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.

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