Thursday, 22 May 2014


Having dealt with both fallibility and errancy, it is time to tackle the specific example that I was given to understand was the major problem in this individual's mind: that of blacks and the Priesthood. Here is the final part of my essay/article/study/investigation/thingy, comprising my take on this issue, how I understand it, and also my conclusion as a whole.

   I would like to address one particular example in depth. Namely: the issue of blacks and the Priesthood. There is no scriptural basis for permanently limiting the Priesthood to a particular lineage or race. Note that I use the word permanently. In the Old Testament, the Priesthood was restricted to the tribe of Levi, but this was never intended to be a permanent arrangement.

   In the revelations given to Joseph Smith, the Priesthood was never limited to a particular race or ethnicity. In fact, on 3 March 1836, Joseph Smith himself ordained Elijah Abel, a black man, to the office of Elder in the Melchizedek Priesthood.[1] Furthermore, in December 1836, this same Elijah Abel was ordained a Seventy by Zebedee Coltrin, presumably with the knowledge and approval of Joseph Smith.8 Furthermore, in 1844 or earlier, Walker Lewis, a black member of the Church, was ordained an Elder by William Smith (a younger brother of Joseph Smith).[2] In 1844, Joseph Smith ran for President of the United States, and one of his key policies was the abolition of slavery.[3]

   By stating these facts, I am trying to show that the early Church was not racist (and neither is the modern Church, for that matter). Although the Church as a whole did not become involved in the political question of slavery,[4] and the Church did not try to free slaves or baptise them without their owners’ permission,[5] Church members themselves did not own slaves during the lifetime of Joseph Smith, and Church membership (and, originally, the Priesthood) was always open to people of any race. I stated before that the Church as a whole did not become involved in the question of slavery. This is not to say, however, that individual members of the Church did not have personal political views on the matter. For example, I explained earlier that Joseph Smith was opposed to slavery, stating on one occasion: “It makes my blood boil within me to reflect upon the injustice, cruelty and oppression [of slavery].”[6] However, many other members of the Church did not share Joseph’s political views. Orson Hyde and Brigham Young, in particular, were both very much in favour of slavery, and were both, quite frankly, very racist in their personal views of blacks. As I explained before, this does not mean that they were not inspired men of God. It merely means that they were flawed, as human beings have always been.

   Racism is not a part of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but it has been very common in history, particularly in the 19th Century. A combination of his personal aversion to blacks and the tendency to speculate that was so common in the early days of the Church led Orson Hyde to state on 27 April 1845 that negroes were the cursed lineage of Canaan and expressed his personal theory that God had cursed them to be slaves to white men in mortality as a punishment for their actions in the pre-existence.[7] It is worth pointing out again that he did not claim that this was the revealed word of God; he was merely speculating and expressing his personal theories and ideas.

   Unfortunately, early leaders of the Church frequently expressed their personal theories quite forcefully and vigorously, which often led to confusion in the Church regarding what was revealed and inspired of God and what was mere human speculation. However, it is obvious that Orson Hyde, whatever his political views and doctrinal speculations, saw nothing wrong with black men holding the Priesthood, for he personally baptised and ordained a black man to the Priesthood himself in October 1846.[8] Now, Brigham Young is a different story. He was an extraordinarily bold man, nicknamed the ‘Lion of the Lord,’[9] much more forceful and vigorous in expressing his personal views than Orson Hyde and also, unfortunately, much more confident and certain of his own speculation and ideas. For some reason, five years after the death of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young came to the conclusion that God did not wish for black men to hold the Priesthood. I am not sure exactly what reasoning led him to this particular conclusion, but it may have involved a combination of his personal prejudice against black people (which again, is a personal weakness and flaw which has nothing to do with his role as a Prophet), his political views (he was a staunch supporter of slavery) and his love of speculating about the Gospel. In any case, he somehow came to believe that God did not want black men to hold the Priesthood. He taught and defended this personal theory quite vigorously and boldly throughout his time as President of the Church, beginning in February 1849.[10] There are any number of quotes that involve Brigham Young proclaiming this belief, for example: “Because Cain cut off the life of Abel...the Lord cursed Cain’s seed and prohibited them from the Priesthood,”17 and: “Any man having one drop of the seed of Cain in him cannot hold the Priesthood...I know it is true & they know it.”[11] Evidently, Brigham Young was quite certain of his theory and his conclusion and defended it vigorously. As Governor of Utah, he also gave legal recognition to slaveholders in Utah and from the time the Saints settled in Utah some Apostles and other Church leaders began to hold slaves.

   This very confident and bold certainty that was characteristic of Brigham Young was perhaps his greatest strength and his greatest weakness. Without it, I am confident that the Saints could never have reached Salt Lake. The martyrdom of Joseph Smith left the Saints confused, vulnerable and without a leader. Into this gap, the Lord called Brigham Young to stand up and lead the Church with the fire of his determination, boldness and confidence. Nobody else could have led the Saints westward, and nobody else could have established the Church so securely in the Rocky Mountains. Yet this very boldness was also a great weakness to the Church, because it means we end up finding quotes such as those above, which can give the wrong impression about certain issues. One thing is certain: no matter how boldly and vigorously Brigham Young may have defended and promoted his views of blacks and the Priesthood, he never once claimed to have received a divine revelation teaching this doctrine. He was convinced that his personal theory about blacks was correct, but he never claimed that God had revealed it to him. There are no revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants in which God says that black people ought to be excluded from the Priesthood. This was a personal theory and view held by Brigham Young and several other prominent Church leaders, based entirely on their personal views. Because of their high standing in the Church and because of the vigour and boldness of Brigham Young in defending his theories, the vast majority of the Church soon came to accept the exclusion of black men from the Priesthood as an unquestioned and necessary fact of the Church and the Gospel.

   This was taught and accepted as doctrine for well over a hundred years, despite never being authorised or sanctioned by divine revelation. For example, in 1958, Bruce R McConkie wrote in his book, Mormon Doctrine, the following words: “The negroes are not equal with other races when the receipt of certain spiritual blessings are concerned, particularly the priesthood and the temple blessings that flow therefrom...this inequality...grows out of the lack of spiritual valiance of those concerned in [the pre-existence].”[12] It should be noted that in the preface of Mormon Doctrine, Elder McConkie wrote a disclaimer at the urging of the First Presidency, clarifying that all the views expressed therein are merely his own personal opinions and conclusions and do not necessarily reflect the official positions and teachings of the Church. Similarly, Joseph Fielding Smith wrote in 1935: “A curse was placed upon [Cain] and that curse has been continued through his lineage and must do so while time endures.”[13] This gave many Church members the impression that blacks would never be eligible to hold the Priesthood. However, again, it is important to note that in his book, Joseph Fielding Smith made clear that the views expressed therein were his own personal opinions rather than official statements of Church doctrine. The point is, because of their high standing in Church leadership, these Apostles did influence the beliefs of many members of the Church, and it was a widespread belief in the Church for many years that blacks would never hold the Priesthood. However, the fact remained that the policy of restricting blacks from holding the Priesthood was never introduced by divine revelation. It was a policy that Brigham Young felt should be introduced, because of his personal opinions and beliefs, but there is nowhere in the Standard Works of the Church where the Lord instructs the Church that black men should not hold the Priesthood. Indeed, in the days of Joseph Smith, blacks were ordained to the Priesthood. Thus, the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve began to feel that the practice was unscriptural and not in harmony with the will of God.

   In 1969, President Hugh B Brown proposed that the policy be reversed and black men be admitted to the Priesthood.[14] This proposal was approved by the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve, with the absence of President David O McKay, who was not present due to health reasons, and President Harold B Lee. When President Lee returned, he argued against the policy change and demanded another vote. This time, President Lee convinced enough of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve that the policy could not be changed without an explicit divine revelation, and President Brown’s proposal was rejected.21 To clarify the Church’s position on the issue, the First Presidency issued a letter to all Bishops and Stake Presidents, saying that: “Negroes...[are] not yet to receive the Priesthood, for reasons which we believe are known to God, but which He has not made fully known to man...[However], sometime in God’s eternal plan, the negro will be given the right to hold the Priesthood.”[15] Over the following nine years, the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve began to feel increasingly uncomfortable with the policy of excluding black men from the Priesthood and did not feel that it was a policy which God approved of. However, they were also very reluctant and hesitant to reverse a policy which had been a part of the Church’s teachings for over a hundred years, since the time of Brigham Young. Therefore, they decided collectively to pray and enquire of God. In response to their plea for knowledge and guidance, they received a divine revelation instructing them to end the practice of excluding black men from the Priesthood.

   Intriguingly, one of those present when this revelation was received was Bruce R McConkie, one of those General Authorities who had been most adamant that blacks should not be given the Priesthood. Following the divine revelation in 1978, he said: “Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or George Q Cannon or whoever has said in days past that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world.”[16] Since 1978, the blessings of the Priesthood have been extended to all worthy male members of the Church without regard for race or lineage. Some might wonder why God waited a hundred years before telling the Brethren to cease restricting black members from holding the Priesthood. The answer is quite simple: nobody thought it was an issue for a hundred years, and therefore nobody thought to ask. God would never have answered Joseph Smith if he hadn’t gone to the Sacred Grove with a question to ask. He would never have told Nephi the interpretation of Lehi’s vision if Nephi hadn’t asked. Similarly, when this practice became an accepted part of the Church, nobody thought to question it for a very long time. It was only as Spencer W Kimball became so confused by the seemingly un-Christlike practice that the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve knelt together in prayer and earnestly sought the will of the Lord. And in accordance with His promises throughout the scriptures, when they asked, He answered.

I use this example of blacks and the Priesthood because it highlights a very important truth: Church leaders can get things wrong. They can make mistakes, they can speculate and theorise and come up with the wrong conclusions, but this does not mean that they are not divinely appointed Prophets of God. I sustain the Brethren, and I admire them as very wise, capable men and inspired leaders. But I do not expect them to be perfect. They struggle with a very strenuous and difficult calling. I sympathise with them and I can honestly say they do a much better job of leading this Church than I could ever do. Much of the time, they must use their own judgement and talents to fulfil their calling. Those talents are very capable, but they are also limited. Naturally, they will get things wrong from time to time. But, as evidenced by the 1978 revelation, when they are open to the whisperings of the Spirit, and take important issues and concerns before the Lord, He answers them. God really does speak to modern Prophets. As I pointed out earlier, I cannot give anybody a testimony of the prophetic calling of Joseph Smith or Wilford Woodruff or Spencer W Kimball or Thomas S Monson. Only God can do that. But hopefully, through the things I have written, I have helped whoever reads this to understand these men better, and to better understand what it means to be a Prophet. For those who have received a testimony of the divine calling of these men but who have been confused and concerned by these issues, I hope this has been helpful. In conclusion, I would like to echo the words of President Gordon B Hinckley: “We recognise that our forbears were human. They doubtless made mistakes...There was only one perfect man who ever walked the earth. The Lord has used imperfect people in the process of building His perfect society. If some of them...stumbled, or if their characters may have been...flawed in one way or another, the wonder is the greater that they accomplished so much.”[17] 


[1] Minutes of the Seventies Journal, Hazen Aldrich, entry for 20 December 1836. 
[2] William L Appleby, letter to Brigham Young, 2 June 1847
[3] History of the Church, Vol. 6, Ch. 8, p. 197-198
[4] Messenger and Advocate, Volume 2, Number 7
[5] D&C 134:12
[6] History of the Church, 4:544
[7] Speech of Elder Orson Hyde upon the course and conduct of Mr S Rigdon, Nauvoo: Times and Seasons Press, 1845
[8] Bringhurst, Newell G. (1981), Saints, Slaves and Blacks: The Changing Place of Black People within Mormonism, Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press
[9] Hirshson, Stanley P. (1969), The Lion of the Lord: A Biography of Brigham Young, Knopf
[10] Bush, Lester E.; Mauss, Armand L. (1984) Neither White nor Black
[11]Brigham Young, Address to the Territorial Legislature, 16 January 1852, recorded in Wilford Woodruff’s journal of the same date
[12] Mormon Doctrine, 10th printing, p. 527-528
[13] Joseph Fielding Smith, The Way to Perfection, Genealogical Society of Utah, 1935, p. 101-102
[14] Quinn, Michael D. The Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power, 1994, Salt Lake City: Signature Books, p. 14
[15] ‘The First Presidency on the Rights of the Negro’, 15 December 1969
[16] Horne, Dennis B. (2000). Bruce R McConkie: Highlights From His Life and Teachings. Eborn Books
[17] ‘The Continuous Pursuit of Truth’, Ensign, April 1986, p. 5


So in my last post, I addressed the issue of Prophetic fallibility. In this post, I will include part 2 of le essay/article/study/investigation/thingy, this time exploring a distinct but closely related issue: the question of Prophetic inerrancy. This is, in many ways, a far more difficult problem to deal with than that of fallibility - after all, everyone agrees that Church leaders aren't perfect and can make mistakes in their personal lives, but it is far more difficult for many people to accept that they can make mistakes in what they say when they stand at the pulpit at General Conference, or get things wrong when speaking on doctrinal matters. This is one of the things I address in part 2 of 'Prophetic fallibility and errancy.'

   Just as the Church doesn’t teach that Prophets are infallible, it also doesn’t teach that Prophets are inerrant. What is the difference? Well, Prophets are not infallible. This means that they are perfectly capable of making mistakes and committing sins. They are also not inerrant. This means that not everything they say is necessarily the directly inspired word of God. In other words, they are capable of making mistakes both in their personal lives and also in their teaching and preaching.

   Not everything a Prophet says is inspired by God, even when speaking on religious matters. For some reason, many members of the Church seem to be under the impression that whenever a General Authority speaks about a Gospel topic, or gives a talk in General Conference, or declares his opinion about a particular doctrine, his words may as well be the words of God Himself. This is not true, and I’m sure that President Monson would rebuke anyone who suggested such a thing.

   Let me take just one or two examples. It is well-attested to in several reliable historical documents that Joseph Smith publicly taught that the moon was inhabited by people who lived to a very great age and were about 6 feet in height. Now, the beauty of having a living Prophet of God is that, when necessary, they can impart the words of God to humanity. This doesn’t mean that everything they say is the word of God. Joseph Smith was perfectly entitled to believe that there were men living on the moon. In fact, that was a very common belief in the 19th Century. I’m pretty sure that there aren’t any men living on the moon, personally, but in those days it was not such a rare opinion, particularly among less educated people such as Joseph. Was he not perfectly entitled to have personal opinions about these kinds of things? Are we going to say that, simply because of his Prophetic office, he is forbidden to ever express a personal view or speculation about matters such as this one? Never once did he include the idea of men living on the moon in a revelation. Never once did he claim that God had revealed this to him as an inspired doctrine. He was simply expressing his own personal view and speculating, as was quite common in the early 19th Century. Not everything a Prophet says should be taken as if God Himself were speaking through Him. In fact, Joseph Smith himself adamantly declared this to the early Saints. In his own words: “I told [the Saints] that a Prophet was a Prophet only when he was acting as such.”[1]

   This same principle can also be applied to things regarding the Gospel. The Restoration is often likened to a glorious dawn of truth, banishing the dark night of error with its golden rays. This metaphor is quite apt, for just as a sunrise doesn’t happen all at once, so the Restoration was (and still is) a gradual process. In fact, it is still not fully complete. The ninth Article of Faith states: “We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.” (emphasis added) As far as I know, this Article of Faith has never been repealed or retracted. It is still in force.

   The earliest Saints joined the Church with no knowledge of temple work, eternal marriage, or Priesthood keys. Most of them had joined the Church based on the Book of Mormon alone, without any knowledge of the Doctrine and Covenants or Pearl of Great Price. All of these things were yet to come forth. The morning of the Restoration had dawned, but only partially. In the meantime, awaiting further light and truth, they had to make do with what they had and get on with living the Gospel to the best of their ability. Is it any wonder that they made mistakes? Is it any wonder that, with much revelation and scripture still to be revealed, and only a cursory knowledge of the scriptures which had already come forth, many early Church members and leaders began to speculate about doctrinal matters, even teaching them publicly in many cases and including them in sermons? Yes, there was much taught in the early days of the Church which was pure speculation and was shown to be false by later revelation. We are a Church which believes, proudly, in the necessity of continuing revelation, for precisely this reason. For example, several early General Authorities taught that plural marriage was an eternal requirement of salvation and that it would never be removed from the Church. In fact, Wilford Woodruff himself taught that if the Church ever abandoned plural marriage, it would no longer be God’s church.[2] I imagine he must have felt a little embarrassed after receiving the revelation in 1890 ending the practice of plural marriage. The point is, prior to 1890, it was quite reasonable for church leaders, including President Woodruff, to assume that plural marriage would never be taken from the earth. They could not have foreseen what God had yet to reveal to the Saints. So they taught what they assumed was true, to the best of their knowledge and ability. But in 1890, when God spoke to the President of the Church, Wilford Woodruff himself, the very man who had taught previously that plural marriage was an eternal requirement for salvation, President Woodruff immediately acted upon the new revelation, and published Official Declaration 1, the Manifesto, marking the beginning of the end of the practice of plural marriage in the Church.

   There are numerous other examples. Brigham Young, who knew the Bible very well but had not grown up with or become very acquainted with other latter-day scripture, mistakenly believed and taught, quite vigorously, that Adam is God and God is Adam.[3] A close reading of the scriptures quickly reveals that this doctrine is both false and illogical,[4] but it was just one of many various speculations and theories about the nature of the Godhead which were very common in the early Church. It was not until 1916 when Joseph F Smith, President of the Church, who had, possibly, the most thorough knowledge and understanding of the scriptures of any Church president since Joseph Smith, published ‘The Father and the Son: A Doctrinal Exposition’ to clarify and explain the true nature of the Father and the Son as revealed in the scriptures. This put an end to the false theories and speculations which had been so rampant in the Church before. In similar examples, President Joseph Fielding Smith said that man would never land on the moon,[5] and Apostle Franklin D Richards told the Martin and Wiley handcart companies that God would protect them on their journey and they would arrive unscathed.[6] Neither of these predictions came true, because man has indeed landed on the moon and over 200 people from the Martin and Wiley handcart companies died en route. But these cease to be issues once we understand that not everything a Prophet says is the word of God. Often, they are merely expressing their own opinion or speculating. In fact, it is safest to assume that unless they specifically claim to have received a revelation from God, they are just doing their best with the light and truth they have already received. This doesn’t mean we should disregard what they say – they are very wise, good men and God has chosen them to lead this Church for a reason – but it does mean that we shouldn’t be surprised if sometimes they express personal opinions or speculations which later turn out not to be true.

[1] Conversation with some Saints, February 1843; DHC 5:265
[2] Journal of Discourses 13:165
[3] Journal of Discourses 1:51
[4] See, for example: Genesis 1-2; Luke 3:38; Moses 2-5; and D&C 78:15-16.
[5] Honolulu Stake Conference,  14 May 1961
[6] The Gathering of Zion, p.243


Okay, so a while ago, towards the end of last year in fact, the Bishop of my ward approached me and asked me to write something for him to use. He knew of my strong interest in matters such as these and explained to me that there was a member of our ward who was struggling and wavering somewhat in his testimony due to certain issues relating to prophets and apostles making mistakes, getting things wrong, or appearing to change their mind. He explained that this included, but was not limited to, the issues of blacks and the Priesthood. I agreed to write something which would hopefully alleviate some concerns or explain some difficult matters. The result was this essay/article/study/investigation/thingy which I will include below. Just as a warning, it is 8 pages long, so I have decided to upload it in smaller, more manageable chunks. Part 1 below.

   Every year, nearly 100,000 people resign their membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, voluntarily asking for their names to be taken off the records of the Church. Many, if not most, of these ex-Mormons leave because specific intellectual or spiritual reasons have led them to a conviction that the Church is false. One of the most common reasons for leaving is disbelief in Joseph Smith as a prophet.[1] For various reasons, these people have lost, or never fully gained, a testimony of the prophetic calling of Joseph Smith. Closely related to this issue are the concerns which some members and ex-members of the Church have concerning his successors. When asked specifically why they no longer believe that Joseph Smith or his successors are Prophets of God, many respond by listing the various mistakes and errors of both Joseph Smith and later presidents of the Church. I will seek to examine these issues and their implications both by looking at a few examples and also by grappling with the question of what it means to be a Prophet, and especially what being a Prophet does not mean. Hopefully, I will be able to address some of these issues and concerns which many, many people experience and explain why they need not necessarily lead to a conclusion that the Church is not what it claims to be. I cannot give anyone a testimony that Joseph Smith was a Prophet, or that Thomas S Monson is a Prophet today. That can only come through the Holy Ghost, by the will of God, in answer to earnest and sincere prayer, meditation and reflection. However, if there is anybody who has received a spiritual witness, but still has intellectual concerns and questions, I may be able to address and help with some of them.

   The Church does not teach that Prophets are infallible. Most members of the Church understand this, and yet it is not something which we commonly discuss as Church members, for various reasons. However, the fact remains: leaders of the Church can, and often do, make mistakes. And sometimes, these mistakes can be very bad. Often they are only mild errors, but sometimes they can be very grave and serious sins. The Church acknowledges this. In fact, we cannot escape it, or ignore it, even if we wanted to. We are confronted with it every time we open the scriptures or take a close look at Church history. Noah was one of the greatest patriarchs of the Old Testament, and following the Flood, he was the spiritual leader of the entire human race up until his death. Yet despite being in this position of such great authority and responsibility, the Bible records that Noah “drank, and was drunken, and he was uncovered within his tent.” (Genesis 9:21) It should be clear that this is not acceptable behaviour for anybody, let alone a Prophet of God. Yet this does not change the fact that Noah was a great Prophet, who declared God’s words to the world and led his family and descendants to safety even while the rest of the world was destroyed. Similarly, Peter famously denied knowing the Saviour three times and cut off a centurion’s ear in a fit of anger (see John 18). Yet Christ promised him the keys of the kingdom and he was the Lord’s closest confidante during His mortal ministry and the leader of the Church after Christ’s ascension.

   There are many other examples in both the Bible and the Book of Mormon of Prophets who make mistakes, including sometimes committing serious sins. Yet God still speaks with them and uses them as His messengers, and they are still His mouthpiece upon the earth. If anybody feels that Joseph Smith could not possibly be a Prophet because he sometimes did things which were unconventional, inappropriate, insensitive, rude, or just plain morally wrong, my answer would be: yes. He did. Often, in fact. He had a flawed personality. In fact, if you read the Doctrine and Covenants, you don’t have to look very hard to find many cases where the Lord rebukes Joseph for one sin or another. For example, in D&C 93:47, the Lord says: “I say unto Joseph Smith, Jun. – You have not kept the commandments, and must needs stand rebuked before the Lord.” This is just one of many, many instances all throughout the Doctrine and Covenants where God rebukes Joseph Smith for his sins and misdeeds. Prophets are not perfect. Thankfully, they do not have to be, or we would all be left without guidance or hope. But they are still Prophets, and God still speaks to them. 

[1] Backman, Milton V., Jr. (April 1989), “A Warning from Kirtland”, Ensign: 26

Saturday, 18 August 2012

Mormon Ethics

"Adam fell that men might be, and men are that they might have joy". - 2 Nephi 2:25
"Every principle proceeding from God is eternal and any principle which is not eternal is of the devil. . . . The first step in the salvation of man is the laws of eternal and self-existent principles.” - Joseph Smith
"Thus did Alma teach his people, that every man should love his neighbour as himself, that there should be no contention among them". - Mosiah 23:15

Mormonism is generally fairly clear about what's right and what's wrong. In other words, it has a rather clear moral position on most issues. What is less clear is the underlying framework, what it is that makes actions moral or immoral - the ethics of Mormonism.

I wish to examine three specific ethical systems and how they relate to Mormonism - Mill and Bentham's Utilitarianism, Aristotle and Aquinas' Natural Law, and Fletcher's Situation Ethics.

Firstly, Utilitarianism is the concept that the only objectively, inherently and intrinsically good thing is happiness. Thus, actions are good, right, moral, proper and ethical only to the extent that they serve to promote human happiness, and are bad, wrong, immoral, improper and unethical only to the extent that they serve to diminish human happiness.
There are two main branches of Utilitarianism - Act Utilitarianism and Rule Utilitarianism. Act Utilitarianism has the simplest ethical philosophy - do whatever will bring the greatest happiness to the greatest number in any given situation. Rule Utilitarianism is a little more complex. It argues that we can construct general ethical rules, based on how society's general happiness would be affected if everybody acted in a particular way, which then apply in all circumstances, regardless of the specifics.

Secondly, Natural Law is an ethical theory, primarily developed by Thomas Aquinas, which borrows heavily from Aristotle's theory of final causes. As defined by Aristotle, a final cause is the purpose behind something's creation, the intent with which it is made. For Aquinas, morality lies in something fulfilling its final cause. So, a 'good' coat is one which keeps the wearer warm, because that is the purpose behind its creation. A 'good' pen is one that writes well, because that is the reason it was created.
These things all have final causes that can be easily determined, because they were created by humans, so we know the purpose behind their creation. Things become somewhat more complicated when we apply this to things which only God can know the final cause of with any degree of certainty. For example, one of the most controversial issues in religious ethics is sexuality. It's all well and good asserting that an ethical sexual relationship is one which fulfils its final cause, but the question then becomes: what is the final cause of sexual intercourse? Why did God create it?
Aquinas answers that because God created nature, we can determine the final cause of these things by looking to nature. So, Aquinas concludes (as is the official position of the Catholic Church today) by looking at nature, that the final cause of sexual intercourse is reproduction. Thus, masturbation, pornography, birth control and any sex position that makes conception impossible are all collectively immoral, because they cause sexual arousal without fulfilling the purpose of sexual arousal - conception.

Finally, Situation Ethics is a system of ethics developed by Joseph Fletcher, based on the New Testament's emphasis on love. It teaches that in any situation, one should act with the most love possible. Pretty simple. Of course, this raises the question - how can we define 'love'? Jesus said: "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for hsi friends". Thus, perhaps the definition of the New Testament's use of the word 'love' can best be summarised as an overwhelming concern for the happiness and well-being of others, even at the expense of one's own happiness and well-being.

So - which one of these is most similar to 'Mormon Ethics'? Where does Mormonism fall on this spectrum and these questions?

These ethical theories all differ on one fundamental question: what is objectively good? What is objectively right? What is objectively moral? What is objectively ethical? To Utilitarians it is human happiness, to Aquinas and those who follow him it is obedience to final causes, and to Joseph Fletcher and his Situation Ethicists it is love. So, perhaps we should approach Mormon ethics by investigating where Mormonism stands on this key issue - what does Mormonism teach about what the objective standard for 'goodness' is?
I propose that Mormonism embraces an ethical standard of goodness that can best be defined as 'joy' - in other words, on this key question, Mormonism agrees with Utilitarianism. This concept - of the primary importance of human happiness in ethics - is reiterated throughout Mormon scripture, perhaps most prominently in 2 Nephi 2:25. However, one key passage that is often overlooked is Doctrine and Covenants 136:29 - "If thou art sorrowful, call on the Lord thy God with supplication, that your souls may be joyful" (emphasis mine). Here is one of the few places in the scripture where God explains the why of the commandments He gives. He tells us what is right, and then expands on why it is right - because it will bring about a greater abundance of human happiness.

How then, do we reconcile this emphasis on the primary importance of human happiness with the scriptures' emphasis on the primary importance of love? What are we to make of Alma 38:12? This passage is one of the only other places in the scriptures where a reason is given attached to a commandment: "Use boldness, but not overbearance; and also see that ye bridle all your passions, that ye may be filled with love; see that ye refrain from idleness." (emphasis mine). Here we have two seemingly conflicting passages of scripture, each offering different explanations for why it is right to do certain things - D&C 136 says it's because it leads to a greater abundance of human happiness, while Alma 38 says it's because it leads to a greater abundance of love.

I would propose a reconciliation of these two apparently contradictory themes that we find throughout LDS scripture. The only fundamentally, objectively 'good' thing is joy - classic 2 Nephi 2. But, we should behave in all situations with the greatest amount of love possible. Let me expand on this.

What I am proposing is fundamentally that Mormonism's ethics (if it has one) is closest to a system of Rule Utilitarianism. The most desirable thing in all situations, the most fundamentally 'good' thing, is an abundance of joy, not an abundance of love, although the two are by no means mutually exclusive - in fact, they are inextricably connected. In order to achieve that abundance of joy, we can formulate one ethical rule that will, without fail, lead to this abundance of joy if everyone were to obey it - love one another. Always be prepared to lay down your life for your friends. Always be willing to sacrifice your own well-being, no matter how great, for the well-being of others, no matter how small. While following this rule may not lead to the greatest happiness of the greatest number in each particular circumstance, if everyone were to follow this rule, the result would be a society that is perfectly happy and joyful, which is the only standard of objective morality.

Furthermore, joy is the purpose of man's existence - that passage in 2 Nephi 2 that we looked at earlier explicitly states that "men are that they might have joy." Therefore, any act of love which contributes to human joy is also, by extension, contributing to the purpose of man's existence - Aristotle's 'final cause'. Unlike Aquinas, however, the scriptures don't generally advise people to look to nature for moral guidance - on the contrary, in the Book of Mormon at least, nature is often seen as carnal and sinful. Indeed, "[becoming] a saint through the Atonement of Christ the Lord" necessarily involves "[putting] off the natural man." But the fact still remains that in loving our neighbour and contributing to human joy and happiness, we are also, inadvertently, fulfilling the purpose of our creation as well as behaving in an ethical way. In short, following the simple commandment of loving God and loving our neighbour - from which all other commandments derive - is good and desirable, but only because it contributes to human joy and happiness, which is the ethical standard of morality according to the Doctrine and Covenants. Love also, as a nice by-product, is the only way for us to help build a society of joyful people - which is the very purpose of our existence as human beings in the first place.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

The road goes ever on

I watched The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers the other day. I have seen it many times, and I should point out before I go any further that I am a huge fan of the Lord of the Rings. Hence, I have read and dearly love the books that the films are based on. Anyway, watching it reminded me of one of my favourite poems found in various forms throughout The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. It is called The road goes ever on. This is how it is written in its original incarnation in The Hobbit:

Roads go ever ever on,
Over rock and under tree,
By caves where never sun has shone,
By streams that never find the sea;
Over snow by winter sown,
And through the merry flowers of June,
Over grass and over stone,
And under mountains in the moon.

Roads go ever ever on
Under cloud and under star,
Yet feet that wandering have gone
Turn at last to home afar.
Eyes that fire and sword have seen
And horror in the halls of stone
Look at last on meadows green
And trees and hills they long have known.
So why do I care about this poem, and why am I writing about it on a blog that is primarily intended for a discussion of mormon issues? Well, I got thinking about this poem, and I was struck by how mormon it felt to me. It struck a chord with me, with all its references to an endless path that we have in front of us to follow and progress along, and the idea that though this road leads through "fire and sword" and "horror in the halls of stone", we will eventually "Look at last on meadows green / And trees and hills [we] long have known". While I certainly do not believe Tolkien was contemplating eternal progression and the pre-existence while writing this poem (he objected to referring to any of his work as overtly Christian, let alone mormon), I was struck by how prevalent these ideas seem to be in the poem, and I certainly find it a moving and poetic expression of these doctrines.

The poem makes a slightly modified appearance in the very first chapter of The Fellowship of the Ring:

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

In this I read the beautiful concept of following the path that God calls us to tread, trusting in His wisdom, and having faith that we are playing an important role in "some larger way / Where many paths and errands meet".  This concept is further reiterated in Frodo's recollections of Bilbo's thoughts on the Road: "He used often to say there was only one Road; that it was like a great river: its springs were at every doorstep, and every path was its tributary. 'It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door,' he used to say. 'You step onto the Road, and if you don't keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.'".

Of course, the variant that appears in The Return of the King seems to conflict with eternal progression if we assume that 'the Road' is our eternal journey, however that can also be meaningful and profound from a mormon perspective if we use an interpretation of 'the Road' as our time spent in mortality and our efforts to further God's plan for His children while in mortality.

The Road goes ever on and on
Out from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
Let others follow it who can!
Let them a journey new begin,
But I at last with weary feet
Will turn towards the lighted inn,
My evening-rest and sleep to meet.

However, I am not finished. There is more poetry for us to gleefully tear out of context and apply to a mormon worldview. In the second stanza of 'Upon the hearth the fire is red', a song first sung in The Fellowship of the Ring, Tolkien poetically talks about the dizzying heights our journey may lead to:

Still round the corner there may wait
A new road or a secret gate,
And though we pass them by today,
Tomorrow we may come this way
And take the hidden paths that run
Towards the Moon or to the Sun.

This concept of hidden paths that, if followed, will lead travellers to the sun or the moon is even further amplified in the second version of this song, in The Return of the King:

Still round the corner there may wait
A new road or a secret gate,
And though I oft have passed them by,
A day will come at last when I
Shall take the hidden paths that run
West of the Moon, East of the Sun.

In this version, the final destination is not only the moon and the sun, but "west of the moon" and "east of the sun". For those of you who don't know your fairy-tale lore, "east of the sun and west of the moon" is a phrase traditionally used to refer to a different world or realm that is extraordinarily difficult to reach or enter. If we are going to apply this poem to a mormon framework, then this verse expresses an unshakeable faith that one day we will attain exaltation, no matter how difficult or unlikely or far-fetched it may seem at times.

So, basically, the Lord of the Rings should be canonised because it clearly contains the fulness of the restored gospel and JRR Tolkien must have been a divinely inspired prophet of God.  That was a joke, by the way, in case you didn't pick that up. But in all seriousness, I love Tolkien's poetry, and have always loved his books. It was just a pleasant surprise to discover that some of his work could be interpreted in a way that illustrated some of the most beautiful concepts in mormon thought, and made me value and appreciate it all the more.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Small is beautiful: a latter-day saint endorsement of distributism

"Too much capitalism does not mean too many capitalists, but too few capitalists."

So writes the legendary Catholic writer G K Chesterton in his 1921 book The Uses of Diversity. He proceeds to explain this quote in terms of what it means to be a capitalist. For Chesterton, being a capitalist involves owning your own resources, owning private property, owning your own portion of the means of production.

Chesterton sees very little difference between free-market capitalism and state socialism - after all, both involve very large shares of the world's resources being concentrated in the hands and under the control of a very small group of people, whether that group is made up of the CEOs of a handful of multinational corporations or the handful of government ministers who control the national economy. For Chesterton, this is the root of the problem faced by every economic system - too many resources concentrated in the hands of too few people. In other words, "too few capitalists".

I have come to personally appreciate and embrace distributism as an economic philosophy. Distributism was the economic theory developed by Chesterton and his friend Hilaire Belloc to try and solve this problem faced by both socialism and capitalism. Distributism proposes that the means of production be decentralised and distributed as widely as possibly among the general population rather than being concentrated in the hands of the government or a handful of CEOs. This would mean, in effect, an economy composed of a large number of small businesses.

The reason I am so attracted to distributism from a latter-day saint perspective is its emphasis on self-sufficiency and independence. When the community's resources are concentrated in the hands of the government, you are entirely dependent upon the government for your employment and livelihood. When the resources are concentrated in the hands of mutinational corporations, you are dependent upon them for your employment and livelihood. Under a distributist system, you own a small share of the resources yourself, and are thus dependent only upon yourself for your employment and livelihood.

This is attractive to me because where there is no dependence there is no coercion. As Belloc put it: "A family possessed of the means of production—the simplest form of which is the possession of land and of the implements and capital for working the land—cannot be controlled by others. Of course, various producers specialize, and through exchange one with the other they become more or less interdependent, but still, each one can live “on his own”: each one can stand out, if necessary, from pressure exercised against him by another. He can say: “If you will not take my surplus as against your surplus I shall be the poorer; but at least I can live.”

This economy of freedom and independence is central to the mormon understanding of agency. Agency is central to latter-day saint belief. This belief has influenced our views on suffering
(see my previous post), the purpose of life and, for a good deal of our history, politics. Because of our belief in agency, we have a long history of supporting democracy and the constitution. I feel that it is about time we applied our belief in agency to the economic realm.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Compatibilist free agency

Ok, so for my first post, I decided to plunge right in the deep end and tackle a rather deep and complex issue in mormonism: that of free agency.  In doing so, I will first need to outline some key fundamental philosophical concepts in the debate over free will. Let me apologise in advance for the length!

So. In the philosophy of free will, there are two main important questions. Firstly, is determinism true (by which I mean, is everything that happens caused by something else; are all our actions determined by a specific, or many specific, cause/s; do we live in a universe of cause and effect)? Secondly, do we, as human beings, have free will?

These two questions create four possible quadrants. Those who believe that determinism is false, and that we have free will, are called metaphysical libertarians. Those who believe that determinism is false, and yet also believe that for some reason we do not have free will, are called hard indeterminists. Those who believe in determinism and thus believe that we do not have free will, are called hard determinists. Those (like myself) who believe that we live in a deterministic universe, but nevertheless affirm that we have a form of agency or free will, are known as compatibilists.

Ok, now that I have briefly tried to explain some key terminology, let me try and justify my viewpoint. Let me start with why I believe in determinism. Firstly, we have the findings of neuroscience. Neuroscientists have been able to determine what choice a person will make, by looking at their brain activity, in some cases up to ten seconds before they become consciously aware of making that decision. This strongly implies that our thoughts and decisions are caused by neural activity in the brain, not the other way around. Now one may argue that this does not threaten a religious viewpoint, because it could be argued that our spirit makes a decision, which then causes our brain to respond in a certain way, which then causes us to perceive these thoughts as if they were a conscious decision. This would be perfectly valid, except for the fact that it's not true.

Our brain is simply a conglomeration of cells. Cells are not directed by immaterial entities; such a possibility would completely violate the laws of physics. Cells are directed and controlled by the DNA in the cell's nucleus, and brain cells are no exception to this rule. What this means is that a chain of causation can be drawn: at conception, our DNA is determined by the DNA of our parents; this DNA determines how our neurons will behave in every possible situation; this neural behaviour determines which thoughts we think and which decisions we make in any given situation.

For these reasons, I think the findings of neuroscience present a fairly strong case for a deterministic view of free will. However, I am not any kind of scientist, much less a neuroscientist. I prefer to come at things from a more philosophical/theological perspective. I think that this line of reasoning leads to the conclusion that determinism is true as well.

What is it that makes me decide how I will react in a given situation? Why is it that if you were to put me and another random person in exactly the same situation, we would probably react in very different ways? The fact that I can predict with great accuracy how my brother would react if you were to put him in a specific situation must mean that there is something about him, which I am very familiar with and understand fairly well, which is determining how he will react in that particular situation. Now, if I were to ask most people what that something was, I'm sure most would give an answer something along the lines of "his nature", "his personality" or "his identity". Perhaps some religious people would respond with "his spirit". The fact is, there is something that is causing him to react in that way, and I am familiar enough with it to be able to predict what his reaction will be.

Now, in Mormonism, this idea fits pretty well into our theology. We believe in an omniscient God. Abraham 2:8 says: "My name is Jehovah, and I know the end from the beginning". This means that Jehovah knows how everything will turn out in the end. Now, this poses a difficulty for a faith which also strongly affirms free will. We are faced with the difficulty of reconciling an omniscient God with human agency. If God already knows what we're going to do, how can we be free? Most people would attempt to answer this using something along the lines of St Augustine's reasoning in Chapter 10 of The City of God:  "For a man does not therefore sin because God foreknew that he would sin. Nay, it cannot be doubted but that it is the man himself who sins when he does sin, because He, whose foreknowledge is infallible, foreknew not that fate, or fortune, or something else would sin, but that the man himself would sin, who, if he wills not, sins not. But if he shall not will to sin, even this did God foreknow". In simpler terms, God knows us well enough (in other words, He understands our nature so completely) to be able to predict with certainty how we will act in a given situation. Because of this, He can know how we will act in every situation we will face, because He knows us so infintely well.

This, to my mind, is nevertheless deterministic. There is something, distinctive and individual to all of us, that determines how we react and the decisions we make in any given situation. Neuroscientists refer to that as DNA. Religious folks call it our spirit, our nature, or something similar. I'm going to follow the religious trend from now on, simply because I'm more familiar and comfortable with it. We find that we can once more draw a line of causation. We choose to react in a certain way in a given situation, this decision is determined by our nature, this nature is determined by.......? For Christians who assert that free will is a perfectly valid solution to the problem of evil, their defense falls down at this point. Why? Because they affirm that God created us, that we had a beginning, that only God is eternal and that He created our spirits/natures. Such a belief makes God ultimately responsible for every decision we make. I decide to steal a car (hypothetically, of course), which is caused by my overwhelming desire to possess the car (so overwhelming that it outweighs my desire to do the right thing). This overwhelming covetous desire is caused by my immoral/imperfect nature, which according to most Christians, was created by God. God is the ultimate culprit.

Mormonism solves this problem. The issue Christians face rests on the assumption that God created us. Although Mormonism affirms that God created our spirits, "Man was also in the beginning with God. Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be" (D&C 93:29). By affirming that the essence of our being - our nature, our intelligence - is co-eternal with God, as opposed to being created by Him, it absolves Him of the blame or responsibility for our imperfect nature, and thus for any choices we might make.

For these reasons, I believe that we live in a deterministic universe. Every choice we make is determined by our nature/identity. I will grant that it is perhaps possible to argue that this is not entirely deterministic, because according to mormonism our identity is not determined by anything else. It is eternal, uncreated, and thus undetermined. However, the central issue in free will is not so much about whether an entirely pure form of determinism exists, but rather whether or not our choices are determined by something else. I believe they are, and so I claim the label 'determinist'. However, I also believe in a form of free will. I believe that even though we may not be able to change who we are, and we cannot alter our naure, is such a thing really required for free will to exist? If you were to ask a person on the street for a definition of free will, they would most likely give an answer along the lines of: "the ability to do whatever we want". That is the key: doing whatever we want. And what we want is determined by our nature. Let us consider the alternative, which would be doing what we do not want to do. Is this free will? Even if we did not have any wants at all, if we did not have a nature, that would render us "things to be acted upon", rather than "things that act". To me, the only real, coherent definition of free will that makes sense is one that takes place within a compatibilistic framework. For this reason, I am grateful for a Latter Day Saint theology that encompasses determinism while still upholding agency and absolving God of any responsibility for our actions.