Moral Luck and Homosexuality in the Church

Most of us have at some point checked our phone while driving. However, for a small minority of cases somebody walks in front of us and gets killed. We then (somewhat rightfully) blame the distracted driver for the death, even though most of us have inadvisedly checked our phone while driving, and it’s just the bad luck of being in the wrong place at the wrong time that led to it being much more serious than a peccadillo of checking our phone when we know we shouldn’t. This principle is known in philosophy as “moral luck.” We often blame people for things that they do not in fact have control over. In this case, we have control over checking the phone, but not in somebody being in the wrong place and the wrong time and interacting with the phone checking leading to an accident.

A while ago I had a conversation with a friend where the issue came up whether we would prefer if our child was “Actually Gay”™ or “Fashionably Queer”™. (As I’ve mentioned before here, this discussion is less theoretical for me, since given what we know about fraternal birth order effect on male homosexuality, and my own family structure, I have about an even chance that at least one of my sons will be gay.) After thinking it over, I decided the former. If I had a son that was biologically gay, I’d assume that the moral luck, grading-on-a-curve would kick in. 

Now, in segueing this to the issue of sexual minorities in the Church I am NOT making the standard, made-a-bajillion-times argument that God couldn’t possibly expect sexual minorities who are members to live by the parameters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Rather, it’s a more interesting argument that, even if we accept the premises of the Church’s heteronormativity, then the implications of “moral luck” means that a fair God will, in the final judgment, judge people according to not only what they did given their actual circumstances, but also according to how they would have acted in a other circumstances, including being gay. (Also, to hedge off an accusation, it takes a lot of motivated reasoning to think that I’m comparing killing somebody in an auto accident to being gay–the point is the principle of moral luck, not the object of moral luck). 

If person A was born straight in a Latter-day Saint family and did all the things required for exaltation, and his otherwise identical doppelganger in a parallel universe was born gay and ended up leaving the Church, then the essence of the two individuals being judged by God is the same, net of external factors outside their control, in this case sexual orientation. (Again, this is not saying, he can’t control who he is, therefore the Church should…, even though it superficially sounds the same). There is doctrinal/scriptural support, such as Joseph Smith seeing his brother Alvin the Celestial Kingdom, for the idea that God judges us based on what we hypothetically would have done given certain circumstances, or grades on a curve, or judges while controlling for background variables, or whatever other analogy you want to use. 

Of course, this does not mean that what we actually do is irrelevant, and how our works interface with the implications of “moral luck” is a little fuzzy, but it should give us a sense of humility about where people will end up in the hereafter. Also, in this case you can replace “homosexuality” with any other biological proclivity or other external factor beyond the individual’s control, so the implications of the moral luck concept extend far beyond that particular sexuality issue.  

10 comments for “Moral Luck and Homosexuality in the Church

  1. I’ve been spending a fair amount of time recently contemplating the theological implications of a literal multiverse. One question I have considered is whether each universe in the multiverse would have its own afterlife or whether there would be only one based on the composite of the universes. Your ideas, supported by scripture, would be consistent with the latter model.

    That model implies that quantum mechanics will not exist in the celestial kingdom–a notion that presents a whole different set of challenges. But going beyond that, I wonder if it doesn’t wipe out the celestial kingdom altogether. If your Person A, who would appear to qualify for the CK in our universe actually does not, then would only people who qualify in every imaginable universe make it? That number would seem to be vanishingly small. This feels like Calvinism on steroids. (I don’t mean to be critical. I don’t know the right answer. I’m just exploring the darker side of this possible answer.)

    An afterthought–what about little children who scripture states will inherit the CK? Are we to believe that the universes in which they live to adulthood don’t count?

  2. What do you mean by “Actually gay” vs “Fashionably queer”?

    Either god is merciful and kind and sees the whole picture of someone’s soul – in which case heaven will have plenty of gay residents or is legalistic in a very narrow way and will exclude gay people. In that case I don’t want in that heaven and probably couldn’t anyway because that kind of god and judgement would exclude me for some other reason.

  3. In this context “actually gay” are people who score clearly on one side of the Kinsey scale, whereas “fashionably queer” are people for whom their orientation is ambiguous enough that the decision to adopt the label or not is as much dependent on sociocultural expectations and norms as it is on any biological etiology.

    I’ve actually wondered that about the 8-year old thing as well. I don’t have an answer, but the movie Last Days in the Desert with Ewan McGregor playing Jesus creatively incorporated a multiverse perspective into Christ’s temptations.

  4. “…the implications of “moral luck” means that a fair God will, in the final judgment, judge people according to not only what they did given their actual circumstances, but also according to how they would have acted in a other circumstances…”

    When I was younger I believed the idea of being judged according to the desires of our hearts was the final nail in the coffin of our condemnation. But now that I’m a little older (and hopefully wiser) I view that precept as the key to mercy as well as justice. Not only will we be judged according to what we do but also according to the less visible aspects of our character–good as well as bad–that are not likely to achieve a full flowering during mortal life.

    And so God, like a cosmic chess grandmaster, is able to view each one of his children in any conceivable set of circumstances and have a pretty-good idea of what the end game will look like for them–because!–he knows their hearts and minds as well as what might befall them during their mortal sojourn.

    Also, I think it’s important to remember that our accomplishments and failures during mortality, while having some importance in shaping our character, are rather trivial compared to the transforming power of redemption through Christ. Yes–what we do is important if for no other reason than it may position us properly to receive that power. But even so, when contrasted with our poor efforts grace accounts for the difference between an acorn that has barely begun to sprout and a full-grown mighty oak tree.

    And so what ever the burdens are that we are obliged to bear during mortality–not only will they seem trivial in the eternities because of the Lord’s powers of healing but also because the full flowering of our potential through Christ will take us so far beyond our mortal experience that those difficulties will seem like little more than a baby chick breaking through its shell. My guess is that the mighty eagle probably doesn’t even remember that experience–as significant as it may be–while soaring above the clouds.

  5. I’m agreeing with Jack again: when we are judged according to our works, the question is not “Were you good enough?” but rather “What do your choices show that you really want?” Of course we make all sorts of mistakes and rarely achieve our desires in mortality, but that’s okay: if we really want to be a Celestial person, given power of the atonement and a few billion years it will happen. In particular, for the Celestial Kingdom I think the question is “Do you want to spend eternity doing what your Heavenly Parents do?”

    This takes care of “moral luck” without having to resort to parallel universes. If two people have the same desires but face very different circumstances, they’ll probably try to achieve their desires in different ways and have different levels of success in doing so–none of which matters on the day of judgement. Their actions may be different, but they reflect the same desires.

    Homosexuality is actually a great example. Suppose someone has a strong desire for marriage and children, an indicator that they probably want the Celestial Kingdom. If they’re heterosexual, the Church will encourage them to act on this desire. But if they’re homosexual, they have to choose between their desire for marriage and children and their good standing in the Church. Now, if they come to me for counsel, I’ll absolutely encourage them to stay in the Church. But it’s a gut-wrenching choice. I can easily imagine them choosing to leave the Church but showing by the totality of their actions that the Celestial Kingdom is what they truly want. Thus they’ll be judged accordingly. Leaving the Church may have been a misjudgment in how they tried to achieve their righteous desires, but not a fatal one. That’s what the atonement (and the ability to do ordinances by proxy in the temple) is for.

  6. If people today are fashionably queer, then we have to make space for a huge group of people that were fashionably heterosexual in the 20th century when being queer was not only fashionable, but downright deadly.

    I’m not sure the relevance other to point out they exist and matter too. I guess they also get a multiverse analysis from God.

    This discussion didn’t go where I was expecting it to go. It’s an interesting thought experiment. Thank you.

  7. Well, now. This is a whole ‘nother level of apologetics – employing multi-verse speculation to justify the Church’s inadequate, inflexible and cruel position toward its gay members (“actually” or not). Either God is a cruel sadist and created a huge group of people who can never be their true selves in this life without ostracizing themselves from Him …. Or … we have a perfectly loving God who would never do such a thing to his children, and the Church has gotten it very, very wrong. I’m probably alone here, but I’m heavily leaning toward the latter.

  8. mat,

    Without wanting to minimize the sufferings of our gay brothers and sisters–I think it’s important to remember that only the tiniest percentage of humanity has had the opportunity to achieve some measure of personal fulfillment. The vast majority of folks have been paupers or peasants or servants or slaves. They’ve lived in wretched conditions beset with poverty, disease, cruelty, death. And so, as we consider the calculous involved in mapping human suffering let’s not forget that countless people have suffered worse things than not being able fulfill their desires for marriage and family.

    Having said that, one of the reasons that the gospel is such good news is because those folks who’ve had very little opportunity — indeed if any at all — to maximize their potential and find fulfillment in this life will most assuredly find it in the next–and they will learn that their potential exceeds their wildest mortal dreams.

    Again, without wanting to minimize anyone’s suffering–living the gospel will at times cause us to make painful sacrifices. But even so, it is incumbent upon all latter-day saints to take up our respective crosses–which includes living the law of chastity. And that law cares not whether one is a young gay man who must forgo his desires for marriage and family or the mature sister who desired the same but never fulfilled her dreams because no man was interested enough. Both must remain chaste in spite of their respective pain and loss.

    Finally I would say, there may be an alternative to the dichotomy that you present (above) and that is: God, in his lovingkindness, has given us laws and commandments that are calculated to preserve us. And the law of chastity is no exception–that is, as a sign of the Lord’s genuine concern for the welfare of his children.

  9. I know it’s not the primary thrust of your post, but I want to highlight that the distracted driver who kills a pedestrian or bicyclist because they were, for instance, checking their phone, is not just a person who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s a person who made a reckless choice and, because of their reckless choice, took someone’s life. And if we look at the cost-benefit, there is no excuse. There is no situation where checking one’s phone at that precise moment is so critically important that it’s worth the risk to life and health of others. It’s not even close. (And honestly, it’s far different from inherent characteristics.)

    Too often we give a pass to drivers for bad behavior, in spite of the fact that, as the New York Times recently reported, pedestrian deaths in the US have skyrocketed, while they’ve dropped in most other countries.

    Like I said, I recognize that this isn’t your primary point, but it is critical, for our sakes and the sakes of our children’s and neighbors’ health and life, that we not excuse this type of externality-causing behavior.

  10. I agree absolutely, I hope nothing in the OP implicitly downplayed the significance of checking one’s phone. I have checked my phone while driving in the past before, and feel bad about it. Admittedly, I would feel guiltier if there was some teenager paralyzed for life because of my action, even though logically my culpability, which is significant, is the same as when I checked my phone and did not hit somebody.

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