Exploring Mormon Thought: Ethics

June 20, 2012 | 20 comments
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Ostler opens chapter 3 of The Problems of Theism and the Love of God by referring to several different individuals’ claim that the ontological commitments of Mormon theology foreclose the possibility of its embracing a defensible moral theory. Ostler then takes as his task in this chapter not only to identify what he takes to be Mormonism’s moral theory but also to argue for the possibility of such a moral theory to be fully robust despite its rootedness in a non-traditional theism. Much of the chapter is tied up in the details of an ongoing exchange between himself and Francis Beckwith on this question, but the conclusions to which Ostler comes in the end are relatively straightforwardly stated:

(1) Every moral theory fails except for the Kantian one.
(2) Even the Kantian moral theory fails in certain regards (i.e., it needs revision).
(3) A revised Kantian moral theory, fully defensible, is the Mormon moral theory.

What does that revised Kantian moral theory look like? Ostler rejects one formulation of Kant’s categorical imperative, according to which one should act only on maxims whose normativity can be universalized without paradox or contradiction. In its place, Ostler accepts the other major formulation of Kant’s categorical imperative, according to which one should treat whatever is of absolute value as an end and not as a means to an end. Ostler revises Kant’s own inflection of this formulation in an important way: it isn’t the presence of rationality (as the essence of what is human) in something that marks its absolute value but its unicity or particularity. I am morally obligated to love whatever is particular.

I’ve already expressed in another post some concerns about this idea, so I won’t rehearse them here. What interests me is the move Ostler makes when he turns from attack (against other moral theories) and defense (of his own revised Kantianism) to articulation (of what he takes to be the “LDS agape theory of ethics in alignment with the gospel of Christ”). Here he begins from individual uncreatedness—an idea that, in my opinion, deserves a good deal more philosophical attention before it can be taken as a justification for embracing a Kantian moral theory oriented to apparently uncontestable particularity—by moves quickly to what he calls “the law of love.” If Mormonism’s Kantian moral commitments mark its claim that human beings experience a moral obligation to assist in the growth and progress of particular intelligences toward participation in the divine nature, then the whole of the moral law can be summarized in the golden rule: “To the extent that it can be defined,” Ostler says, “this law can be formulated simply as the practical law of the harvest: What we give, we receive; what we sow, we reap; what we send out, returns to us. Therefore, do unto others as you would have them do unto you, for as we judge others we shall be judged. This is the eternal law decreed by God before the world was and by which we shall be judged” (pp. 113-114).

So far, so consistent. But then, along the pathway of this discussion, Ostler says the following: “Both personal growth and interpersonal growth are also intrinsically valuable as ends in themselves. However, there is a byproduct of love that also makes love worth pursuing for its own sake—happiness” (p. 111). What’s this? Here, and just in passing (though he says another thing or two about it as he goes on), Ostler suggests that there’s another justification of the law of love, another reason to love—something besides particularity: happiness. This is crucial. Happiness isn’t something God, from outside of the situation of love, bestows on those who love; happiness is something internal to love itself. It’s, in Ostler’s appropriate word, a byproduct of love.

I couldn’t agree more about all this. My question, then, is simply: Why not begin and end here? Why bother with Kant? I suspect that Ostler’s reason is that byproducts aren’t enough to ground moral obligation. How can one claim to have a moral obligation to love if one’s simply after love’s associated affects? (As a byproduct and not simply a product, it might be said that happiness can’t be called love’s teleology, and so obligation doesn’t return in the form of a consequentialist ethics here.) And I think Ostler would be right to point out this problem, were he—as I suspect he would—to do so. But then my question would become: What’s so important about moral obligation? Is it so necessary for Mormonism to have a theory of moral obligation? Why can’t we say simply that God reveals to us the happy way to live? Why do we need to say that God reveals to us the happy way to live toward which we have an obligation?

All of this is to ask, in the end, why we can’t simply agree with the several individuals Ostler refers to at the beginning of the chapter. Why not just confess that Mormonism can’t, given its ontological commitments, produce a satisfactory theory of moral obligation? Why not argue that that incapability is one of Mormonism’s strengths? Why not agree with the so-called critics that Mormonism is more like training in the good life than exposition of universal moral obligation? It’s that that baffles me here, particularly because it seems to me that it’s the desire to produce a theory of moral obligation as such that drives Ostler to embrace a philosophically problematic conception of particularity—a conception from which I think it’s just as difficult to derive obligation.

Mormonism doesn’t have a morality; it has an ethics?

20 Responses to Exploring Mormon Thought: Ethics

  1. themormonbrit on June 20, 2012 at 4:07 pm

    Men are that they might have joy, not that they might fulfil some moral obligation. Joy should be central objective of all activities we enter into, not merely a pleasant byproduct.

  2. themormonbrit on June 20, 2012 at 4:09 pm

    Oh, and it would also be remiss of me not to mention that Bruce Nielson is writing a fantastic series of posts exploring morality over at Millennial Star. They are worth a quick read, at least.

  3. clark on June 20, 2012 at 4:21 pm

    I think Mormonism ends up heading towards a kind of virtue ethics. Perhaps not the kind found in Aristotle but more the sort we see in Levinas? I know Levinas isn’t normally called a virtue ethics theorist, but I think his ethical demand without providing a determined ethical determination of behavior is useful. And Blake makes some appeals to Levinas (although I can’t recall if it is in this volume)

  4. Stephen Marsh (Ethesis) on June 20, 2012 at 4:31 pm

    I like the thesis that on one level there is no obligation. You can make a lot of progress from that point, though it down grades duty and loyalty.

  5. Dave on June 20, 2012 at 4:40 pm

    “Choose what’s right when a choice is placed before you” suggests Mormonism is Kantian. “Count your many blessings” suggests Mormonism is utilitarian, as does our updated name for the plan of salvation: The Great Plan of Happiness.

    More seriously, it is not like these are the only two choices on the menu (or three if you throw in virtue ethics). In fact, most modern discussions of ethics I have read quietly ignore these normative theories in view of empirical results from experimental ethics (see discussions here and here). So I would amend Blake’s point 1 above to: Every moral theory fails, period.

    Which is not to say humans don’t make moral decisions or that Mormons don’t make moral decisions, just that the questions one ought to ask are no longer normative. Instead, ask what sort of moral questions Mormons actually confront and what sort of moral decisions Mormons actually make. The quest for an elegant normative theory of human ethics, Mormon or otherwise, no longer seems defensible. The justifications normative theories have held forth for human ethical decisions just turn out not to correspond very well with empirical explanations of how actual people make actual moral decisions.

  6. Bradley on June 20, 2012 at 11:06 pm

    Good post.
    “What’s so important about moral obligation?”
    Major 19th century memes here.
    Could this be the philosophies of men mingled with scripture?
    Here’s the paradox: Moral obligation requires us to judge.
    Yet we are commanded not to judge.
    Look at us today. What has judgement wrought?
    How many neuroses has modern Mormonism spawned?

    To paraphrase your message: Stop judging and start loving.

  7. Blake on June 21, 2012 at 3:33 pm

    Joe: I suggest that each person — as such — has priority and calls to us precisely in the sense of a moral obligation. First because persons have incommensurate value. Each is of absolute value simply because they are who they are. You invert my view from “who” a person is to “what” a person is, i.e. uniqueness as such. To be unique is a feature of a person, not that person his or herself. But what is basic isn’t what, but who the person and personality that each chooses freely to be.

    My theory is grounded in the calledness of human relationships (which as Clark says is a Levinasiam view) which places obligations on us to treat the other as a Thou — as the unique person “who” each is. If such obligation were grounded merely in uniqueness, every person would be fungible because each is unique. Just anyone would do, for example, for a wife. But it isn’t uniqueness that is valuable, but the person who each uniquely is that is of absolute value. Only my wife will do for me as my wife because it isn’t uniqueness I’m after (everyone is unique) but her as the unique person that she is.

    Such “being called to serve” by another as a Thou is also at the center of my theory of sin or self-deception. If I love you only because it will make me happy, then what I love isn’t you but my own happiness. That makes the entire endeavor of serving because it makes me happy self-centered and selfish rather than love. It is a self-defeating position that could only arise in self-deception that tells itself that it is love when it is really selfishness. It is a selfishness that engulfs our entire culture in the “me first” and “I’m most important” approach and if something will affect my happiness then I won’t sacrifice it. The irony is that happiness is really only found in giving up one’s self to find one’s self, in giving up the focus on one’s happiness to give one’s self to others in love. Happiness comes while we’re not searching for it.

    Bradley – a part of what a moral theory ought to explain is why there is any sense of ought or obligation at all. If I steal from another person — why have I done something I ought not? After all, I don’t have to judge them to steal from them. If I love another, then I won’t steal. But if I fail to love another, I have also wronged them. I get a real kick out of your self-inflicted reference to a “nineteenth-century meme” when the “don’t judge” mantra is so New Age.

  8. Jeremiah on June 21, 2012 at 6:01 pm

    I’ve often thought that Mormonism has a virtue ethics basis–with the goal being what kind of person you become as a result of your actions, and a celestialized eudaimonia as the result. What do you think?

  9. joespencer on June 21, 2012 at 8:55 pm

    Blake #7 – I’m missing a connection here, I think. The metaethical question is what grounds the absolute value of a person, and your answer, I take it, is the person’s uniqueness or particularity. Now in terms of “what” and “who”: The metaethical questions is what grounds the absolute value of a who, and your answer, I take it, is the person’s (the who’s) uniqueness or particularity (one of the who’s whats). If uniqueness or particularity has to be understood in terms of “who-ness” (if I can put it that way), then aren’t we just denying that the absolute value of a person is groundless? Absolute value is simply part of the definition of personhood? Like I say, I think I’m missing a connection in your thinking.

    In the meanwhile: Levinas. Moral obligation in Levinas, as I understand him, comes with the other’s preceding me, not with the other’s absolute value or unicity. Though I don’t doubt Levinas plays a role in your thinking, it seems to me that your position remains within the Buberian orbit—and Levinas’ criticisms of Buber are worth considering, I think.

  10. Blake on June 21, 2012 at 11:33 pm

    Joe: I think that you’re missing the crucial distinction. What grounds moral obligation is not a universal like “uniqueness,” it is a particular — this particular person with whom I am in concrete relation as con-fronted by the other. To be an individual in this sense is always to have absolute value vis a vis any other “thing” that could be chosen instead of the person who confronts us, calls to us, lays obligations on us.

    I’ve never been impressed with Levinas’s criticisms of Buber. They seem to me to rest on a fundamental misunderstanding — some of them the same confusion between the universal value of “uniqueness” instead of the particularity of the one who confronts and calls to me as a Thou.

    I think I must not understand your question about what grounds absolute value of persons — what grounds it is the unique particular personality of each person who confronts us. The relationship thus grounds it — who I am and who you are. Further, such individuality is irreducible. It cannot be reduced to some universal as you seem to be wont to do. It cannot be summed up in a universal. You are who you are and that is all that I is require for me to be called by you as one obligated to you. I can ignore and reject the call — but only in an act of self-deception.

  11. joespencer on June 22, 2012 at 9:28 am

    Blake #10 – That’s helpful, though I’m skeptical. What constitutes personality? A host of thinkers have provided us with genealogies of personality—all good reasons to be skeptical that there is some irreducible core of personality. I see how it’s possible to see in the uniquely Mormon idea of eternal intelligence reason to resist that skepticism, but there are other, viable ways of reading Joseph’s claims in this regard. At any rate, Joseph never says that what’s eternal in me is my personality, though perhaps that’s implied.

    And, more importantly for me, I’m not sure—as I articulate in the post—why Latter-day Saints need to bother with moral obligation at all. Isn’t happiness-as-love’s-byproduct enough?

  12. Robert C. on June 22, 2012 at 10:33 am

    Joe, care to explain what you mean by ethics and morality? I suspect you have a Hegelian conception in mind that most of us don’t fully understand or appreciate (and my sense is that the terms are used pretty much interchangeably in more analytic circles, with morality perhaps having a slightly broader connotation than ethics, exactly the opposite of my understanding/recollection of Hegel’s use of the terms…).

    Jeremiah #8, I also like a virtue ethics approach to thinking ethical issues from a Mormon perspective. In a sense, Joe’s argument about happiness seems to me to suggest something in this direction (i.e., happiness = eudaimonia), IMHO. I think it’s particularly important, however, to have a robust conception of intentionality that includes scriptural hermeneutics, in order to be really qualify as a Mormon inflection (and because I think this kind of intentional/hermeneutic approach also helps the teleological aspect of virtue ethics avoid many of the problems that consequentialist/utilitarian brands of teolology tend to really struggle with).

    themormonbrit, thanks mentioning Bruce Nielson’s posts. I’ll be interested to see how he ultimately judges Richard Joyce’s philosophy. So far, it seems an interesting recounting of Joyce’s position, but I can’t tell yet where Nielsen is going….

  13. Blake on June 22, 2012 at 11:50 am

    Joe: “What constitutes personality?”

    Precisely whatever is eternal about a person — an intelligence. Just as you already surmised. That is why this approach is available as a uniquely Mormon ethic.

    We must bother with moral obligation at all because we are obligated to act in certain ways and not to act in others. We owe it to the person who confronts us and calls to us and lays obligations on us. We cannot avoid this obligation — but it is felt as a duty only if we resist the call. If I respond in love then it is not an obligation but an opportunity. It is only when I resist the other that the other imposes the obligation as such. It is only when I wrong you that I breach a moral duty; if I treat you with love then there is no duty but only love. When I act out of love I do not act out of moral duty. When I resist the call to love you and be with you as a Thou valued for who you are, then I must engage in an act of self-justification to justify my failure to respond to the call to do what I felt I am called to do. Then I engage in an act of transvaluation by attempting to make something else appear as my duty and my resistance is felt as an obligation, a heavy burden that I must resist but cannot really avoid.

  14. Robert C. on June 22, 2012 at 12:04 pm

    (And, Joe, when you get a chance to respond to Blake, how would you respond to what seems to me a relatively slight alteration to Blake’s claim: that it is the equality-of-intelligence, or divine potential, in the other that I am called — by love or by duty — to respond to?)

  15. Adam Miller on June 22, 2012 at 3:18 pm

    I think Joe is probably also interested in the “political” question, here. And this, too, is related to Levinas beyond Buber. Buber gives us the “I” and the “Thou” but what about the “Them”?

    The question is: if obligation arises out my singular relation to the singular other, what happens when I’m simultaneously related to a whole bunch of competing singular others? What happens when a relation is no longer dyadic? What happens when the “third” arrives on the scene (which it always already has) and makes the scene messy and “political” rather than just “ethical”?

    Or as Derrida asks (because I know Blake loves Derrida, though Derrida really is very, very good on this kind of thing, especially in The Gift of Death ;) – what justifies my committing myself to this particular women in all her particularity rather than another? Or to this particular cat rather than another?

    A further question is: though it may be phenomenologically common to experience a relation to the other person as involving a dimension of obligation, it is also entirely common, even in good faith, to not know exactly what that obligation amounts to or how to fill it (if such a thing is even possible). Thus we have arising out of the obligation itself the whole abyssal problem of guilt.

  16. joespencer on June 22, 2012 at 3:42 pm

    Quick responses before I leave for a scout campout…

    Robert #12 – In my supposed-to-be-cute paraphrase of the classic “Mormonism doesn’t have a theology; it has a history” mantra, I wasn’t drawing a terribly rigorous distinction. I meant only to distinguish between something (“morality”) associated with obligation and something (“ethics”) associated with practical wisdom (Aristotelian phronesis). The Hegelian distinction between Moralitat (how does one do umlauts in HTML?) and Sittlichkeit is also helpful, but unnecessarily complicating for present purposes, I think.

    Blake #13 – If that’s all we mean by “personality,” I think there’s no real disagreement between us except whether unique personality entails moral obligation. As for your further thoughts on obligation, I don’t know that I disagree with anything there—though this convinces me all the more that the heaviest focus would be best laid on the byproduct of happiness (as a positive call to continue loving that comes with the experience of love) and not on the obligation of morality (as a negative call not to abandon loving relationships when I do so). Thoughts? (At any rate, let me note that this exchange has been very helpful for me. My thanks to you for this chapter of your book in particular, and for your gracious responses here.)

    Robert #14 – I’d be pretty surprised if Blake would put it that way. Blake? In the meanwhile, I myself am more than happy with any and all talk of equality of intelligence, but I’m not terribly happy about the idea that equality of intelligence brings with it a moral obligation. It would have to be, for me (as Adam surmises in a different register), a political question.

    Adam #15 – These are unquestionably among my concerns—though they amount to the beginnings of a reductio more than anything else. They collectively point me in the direction of suspending ethics from truth procedures—political or amorous or otherwise….

  17. Sonny on June 22, 2012 at 3:59 pm

    My head hurts when I read philosophical discussions like this. Is that normal?

  18. themormonbrit on June 26, 2012 at 11:21 am

    Sonny, yes, that is perfectly normal. So does mine.

    In fact, all I really wanted to say was that ethics is messy. Even messier than the rest of philosophy. And mormonism is complex, and the scriptures are complex, so a philosophical examination of mormon ethics by appeal to the scriptures is going to be extremely messy and complex. Thus, I will not get involved in such a discussion. I try and do what feels right, trusting on God’s spirit and His wisdom to guide me. I seek after that which is sanctifying, edifying and ennobling. In other words, a lot of it is basically guesswork. I do believe that morality exists (as opposed to just a guide to the good life) in terms of our interpersonal relationships, but I think to classify many ‘sinful’ behaviours as ‘immoral’ is inaccurate. It annoys me that, as Mormons, we hardly ever use ‘morality’ to refer to anything other than sexual behaviour. A lot of behaviour which we classify as ‘immoral’, actually isn’t, in my opinion. It’s just stupid and harmful to your own well-being. Morality only becomes involved when dealing with others.

  19. Thomas Parkin on June 26, 2012 at 2:44 pm

    “Mormonism doesn’t have a morality; it has an ethics?”

    Many years ago, more than 25, I read a book, or it might even have been an essay, that presented a very simple model that helps me think about these things. I believe it was written by a professor at UC Santa Barbara, but I can’t recall.

    The model is this: morals rest upon ethics which rest upon metaphysical assumptions. Morals can be summed up as rules and norms, ethics as assumptions about what is good, and metaphysics as assumptions about the nature of reality. That is to say, we derive our rules from our assumptions about what is good, and our assumptions about what is good from our assumptions about the nature of things. In this model, I would not only prefer to say we have a Mormon ethics than that we have Mormon morals, I would prefer to say that we have a Mormon metaphysics from which we derive those ethics.

    In practice, we often try to do this in reverse: we know the rules, and assume an ethics from those rules, and even a metaphysics from those rules. We think that we can know something about God and the nature of reality by knowing the Ten Commandments, for instance. We take morals to be the most concrete thing, and the nature of God and reality to be mysterious, possibly pointless. In fact, just the reverse is true, the nature of reality is constant (I would prefer to build a deeper level yet and call it the eternal), and morals are ephemeral. (In extreme cases of doing this in reverse, morals are mistaken for facts, and one is horrified that Jesus turned the water into wine. How could He break a rule?) Ethics, also, and not morals, is where the rubber hits the road, in terms of our desire to “do what is right”, since it is there, and not in morals, that one _begins_ to cope with metaphysics as a matter of practical importance.

    Another problem with doing it backwards is that our ethics are in danger of not being grounded in reality, and hence we are less effective and more confused in our attempts to _be good_. Our ethics, however we try to justify them, become more or less a matter of personal sensibility.

    So, to answer the question, I would say that Mormonism has a metaphysical stance rather, even, than an ethics. It is adaptable forward, which progress has the ability of radically reworking our views, but it is not adaptable backwards – as this, for me, is the definition of apostasy. (This is a ethical statement: one learns in Mormonism, one does not forget (ultimately). The metaphysics behind it assumes the learn-ability of reality.) Within this model, statements from Joseph Smith begin to make more sense to me. For instance, he says something like,’it is the first principle of the gospel to know for a certainty the nature and characteristics of God.’ What he is saying is that our ethics and morals will not be founded sufficiently unless they are deriving from right understanding of reality. The primary function of revelation becomes inquiring into and receiving answers concerning the nature of God, while we are living lives in which moral and ethical questions are constantly needing to be dealt with. But our prayers, or requests, rarely go into this territory, consumed as we are with moral and practical living. (There is nothing inherently wrong with this, I think. Jesus says about keeping morals, this you ought to have done without leaving off the ‘weightier matters’, i.e inquiries into the nature of reality. He gives justice and mercy as examples.) The process of revelation becomes not so much a matter of how to live morally and practically (should I break my kid’s skull?, should I take a new job?) as a constant unfolding to us of reality.

  20. themormonbrit on June 29, 2012 at 3:39 pm

    I think an important and relevant question to ask ourselves when dealing with love is: what is love? Jesus said: “greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends”. So I think we can accept a definition of love as being a willingness to undergo personal loss, possibly even enormous personal harm or deprivation, for the well-being of another. Now I think this concept of love is fully compatible with a utilitarian approach to ethics. I think that we do have moral obligations. When we interfere with the rights of others, we are being immoral. But I think it is only possible to be immoral in our interpersonal relationships. Smoking is not immoral, as long as it doesn’t harm anyone else, it is merely stupid because we deprive ourselves of the happiness that comes from observing the Word of Wisdom.
    We have certain moral and ethical duties that are objective. I cannot really base this on any reasoning except intuition. Even if stealing brought someone enormous spiritual blessings and a lasting peaceful joy, it would still be wrong to steal.
    From a mormon perspective, I think we have an ethical obligation to assist God in His plans. “Men are that they might have joy” seems to indicate that the ideal state for humanity is one of perfect joy or happiness; happiness is the single most important thing. However, this is not merely our happiness, it is also the happiness of others. Of course, Jesus teaches in Matthew 10:39 that seeking the happiness of others will also bring us personal happiness, but primarily we should seek the happiness of others because we have a moral duty to do so. Therefore, I think Mormonism’s ethics is primarily rooted in Utilitarianism, because the ultimate aim is the ultimate happiness of as many people as possible. However, love plays an important part in this. While Utilitarianism has traditionally rejected the intrinsic moral value of personal sacrifice, I think if love is seen as a willingness to “lay down [our] lives for [our] friends”, which will inevitably bring us ultimate happiness, love itself is both central and indispensible to a Mormon framework for Utilitarian ethics.