Ethics As An Interpretive Lens

How should we evaluate and adjudicate doctrinal and practical matters? As LDS we look to scripture, authoritative statements by leaders, and to the history of LDS practice and thought. Appeals to these sources of authority, however, not only fail to yield definitive answers, but also obscure the authority with which they are invested. The authority by which these sources are invested is never itself investigated. The reinscription of the authority of these sources and the results they produce requires another level of scrutiny, particularly ethical scrutiny. Too often, authoritative sources become a cover for not having to deal with the ethical implications of doctrinal or practical matters.

The use of ethical evaluation as an interpretive lens for LDS doctrine and practice suggests that the appeal to authority does not in itself constitute a sufficient justification. Rather, human beings must be responsible for the ethical implications of their choices, even if such a choice is thought to conform to the will of God.

Ethical evaluation in itself is no easy task, and is certainly open to disputation and disagreement. Yet, such disputation is not a drawback, but an asset. By adding an extra dimension of analysis into the evaluation of authoritative sources, we may also gain clarification for how to weigh competing claims.

Ethics, especially theological ethics, as it has developed in the 20th and 21st centuries has become particularly sensitive to the culturally, economically, socially, physically, and geographically disadvantaged. As is well known, Mormon claims to authority in the late 20th and early 21st century have often appealed to tradition in a way that has not been sensitive to these issues. Consider blacks and the priesthood, women and the priesthood, homosexuality, the status of women in the afterlife, or any number of different issues which have faced ethical critique. Unfortunately, I do not believe that Latter-day Saints have yet fairly weighed these ethical issues, instead appealing to authority as a way to avoid them.

One of the many reasons Glenn Beck is wrong about liberation theology is that he pretends that he has no lens in his neutral evaluation of scripture, and that liberation theology is incorrect to apply a lens to scripture at all. The problem with such a view is that failure to critically investigate one’s own lens dooms any interpretation from the outset. It is a truism to say that the assumptions that one begins with determine where one ends up. Without using ethics as a lens for thinking about our doctrines and practices, I worry that we will continue to lack them.

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  • Interesting thoughts, TT. I like the idea very much, and wonder how it might look/work in practice.

    In my studies of the Methodist tradition, I’ve long wondered whether Mormonism might benefit from something similar to the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, in which tradition, reason, and experience are each used (often in tension with one another) to interpret and understand scriptural truth. Both reason and experience, as I understand it, speak to ethical considerations.

    Borrowing from your brief commentary here, I wonder how a Mormon Quadrilateral of scripture, prophecy, history/tradition, and ethics (incorporating both reason and experience) might work.

  • I actually think Mormons (and most Christians) in fact do use the Quadrilateral when interpreting scripture and doctrine, whether they consciously think so or not.

  • TT,
    I’m going to sound my usual bell here: you say that Latter-day Saints haven’t yet weighed these ethical concerns; I don’t have any idea what you mean by “Latter-day Saints.” Are you trying to implicate every member of the Church? some sort of general LDS practice (kind of an average)? specific or general leadership? the institutional church (somehow)? or something else?

    (I realize this may not be anything at all that you’re interested in, but as I gear up to teach Business Associations, I’m intensely interested in whom we are talking about when we say an institution acts.)

  • Aaron R.

    It is seems to me that ethics are implied in these authoritative statements qua Divine-Command Theory. Assuming we can strip DCT from LDS authoritative discourse I would like to see how you think we can engage ethics in the context of Prophetic utterances.

    I like the idea in your post and agree with you in principle; I just would have appreciated a slightly more expanded position.

  • TT

    I like that idea very much. Part of the problem is that Mormonism has used a prophetic tradition in lieu of an interpretive one, which is why I think that LDS hermeneutics has never really gotten off the ground. Of course, the prophetic tradition actually is an interpretive one, and attention to these issues could aid it.

    Jacob B.,
    I totally agree that interpretation is always at work, even when Mormons deny that they are doing it.

    Sam B.,
    We actually share this pet peeve about specifying what one means by vague phrases like “Mormons” or “the Church.” I think that in this case, I am referring to LDS discursive practices at pretty much all levels. I don’t think that it is a difficult case to make that ethical reasoning has not generally informed LDS hermeneutics at the level of leadership and LDS academic thought. To my knowledge, Richard Sherlock is only LDS academic with a completed degree in religious ethics. There are no academic societies within Mormonism that are devoted to ethics, although there are many devoted to history, philosophy and theology, humanities, literature, etc. There is virtually no LDS presence at the Society for Christian Ethics. LDS theological thinking has been largely uninformed by feminist, latino, african american, postcolonial, or other liberationist theological movements (though admittedly LDS theology is a pretty small field). My recommendation here is that as questions of interpretation arise in Mormonism, that ethical evaluation be a central element in determining what is “authoritative.”

    Aaron R.,
    Without knowing exactly what the relationship you see between DCT and prophetic utterances, let me say that I don’t see any reason why ethical thinking should be suspended in the face of either a divine command or a prophetic utterance.

  • I’d say that there has been a great deal of sociological investigation as to what a Church is, what role does the Church play (vis a vis the role properly played by families, associations and governments) and appropriate systems to use for understanding what the Divine Commands are.

    DCT is seen as a given, but figuring out what and how and where the DCT leads us and why it gets there engages six or seven ethical lenses.

    Assuming you are speaking of those within the inner hierarchy of the Church who started do a good deal of investigation and thinking over twenty years ago (all sparked by such simple questions as whether or not distance from a church building makes any difference in activity or what markers in a parent predict success in children and what constitutes success).

  • David Clark

    The use of ethical evaluation as an interpretive lens for LDS doctrine and practice suggests that the appeal to authority does not in itself constitute a sufficient justification. Rather, human beings must be responsible for the ethical implications of their choices, even if such a choice is thought to conform to the will of God.

    Perhaps LDS doctrine and practice is not lacking ethical evaluation in addition to appeal to authority, but rather that appeal to authority forecloses the ability to use ethical evaluation in LDS doctrine and practice.

    Just a thought.

  • Fine post, TT, although it seems like just the introduction to a longer discussion that fleshes out the concept “ethics.” There is presently little consensus in the field of philosophical ethics as to how individuals ought to approach ethical questions. So what ethical lens is it that we’re suggesting LDS use?

    But the topic certainly does deserve some discussion. Just try to think of a scenario where a Latter-day Saint declines to perform an institutionally approved or requested act because of an ethical disagreement that wouldn’t be portrayed as some form of sin or rebellion. Yes, we do need to develop an ethical sense that goes beyond simple obedience.

  • smb

    I recommend Margaret (Peggy) Battin’s Ethics in the Sanctuary as a useful introduction to the application of ethics to religious organizations and behaviors.

  • Thanks for this, TT. This view helps counter the oh-so-problematic worldview of, “When the Brethren have spoken, the thinking has been done.” I hope the next generation of Mormons are more willing to embrace an approach similar to this, yet I can already hear the common responses: “Ethics change with culture, revelation stays constant.” “It is presumptuous for us to claim we know ethics better than God.” “We cannot expect to know the fullness of God’s plan when he speaks through his leaders.” Or, the classic: “Obedience requires faith.” Such responses, of course, only continue to be, as you put it, “a cover for not having to deal with the ethical implications of doctrinal or practical matters.”

    Maybe these responses are just in my head because they were the most common themes in my most recent research: religious apologia in the 1790s. It’s too bad we haven’t moved past that by now.

  • I will have to comment more when I have more battery. However, I love the post because it speaks to me. Of course, it will never be a dominant perspective within Mormonism, but it is a valuable critique.

    I worry that many who have taken this approach he either been marginalize (Lowell Bennion) or felt the need to leave (Ed Firmage). More later.

  • Manuel

    Excellent post. I agree.

    Your view of authority in an LDS context is far more sophisticated than what I experience with LDS members.

    While I agree that “authoritative sources become a cover for not having to deal with the ethical implications of doctrinal or practical matters,” I would like to add that due to the strong claims of revelatory elements in LDS authoritative sources, members seem to dismiss an ethical review of the presented guidance as unnecessary; or assume it must be implicit due to the nature of the source.

  • Thanks for clarifying, TT. I think that many Mormons have, individually, engaged in an ethical weighing of doctrinal statements and Church practice similar to what you’re talking about. But you’re certainly right that, to my knowledge, official Church discourse hasn’t embraced ethical analysis, and those who do engage in such analysis are largely doing a folk version of it, not a rigorous academic version.

    Which may be because few of us are trained in philosophical ethics; it played a very small part in my education (an intro Phil class undergrad and a one-week legal ethics seminar in grad school; FWIW, too, legal ethics aren’t ethics so much as practical (-ish) code of legal conduct.)

  • I’d disagree with David Clark, and even, to a certain extent, Ben because I think the Mormon decision making process already functions along the lines that Christopher and TT lay out; Mormons have multiple sources of authority when they seek to make moral decisions. Of course, the process is not as precise or rigorous as academics may wish, but something very like the Quadrilateral is pretty clearly at work. They appeal to conscience or personal revelation (or ‘the light of Christ,’ though precisely what that is is not terribly clear), to scripture, to the authority of leadership, and even, occasionally, to church history in a didactic sense. Each of these things has pretty strong support in institutional discourse, and all are capable of trumping the others (even pronouncements of the leadership have, historically, been quietly dropped when they failed to find traction with the moral sense of the Church as a whole). I argued in a Dialogue piece last year that it’s when these come into conflict that dissent happens, and that we need to better understand the process so that scenarios like that in Dave’s last paragraph happen less frequently.

  • Nate Oman

    TT: It seems to me that we already are making ethical judgments when we make judgments about authority because we do not have any consistent and formally realizable rules about what constitutes authority. Hence, it seems to me that your critique amounts to disagreements with the particular ethical judgments that have often been used to constitute authority and a call for the process of judgment to become more self-conscious and academically sophisticated. I think, however, that the divide between what “Latter-day Saints” do and what you call for is less stark than you suggest.

  • Hence, it seems to me that your critique amounts to … a call for the process of judgment to become more self-conscious

    But surely that makes a difference, no? It seems to me that most Latter-day Saints I know (of the non-intellectual/academic variety) assume their default position (usually taking sound bites from the Brethren as their guide) is the moral/ethical one without ever considering what is actually meant by that term and what the basis for their assumed definition is. If all TT’s post resulted in was the relatively few Latter-day Saints I know becoming more self-conscious of these things, I would consider his proposal a huge success, even if in the end those individuals ended up at different conclusions than I did/do.

  • Christopher,
    But is that the process that most Mormons you know take in making ethical judgments, or is it what they describe after the fact? Because I tend to agree with matt b. and Nate here: most Mormons, like most people, make these judgments all the time, using multiple inputs. It may be, as TT suggests, that LDS discursive practices don’t have a language for it (or, better, that LDS discursive practices don’t have a formalized and rigorous language for it, but how many people do?), and introducing that language may well have value. But in the absence of the language, is it not possible that people quote sound bytes from Church leadership as an ex post justification, rather than an accurate description of their ex ante decisionmaking process?

  • Manuel

    I have spoken with numerous people who were adults prior to 1978 about the Priesthood ban. It is shocking to me to hear a familiar pattern in all of them: in their heart they felt the ban was wrong, but they had to be obedient to their leaders. Therefore, they did NOTHING about it! Nothing! They were mute, and they would follow blindly the ramifications of the policy (like a good man I know avoided teaching the gospel to people with “negro features,” which was endorsed by his Mission President).

    I don’t want to make this a threadjack about the priesthood ban, and I don’t want to pretend that my experiences are anything close to a representation of what most Mormons do or don’t do.

    It is nevertheless, my impression that in many cases Mormons may be making decisions of an ethical nature in their minds, but their actions will still represent whatever their source of authority tells them to do, since that is what they think is “the right thing to do: to be obedient.”

    Their source of authority does seem to constitute a justification for certain inclinations and behaviors, and they seem to disregard or avoid viewing those sources objectively through an ethical lens and then truly making their own decisions.

    Thus, I agree with TTs original statement:

    “The use of ethical evaluation as an interpretive lens for LDS doctrine and practice suggests that the appeal to authority does not in itself constitute a sufficient justification.”

    I can see Sam and Nate’s argument, but I think it is rather lacking.

  • Manuel,
    Except that with the priesthood ban (and, for that matter, the other issues TT raised), you’re talking about more than just making ethical decisions: you’re talking about effecting institutional change. That, I think, presents a significantly different issue than making personal ethical decisions.

    Your example indicates that most people didn’t follow blindly–they felt it was wrong, you say, which is incompatible with accepting leaders as the sole measure of what is ethical. But then you run into the institutional problem: you believe something is wrong with an institution, but then you have to figure out how to fix it. The Church doesn’t have a clear processes (although, frankly, most businesses are only starting to provide clear processes for fixing institutional problems).

    Which is to say, your experience with members who were alive pre-1978 clearly does not demonstrate blind obedience to leadership; it just demonstrates the lack of members’ knowledge of a way to effect institutional change (and possibly the lack of a mechanism for normal members to do so).

  • TT

    Thanks all for the great contributions. I want to address the point that Sam, Nate, matt b and others have raised that LDS already engage in some sort of ethical considerations with respect to doctrine and practice. I think that this is an important point and one worth thinking about, but I am not ultimately persuaded that it is adequate for two reasons. First, the idea that people who make decisions (such as whether to follow a particular authority or not) are implicitly engaging in an ethical calculation implies an ethical relativism that even I am not comfortable with (and that’s saying something!). That one can say that an ethical calculation has taken place does not mean that it is a particularly good one. Certainly the Nazi soldier’s obedience also entailed an ethical calculation, but that does not mean that an ethical action has taken place. Not that obedience to LDS authority or precedent is really comparable to the Nazi soldier, but as I said in the OP, obedience itself does not constitute an ethical action.
    Second, I think that this issue raises the implicit problem of my post that I never exactly lay out what I think ethics is. Part of the reason is that I don’t want to make ethical reasoning simply another “authority” for LDS decision making, but to make the reasoning element an active part of this process, which implies ambiguity and debate. I point to contemporary influential theological movements, some grounded in an ethics based on a philosophical liberalism with respect to the subject, others which offer more postmodern accounts of ethics by historically and culturally situating them, both of which approaches may be a good place to start.

  • TT,
    Do you have a picture of how your model ethical reasoning functions outside of the church (and outside of academic ethical scholarship)? I ask because, while most people (including LDS) confront ethical issues, in most cases, people make their judgments based on ad hoc and informal considerations, the relativism that you’re uncomfortable with.

    My impression is that, in making their decisions, very few people engage in any type of formal ethical evaluation. But I could be totally wrong, and would be sincerely interested in a model that you see for such LDS decisionmaking.

    It would be easier to implement, of course, if only certain leadership were to engage in the formal ethical reasoning, but then you get the problem (again) of relying on authority, so that doesn’t help. And I can’t think of any other model (but I’m not super familiar with the area, so my lack of imagination certainly isn’t any kind of coffin nail).

  • TT

    I’m not so much making a recommendation for a set of practices that one must engage in than a discursive shift where ethical evaluation is accepted and expected as part of determining what is authoritative. For instance, a theological dispute about spirit birth should not be resovlved simply by recourse to past or present statements, but should confront questions about the role of women, questions about race, etc. I am not trying to make a procedural checklist, but to open up discursive space where these issues might be taken seriously even if scriptural or prophetic precedent has not.

  • Okay, I can definitely get behind the idea of opening a discursive space.

  • Enoch


    I find your suggestion appealing to the point that I accept it as obvious. But the questions emerge, how do we implement this shift, and what are the repercussions? As much as agency is emphasized and however thoughtful and educated we are supposed to be, as we all know the emphasis on accepting authority is tremendous. I heard on my mission “Listen do your District Leader and follow what they suggest even if you think it is a bad idea, and you will be blessed for your obedience.” I think we can find this rhetoric all over the place–listen to your leaders, instead of thinking for yourself. Ethical questions are of vital importance, but I could imagine the Church resisting ethical scrutiny, along the lines of “you are relying on the arm of the flesh, the pride of intellectualism” etc. We are not supposed to use our own wisdom and judgment to confirm or especially not to challenge the line or dictates of authority. I hope this develops naturally over time, but we have some high hurdles with deep foundations to overcome.