My friends write cool things: Morality, identity, and Mormons on the internet

Girl and her dog

Aeon has quickly grown to be one of my favorite online magazines; they publish in-depth and extremely thoughtful articles and essays several times a week. I don’t think I’ve ever run across an essay they published that I didn’t think was worth reading.

This morning, my friend and collaborator Nina Strohminger published a piece about her work on the moral components of personal identity. She writes:

[S]ouls are a useful construct, one we can make sense of in fiction and fantasy, and as a shorthand for describing everyday experience. The soul is an indestructible wisp of ether, present from birth and surviving our bodies after death. And each soul is one of a kind and unreplicable: it bestows upon us our unique identity. Souls are, in short, a placeholder notion for the self.

But the soul is something else, too. The soul describes a person’s moral sensibility. A flourishing soul, according to Aristotle, was one in the habit of virtuous acts. When the soul is sick, we feed it chicken soup in the form of bite-sized inspirational stories. History’s great psychopaths, its serial killers and genocidal maniacs, are seen as soulless. So are the animate creatures in popular lore: the golems, the Frankensteins, the HALs. The sentient computer who runs amok is a trope of the genre – so much so that, in his short story ‘Runaround’ (1942), Isaac Asimov felt it necessary to propose Three Laws of Robotics to specify ethical guidelines for the wayward robot. Why do we assume that a being without a soul will turn against us? On some level, we must endorse the idea that, without a soul, moral action is not possible.

And where does the soul go when we die? In Western religions, either to a place for the morally good (heaven) or the morally bad (hell). There is no afterlife for good or bad bowlers, the sharp and the dull-witted, the glamorous and the frumpy. Eastern traditions that subscribe to a belief in reincarnation specify that the soul is reincarnated according to the person’s moral behaviour (karma). It is our moral selves that survive us in death.

Strohminger’s research suggests that what we really care about in personal identity is our moral character. She explains:

Why does our identity detector place so much emphasis on moral capacities? These aren’t our most distinctive features. Our faces, our fingertips, our quirks, our autobiographies: any of these would be a more reliable way of telling who’s who. Somewhat paradoxically, identity has less to do with what makes us different from other people than with our shared humanity. Consider the reason we keep track of individuals in the first place. Most animals don’t have an identity detector. Those that share our zeal for individual identification have one thing in common: they live in societies, where they must co‑operate to survive. Evolutionary biologists point out that the ability to keep track of individuals is required for reciprocal altruism and punishment to emerge. If someone breaks the rules, or helps you out of a bind, you need to be able to remember who did this in order return the favour later. Without the ability to distinguish among the members of a group, an organism cannot recognise who has co‑operated and who has defected, who has shared and who has been stingey.

Her whole essay is great and worth reading. Check it out.

Michael Schulson, a classmate of mine who also ended up in Durham, wrote recently about religion and the internet at The Daily Beast. Schulson starts by looking at a recent series of essays released by the Mormon Church, which revealed that their founder had 40 wives, among them already married women and a 14-year-old. Schulson writes:

To historians, that’s old news. But church authorities have traditionally been hesitant to discuss controversial parts of Mormon history. Many Mormons did not know the details of Smith’s polygamy.

“Five years ago, you would never have seen this essay even contemplated,” says Brian Hales, an amateur historian and devout Mormon. Hales is the author of a three-volume history of Smith’s polygamy, and he reviewed drafts of the church’s essay. But even he was surprised by the candidness of the final version. “It’s remarkably transparent,” he told The Daily Beast.
So what shifted?

“The Internet,” says Hales, “has changed everything.”

As Mormons venture online, they’re finding information about the church that contradicts the history they learned growing up. They’re reading about Smith’s polygamy, the church’s troubled racial history, and some especially fishy translations.

Schulson’s piece is a really balanced and nuanced take on the effect the internet has on religion and religious communities:

The Web doesn’t magically make us all more historically informed, either. Official Mormon histories about Joseph Smith may have been misleading. But so are plenty of histories that try to attack the prophet. The Internet doesn’t elevate historical conversations. It just makes it harder for one group to monopolize them.

And, of course, Mormons aren’t alone in having a flawed founder, nor in whitewashing his history. Just try to find a mention of Sally Hemings at the Jefferson Memorial. Movements of all kind create mythic histories, and institutions of all kinds do what they can to control these founding stories.

What’s at risk here, really, isn’t faith. Nor is it traditional leadership. It’s the illusion that our founding myths and our factual histories are somehow one and the same. It’s still possible to understand Joseph Smith as a transcendent figure with a powerful spiritual message (his mythic history) who was also a flawed human individual with a fourteen year-old wife (factual history).

But it’s getting more difficult to pretend that the actual details of Joseph Smith’s life map perfectly onto that archetypal role. In much the same way, it’s getting more difficult for white Americans to forget that the glorified story of our founding fathers isn’t separable from the history of slavery.

Again, the whole piece is excellent and well-worth reading. Check it out here. And for anyone interested in more of Schulson’s writing, he’s also recently written a fantastic piece at Aeon about the role chance should play in our decision-making.

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