons believe Natural Morality or Natural Law to be. People who think that the prophet will ask Romney to do something contrary to their wishes—and that Romney will pray and feel that God has inspired him to do what the prophet has asked—can factor this into their voting decisions. This is pretty low on my personal list of concerns, but the bottom line is that if people feel like worrying, they’re going to worry. [Another question is whether well-funded political opponents -- who worry far more about Mitt's tax and expenditure plans than his faith -- will be able to manipulate these fears for their own purposes. But to discuss this would _really_ be a threadjack.]

    PASSAGES FROM BOOK OF MORMON, ALMA 42

    13 Therefore, according to justice, the a plan of bredemption could not be brought about, only on conditions of repentance of men in this probationary state, yea, this preparatory state; for except it were for these conditions, mercy could not take effect except it should destroy the work of justice. Now the work of justice could not be destroyed; if so, God would ccease to be God.
    • • •
    22 But there is a law given, and a punishment affixed, and a repentance granted; which repentance, mercy claimeth; otherwise, justice claimeth the creature and executeth the claw, and the law inflicteth the punishment; if not so, the works of justice would be destroyed, and God would cease to be God.
    • • •
    25 What, do ye suppose that mercy can rob justice? I say unto you, Nay; not one whit. If so, God would cease to be God.

  5. Matt Evans on December 27, 2006 at 5:46 pm

    Not having read Damon’s article yet, I’m only writing on the basis of the paragraph you cite, but does Damon actually think there’s any _substance_ to natural morality and natural law? I ask because he’s suggesting that it’s a bad thing that Mormonism doesn’t have place for natural morality, but of course it’s not really a bad thing when you understand that “natural morality” is empty rhetoric. Complaining that Mormonism has no place for natural morality is like complaining that it has no place for aether.

  6. Clark on December 27, 2006 at 6:59 pm

    Ditto to #3. It seems to me that Mormons have a nicer answer to Plato’s delimma about whether something is good because God commands it or he commands it because its good than the Protestants do. (IMO).

  7. Matt Evans on December 27, 2006 at 7:56 pm

    I’m fine with #3 and 6 so long as we recognize these natural laws are epistemologically impossible even if ontologically possible. But Damon’s critique would be meaningless if he restricted his definition of natural morality as narrowly as we do. His argument can only have traction if he maintains the illusion that human reason can discern “natural morality.”

  8. SJL on December 27, 2006 at 9:45 pm

    Clark (or anyone), I’m pretty new to this discussion. Could you reference scriptures or discourses that discuss the LDS take on that dilemma?

  9. Margaret Young on December 27, 2006 at 10:26 pm

    I find Russell’s statement about the King Follett Discourse interesting. He says, “Perhaps the King Follet Discourse–which, it is worth noting, has never been canonized or made binding upon members of the church–is one of those odd remnants of Smith’s teachings that we just elide in our moral thinking, thus making it easy for politically concerned Mormons to affirm the existence of a God-endorsed fully natural law.”

    Sterling McMurrin said that the KFD contains the ONE distinctive doctrine of Mormonism among all other restorationist/millinarian religions–that idea of eternal progression for all. I agree. I know people who have based their conversion on the KFD.

    I think we see moral evolution within just the past few centuries–moral evolution which recognized the evil of such things as slavery (that peculiar institution which earlier formulations of “Natural Law” fully espoused). But the KFD certainly doesn’t suggest that Godly morality changes as God progresses. The idea that God is the same today, yesterday and forever is still intact–though problematic as interpreted by the scripture writers.

    For me, it’s plain that the writers (I’m including everyone from Moses on) wrote from their own cultural bias and sometimes justified unthinkable acts on the premise that God had approved. (“It is better to obey than to sacrifice” serves as one example–justifying total genocide on what some might suggest amounts to a cliche. Nephi’s killing of Laban has been discussed by Heidi Hart as an example of how we as a people [not just Mormons] seek to excuse ourselves from moral error by finding a good reason to break a commandment. We frame our questions ["Should I or shouldn't I? Should I do it if I feel really good about it? Should I do it if God tells me to do it? Should I do it if it's better for one man to die than for a whole nation to perish?"] in such a way as to free ourselves from moral consequence and guilt. In fact, we may celebrate our willingness to cross the line, which MUST prove that we are more loyal to God than to the Law. Obviously, the same thinking leads to suicide bombing.)

    So, I must say that I found Damon’s experience at BYU quite terrifying. And I found it not at all surprising. I think Damon raises good questions about Romney’s Mormonism, questions which ought to lead us Mormons to think seriously about owr own independent morality.

    I remember a situation years ago where a man I knew felt himself fully justified in breaking some commandments. He felt that God had given the go-ahead. Ultimately, he led an entire community astray and motivated the Church to bulldoze the Mormon chapel on his plantation. My father was with me when we realized how far astray this guy had gone. (It was a little “Heart of Darkness” story that will probably end with the words, “The horror, the horror.”) Dad and I had some heart-to-hearts. A lot of “what if” questions. The one I remember best was this: “What if the prophet told you to reveal everything in the Temple ceremony which you have promised not to reveal?” Dad’s answer: “I wouldn’t do it. I would not break that promise.”

    So back to Russell’s post. I must confess that I find George W. Bush a far more frightening person than Mitt Romney. I find his apparent belief that he is fighting a righteous war terrifying. I find the support he has garnered from the Religious Right a signal that something is seriously wrong with religion in America when it crosses over into politics–particular hawkish politics. (The Holy Ghost comes as a dove, not a hawk.)

    Mitt Romney was in a Stake Presidency when my husband went to Harvard, so Bruce had several Temple recommend interviews with him. He seems like a very good man. I respect that fact that his father made a point of joining Civil Rights marches–something some in the Church would surely have disapproved. I find Romney’s stands on many of the issues (I don’t know his stands on all of them) pretty typical. He believes in legalizing gay COMMITMENTS, meaning that gay couples could have inheritance rights, etc.

    But as for my vote–Barak Obama has it, if he runs. Romney’s Mormonism obviously does not affect my decision, since I am Mormon. (Some may think I’m borderline after they read this post, but I’m not.) I like Obama’s religious sensitivities and I respect his discipline. I think Damon’s article raises some good questions, though it’s clear that he has a distorted view of Mormons–not quite as distorted as I wish it were, unfortunately, because I’m afraid his BYU experience indicates some real problems.

    Would Romney choose the Prophet over the law? Judging from his father’s courage and record, and judging from what Romney has already done in MA, I seriously doubt that his Mormonism would affect his presidency in any way but in what he included in his daily prayers.

  10. Matt Evans on December 27, 2006 at 11:29 pm

    Margaret,

    In your paragraph about cultural bias, are you saying that we can tell which moral statements in scripture actually reflect God’s will (Thou shalt not kill: God speaking; better that one man perish: Nephi speaking), or that there’s a “natural law” that exists and can be used to judge the moral statements in scripture?

    Similarly, how can we know whether it is Nephi or Heidi Hart who wishfully pins their cultural biases on God?

  11. Russell Arben Fox on December 27, 2006 at 11:57 pm

    Aaron,

    “What exactly is ‘extreme’ or ‘wrong’ about Linker’s argument as you’ve summarized it in your second paragraph?”

    Well, I’ll put a link up to my own blog post once I’ve finished it, and I’ll go into a lot more detail there. But very simply, what I think Damon is wrong about is his (implied) account of what it means to be a citizen in a liberal society, and specifically what kinds of knowledge we can reasonably expect to have about one another and each others’ decisionmaking processes in such a society. Damon’s article–and really, you’re probably the ideal reader of it–acknowledges several reasons why Mormonism today almost certainly would never involve sudden, radical revelations that could oblige its members (including a President Romney) to act in immoral ways, but he doesn’t think those reasons are sufficient to save Mormonism from being “politically perilous.” I think they should be sufficient, even while acknowledging that Damon has put his finger on an important–if almost entirely theoretical–question.

  12. Russell Arben Fox on December 28, 2006 at 12:10 am

    Jettboy (#3) and Clark (#6),

    “I think we do have ‘Natural Law’ in our religion….After all, God isn’t god only because He decided to become one. Jesus did not suffer and die in the act of the Atonement because he felt like it….In other words, there are ‘Natural Laws’ of a moral nature, but we mortals simply are not familiar with every premutation of them. Hence, God acts WITHIN ‘Natural Law’ or He wouldn’t be God, even if we have no idea exactly what all those laws might consist.”

    I’m sure either of you could go into greater detail on this point, and I don’t necessarily disagree with where (I think) you’re going with it. But just to make sure we’re on the same page: to say that we can reason about, make arguments in reference to, and construct moral positions out of the natural moral law would be to say 1) that such natural laws exist and God is bound by and/or defined by them, and 2) that we can figure out what those natural laws are by extrapolating them from the scriptures, the words of the prophets, the sciences, our own logic, etc. To say that God became God by obeying natural laws, but we have no idea what those laws are, is very close to what Midgley said in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, and–in Damon’s view at least–thus leaves us with the same problem about public reasoning as before. (Also note, as I said above, that it appears to be Midgley’s position at least that the “laws” by which God became God and does His work–laws about agency, say, or opposites, or whatever–are morally neutral; they are not what we base our thinking about “goodness” upon, but rather we base them on God’s statements alone.)

  13. Jeremiah J. on December 28, 2006 at 12:24 am

    Matt: “His argument can only have traction if he maintains the illusion that human reason can discern “natural morality.”

    Well, since this ‘illusion’ is an important part of the Christian tradition, and specifically Catholicism, then in general I’d say he believes this, and from his article I’d say I’m postiive that that’s what he believes. Catholic teaching is not that human reason can lead human beings to their ultimate end (we have a supernatural end and thus we require supernatural revelation and grace to know and aquire theological virtues), but that it can lead people to a knowledge of some of the virtues including the more mundane virtues that are involved in politics and earthly ethics.

    I think it would be quite odd if a Mormon (esp. one for whom intellectual life is important) were to say that human reason can tell us nothing about the moral life. I guess we could say that people who thought revelation was hogwash who used untrammelled reason to try to discover truths of morality somehow received revelations which they attributed to their natural reason. In fact I’ve heard Mormons say basically this. But I’m not sure how this is very different than the “illusion” that “human reason can discern natural morality”.

    There may be some good Mormon reasons why natural law arguments have not taken hold in Mormonism, or even why they really don’t belong here. I’m not sure at this point. But the ones raised so far in prominent place (e.g. by Midgley) do not seem to be very good ones to me.

    Aaron B.: I don’t know whether Linker’s argument is extreme. I’m not particularly offended by it. I don’t care for it much either, though, since it seems to make just about any answer to these questions of reasonable, patriotic non-Mormon Americans unacceptable. To one of these Americans, some information about our history and practices over the past 100 years would probably be satisfactory. But Linker basically says in the article that these details are really not enough (and probably could not be enough until our theology changes).

    sr: “…a Catholic politician believe in a faith that declares the pope to be infallible…”
    Incidentally the Catholic Church does not teach that the pope’s teaching is infallible in general, but rather only in certain situations (when making an official church statement on faith or morals). At any rate it has only been clearly invoked on two occasions (at least since the 19th century teaching of this principle), concerning the Marian doctrines of the conception and the assumption of Mary. So the question in Catholicism is a bit different from the issue Linker raises about Mormonism

  14. Russell Arben Fox on December 28, 2006 at 12:38 am

    Matt,

    “Does Damon actually think there’s any _substance_ to natural morality and natural law?”

    Personally? He’d have to answer for himself. However, whether he believes in it or not, I assume he’d argue that one of the reasons thinking about natural law reasoning is valuable is that it suggests a way of conceiving of the relationship between religion and morality that would prevent potentially outrageous religious claims from being taken on faith, as they could be subject to knowable natural principles. (If the prophet calls you up tomorrow and says God wants you to kill your neighbor, you can subject that command to a principled consideration of what prophets are morally allowed to do, etc.)

    I’m doubtful of the existence of a natual morality myself, mostly for the reasons I mention in #2 above, but I appreciate intellectually at least why Damon figures it into his argument.

  15. Jack on December 28, 2006 at 12:48 am

    Well, what we have then–no matter which way we go around the block–is some kind of on going ever evolving interpretive process as to what the “natural law” is or ought to be. On the one hand, we’re deliberating over God’s relationship with the universe and on the other we’re deliberating over humanity’s relationship with the universe. And what’s so frightening about this whole thing is that we know next to nothing about the former and even less about the latter–though we’ll arrogantly suppose that scientific inquiry has given us the upper hand on the latter. And what’s even more frightening about this whole thing is that society will roll out the red carpet for the academy on such matters in a complete act of faith in the on going ever evolving academic process while summarily rejecting the apparent abrahamic inconsistencies of revelation. Go figure…

  16. Russell Arben Fox on December 28, 2006 at 12:56 am

    Margaret,

    Thanks for the long comment. Who is Heidi Hart? I’m unfamiliar with the name. I think Nephi’s killing of Laban is a fascinating story, particularly from a literary perspective, because we just barely know enough about the textual history of the story to wonder about how Nephi, as a narrator, is presenting it years later when he transcribes it.

    For what it’s worth, I don’t know how much should be read into Damon’s experiences while teaching at BYU. He’s a challenging and provocative guy, and I’ve long wondered if some of the stuff he describes happening to him there (for example he talks about asking students, just as a thought experiment, what they would do if the prophet contacted them and told them God wanted them to go to war with the people of Orem or something, and how invariably a couple of students would always insist that they’d instantly do whatever the prophet told them) wasn’t at least partially the result of a desire on some boneheaded undergraduates’ part to “scandalize” their non-Mormon instructor. Still, I’ve never taught at BYU, and both of you have, so I’ll give your reaction to Damon’s experiences the benefit of the doubt.

  17. Matt Evans on December 28, 2006 at 1:03 am

    Jeremiah,

    Human reason is capable of speculatively deducing morals from (1) revealed morals or (2) revealed telos. An example of the former is our deducing from God’s revelation against alcohol and tobacco that heroin use is immoral, too. An example of the latter is deducing moral norms from God’s revealing that humans are children of God with inherent worth and dignity. Absent the underlying revelation, logic can’t tell us anything about morality.

    My question to Margaret points out that because our “natural morality” (morality deduced from revelation) is dependent on revelation, it seems revelation would always trump deduced morality. For example, I have deduced, from God’s revealed morals about our obligations to our neighbors, and God’s revealed telos about the purpose of mankind, that destroying human embryos for research is immoral. But because my conclusion is deduced from general principles, it would be trumped by a revelation *specifically* addressing the morality of destroying embryos.

  18. Chino Blanco on December 28, 2006 at 1:56 am

    Russell Arben Fox:

    “If Romney’s incipient candidacy suggests, among other factors, that Mormons today are prepared to enter into political contests on our own terms, then the ability to discern in Mormonism a set of broadly applicable moral arguments may be necessary …”

    Replace “may be” with “is” and all I can say is “amen. to. that.” …

    Margaret Young points to exactly the kind of difficulty that arises otherwise:

    “I think Damon raises good questions about Romney’s Mormonism, questions which ought to lead us Mormons to think seriously about our own independent morality … I find [Bush's] apparent belief that he is fighting a righteous war terrifying. I find the support he has garnered from the Religious Right a signal that something is seriously wrong with religion in America when it crosses over into politics–particular hawkish politics.”

    The difficulty for those of us on the outside looking in is that the folks who make up the Mormon demographic seem to rely less on “independent morality” than the rest of the country. So, even when we may feel comfortable with a particular Mormon politician or candidate (I expect there is little doubt in most American’s minds that Mitt Romney is in fact a very good man), there is still a lingering unease about his affiliation with a group whose support for Bush seems so immune to ‘facts on the ground’ … a quick Google turned up this little map (I have no idea who ‘Radical Russ’ is):

    http://radicalruss.net/bushmap/200609.php

    It would seem from the above map that the support Bush continues to garner from Mormons remains quite substantial, and in fact seems to place Utah and Idaho out of step with the rest of the country. If Margaret, as a Mormon, feels that the RR’s support for Bush signals that something is seriously wrong with religion in America, I would expect that she and other Mormons could undertand when some of us look at the Mormon level of support for Bush and similarly wonder what’s wrong with your religion. It’s cause for concern, but I think Margaret also points to one possible solution … if there was less of a sense in the country that Mormons voted as a bloc, it would go a long way to reducing the unease that outsider’s feel about Mormon candidates by demonstrating that individual Mormon voters are capable of relying on independent morality to make choices.

  19. Jack on December 28, 2006 at 8:18 am

    Chino,

    What would be a reliable “independent morality?” Indeed, is there any such thing? It seems to me that most folks who are nervous about the monkey wrench of religion in the moral works are tethered by a collective morality primarily grown from the gardens of academia—-the shadow of a cultural “big brother” looming over the “free thinkers” of the enlightened west.

  20. RR Millward on December 28, 2006 at 9:18 am

    1) God would reveal to any leader what was best for that country.
    2) Mormons hardly vote in a bloc.
    3) Natural law has two types.
    4) Who would want to be president of the USA?
    5) Mitt Romney will not get my vote. See #120 and #132 in:
    http://www.timesandseasons.org/?p=3644#comment-215813
    and I thank Gary for the comment. Ignore this if it is off-topic.

    4) Politics is about gaining money and power and is not about people so why would anyone want to be president? This is more true of the presidential contest than any other political contest because we really do not get to choose the person for whom we would like to vote. The candidate somewhat magically appears on our ballot. S/he may be completely unqualified (Obama, who knows what he stands for?). Ignore this if it is off topic.

    3) Natural law has two types. The natural law of the universe would seem to be force and it’s sister decline. Is that the one we should model our policies after? The second (if it exists) is bigger and better than the universe and is the natural filter of good over evil (flow unto you with out compulsion (i.e., force)). Is that the one we should model our policies after? It is disconcerting to think that a person would admit that they would choose a program or policy of decline that is in direct opposition to goodness – but this has been the case for far longer than the most recent 200 years.

    2) Mormons hardly vote in a bloc. I have never seen such diversity in thinking as I have seen among Mormons. The financially poor vote (with me) for policies and programs that redistribute the wealth (controlling capitalism). The middle class vote (with me) for someone with values that they would fight for (none of this “I value such-and-such but I don’t want to force it on anyone”). The rich vote (with me) on policies and programs that preserve the structure of capitalism. Even I do not vote in a bloc. Ignore this if it is off topic.

    1) God would have peace and it’s sister prosperity as his primary goal and would therefore guide all leaders to peace. He is capable of working for the greatest peace possible so will accept less-than-the-ideal. He would not highjack a political leader and force on a nation that which would destroy it. We must think in terms of the best possible solution, also, even when the best possible solution is less than the best solution.

    RR Millward

  21. Doc on December 28, 2006 at 10:07 am

    Russell #12,
    Righteousness is not taken from God’s statements alone. This is most clear to me in the 121st section of the Doctrine and Covenants. The power of the Priesthood (God’s power) can only be controlled or handled on principles of righteousness. When we act to cover our sins, exercise unrighteous dominion and compulsion, the spirit is grieved. Furthermore we know from elsewhere that if God were to act in certain ways he would cease to be God. I don’t see how these things are morally neutral.

  22. Russell Arben Fox on December 28, 2006 at 10:31 am

    Doc (#21),

    The position you’re responding to isn’t mine, but rather is what I understand Professor Midgley to have written. But, just to follow along with your claim: if the power of the priesthood functions the way it functions (“it can only be controlled or handled on principles of righteousness,” etc.) because that is the way it is “naturally,” then you would be correct that our sense of righteousness does not come from “God’s statement alone.” However, it would then also be the case that the priesthood isn’t really “God’s power,” but rather a universally existing power with its own set of standards which defines God’s power, and which can be known and experienced apart from God’s statements about it. Which would suggest that wielding the priesthood is primarily dependent upon figuring out what is righteous through our own grasp of natural principles, and only secondarily upon obedience to priesthood authority (since priesthood power wouldn’t, in this case, be tied to God’s constituted authority structure, since it exists apart from him). Now, maybe we do really believe this, or maybe I’m skipping some steps without realizing it. Either way, these are the sort of questions which figuring out where we stand on this topic involves.

  23. Blake on December 28, 2006 at 10:37 am

    Russell: I have written at length regarding the basis of morality in LDS thought (what we would call meta-ethics). I gave a paper on it at SMPT two years ago and there are three chapters in the second volume of my Exploring Mormon Thought series, vol. 2, where I address a very similar argument by Francis Beckwith to point out the multiple flaws in the kind of thinking going on here. I admit that it is somewhat frustrating to see the discussion of this type without the least grounding in various meta-ethical views and how they play out given various commitments.

    Natural law theory is a very difficult theory to cash out in actual situations of moral decision-making. In fact, just what “natural law” is and what it requires seems to be culturally and temporally relative — a kind of whatever I think the prevailng demands ought to be sort of theory that is very difficult to take seriously. I don’t think that natural law theories have a lot to recommend them. On the other hand, I believe that LDS scripture and Joseph Smith’s statements point in the direction of an agape theory of ethics — a view of moral obligation grounded in the meta-ethical demand of commitment to the mutal growth and best interests of all others as well as one’s self. Because our own growth to realize our inherent divinity cannot be done alone, it is a mutual project. Our commitment to our own realization of our inherent potential depends upon our commitment to the well-being and realization of the growth of others as well. The notion of a self-sufficient god who is all alone is not a Christian notion; rather, God is God because God is love. That is, God’s divinity arises from the kind of mutually interpenetrating love that the divine persons have for each other.

    I suggest that LDS ethics must be based upon the commitment to the mutual best interests of each other and the conditions that will nurture human flourishing and growth to realize our inherent divine potential. The bottom line is that our obligations are just what Jesus said: to love one another. How is that inimical to political interests? I don’t see how. Indeed, it is the best political policy available. At the interpersonal level morality is based on the dignity and demand of the “other.” In other words, it is deontological at the interpersonal level. However, at the level of public policy such an ethic is consequentialist. We ought to adopt those laws and practices which benefit the greatest number and lead to the best interests of society as a whole.

    On the other hand, the notion that God creates us with a purpose he chooses for us ex nihilo is a very poor basis for morality. It reduces to God’s being able to treat humans as mere things or objects (as the notion of predestination implies) and leads to the view that human dignity can be ignored because there is no human dignity; there is only God’s commands and purposes and everything is subsumed under that meaning. Moreover, God is a-moral on such a view — a being not bound by moral law “himself”. How is that a sound basis for morality?

    There is another facet of LDS thought that Damon’s approach ignores but is essential. No prophet is infallible. Unlike the Pope who may speak ex cathedra, no prophet can demand unthinking acceptance of any revelation or command. Thus, the horror of a prophet giving a revelation that is binding upon an LDS politician without being open to interpretation as to how it applies to the public arena is a mere illusion.

    Here is the irony. Why aren’t these questions being asked of Nevada’s senior senator Harry Reid? Very simply because he feels free to ignore the Church’s policy statements (are they any more than that?) and yet remains in good standing with the Church. It is very simple for Romney to simply declare that just like Reid he can depart from Church policy statements and remain in good standing. Moreover, he can delcare in all faithfulness that the interpretation and application of Church policy statements is, officially, left to individual conscience.

    Finally, I believe that Romney is an excellent candidate. He’ll very likely get my vote (and I am staunchly independent). I will vote for him because his own values mirror mine more closely than others I have seen so far.

  24. bbell on December 28, 2006 at 12:00 pm

    RAF,

    Do we as LDS have a strong tradition of “Natural Law” teachings or doctrines? A few things come to mind.

    1. natural man is an enemy to God. We seem to teach that we should put off the natural man and become Perfect like Jesus
    2. I am not familiar with any lessons, talks, or books discussing at detail Catholic type natural law teachings.

    Our theology is unique and not specifically tied to traditional natural law teachings of other faith traditions. Sometimes it may seem that they are but in the end its not.

  25. Russell Arben Fox on December 28, 2006 at 12:50 pm

    Blake, thanks very much for this meaty contribution to the thread!

    “I admit that it is somewhat frustrating to see the discussion of this type without the least grounding in various meta-ethical views and how they play out given various commitments.”

    I sympathize with your frustration; it’d be wonderful if everyone writing about Mormonism was familiar with all the relevant literature out there. That Damon’s piece doesn’t deal with Mormon thinking about prophets and morality in a comprehensive manner should be, I think, obvious to informed readers. Nonetheless, I think it’s valid to explore his allegations on their own terms, especially in light of what few Mormon accounts of natural law and moral thinking have some prevelance in wider circles (e.g., Midgley’s account in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, etc.).

    “In fact, just what ‘natural law’ is and what it requires seems to be culturally and temporally relative — a kind of whatever I think the prevailng demands ought to be sort of theory that is very difficult to take seriously. I don’t think that natural law theories have a lot to recommend them.”

    I concur; most “natural morality” theorizing, it seems to me, depends upon rather simplistic and culturally unexamined presumptions about what it means to know something about the natural world. (See my option #2 in my original post.) But it cannot be denied that a fair number of Mormons–including in recent years several general authorites who could be, perhaps, assumed to have prayerfully thought through the issues involved–have become rather comfortable in insisting that Mormon scriptures and revelations support a notion of moral goodness inhering to certain “natural” forms (of marriage, for example). This isn’t to say that they are therefore correct in their thinking about Mormon morality, but only to say that the challenge–and lure–of natural law thinking in Mormonism cannot be easily dismissed.

    “I suggest that LDS ethics must be based upon the commitment to the mutual best interests of each other and the conditions that will nurture human flourishing and growth to realize our inherent divine potential….How is that inimical to political interests?”

    I think your account of the proper direction of Mormon moral theory is an excellent and persuasive one, and I certainly agree that it is in no sense politically dangerous. I suppose someone like Damon might still ask, though, about the point made by Matt Evans in #17: namely, could the reciprocal relations you describe as grounded in both revealed and reasoned out concepts of human growth, well-being, and fulfillment, nonetheless be “trumped” by revelation? For that is the whole concern of Damon’s article (or at least the portion of it I quoted above): he introduces the topic of natural law not necessarily because he advocates such, but because it is one way to introduce a “safeguard” into our own thinking about what is allowable, moral, etc.

    “On the other hand, the notion that God creates us with a purpose he chooses for us ex nihilo is a very poor basis for morality. It reduces to God’s being able to treat humans as mere things or objects (as the notion of predestination implies) and leads to the view that human dignity can be ignored because there is no human dignity; there is only God’s commands and purposes and everything is subsumed under that meaning.”

    I completely agree. In fact, this is one of the great tensions in the whole Christian tradition, a tension which Aquinas tried to ease but which nonetheless has exploded at various times in Christian history into controversies over nominalism, the Protestant Reformation, etc. If God is Absolute, why assume that what He calls “moral” needs or can even find any support in the natural world? Interestingly, Damon’s article suggests a parallel (one which may not be accurate, but I’ll throw it out anyway) between those Mormon thinkers who take the King Follet Discourse to (what I consider, at least) an extreme and describe God is just one more edict-issuing actor in an ever-expanding (and therefore uncertain) universe, and those traditional Christians who make God into a kind of transcendent, absolute Edict himself. In both cases, all we have to operate on is God’s positive will; no other connection to the universe is either necessary or possible.

    “Why aren’t these questions being asked of Nevada’s senior senator Harry Reid? Very simply because he feels free to ignore the Church’s policy statements (are they any more than that?) and yet remains in good standing with the Church.”

    A very good point, and one that puts a question mark beside a good deal that Damon alleges in his article (and one that I hope to discuss more on my own blog).

  26. Lamonte on December 28, 2006 at 1:11 pm

    Blake – Can you enumerate the Church policy statements about which Harry Reid departs?

  27. Margaret Young on December 28, 2006 at 1:12 pm

    Wow! What a bunch of provocative comments appeared overnight!
    I will add no more than two cents’ worth–answering Matt’s and Russell’s questions:
    Russell–Heidi Hart is a former Mormon who is now a Quaker. She is married to a very active Mormon man and she respects the LDS religion. She has authored one book (and I can’t remember the title) and published several articles and reviews in _Sunstone_.
    Matt Evans–your question to me is a very good one. Obviously, I can’t give a definitive answer (he was wrong; she was right). I don’t know all of the circumstances. The older I get, though, the less I believe in justifications for murder, adultery, theft, etc. I’ve seen too many people pull God into the equation and announce that they got some kind of a special dispensation which allowed them to call their sin something else. Many claim to have had personal revelation. Very recently, I’ve had professional dealings with a man who has had a habit of infidelity. I soon found that he was completely untrustworthy in our professional dealings as well. His self-justification had led him to more self-justification, so he was a law unto himself–and not a terribly good law.
    I guess the first question I’d ask God about the Nephi/Laban situation would be, “Was there no other way?” I am uncomfortable with the precedent set by that particular story because of the things I’ve seen in my life. Down to my core, I do believe that the 10 Commandments and even more the beattitudes must be written in our hearts in order for us to find joy. I am not going to pronounce judgment on Nephi, but I do find Heidi Hart’s challenges intriguing. I consider most of the scriptures to be valiant attempts of men (and sometimes women) to explain their lives and times, the decisions they and their people made, and their perceived relationship with God, as well as God’s dealings with them. Most of the time, I find their insights inspiring. (And I put the words of Jesus on a different plane entirely.) But there are indeed, as the BOM acknowledges, weaknesses in the scriptures because the men who wrote them were quite human.

  28. Matt Evans on December 28, 2006 at 1:51 pm

    Russell,

    Because natural morality is popular only because people don’t understand what’s going on, I wanted to point out that no moral premise, including marriage, can be supported by natural facts. If someone thinks natural morality “works” it’s always and only because they’ve smuggled in a moral axiom not derived from nature. No fact of nature can tell us that human beings should reproduce, that they should mate with one person, that they should mate for life, or that mates should have mutual obligations to each other. Nature can’t even tell us whether human beings should exist in the first place.

    The fact that natural law is a hoax means it can’t safeguard anything. For this reason I take it that Damon is simply using “natural morality” as a synonym for “conventional moral wisdom” or something like that. He fears that Mormonism is open to the possibility of radically overturning conventional moral wisdom with only a revelation (though that is complicated — Mormons too have conventional moral wisdom), and he prefers that conventional moral wisdom evolve slowly. There are examples of this that Damon would like and dislike: it only took Mormons one revelation to know that slavery was unethical, whereas the American conventional moral wisdom required centuries and a deadly war (advantage: Mormons); on the other hand, American conventional moral wisdom beat Mormon revelation for blacks to receive the priesthood (advantage: CMW).

    And none of this has anything to do with how Mormon politicians actually apply their personal religious views.

  29. Russell Arben Fox on December 28, 2006 at 2:18 pm

    Lamonte,

    “Can you enumerate the Church policy statements about which Harry Reid departs?”

    The First Presidency has issed statements in support of the passage of a federal amendment describing monogamous heterosexual marriage as the only form of “marriage” which the U.S. Constitution will recognize as legal; Reid has opposed the passage of such an amendment. Now, one could haul out all sorts of interpretive arguments in order to deny that such statements really were meant to support the specific amendment which has been introduced and defeated a couple of times in recent years, but I think that’s being too clever by half (at least). The simple truth is that the First Presidency would clearly like to see such a federal amendment pass. They have not, to my knowledge, made support for such an amendment binding upon the membership; they haven’t declared it a revelation or scripture or the will of God. Thus, Reid’s membership is fine. But on the “policy statement” level, Reid’s deviation from the church’s current official line on the matter of same-sex marriage is pretty obvious.

  30. bbell on December 28, 2006 at 2:22 pm
  31. Lamonte on December 28, 2006 at 2:26 pm

    Russell – Thanks for the thorough answer.

  32. RR Millward on December 28, 2006 at 3:19 pm

    I agree with the above (#28 Lamont, #24 bbell) – nature is at best neutral on morality. I say “at best” because there are cases where it clearly points to the opposite. “Might makes right” is one such case. Same sex attraction as a justification for allowing/encouraging those relationships is another (just like hetro-sexual attraction justifies/encourages those relationships).

    Might-makes-right can be the exact opposite of the second commandment – but where did the second commandment come from? The #21/#22 exchange (Doc/Fox) is most intriguing especially when coupled with the end of the 121st section (vs 41 on ending with “and without compulsory means it shall flow unto thee forever and ever”). Is God going to guarantee (read force) this forever flow or will it come because we are so loving and so lovable that people honor us? I don’t know. Certainally, if God was once as we are now then He learned to be perfectly loving and lovable through the process of having a body. On the other hand Jehova, without a body, was already loving and lovable. Can it be true that simply being loving and lovable will give us the power to move mountains (power given to us by God or by nature)? I don’t know.

    Regardless of how this power comes about, the discussion about Romney’s religion is clearly political. The opposing party can not pick on the things he believes because they are the things the party believes. If Romney were running on the Democratic ticket where he should be (with Reid) then the party would be praising his position and ignoring the religion issue except to defend him from the Religious Right. That makes the opposition political.

  33. Margaret Young on December 28, 2006 at 4:33 pm

    Matt Evans: “[I]t only took Mormons one revelation to know that slavery was unethical, whereas the American conventional moral wisdom required centuries and a deadly war (advantage: Mormons); on the other hand, American conventional moral wisdom beat Mormon revelation for blacks to receive the priesthood (advantage: CMW).”

    I’m afraid this strikes me as a bit of an oversimplification. The “one revelation” which let Mormons know that slavery was unethical apparently didn’t arrive in the Southern states. Mormon converts there had slaves and brought them AS SLAVES to Utah. In fact, Utah was a slave-holding territory, as defined in the California Compromise.

    As far as “American conventional moral wisdom” recognizing the evil of slavery only after the Civil War–I’m sure you are aware of the huge debate the issue caused when the constitution was organized, the result being the awful compromise defining any African man as worth 3/5 what a Caucasian man was worth.

    Check out the Journal of John Woolman for pre-Revolutionary War thinking on the subject–thinking which eventually founded abolitionist organizations, newspapers, and ralleys. Woolman is a good measure of moral thought which came DESPITE the norm of his day (articulated beautifully in the first chapter of his journal.) Daman might call Woolman’s insights examples of “natural morality.” Some Mormons would identify it as exemplifying the Light of Christ.

    One of Woolman’s thoughts: “Through the force of long custom, it appears needful to speak in relation to color. Suppose a white child, born of parents of the meanest sort, who died and left him an infant, falls into the hands of a person, who endeavors to keep him a slave, some men would account him an unjust man in doing so, who yet appear easy while many black people, of honest lives, and good abilities, are enslaved, in a manner more shocking than the case here supposed. This is owing chiefly to the idea of slavery being connected with the black color, and liberty with the white. And where false ideas are twisted into our minds, it is with difficulty we get fairly disentangled.”

    We are all vulnerable to “false ideas” being “twisted into our minds” through tradition, and must work hard to get “fairly disentangled.”

  34. Matt Evans on December 28, 2006 at 5:55 pm

    Margaret, I didn’t mean to suggest that this is ever simple, only that revelation cuts both ways — sometimes Damon would wish revelation could overturn the conventional moral wisdom.

  35. Clark on December 28, 2006 at 7:00 pm

    (Note: I haven’t read the posts after Russell’s #12)

    Russell, I think that is what I’m saying. Now one can dispute the ontology of what natural law is but I’ll avoid that little quibble. But I think that if the universe and God are intertwined (co-eternal and not dependent in the usual sense of the term) and the scriptures relate real moral laws then I think Mormons adopt a real sense of moral law. Now I don’t think we know the moral law in full. At best we know vaguely. But I don’t think that poses a problem. One can accept, I think, moral law without necessarily invoking a totalizing sense of our knowledge.

  36. Mike Clark on December 28, 2006 at 7:05 pm

    “…guess the first question I’d ask God about the Nephi/Laban situation would be, “Was there no other way?” I am uncomfortable with the precedent set by that particular story because of the things I’ve seen in my life. Down to my core, I do believe that the 10 Commandments and even more the beattitudes must be written in our hearts in order for us to find joy. I am not going to pronounce judgment on Nephi…”

    You’ll have to ask Him about more than the Laban/Nephi incident. You’ll have to ask him about Saul, Samuel and the Amalekites. God’s prophet Samuel commanded King Saul to go to war with the Amalekites and kill every single one of them, man, woman and child, and their cattle also. Saul killed almost all the Amalekite, but saved Agag, their King, and a choice selection of their sheep and oxen (to sacrifice to God). When Samuel arrived to check on progress he was enraged that Saul had not done everything as exactly as commanded, and took a sword and ran Agag through himself. He then repudiated Saul as God’s choice as King of Israel — allowing him to reign until selecting young David to overthrow him. This is similar to Nephi’s being commanded to kill Laban, but arguably more intense, since thousands of lives were involved. This is but one example. God commanded the Israelites to do other things that by today’s standards would have been labelled “ethnic cleansing”, genocide, and mass murder. You’ll have to ask about all those, too.

    The point is, when God has actual prophets on the earth He sometimes requires things that men are not permitted to consider doing themselves on their own initiative. When there is no prophet, everyone can rest easy and just keep the word that has been given — this is probably why prophets tend to get killed by godless men, because they don’t want to have their boat rocked.

  37. Clark on December 28, 2006 at 7:14 pm

    SJL: #8 Clark (or anyone), I’m pretty new to this discussion. Could you reference scriptures or discourses that discuss the LDS take on that dilemma?

    We take the pole that God does it because it is good. The Protestants and Catholics try to make God and the good equivalent but avoid the claim that what God commands is good because God commands it. As for a discourse on this, it’s an implication of the KFD as normally read.

    Blake: I’m very sympathetic to your arguments in your second volume. However I’m not sure the Agape approach is sufficient. But this is still something I musing out in my mind.

  38. RR Millward on December 28, 2006 at 7:17 pm

    Well said Margaret Young,
    These quotes are very on target. I received similar insight several years ago by reading the “History of Tooele county”. I was not aware of the California Compromise. I was aware of the constitutional struggles. I am not, however, aware of what the “one revelation to know that slavery was unethical” was – so I look forward to reading that here.

    The point is that Jesus did not do anything to fight slavery, as awful and as prevelant as it was in His day. I am not sure that Abraham Lincoln received any direct revelation to start a war over it and the American Civil War was about more than slavery. I don’t see evidence for saying that God would try to change our government through a Mormon president. Of course, those who do not accept a living prophet have an obviously different worry. So, the value of the quote since Mormonism tacitly denies that the natural world possesses any intrinsic of God-given moral purpose still eludes me. Maybe there is a word missing?

  39. RR Millward on December 28, 2006 at 7:31 pm

    #36-Clark: I think I may finally be beginning to see the point of this discussion. But I don’t see why it is an issue because it is the prophet and not the king/president that the requirement is imposed on. Oh, no, wait a minute – God told Samual to tell Saul to do it – I think I really am getting it!!! And, I think I see the problem with the quote. Is it supposed to be any intrinsic or God-given moral purpose (“or” instead of “of”). Carry on with the main theme…

    Most thinly related is that Saul may have wanted to sacrafice someone else’s cattle so that he would not have to sacrafice his own – which is something akin to stealing money to pay tithing.

  40. Francis Beckwith on December 28, 2006 at 10:20 pm

    For those interested in reading the argument of mine to which Blake refers, I have it posted as a pdf on my site here: http://homepage.mac.com/francis.beckwith/downloads.htm

    If scroll down the page a bit, you can see the reference, which reads: \”Moral Law, the Mormon Universe, and the Nature of the Right We Choose.\” In The New Mormon Challenge: Responding to the Latest Defenses of a Fast-Growing Movement. Edited by Francis J. Beckwith, Carl Mosser, Paul Owen. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002. Pp. 219-241, 461-461 (notes)

    Just click it, and up will pop the chapter.

    Have a Happy New Year.

    Frank

  41. Jack on December 28, 2006 at 10:35 pm

    The agape approach flounders for me as well. If it is a moral imperitive that motivates us to love our neighbors then it isn’t “agape.” Pure love has no other motivation than pure love.

  42. Matt Evans on December 29, 2006 at 3:12 am

    Frank Beckwith,

    I just read your article and wanted to respond. Not having read Blake’s book, I don’t know if he’s responded to this particular chapter or if your chapter was a response to something of his.

    On page 227 you state some purported facts about moral laws:

    1. “First, [moral laws] are known.” This does not follow. The existence of moral laws is no more contingent on our knowing them than are physical laws.

    2. “Moral laws are a form of communication.” This does not follow. If moral laws are like physical laws, as Mormons tend to see them, then it is hard to see them as a form of communication. The examples of “moral communication” you provide are attempts people have made to communicate moral laws; the communication is not itself the moral law, anymore than the communication “the sun is bright” is what gives us light.

    3. “We feel guilty for breaking a significant moral rule.” This seems contrary to experience — the guilt a person feels for an act is dependent only upon their *belief* of the act’s morality, whether that belief is correct or not. Ancient slave holders didn’t feel guilty for selling people like cattle, and some people feel guilty reading the bible because their culture has taught them it’s a sinful act.

    4. You misunderstand Mormonism’s non-materialism. Contrary to your account, Mormons do not believe “that the only reality is matter” (p 228). Besides believing in the non-material reality of morals, Mormons believe in the non-material reality of, to name but three: truth, love and marriage. (Your explanation that Mormons believe souls, angels and God to be comprised of matter is correct.)

    5. Your critique titled “Mormonism’s Book without an Author” fails because you analogize moral laws to statutes, and point out that statutes require a sovereign. Because Mormonism doesn’t require moral laws to have a sovereign, Mormons view moral laws to be analogous to physical laws: they require neither communication nor communicator, and we are subject to them whether or not we acknowledge or understand them.

    Finally, you address the Divine Command Theory but don’t mention that the Mormon view doesn’t see Euthyphro’s dilemma as problematic because it accepts door number two: God loves something because it is good. That dilemma troubles only those who believe God has to be the *only* eternal reality.

    Hopefully this has helped you better understand the traditional Mormon view.

  43. Thomas Parkin on December 29, 2006 at 7:58 am

    4. Justice, Mercy … any idea may find a manifestation in physical reality, the idea itself isn’t physical without being any less real. (I’ve always found Mormonism highly Platonic. I recall reading the Platonist Iris Murdoch about seeing the face of Justice after death, and instantly drawing a correlation to Pres. Benson saying that we’d recognize the face of God.) I didn’t read the article closely enough to judge how deeply Dr. Beckwith’s over-shot here would effect his argument. But he comes back to it repeatedly. It seems central to his insistance that Mormons must reject any metaphysical conception that draws parenthesis around the god as material contingency to god as material contingency link (a misreading of KFD, in my view – not even doctrinal, let alone pragmatic Mormonism) – which is actually quite absurd. An ideal of justice can still be an ideal of justice, whether that ideal was created or exists independently of or proceeds a creator – and Dr.Beckwith knows this, I think, since having concluded the Mormonism must reject a platonic model, he goes on to argue with the model, anyway. But, in what metaphysical stable one is more likely to find the most reliable horse justice seems to me almost – and I sensed this repeatedly reading the article – a personal call … I don’t mean to sound condescending, almost an aesthetic judgement laced with argument (“it seems easier to beleive”).

    I’d have to say that his understanding of Mormonism is, in places, accurate, and that his research seems to have been done in good faith. But it constantly over and understates the Mormon God as Mormons actually believe in Him. He fails to find the Mormon conception of God as a perfect being; for Dr. Beckwith the mormon god remains contigent because he was once contingent. There is nothing any more ‘contigent’ about an aquired perfection than an inherent perfection, since fixity (unchangeability) is an attribute of perfection. Either is perfect, having all-knowledge, or even possibly all-pertinent-knowledge, and therefore, seeing that He loves us, we’d do well to heed. And, in both cases, faith is needed to follow the command of the being, since one can grasp the possiblity of imperfections in either the being or is our abiltiy to hear him. (There is no logical neccesity in believing that a creator understands fully his creation – to say the creation is perfect because the creator is perfect is a tautology, eh?)

    I had some other obeservations, but my brain has gone to mush and I’ve got to find a pillow.

    ~

  44. Western Dave on December 29, 2006 at 12:57 pm

    I think the whole thing is a red herring. Romney could use the language of Pragmatism (the other vocabulary Americans love). Think FDR’s house on fire speech (and his ability to look the other way on Japanese internment). These were both intensely moral issues that FDR sidestepped by dealing with specific needs that were defined by context, not universal moral principals. The Cold War policy of containment (the “immoral policy” as Eisenhower called it even as he ended up implementing it) is another example. Romney has another proven language available but chooses not to use it.

  45. DKL on December 30, 2006 at 4:10 am

    Good post, Russell. That’s as interesting comparison between Midgley and Damon. I agree that they represent the same view at different levels of granularity. I’m sympathetic to this position in substance, though I state it differently. I also don’t believe that it has quite the implications that Damon or Midgley say that it has. This is a fascinating thread, I just have a few points:

    First, as a verificationist, I submit that the question of whether there is any natural law or just positive law isn’t a good one. We should ask instead, “What counts as evidence that something is natural law instead of positive law?” or (using verbiage closer to Midgley’s) “What counts as evidence that something is an eternal covenant vs a one-time covenant?”. For any church doctrines that has yet to be reversed, the answer is, “nothing.” We don’t experience our religion in such a way that allows us to distinguish natural from positive law in any useful predictive sense. For example, in 1970, one could not know that Mark Peterson and Bruce McConkie were wrong in their statements concerning the blessings in store for blacks in mortality and in the hereafter. (I think that this is what Matt Evans is getting at when he says that natural laws are epistemologically impossible even if they are ontologically possible, and what Blake is getting at when he talks about the difficulty of cashing out natural law.)

    Second of all, as a practical matter, after the Nauvoo period, there have been just two sudden doctrinal changes (polygamy and the race-based priesthood prohibitions), and both have moved Mormons closer to the American mainstream. Otherwise, change in the LDS church has occurred at about the same slow pace as change in the Catholic church.

    Third, from a physical point of view, the term “natural law” refers to descriptions of physical events that are systematic enough to yield a simple, predictive formula — predictive in the strong sense, that there must be some significant number of possible results that would falsify the prediction. If God developed in this Universe, then there is some very strong sense in which he did so in accordance to such natural laws. One doesn’t progress in mortal life by jumping to one’s death from (say) a cliff. These natural laws dictate how we learn, how we want to behave, and in many instances how we do behave.

    and sr have pointed to scriptures that identify other natural laws relevant to our religion.

    There are also natural states of affairs that directly impact theology. One thing that the prophet could never say, for example, is that there is no God, and all of organized religion is a sham. He also could not say that we’ve been worshiping the wrong God all along, and that it’s time to start worshipping the planet Earth, as such.

    In the end, Religion is a practical necessity every bit as much as it is a spiritual necessity. There are practical reasons for God’s covenants — he doesn’t just tell us to keep drinking Flavor Aid in order to test our faith. (And I don’t believe that he just up and asked Abraham to sacrifice his Son either — if I did, I’d have to believe that God is a despicable being.) It may sometimes be folly to try to decode the practical implications of a certain commandment, but He makes his covenants for a reason — He does not trifle with his believers.

    Fourth, it’s up to any given Mormon to determine whether they accept what the prophet says. One key thing that is lost in this analysis is that Mormonism may require you to hold your tongue at times, it does not require confessions of faith to maintain membership.

    Fifth, I completely agree with Margaret Young’s point about the use of God to justify behavior. I wrote a guest post on the topic right here.

    Sixth, the contribution that I find most interesting so far is Blake’s. He says, “I suggest that LDS ethics must be based upon the commitment to the mutual best interests of each other and the conditions that will nurture human flourishing and growth to realize our inherent divine potential.” I complety agree with this. If you adopt a figurative take on the divine, this is exactly the morality advanced by atheists such as David Hume and Bertrand Russell.

  46. Adam Greenwood on December 30, 2006 at 4:49 pm

    “If it is a moral imperitive that motivates us to love our neighbors then it isn’t “agape.” Pure love has no other motivation than pure love.”

    But it can and must be a moral imperative that motivates us to try and learn to love our neighbors. We aren’t born all-loving.

  47. Jack on December 30, 2006 at 5:34 pm

    Adam,

    I agree. But the real question is “says who?” (or “what” as the case may be) What is the primal source of this moral imperative? Even Blake says (in so many words) that we need to be careful not to go so far as to end up in the ex nihilo camp.

  48. Blake on December 30, 2006 at 7:00 pm

    Jack and Adam: Actually, there is a very profound paradox in the notion that love has been commanded — by Jesus and in Leviticus. Kierkegaard wrote about it at length in the Works of Love — next to the scriptures, the most up-lifting and insightful work I have ever read. I discuss this very issue at some length in my book. How can love be commanded? I don’t need to be commanded to love my wife and children — I do it as a part of who and what I am, as a full-blooded choice that expresses everything I care about. On the other hand, am I always loving to them? You know the answer to that. Moreover, it is easy to love my family — but that commandment to love my neighbor in the context of a parable that implies that among my neighbors are terrorists, rapists and murderers. This is no easy commandment nor is it less than a moral imperative — in fact, it is more.

    I suggest that we sense the love command as an obligation, as a moral burden, only when it is something we betray and thereby enter into self-deception. I suggest that we feel the weight of the command only when we transgress it. If we always keep it, then we need no moral imperative to motivate us. But who here will claim that they have always loved their neighbor (near-by) as themselves? Who here will claim to have always acted out of love? It as at this point that the moral imperative steps in to convict us — even as we try to escape it through massive self-deception and self-betrayal.

  49. Jack on December 30, 2006 at 9:44 pm

    Blake,

    I think I agree overall. However, there’s a strain of coercion (imo) in your paradox that seems a little antithetical to the ultimate goals of the gospel (perhaps that’s why it’s a paradox, hehe).

    I don’t think that morality cracking as a whip over our heads affords us enough space to act willfully on our potential to become more loving. Perhaps morality may serve as a safety net of sorts thereby keeping us from straying too far from that potential, but where coercion is a motivating factor it is almost certain that any potential movement toward love will be lost upon the disconnect between our hearts and the coercive agency.

  50. DKL on December 30, 2006 at 9:59 pm

    My last being too long and written too quickly, it ended up being less cogent than I might have hoped. I’ll try to make this one shorter and more sensible.

    Blake, I’m aghast that you look to Kierkegaard to inform your position on a rational basis for morality. I don’t see any paradox at all in the notion that love has been commanded. We are given some innate capacity for love, compassion, empathy; from this innate capacity stems the basis for morality, and we are commanded to develop in further. As noted by Adam Smith at the outset of The Theory of Moral Sentiments:

    How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it. Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion which we feel for the misery of others, when we either see it, or are made to conceive it in a very lively manner. That we often derive sorrow from the sorrow of others, is a matter of fact too obvious to require any instances to prove it; for this sentiment, like all other original passions of human nature, is by no means confined to the virtuous and humane, though they perhaps feel it with the most exquisite sensibility. The greatest ruffian, the most hardened violator of the laws of society, is not altogether without it.

    Smith takes this as an axiom, as do the other Scottish enlightenment philosophers. Where’s the paradox?

  51. Margaret Young on December 30, 2006 at 10:05 pm

    Actually, when I talked to my husband about this particular blog (not wanting to actually have him participate, since he had to get his grades in), Kierkegaard was the first person he thought of in connection with moral paradoxes. I haven’t read Kierkegaard for a long time, but as the political year progresses, I may need to review all the implications of the great leap of faith.

  52. DKL on December 31, 2006 at 1:46 am

    Kierkegaard created paradoxes primarily by misusing the language in novel ways. I suppose that’s interesting on some literary level, but I don’t take it to pass for serious thinking. Moreover, I just don’t think that he was correct in two areas specifically:

    First, if something is unintelligible, then everything said about it is either false or unintelligible. Thus, the question of having faith in it never arises; you must have some intelligible potential belief before the question of faith even arises. The leap of faith cannot occur until we establish exactly what it is that we need to make the leap for.

    Second, Kierkegaard is simply wrong about the value of the individual’s identity. I am a member of the crowd. I embody the crowd and everything that gives it life. Without it I am nothing. My identity is not special. I am a member of the boring army of Mormons, of technology employees, of Americans, of college graduates, of parents, of amateur (and amateurish) positivist philosophers, of iPod owners, of spouses, of guys in kaki pants, of Republicans, of Boston commuters, of Beatles fans, of Diet Coke drinkers, of bloggernacle participants, of Mac users, of fans of the Scottish enlightenment, of Massachusetts residents. I could go on and on. These are the things that define who I am, all that I am. And if you strip them all away, you don’t find anything beneath it. You change me by substituting something else for my essence, my crowdness — because by stripping these things away, you rob me of my essence. I am not a unique snowflake.

    In my opinion, Kierkegaard can be a decent enough read if you’re looking for something that is interesting in the same way that a nice book of trivia can be engrossing, only he’s superior on his literary merits. But if you really want serious thinking, you’re barking up the wrong tree if you’re reading Kierkegaard.

  53. RR Millward on December 31, 2006 at 3:01 am

    I kind of agree with the line of thinking in 48; that certain commandments are a burden when not kept and hardly noticed when kept. I remember teaching Deacons a lesson 30 years ago titled “Duty, Love, and Fear” and actually seeing for myself how Duty and Fear stifled motivation whereas Love enhanced it.

    As the years have gone by I have come to realize that (for me) the commandments are simply measuring sticks that I occasionally lean against to see where I am in my quest for perfection. Outside of that they don’t really exist.

  54. Blake on December 31, 2006 at 8:08 pm

    DKL: The deep paradox is inherent in our stance toward loving those we love — and those we are commanded to love but don’t. The paradox is embodied in each of us as we enage in self-deceptive behavior that constitutes a self-betrayal at a fundamental level — a betrayal both of ourselves and those we say that we love. The paradox is inherent in our stance toward love. You may say that love is straightforward, but is your conduct toward those that you love?

    There is also paradox when we begin to provide service out of love and end up doing it out of self-serving motives. The paradox appears when the “get to” of love turns into the “have to” of obligation. I think of the time I spent caring for a loved one. At first it stared out as a delight and something I gave gladly. Over the years it turned into a burden, having been worn down by providing day after day and week after week without respite. Love doesn’t need to be commanded; but in the absence of the command we may not see that. That isn’t necessarily a misuse of language; it is just an insight into the human soul.

    I suggest that if you believe what Kierekegaard is talking about is just a mis-use of langauge, you haven’t grasped and grappled with what he is gesturing toward with his use of indirect communication. However, I would point out that in his Works of Love Kierkegaard drops his use of indirect language to grapple with the human soul as it strives and fails to abide the law of love — the law written on our hearts that we don’t keep. The law of love is precisely the law that couldn’t be a law.

  55. DKL on December 31, 2006 at 11:20 pm

    Blake, I submit that if you think that Kierkegaard is doing much more than mis-using language, than you don’t really understand him. What you describe sounds paradoxical because you’ve adopted self-defeating definitions. There’s really no paradox at all.

    Suppose I’m commanded to wake up tomorrow morning at 4:00 AM, and suppose that I fundamentally recognize the importance of this commandment and I intend to keep it with all my heart. But when the alarm goes off, and I am actually faced with the choice of waking up or hitting snooze, I’m quite likely to hit snooze and get up substantially later. I do have an innate (if underdeveloped) ability to wake up at early times when my sleep is interrupted. But am I engaging in self-deception when I whole-heartedly commit to getting up at 4:00 AM. When I fail to get up, and therefore violate this hypothetical commandment, am I engaging in self-betrayal? Are those who are better at getting up early doing less self-deception and self-betrayal than i am? It’s the same with the commandment to love. We can fully intend to and still come up short. No paradox, just human failure. This is pretty mundane stuff, and I applaud Kierekegaard for dressing it up in language that makes it appear intellectually engaging, but there’s no substance to it at all.

    There’s also no paradox surrounding the fact that when we begin to provide service out of love, we will eventually end up doing it out of obligation. This is simply an instance of what economists call the law of diminishing returns. Take parents caring for their children. Parents get a sense of enjoyment from spending a certain amount of time with their children. If you increases this amount of time indefinitely, the enjoyment does not continue to increases indefinitely with it. At some point, each additional unit of time with the kids provides less enjoyment than the preceding unit of time. This is called the point of diminishing returns. At some point, the amount of enjoyment per unite of time actually decreases. This is called “way past the point of diminishing returns.” Thus, most parents do reach a point where they are anxious to be away from their children. But the enjoyment that parents experience away from their children is liable to the same principle. The longer the time of separation, the less reward it gives per unit of time, until the increase in time actually causes misery. Thus, parents separated from their children for long periods of time are anxious to be re-united with them.

    Again, Kierkegaard succeeds in making these sound interesting through a variety of rhetorical parlor tricks. Once you suggest that he’s “gesturing toward [something] with his use of indirect communication,” my BS detector goes off. I never hear anyone described in such a way unless it’s by someone trying to explain why they understand something that nobody else does. Perhaps this is the paradox of Kierekegaard’s pedantry?

  56. Blake on January 1, 2007 at 1:58 am

    DKL: It is like analyzing the following sentence for meaning when screamed at the top of one’s lungs in response to the question: “why are you so angry?” “AI AM NOT ANGRY.” I know what the sentence means. It just doesn’t mean only what it says and doesn’t even mean what it says. The kind of approach or analysis yo take simply misses the entire point(s).

  57. DKL on January 1, 2007 at 1:35 pm

    Blake, you have in mind a statement whose semantic meaning is clear, but whose veracity is undermined by some evidence external to the purely semantic portion of the sentence. This evidence may be body language or vocal tone, as in your example, but it’s not categorically different from a situation in which I say “I did not agree to give you such-and-such for that amount of widgets” when there is a signed contract which states, “I agree to give you such-and-such for that amount of widgets.” I can either be mistaken or lying, and there is a multiplicity of possible motivations for either, but there’s no mystery or paradox here. You’ll have to say more to convince me that I’m the one missing the point here.

  58. Clark on January 1, 2007 at 7:49 pm

    Isn’t the issue DKL, a word used for a phenomena that isn’t of clear semantic meaning. (i.e. where we can’t specify what its meaning is) It seems to me that is the question at hand.

    I don’t think I’d call these paradoxes although aporia might be appropriate. An other one often presented is do I love my love because of what qualities they have or do we love the person? Well clearly it is neither since we often love someone despite their qualities and yet we don’t simply love the person because certain actions or qualities will lead us to cease loving them.

    Now there are ways of attempting to resolve this such as through a kind of familiarity. (i.e. akin to how we recognize faces: when many elements are “close enough.”) But in that case making a kind of clear positivist account is difficult. There is that element of decision. We move more toward a game theoretical stance rather than a set of nice finite positivist elements that can be verified.

    To your example at hand, while we may end up doing something out of obligation rather than love, should we be doing this? I think that is what many argue. If we’re simply doing acts of love out of a kind of hedonistic calculus as you seem to suggest, is it really love? Especially in terms of how the word is used?

  59. Blake on January 2, 2007 at 1:39 am

    DKL: What you call love just isn’t love as I see it — if the beloved can be replaced by another widget, if the beloved is really a mere thing having value, then I suggest that you’re operating in a different sphere of discourse altogether that precludes love altogether — except self-absorbed love of one’s self .

  60. DKL on January 2, 2007 at 10:38 am

    Clark, what exactly is it that isn’t semantically clear, and how its semantic ambiguity or vagueness different from any other type of ambiguity or vagueness.

    The question pertaining to the identity of the objects of our emotions isn’t unique to love or to people. Do we enjoy the movie (or the pet or the building or the meeting)? Or do we enjoy the properties of the movie (or the pet or the building or the meeting)? Clearly it is neither since we often love a movie (or a pet or a building or a meeting) despite its qualities, and yet we don’t simply love the movie (or the pet or the building or the meeting) because learning certain things about it can lead us to cease loving it.

    All that is happening here is that the exact nature of the object is (a) depended on the theoretical framework used to analyze it, and (b) underdetermined by the context. Combine these, and you have confusion even in areas that don’t involve subjectivity. Take Pavlov’s dog: does he salivate because the bell rang? because the sound waves travelled through the air? because the sound waves hit his eardrums? because the auricular nerves carry the signal to the brain? Because the brain associates it with the puff of meat powder? The correct answer depends on the context in which the question is asked.

    Even situations that don’t involve an actor are liable to this kind of ambiguity. For example, why does a chess program make a certain move? Is it to execute some strategy? Is it because of some line in a program? Is it because of the way that electrical impulses move through patterns of transistors? In this very simple case, it’s easy to illustrate how the theoretical framework shifts with the context. In a chess class, an explanation about programming or semi-conductors is a bad joke; the correct answer relates to strategy. In a programming class, the correct answer relates to code. And so forth.

    And seriously: familiarity and game theory? Come on.

    What’s wanted here is clarity of thought. Even shallow puddles look deep when they’re murky.

  61. DKL on January 2, 2007 at 10:55 am

    Blake, regarding whether love can be replaced with widgets: I’ve shown that the semantic issues that you’ve tried to raise with love have nothing to do with love, but with language. And once I do that, you protest that love isn’t the same as the objects denoted by the other words in the English Language that I’ve used to demonstrate the linguistic nature of the problem. So Kierkegaard says that love is different, because he uses it in certain sentences with peculiar consequences. I point out that this peculiarity has nothing to do with love, but with more general properties of the language. And you respond by saying that the sentences with love are still different because love is different. This strikes me as circular.

    Your confusion about love relates to your thinking that the peculiarities of the English language that can be brought to bear on the word “love” have any necessary relationship to the emotion love. In other words, you’re confusing the word “love” with the emotion love. From my point of view, you might as well argue that the emotion love has four letters as argue that these semantic issues surrounding sentences containing the word “love” have anything to with the emotion love.

    Regarding the issue of value: There is this pattern where parents who love their kids and spend a lot of time with their kids will eventually want a little time to themselves. Once they have a little time to themselves, they want more time with the kids. If you wish to deny that this is a very common pattern, than it will be encumbant upon you to explain what baby-sitters are usually for. If you wish to demonstrate that this pattern is not an instance of the law of diminishing returns, please offer a substantive reason. It’s not enough to dismiss me as operating in an altogether different sphere.

  62. Blake on January 2, 2007 at 11:18 am

    DKL: You claim to have “shown that the semantic issues that you’ve tried to raise with love have nothing to do with love, but with language.” Really? Where? Certainly not here. The reason we see things differently is that I believe love of a good cup of postum is different than love of one’s own son or wife, and you don’t seem to be able make any such distinction except operationally. Moreover, love is not merely an emotion as you take it — not merely a reductive behavior. It so happens that persons are not mere objects for study and agape love would never consider the beloved fungible with something else that might be valued more for other reasons. So your operative definitions demonstrate, for me at least, why we are talking past each other and why, from my point of view, you just don’t get it.

    BTW in the first chapter of my book I address at some length the difference between mere objects of love and I-Thou relations. You might want to pick it up — tho I doubt it. You operate solely in the world of I-It relations — at least insofar as your supposed linguistic/behaviorist take on things indicates (tho I would like to believe you really don’t treat your wife and children as mere operationally observable entities).

  63. DKL on January 2, 2007 at 12:12 pm

    Blake: You claim to have “shown that the semantic issues that you’ve tried to raise with love have nothing to do with love, but with language.” Really? Where? Certainly not here.

    In response to the fact that activities motivated by love become activities motivated by obligation: Comment 55. In summary: This is the law of diminishing returns framed in language designed to make it look tragic.

    In response to our failure to love those we are commanded to love: Comment 55. In summary: This is no different from any other commandment failure due to human frailty, it’s just framed in usage designed to make it look tragic.

    In response to the shouting angrily, “I’M NOT ANGRY!”: Comment 57. In summary: This is no different from any sentence where the meaning of a statement is clear, but other evidence undermines the veracity of the statement.

    In response to Clark’s example showing the vagueness/ambiguity of the objects of love: Comment 60. In summary: context of discussion underdetermines the theoretical framework required to clearly answer the question.

    I really don’t know how much clearer I can be on this, Blake. I certainly do believe that I’ve been clearer in answering arguments than you have, since from all I can tell, you haven’t actually argumentatively engaged my arguments, but come up with reasons for not engaging them.

    Blake: The reason we see things differently is that I believe love of a good cup of postum is different than love of one’s own son or wife, and you don’t seem to be able make any such distinction except operationally.

    The only example of mine that involves love is diminishing returns one, which involves love of one’s own kids. In this case, I’ve discussed this pattern where parents who love their kids and spend a lot of time with their kids will eventually want a little time to themselves. I’ll ask again: are you denying that this pattern exists? or are you now saying that parents who display this pattern of behavior love their kids like they love their postum?

    In my other examples, I’ve tried to steer clear of love, since it’s my claim in that the problems that you discuss are not unique to love. So I’m just not clear where love of postum vs love of family comes up.

    You haven’t really responded to anything I’ve written, Again, you say that love is different because certain sentences lead to peculiar consequences. I claim that this peculiarity is linguistic and not related to love. You respond by saying that the sentences with love are different because love is different. This still strikes me as circular.

    Blake: BTW in the first chapter of my book I address at some length the difference between mere objects of love and I-Thou relations. You might want to pick it up — tho I doubt it.

    Geeze, Blake. I’ll pick up your book. I’ll even read it. But you may be well served to be a bit more enthusiastic about the reading material that you recommend.

    That said, the problem isn’t that I haven’t read anything about I-Thou relationships vs I-It relationships. The problem is that I think it’s a bunch of tiresome BS that cheapens emotions by pretending that their peculiarities arise from their oddities of linguistic usage.

    Blake: I would like to believe you really don’t treat your wife and children as mere operationally observable entities

    LOL. The way you’ve put this, treating people as operationally observable entities sounds positively awful. I’d like to comfort you by saying that I don’t really do this. Alas, I’m not clear on what might constitute “mere operationally observable entities,” and so I’m really in no place to confirm or deny it.

    Even so, I’m pleased to know that in spite of the fact that you take my epistemological approach to be morally reprehensible, you maintain some healthy doubt on the question of whether I’m a degenerate.

  64. Matt W. on January 2, 2007 at 12:41 pm

    Skimming only, but in the law of diminishing returns as applied to children, the problem that I see is that the children change constantly, and love and time are not synonyms. Now, I am saying this based solely on reading half of DKL’s last comment, and don’t even know what the original post is (I followed a link and have not scrolled up…) but anyway, in the law of diminishing returns, it is that the more supply there is, the less value it has, all other things being constant. (But it could be ammended to the amount of “perceived time…”) As Children are not constant, depending on your perspective, but are constantly changing, it is hard to apply the law of dimising returns, also, wanting to take a break is not a sign of diminishing value of love, but of the dimishing value of time with…. Also, Love is not currency.

    This is a wimpy comment, but I’m gonna post it anyway…

  65. DKL on January 2, 2007 at 1:07 pm

    Matt W: What reaches diminishing returns isn’t the children themselves, but the value of exposure to the children over time. The idea is to provide a sensible explanation for why parents who love their children still want their own space.

    Sorry about the attempt to link to #55. I mistakenly linked to Blake’s preceeding comment. (a paradox? ask Kierkegaard.) Try this link. If that doesn’t work, here’s the excerpt:

    Parents get a sense of enjoyment from spending a certain amount of time with their children. If you increases this amount of time indefinitely, the enjoyment does not continue to increases indefinitely with it. At some point, each additional unit of time with the kids provides less enjoyment than the preceding unit of time. This is called the point of diminishing returns. At some point, the amount of enjoyment per unite of time actually decreases. This is called “way past the point of diminishing returns.” Thus, most parents do reach a point where they are anxious to be away from their children. But the enjoyment that parents experience away from their children is liable to the same principle. The longer the time of separation, the less reward it gives per unit of time, until the increase in time actually causes misery. Thus, parents separated from their children for long periods of time are anxious to be re-united with them.

  66. Clark on January 2, 2007 at 5:59 pm

    DKL: (#60) how its semantic ambiguity or vagueness different from any other type of ambiguity or vagueness.

    I don’t think it is. I think all our words are vague and ambiguous. It’s just the “love” seems to illustrate this in a fashion that folks can recognize.

    Clarity of thought is necessary but I personally think that when we demand stability of our terms of a sort that isn’t true we make things worse, not better. Artificial formal languages, even when quasi-English (as most science language is) are fine. However most of the errors of philosophy come about by attempting to treat natural languages as if they were formal languages. (And in not noticing that even those using formal languages aren’t consistent about staying within the formal language)

  67. DKL on January 2, 2007 at 7:38 pm

    Clark: think all our words are vague and ambiguous. It’s just the “love” seems to illustrate this in a fashion that folks can recognize.

    If this is Kierkegaard’s point, that language is vague and ambiguous, then he’s much more trivial than I’m giving him credit for.

    Clark: However most of the errors of philosophy come about by attempting to treat natural languages as if they were formal languages.

    There’s some truth to this. As analytic philosophy became more popular, there came with it an inevitable tendency for lesser philosophers to analyze for the sake of analyzing and to use formal languages the a model of clarity.

    It is, however, a mistake to attribute this kind of approach to any very good philosophers, like Carnap and Russell. For them, artificial languages worked as an analytical tool to help emphasize important concepts and illuminate subtle points that were difficult to emphasize or illuminate using just natural language. Used this way, artificial languages function in a way analogous to the rough-hand diagrams one might draw on a whiteboard (and augment and point to at intervals) while trying to explain some process. Such things are valuable for communicating and clarifying important points, but are not an end in-and-of themselves, and alone can be quite meaningless. (I think that you’d do better if you avoided the question of whether artificial languages grant clarity, and just focus on the question of whether analysis, as such, is capable of preserving the meaning of that which it transforms by analyzing and noting the problematic Platonic assumptions of quasi-permanent meanings that this carries with it. But, hey, you’re the continentalist here.)

    Bringing this back to the point of Kierkegaard, I’m using analysis as a tool to show that Kierkegaard is a kind of linguistic illusionist who exploits language to make ostensibly interesting statements out of the most mundane facts. In other words, he’s (a) not making intellectually substantive points, and (b) encouraging muddled thinking among those whom he dupes into taking him seriously. It won’t do to answer my call for clarity by pointing out that formal languages are sometimes put to poor use, and it’s not reasonable to accuse me of overanalyzing simply because some lackluster philosophers misuse analysis.

  68. Robert C. on January 2, 2007 at 8:09 pm

    DKL #45: “And I don’t believe that he just up and asked Abraham to sacrifice his Son either — if I did, I’d have to believe that God is a despicable being.”

    So why did God ask Abraham to sacrifice Isaac on your view? I think this might help many of us understand why you don’t take Kierkegaard’s thinking seriously (since he discusses this at length in “Fear and Trembling” and addresses what he considers the limitations of essentially positivist thinking in faith and religion).

  69. Blake on January 2, 2007 at 9:38 pm

    DKL pontificates: “That said, the problem isn’t that I haven’t read anything about I-Thou relationships vs I-It relationships. The problem is that I think it’s a bunch of tiresome BS that cheapens emotions by pretending that their peculiarities arise from their oddities of linguistic usage.” Really? You don’t think there is a difference between relating to people in commerical transactions for gain and relating to them for them own intrinsic value? I think I know where the BS is here — and it ani’t Buber or Kierkegaard.

    I have pretty well concluded that further discussion with you on these points is not fruitful because our way of approaching these issues and our basic assumptions are just too different.

  70. DKL on January 2, 2007 at 10:09 pm

    Blake: You don’t think there is a difference between relating to people in commercial transactions for gain and relating to them for them own intrinsic value?

    This is a really stupid question.

    Blake: I have pretty well concluded that further discussion with you on these points is not fruitful because our way of approaching these issues and our basic assumptions are just too different.

    If this is your idea of “discussion,” then we are indeed on two separate ends of the universe.

  71. DKL on January 2, 2007 at 10:22 pm

    Robert C, I do not believe that God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son, not any more than I believe the account at the start of Genesis 6 about the Nephilim that were the offspring of angels and human women. Nor do I think that Genisis’s authors/editors/redactors necessarily included in the scripture for any other reason besides dumb luck. I don’t have a problem with literature that seeks to illuminate the human condition by using this kind of mythology, any more than I object to the use of (say) Iphigenia. In fact, I think that between the Isaac near-sacrifice and the Iphigenia sacrifice, the Iphigenia sacrifice is more likely to have some actual root in scripture. But I don’t think that they say anything about history.

    I take Kierkegaard’s retelling of the story from a few additional point of view to be an interesting. In this way, he writing a his own Electra as a new version of the Bible’s Choephoroe.

  72. DKL on January 2, 2007 at 10:27 pm

    oops, the last 2 sentences in the 1st paragraph of the preceding comment should read:

    In fact, I think that between the Isaac near-sacrifice and the Iphigenia sacrifice, the Iphigenia sacrifice is more likely to have some actual root in history. But I don’t think that retellings of the stories tells us anything about history.

  73. Blake on January 2, 2007 at 10:37 pm

    DKL: I long ago concluded that a civil dicussion with you was well nigh impossible. I don’t have time or motive to attempt to enlighten you — nor do I particularly care about your absurd notion of linguistic certitude here. I simply have better things to do with my time.

  74. Jack on January 2, 2007 at 10:47 pm

    DKL,

    Somehow religion becomes too convenient without the works of Abraham.

  75. DKL on January 2, 2007 at 11:34 pm

    Blake: I long ago concluded that a civil dicussion with you was well nigh impossible. I don’t have time or motive to attempt to enlighten you — nor do I particularly care about your absurd notion of linguistic certitude here. I simply have better things to do with my time.

    Thank you, Blake, for caring enough to take the time to remind me.

    And while we’re on the topic, would you mind telling me which of my responses you found to be less civil than the statements that prompted them?

  76. DKL on January 2, 2007 at 11:48 pm

    Jack, I don’t think that religion becomes any more convenient with or without Abraham. What exactly do you have in mind?

  77. Robert C. on January 3, 2007 at 1:00 am

    DKL #71: I’m assuming that somehow you are taking the “as far as it is translated correctly” out regarding Abraham (or something like that), but how about the BOM and D&C references to Abraham’s sacrificing of Isaac, what do you make of the theology embedded in those references (Jacob 4:5 and D&C 101:4 in particular)?

  78. Robert C. on January 3, 2007 at 1:04 am

    (DKL: Actually, D&C 132:36 is probably a better verse to ask about: “Abraham was commanded to offer his son Isaac; nevertheless, it was written: Thou shalt not kill. Abraham, however, did not refuse, and it was accounted unto him for righteousness.”)

  79. DKL on January 3, 2007 at 1:13 am

    Robert C, I’ll appeal to Quine’s notion of ontological relativity here. Those passages adopt a framework that discusses Abraham as though he were a real person, and one can accept this framework while still treating the ontological commitments that it makes as local. In other words, I don’t have to believe that the ontological commitments that it makes have a more general application. I can do the same thing in mathematics by using a framework that assumes that numbers are real, while still disbelieving in the reality of numbers. (As it happens, I believe that numbers are real and that Abraham isn’t. A paradox? Ask Kierkegaard.)

    In short, I don’t view this as categorically different from when Thomas Monson talked about Jean Valjean and Marius as though they were real (singing) people.

  80. Clark on January 3, 2007 at 1:59 am

    DKL: (#67) If this is Kierkegaard’s point, that language is vague and ambiguous, then he’s much more trivial than I’m giving him credit for.

    That’s my point, not Kierkegaard. I think Kierkegaard’s point is more that love is always beyond our comprehension for it to be love. Which is wrapped up in language being vague and ambiguous but in a particular way. But I’ll confess to having never had the inclination to read Kierkegaard so I can’t really speak for him.

  81. Clark on January 3, 2007 at 2:01 am

    BTW – I’m not at all convinced Russell and Carnap escaped the trap I mentioned. I’m not as up on the nuances of Carnap’s writings so I can’t speak too much to him. But I definitely think Russell fell prey to it.

  82. DKL on January 3, 2007 at 4:49 am

    Clark, Carnap tended to treat semantic arguments as competing proposals for interpreting the language. So that, for example, he treats the question of whether the naturalistic fallacy is really a fallacy as two competing ways to interpret language (e.g., an interpretation where “x is the case therefore you should do y” can be a valid inference and an interpretation where it cannot be a valid inference) . He then constructs a few quick and dirty artificial languages that make plain some of the advantages and disadvantages to each, and concludes with a cost-benefit analysis. There’s no pretense that the artificial language that he’s created has any value beyond the immediate illustration.

    Carnap did try to construct artificial languages that were more generally useful than the sort that I describe above, and he took them to serve essentially the same purpose as the more ad hoc artificial languages, only they had a much broader application.

    Russell made metaphysical assumptions that kept him from adopting Carnap’s style of framework relativism. Plus, his attachment to Platonic meaning elements (e.g., semantic atoms, expressions) lead him to treat artificial languages and natural languages as basically interchangeable, because they’re basically dealing with the same things. It also lead him to prefer artificial languages with a broad scope over artificial languages with a narrow scope, though he certainly used both. Since Russell was not shy about recommending artificial constructs to lend providing clarity to meaning, many interpreters (even as knowledgeable as DF Pears) to mistake Russell’s approach for one that holds up artificial language as an ideal against which natural language should be measured. But this is a mistake. Russell’s response to G.E. Moore’s famous over-analysis of the theory of descriptions, (wherein Moore quibbles over whether it’s more accurate to use the predicate “wrote” vs the predicate “authored”) was basically, “so what?” Russell understood that clarity for clarity’s sake was folly.

    Incidentally, I’m surprised to hear you say this about over-analysis, since you’ve always been prone to push precision as an alternative to real argumentative engagement — you know, defining your terms and such.

    Anyway, there’s a quote from Karl Popper about how clarity is useless unless it’s a means to an end, and it would have gained the ready ascent of both Russell and Carnap. It’s a lengthy one that I’ve already typed here, so that I won’t bother to insert it into this thread.

    The bottom line is that unless the lack of clarity (or precision) leads to a misunderstanding (as is the case with Keirkegaard), there’s no much point in demanding clarity. But it’s precisely because Keirkegaard’s lack of clarity create misunderstanding that I call for clarity.

    Besides, if you think that my call for clarity is too much, I won’t tend to find that persuasive unless you explain exactly why. As I indicated before, it’s not persuasive to simply point to the fact that some people overuse analysis.

  83. Edward on January 3, 2007 at 7:38 am

    Little late on this discussion, but it\’s an interesting read.

    Kierkegaard is actually very clear in his later works. Granted the poetic prose of his most famous works have mulitple interpretations, but his later works and discourses are quite conventional in form and language. Kierkegaard\’s philosophical position is informed by Immanuel Kant\’s phenomena and noumena distinction. I recommend reading Kant\’s \”The Conflict of the Faculties\” and \”Religion within the limits of reason alone\” if you are so inclined to understand Kierkegaard\’s position.

    I\’d like to respond to DKL\’s two opinions:
    \”First, if something is unintelligible, then everything said about it is either false or unintelligible. Thus, the question of having faith in it never arises; you must have some intelligible potential belief before the question of faith even arises. The leap of faith cannot occur until we establish exactly what it is that we need to make the leap for.\”
    —- DKL —-

    Kierkegaard does agree that we must have some rational discussion about something so unintelligible. Jesus Christ, for example, is a paradox; How can one believe that Jesus is God that is also man, an eternal being that exists in time/history, a truly infinite being in finite existence? This is the question, this is your intellectual thought here: can one believe that Jesus, according to the Christian scripture is a God-man (a paradox in terms), yes or no. W
    We have now established what it is that we need to make the leap for (yes); or withdraw to our reason blanket (no).

    —- DKL —-
    Second, Kierkegaard is simply wrong about the value of the individual’s identity. I am a member of the crowd. I embody the crowd and everything that gives it life. Without it I am nothing. My identity is not special. I am a member of the boring army of Mormons, of technology employees, of Americans, of college graduates, of parents, of amateur (and amateurish) positivist philosophers, of iPod owners, of spouses, of guys in kaki pants, of Republicans, of Boston commuters, of Beatles fans, of Diet Coke drinkers, of bloggernacle participants, of Mac users, of fans of the Scottish enlightenment, of Massachusetts residents. I could go on and on. These are the things that define who I am, all that I am. And if you strip them all away, you don’t find anything beneath it. You change me by substituting something else for my essence, my crowdness — because by stripping these things away, you rob me of my essence. I am not a unique snowflake.
    —- DKL —-

    Again you have mistaken Kierkegaard\’s definition of \”crowd\”. If one is so inclined to read Kierkegaard\’s, A Literary Review, a \”crowd\” is the opinion of the masses, not your personal beliefs. In Kierkegaard\’s words: \”\”crowd\” is a purely formal conceptualization, merely a number, number of millionaries, number of aristocrats, number of dignitaries, etc.\” He used the example of the press to influence people\’s opinions, gossip and rumors to swade people\’s way of thinking which led to self-deception, complacency and hypocrisy. You\’re an important part of society, but you\’re not just a mere \”number\”.

  84. Robert C. on January 3, 2007 at 10:01 am

    DKL #79: “I don’t have to believe that the ontological commitments that it makes have a more general application.”

    Thanks for explaining this. I think I understand your view, and I can’t say it’s untenable, but I think it raises a whole host of hermeneutic-theological difficulties which I think are better addressed from a Kierkegaard-influenced Continental approach than an analytic approach, but I think the differences ultimately may be more stylistic than substantive. What you describe as K.’s literary chicanery is essentially the Continental way of saying that a positivist approach makes it difficult to see some of the most interesting philosophical questions that exist. In fact, I think your love-for-postum discussion several pages up is a good example of where Continental thought has made more progress than the analytic alternative (postum does not make ethical demands on me like other people do and/or God does). I think these are fascinating questions for religious thinkers to consider, and they are central to many of the French thinkers esp. (and notably Heidegger and Gadamer in Germany). But perhaps you can recommend some analytic works for me to read that take up these questions (viz. ethical obligations to God and other people)?

  85. DKL on January 3, 2007 at 10:43 am

    Edward: We have now established what it is that we need to make the leap for

    By stipulating that Jesus is, in principle, unintelligible, you render the statement, “The Christian man-god performed an infinite atonement” no more meaningful than “Quadruplicity drinks procrastination.” Instead of defining what we must leap for, you’ve merely made it impossible to make true or intelligible statements about it.

    You’ve misread my point about the crowd: I am the masses. I am a mere number. If I ceased to exist the processes in the world would go on largely unimpeded. What’s more, I actively seek ways to make sure that this is the case (e.g., life insurance). I am not George Bailey, and I am not an important part of society. Keirkegaard is wrong.

  86. DKL on January 3, 2007 at 11:36 am

    Robert C, I did not have a love-for-postum discussion. Blake brought up the postum thing. I asked him some very clear questions about what he meant by it, and he refused to answer (as he did with every question I asked). Since he left in a huff, I remain mystified about what postum has to do with anything I’ve said. Perhaps you can clarify exactly where I’ve said something that relates to love-of-postum vs. love-of-children.

    I don’t think that there are any really serious theological issues that this brings to the fore. If Joseph Smith or Jacob believed (by virtue of cultural tradition) that Abraham existed, and if their beliefs about Abraham did not pose stumbling blocks to their belief system, then I see no reason why God would make it a point to avoid giving Joseph or Jacob revelations that referred to Abraham. God appeared to Adam and Eve as a man walking in the garden. To Elijah he was a still small voice. To Job he was the voice from the whirlwind. To Isaiah he was a monarch. To Joseph Smith, he was a man with a white beard and robe. Best I can tell, there are some things that God is quite particular about, but the content of benign cultural traditions is not generally one of them.

    Regarding “the most interesting philosophical questions that exist”: This isn’t just a matter of approach. When it’s so easily shown that Kierkegaard’s questions are banal, I will not admit that they are interesting.

  87. Clark on January 3, 2007 at 1:34 pm

    DKL, the problem of artificial languages is that they are almost always grounded on natural languages to find their bearings. Once again scientific language is the best example of this. For the record I am well aware of the changes in his thought Carnap took towards the end of his life. The latter Carnap under the influence of Quine always seemed much more palatable to me. I just haven’t read enough (or recently enough) to really be able to discuss him in an intelligent fashion. Russell, although I almost always disagree with him, I still find very enjoyable to read. It’s my secret shame that my beliefs in college were a near mirror image to Russell in his middle period, despite my (then) not having read much Russell. So I’ll fully admit my bias in that I tend to view Russell through the lens of my own self-criticism.

    For the record I don’t think I read Russell as making the kind of natural/artificial mistake you suggest. I’m more thinking of his work on language in general. Indeed most of the philosophy of language written in that era, while profoundly important, simultaneously seems hopelessly naive. But I do agree with Russell’s criticism of Moore’s apporach to clarity. (And that I think would also describe Austin and many British philosophers of that era)

    I’m all about clarity and frankly even accept a quasi-verificationalist principle with sufficient tweaks. I am a Peircean after all. (grin) I just think Peirce’s approach to clarity is a lot more helpful than what I see with the analytic philosophy approach to the linguistic turn.

    As to my “always been prone to push precision as an alternative to real argumentative engagement — you know, defining your terms and such.” I typically do that to lead to an aporia to point out the futility of a certain approach. A kind of argumentation by reduction ad absurdium. I don’t find it an alternative to actual engagement. It’s just that the engagement people often want requires me to buy into premises and a way of approaching the problem that I find mistaken. Thus what’s the alternative? I can attempt to make my point via their framework which entails this approach to precision and the problems that result or simply disengage.

  88. Clark on January 3, 2007 at 1:45 pm

    BTW – addressing your key point. I think the call for clarity is fine so long as we recognize that the kind of clarity we desire it unobtainable. So there is a point of diminishing returns. The problem becomes when people create an artificial language that is relatively clear and then think they’re talking about the same things anymore. Like artificial models in the sciences (say a triangle representing a mountain to calculate its height) such artificialities can be profoundly useful in bringing out and understanding elements of a phenomena. When we treat the model as reality we always run into problem. Life becomes treated as technology and all sorts of errors and abuse results.

  89. greenfrog on January 3, 2007 at 2:30 pm

    Best I can tell, there are some things that God is quite particular about, but the content of benign cultural traditions is not generally one of them.

    Nice.

    And fun.

  90. DKL on January 3, 2007 at 5:53 pm

    Clark: the problem of artificial languages is that they are almost always grounded on natural languages to find their bearings

    That’s not the problem. That’s the very basis of their usability and usefulness. Consider how much more useful C and C++ are over assembly language. As far as I’m concerned, no language is useful for explicating another unless they share a considerable number of semantic building blocks. I’m curious what other kind of language you think might be useful to demonstrate semantic relationships in other languages.

    Carnap’s philosophical program was always based on explicating concepts to solve real problems that remain inevitably unclear when described in natural language. This wasn’t just later Carnap. While he was hopeful that useful concepts from artificial language would naturally make their way into natural language (e.g., as temperature measured in Fahrenheit or Celsius degrees did), and while he viewed artificial languages as essential to the progress of knowledge, he never had any interest in changing natural language or analyzing for the sake of analysis.

    I’m not even convinced that the distinction between natural and artificial languages is a cogent one anyway (this is very likely part of what Quine was getting at when he took aim at the analytic/synthetic distinction). I tend to view language through the lens of Donald Davidson’s “A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs.” Language is what people use to communicate. If you and I communicate, then we’re using language. Certain portions of the conversation may be categorized in certain ways (grunting, speaking, rolling around in flour, gestures, quantification logic, drawings of tiny birds, malapropisms), but it’s all language and we use. How often have you found that when someone asks you what you talked about with someone, that you are unable to convey the import of the discussion using the words that you used during the discussion? (and not because of memory, but because they don’t actually bear the same semantic significance outside of the original discussion)

    Shoot, I heard of an old woman who whistled her testimony. If anyone in her ward actually understood her, then that was language (though, for the record, nobody provided an interpretation by the Holy Ghost, so according to Joseph Smith, if she communicated anything at all it would have been from Satan. This means that it would then be incumbent upon the Bishop to correct it, though it’s not clear how or what. A paradox? Ask Kierkegaard.)

  91. Clark on January 3, 2007 at 6:11 pm

    Well I agree that’s their utility. But if they are grounded on ambiguity, vagueness, and metaphor then you can’t escape the problems of natural language.

  92. Clark on January 3, 2007 at 7:10 pm

    BTW – I agree on the relationship between Quine’s two dogmas and the artificial/natural distinction. It’s all natural which was kind of my point. Clarity in artificial languages is really just about narrowing use judgments. That narrows the limits of interpretation.

  93. Edward on January 3, 2007 at 7:55 pm

    By stipulating that Jesus is, in principle, unintelligible, you render the statement, “The Christian man-god performed an infinite atonement” no more meaningful than “Quadruplicity drinks procrastination.” Instead of defining what we must leap for, you’ve merely made it impossible to make true or intelligible statements about it.

    There’s a difference between a contradiction and a paradox. A contradiction is unintelligble, as you can base anything on X and its opposite. A paradox is a “seeming” contradiction, but may or may not have a internal coherency unknown to us. Kierkegaard asserts that Jesus is a paradox, not a contradiction. Jesus is both God and man (paradox), not both God and not-God (Contradiction)

    You’ve misread my point about the crowd: I am the masses. I am a mere number. If I ceased to exist the processes in the world would go on largely unimpeded. What’s more, I actively seek ways to make sure that this is the case (e.g., life insurance). I am not George Bailey, and I am not an important part of society. Keirkegaard is wrong.

    Wow, such pessimism. And people think Kierkegaard is a pessimist. In reality, he’s an uplifiting optimist in this regard.

  94. Jack on January 3, 2007 at 8:26 pm

    DKL,

    I said the *works* of Abraham, not Abraham per se–though it seems (to me) that God has chosen an interesting archetype of discipleship in Abraham. But then again, if God never told him to do any of those crazy things then Abraham’s position as a model of faithfulness becomes meaningless.

  95. Robert C. on January 3, 2007 at 9:35 pm

    DKL #86: “Regarding “the most interesting philosophical questions that exist”: This isn’t just a matter of approach. When it’s so easily shown that Kierkegaard’s questions are banal, I will not admit that they are interesting.”

    I don’t doubt that you’ve proven to yourself that Kierkegaard’s questions are banal, however, I think you are in the minority opinion and that you haven’t succeeded in convincing too many others.. Kierkegaard has had tremendous influence on contemporary philosophy, theology and many other disciplines. Nevertheless, I applaud your efforts to make the case that he’s over-rated, and I understand you have your rep to maintain in making brassy claims like this (“so easily shown that K.’s Q’s are banal”).

    Sorry for mis-attributing the postum-example. One interesting issue I think it raises is how a commandment not to drink a certain beverage differs from the command to love others. Drinking postum instead of coffee is relatively straightforward. Loving others demands more. Whereas all cups of coffee can be treated the same in my rejection of them (regardless of their differing quality and flavor), loving others requires that I learn about others and that I reponsd to their easily-neglected needs and concerns. The way I respond to this obligation is one topic about which K. has interesting things to say. As Blake hinted at, if I respond to the other’s call to love others only b/c God has commanded me to, I am not fully responding to the call to love. This call can lead to subtle forms of self-deception which K. has elucidated nicely in his writings (though I think others have discussed many of these issues better, but he was one of the first to identify & think about these issue carefully and deserves such credit). Would you say self-decetion is a banal topic, or simply that K.’s insights on this topic are banal?

  96. DKL on January 4, 2007 at 1:19 am

    Edward, a paradox is a contradiction with logically unacceptable consequences.

  97. DKL on January 4, 2007 at 1:40 am

    Clark, Well I agree that’s their utility. But if they are grounded on ambiguity, vagueness, and metaphor then you can’t escape the problems of natural language.

    This is a non sequitur. The question is where the clarity occurs. Ambiguity and vagueness are pervasive, but clarity is local. You can, for example, introduce quantificational predicates to examine the ontological commitments of some statements. By doing so, you can get quite clear and unambiguous about these commitments. This doesn’t resolve the other ambiguities, and that’s beside the point.

    There is a certain balance between expressive power and precision in language. The more exact the language, the less varied its meanings. And the more vagueness it allows, the broader its spectrum of expression. We travel in the more expressive realms during most of our linguistic outings, but from time to time, we must tread the granular plains of precision to reach our destination. If the destination is indeed worthwhile, then we mustn’t complain about the route we took to get there.

  98. DKL on January 4, 2007 at 1:54 am

    Jack, it seems to me that there are enough different models of faithfulness that it’s pointless to argue which is the best model. It’s left to us to decide who our models are and who our heros are. Just as I have a strong affinity for James Bond as a hero, I can also have a strong affinity for Abraham as a model of righteousness. It just so happens that I don’t, but that’s an entirely separate issue. My model for righteousness is more a cross between BH Roberts and the Mr. Smith who went to Washington.

  99. Edward on January 4, 2007 at 2:32 am

    This what I mean: From the Answers.com Dictionary:

    “paradox, statement that appears self-contradictory but actually has a basis in truth”

    “Apparently self-contradictory statement whose underlying meaning is revealed only by careful scrutiny.”

    “A paradox is an apparently true statement or group of statements that leads to a contradiction or a situation which defies intuition. Typically, either the statements in question do not really imply the contradiction, the puzzling result is not really a contradiction, or the premises themselves are not all really true or cannot all be true together. The word paradox is often used interchangeably and wrongly with contradiction; but whereas a contradiction asserts its own opposite, many paradoxes do allow for resolution of some kind.”

    This is the operating definition of paradox in the sense that Kierkegaard and others moral philosophers use: “a situation which defies intuition”; meaning which is “revealed through scrutiny”, and “seeming” contradiction. We’re not using paradox interchangeably with contradiction here.

  100. DKL on January 4, 2007 at 2:50 am

    Robert C: I understand you have your rep to maintain in making brassy claims like this (”so easily shown that K.’s Q’s are banal”)

    Yeah, well I kind of stole that one turn of phrase that you quote. Years ago, I found the formula for that brassy claim in an essay by AJ Ayer. After making quick business of Heidegger’s question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Ayer concluded, “When it is so easily shown of a question that it cannot be answered, I will not admit that a long answer is called for.” That’s brilliant!. Really hits the nail on the head. I’ve lost no opportunity to use that formula in my own writings.

    Robert C: Whereas all cups of coffee can be treated the same in my rejection of them (regardless of their differing quality and flavor

    You obviously never had Folger’s Instant Coffee Crystals? They’re way more rewarding to turn down than other forms of coffee.

    Robert C: As Blake hinted at, if I respond to the other’s call to love others only b/c God has commanded me to, I am not fully responding to the call to love

    This gets directly at the core of it, Robert. This sentence relies on two separate criteria for satisfying the function “I love someone.” Thus, it is guilty of equivocation. For the sake of discussion, I’ll use the term “caring actions” to refer to the kind of behavior you characterize as “respond[ing] to their easily-neglected needs and concerns.” We can therefore express the two different criteria for whether I love someone (who’s identity I will keep concealed for the moment):

    (a) I perform caring actions toward someone, and I do most of these solely because I want to follow God’s commandments
    (b) I perform caring actions toward someone, and I do most of these out of selfless devotion

    If we accept the assumption that the motivation to follow commandments is not one of selfless devotion, then you’re statement amounts to saying that (a) and (b) are mutually exclusive for any given object of love at any given time. It’s true that people very frequently fool themselves into believing that they are doing (b) when they are doing (a). It’s worth noting that very few people fool themselves into believing that they are doing (a) when they are doing (b). This points to the fact that the self deception arises at least partly due to self serving reasons; it’s quite easy for us to believe things that make us look like really grand people. As far as responding to God’s commandment, he clearly desires that folks get to point (b) even if they have to wallow a bit in (a) in order to get there. Is there something that I’m missing here?

    My sense is that if I tried to pass off the preceding paragraph as a substantive analysis of some aspects of loving relationships, I’d be (rightly) scoffed at — I’m just one of the crowd, you know. I don’t see why people are so fascinated with Kiergegaard’s nuances and gestures and so forth unless it’s because the pretense of understanding all this “subtlety” provides an easy way out with people who disagree with them.

    Robert C: This call can lead to subtle forms of self-deception which K. has elucidated nicely in his writings… Would you say self-decetion is a banal topic, or simply that K.’s insights on this topic are banal?

    Self-deception, as such, is far too general a topic to be boring or interesting. On any really stringent definition, most forms of self-deception are trivial; e.g., I’m thoroughly convinced that I don’t drink too much diet Coke — who cares? Certain very severe forms of self-deception are interesting in some contexts — the crazy old ladies in “Arsenic and Old Lace” come to mind. Probably the best movie that is entirely devoted to the draw that we feel toward self-deception is the Robert Redford movie “The Candidate.” Bergman’s “Wild Strawberries” and Bill Murray’s “Scrooged” also come to mind, where memories come alive to give otherwise successful men a glimpse at who they really are, and this reality is disturbing enough to prompt a new beginning.

    Kierkegaard’s discussion of self-deception fails to be original or interesting, because there’s no real substantive point that he’s making. He’s simply describing things in a way that is calculated to cause confusion in the reader.

  101. DKL on January 4, 2007 at 3:24 am

    Edward, I think that your proposed definitions are undermined by your original point that we have to give up reason to make the leap of faith. But fair enough. I’m happy to use those definitions, too. Your point still founders.

    If the proposition, “The Christian man-god provided an infinite atonement” is only apparently contradictory, and is altogether sensible provided the correct explication/resolution, then there appears to be nothing special about this statement at all with regard to faith vs. reason.

    No matter how you slice it, Kierkegaard’s “leap of faith” bottoms out.

  102. Robert C. on January 4, 2007 at 11:38 am

    DKL #100: Thanks for the movie recommendations, I haven’t seen a couple of those. I think I’ve gone way beyond my depth there, though it’s been fun posing. I really enjoyed reading K.’s Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing (the text is easily found online now). It helped me think through interesting issues of self-deception that go beyond your simple paragraph summary. But I don’t think this work of his was considered a significant philosophical contribution. And a lot of what seems to pass for significant philosophical contribution in the analytic tradition seems to me as not very interesting, mainly in the sense that it is usually just playing with definitions and rules of logic that don’t seem very interesting or illuminating to me, esp. from what I’ve read about self-deception by analytic philosophers….

    In fact, since you brought up computer languages, perhaps my reaction is the same: I recognize the use of improved computer languages, and I benefit from them in using them, but I don’t find them that intellectually interesting b/c they follow simple rules of logic. And I don’t think computer languages have that much to teach me about what I find most interesting in life (things like love, beauty, faith, etc.). So perhaps this is why I prefer reading Kierkegaard and others who do not strive for the type of logical clarity that you seem to value so much, b/c I don’t think the most interesting issues lend themselves to being reduced to simple logical clarity. I haven’t been following the discussion about what a paradox is closely enough to know if this qualifies, but I think this tension of clarity and subltety is interesting: for me, once something becomes clear, it usually ceases to be interesting. And although one might argue that this is just the natural process of learning, I think much more is going on here, something that is not easily analyzed in clear language. This Kierkegaardian leap of faith you are criticizing, which I think of as lying at the root of the problem of transcendance that seems to be a central theme in modern and post-modern epistemological philosophy, seems necessarily tied to the problem of clarity. So if we simply demand that all interesting philosophical thinking must be first and foremost clear (and precise? I’ll leave that question to you and Clark), then it seems we are essentially constraining philosophy to the same realm as computer languages, ignoring anything that so-called obscurantist writers like K., Heidegger, Derrida etc. might have to say that is interesting (by the way, I think Christ makes a similar point in Mark 4:12, quoting Isa 6:9ff in explaining why he teaches in parables, to make his followers confused and thereby possibly precipitate the beginning of learning, on my reading…).

  103. DKL on January 4, 2007 at 12:41 pm

    Robert, I think that you’re completely mistaken about computer languages when you say that they simply follow logic. In fact, there are a variety of non-logical factors that dictate how programming is best performed. This includes everything from basic matters of style (e.g., variable naming conventions) to algorithmic elegance. Indeed, the difference between good code and bad code, code that is maintainable and re-usable vs. code that is not maintainable and not re-usable, has nothing at all to do with logic. And it is more than merely an aesthetic difference. Poorly written code isn’t just ugly, it fails to convey the meaning of what’s going on. Try taking your classing quicksort or mergesort, and replace all of the variable names with randomly generated alphabetical sequences — the code becomes positively inscrutable.

    C is not some sterile language. It possesses a tremendously nuanced semantic system. One can pick up the basic logic of C in a day, be up and running at a decent clip in less than a week, and be basically fluent in a month. But it takes many years of work and a lot of innate skill to master the language. And programming isn’t about writing programs, it’s about writing programs in collaboration with other programmers — even if you’re only linking against their libraries. No effective programmer is an island.

    C, being much simpler than natural language, is able to illustrates some important points about how natural language works. As I’ve pointed out elsewhere: If you take a program written in C and compile it with two different compilers, you’ll get two different compiled results. If you run these two compiled programs through a de-compiler, you get two results that are as different from each other as they are from the originals. Compiling the de-compiled programs with other compilers and decompiling them again will yield additional, novel sets of C programs. To the extant that any compiled version of these programs behaves differently in any respect (other than negligible differences in performance), it will be considered the fault of the compiler (or de-compiler).

    Thus, C is 100% reducible to object code. It is utterly reductionist in the most literal sense, though not in the most extreme sense; specifically, there is not necessarily a single, canonical representation in object code of any given semantic unit in C source code. Nor is there any single, canonical method of organizing different representations. Hence the difference between the compiled and decompiled programs.

    So it is with language. I stand against nearly all post-WWII linguistic philosophers by maintaining that language is reductionist in the most literal sense. Meanings can be taken in isolation, have their impact on other meanings examined, and put back together with a great deal of precision. And in practice, we rewriting and restating our positions in a way that takes this for granted. Sure there are borderline examples of instances where it’s difficult, but focussing on those instances misses the entire point: we use language as though it were not irreducibly complex because it is not irreducibly complex. Russell’s atomisw is intuitive because it reflects not just how meaning works, but how we use meanings.

    Regarding Christ’s teachings in the New Testament, these are mostly sayings that were attributed to him. In the best cases, they were handed down through multiple sources. In the worst cases, they were reconstructions by people who just weren’t in a position to know. There’s a very good reason why Christianity isn’t based on Jesus’s teachings. It’s worth noting that the Book of Mormon tends to be dominated by direct sermons (as are Paul’s epistles). Most of the Book of Mormon’s parables are quoted from other sources.

    Moreover, it’s generally not a good idea for someone who grades papers to espouse the merits of muddled writing.

  104. Robert C. on January 5, 2007 at 3:40 pm

    Hmmm, interesting about computer languages. I still think there’s something very interesting about the difference between, say, beautiful code and, say, Shakespeare. I think this makes for an interesting (though perhaps unfair) metaphor to consider the analytic vs. Continental divide. I think I could spend a month or even a year analyzing beautiful code, but I think it would take more than one lifetime to similarly exhaust Shakespeare. I guess one counter-argument is that me saying this proves that the code-approach is more coherent than a more poetic (i.e. less positivistic) approach….

  105. DKL on January 6, 2007 at 12:06 pm

    Two words, Robert C: False dichotomy.

  106. DKL on January 29, 2007 at 10:51 pm

    I was just re-reading this, and I came across something I hadn’t noticed before:

    Robert C: …ignoring anything that so-called obscurantist writers like K., Heidegger, Derrida etc. might have to say that is interesting…

    Heidegger? Derrida? interesting? right.

    Honestly, the more I read people defend these types (Kierkegaard included), the more it sounds like a kind of philosophical Stockholm syndrome. At least Lewis Carol made nonsense fun.

  107. Atoms for Peace on February 26, 2007 at 12:59 pm

    I am in total agreement with you on this one – keep up the good work;)

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