Book of Mormon Ethics Revisited

Book of Mormon Ethics Revisited March 5, 2008

Hi, everybody it’s my first post. Newbie that I am, I’m still becoming acquainted with everyone’s positions on various and sundry topics. Sometimes you’re really bright, and sometimes you’re godless heathens; I’m confident my final conclusion will come to rest somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. In short, though, I appreciate that questions and concerns are being discussed in the open free from fear of stoning, burning, and/or excommunication.

I mention this feeler-extending process to explain my initial reaction to TT’s post about Book of Mormon ethics which contains a harsh criticism of the Book of Mormon concept that the righteous prosper. I assume its a given here that one’s opinions of a text or its theological articulations are not to be slighted, so I’m not calling TT a heretic. Frankly, I don’t know who he is or the status of his testimony—he says he keeps his faith, and I’m cool with that. So I hope I’m not misunderstood when I say that his criticism of this aspect of Book of Mormon theodicy is at least somewhat unfair.

To restate, both to make sure I understand correctly and also to (re)acquaint those who may not be familiar with the original post, TT believes that the Book of Mormon worldview, i.e. “The Pride Cycle” (prosperity > pride > wickedness > destruction > humility > righteousness > blessings > prosperity) is problematic. First of all, it seems to be the convenient, indeed, the only explanation for every fortunate and misfortunate event in the Book of Mormon. Secondly (and somewhat related to the first), the view itself, on a corporate level, fails to consider economic and and dynamic factors in the rise and fall of societies. Thirdly, the alleged historical and theological problems are too great to be ignored, i.e. the wicked do not always suffer nor do the righteous always prosper, and sometimes the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper. And make no mistake, readers—constructive the critique isn’t. TT even calls the doctrine of a prosperous righteous “incredibly problematic,” “highly suspect,” “one of the worst explanations for the problem of evil,” “harmful in some cases,” and even considers “rejecting it more explicitly at both the individual and corporate level.” Somewhere, a gauntlet has been thrown down.

To explain why I think TT’s criticisms are unfair, it is important to be clear about what is being criticized:

  1. To ascribe the righteousness > prosperity worldview exclusively to the Book of Mormon or to the Deuteronomists is inaccurate. In fact, all of the western world’s historiographers from Herodotus onward held similar views until relatively recently. TT does not imply otherwise, but I mention it lest the reader think that Gibbon, etc. borrowed their perspective only from Hebrew history. The propensity to doubt a natural positive consequence of individual and corporate morality is a relatively new one; it is uncertain whether it will prove as durable as its opponent.
  2. The Pride-Cycle, while a logical observation of Book of Mormon events, is a construction alien to the Book of Mormon text. Rather, it is a creation of church educators to couch the ethical lessons of Mormon and Nephi in modern pedagogy. To speak of the “Pride-Cycle” as if it were Mormon’s or Nephi’s idea is like attributing the Nicene trinity to John’s Gospel; we simply can’t conclude it from the text alone.
  3. Last, let us be certain of what the Book of Mormon does and does not say. While there are many references to the positive temporal consequence of righteousness, none of them assert that righteousness is the only cause of temporal prosperity or that wickedness is the only cause of temporal hardship. Even more foreign to the BOM text is the use of this worldview to explain the problem of evil. No Book of Mormon author attempts to point the figure at wrong choices as the cause of an individual’s suffering or the the world’s evil generally. This is not to say that the idea is not present in Mormonsim. D&C 130:20-21 coupled with D&C 82:10 tells us that we are always blessed if and only if we are righteous. TT seems to be responding to this D&C sentiment and not to the Book of Mormon directly. I myself have always had a problem with 130:21 especially, but only because I know I’ve been blessed even when I haven’t been righteous. But I digress. The point is that when we talk about Book of Mormon ethics, we should be clear about what the text actually says apart from what we infer from it.

To be sure, Book of Mormon authors are exclusively fond of the moral explanation for the rise and fall of societies, but this should not be surprising from a text self-defined as exclusively spiritual. If the authors admit they have ignored economic and political matters, then why should we expect their historiography to conform to our sensibilities? They’ve admitted to an agenda, so to assume that the paucity of economic and political discussion indicates their ignorance of such matters is unfair. At best, their selectivity undermines their thoroughness as historians, not necessarily their perspective’s validity. But even this is unlikely, given their success in engaging soci0-economic and political issues as consequences of righteousness or wickedness.

Also, such criticism of Nephi’s and Mormon’s worldview characterizes it as unnuanced moral polarity, when in fact, there are many nuances from the narrative. The best example that immediately comes to mind is that of King Morianton in Ether 10:9-12, who was a just ruler but personally wicked. As a result, it is explained, the people prospered but he was cut off from the presence of the Lord. The tendency for Ether/Moroni to connect a people’s corporate righteousness to that of its king may present another problem, but here Ether/Moroni at least makes an attempt to explain the consequences of a disparity between public and personal life. Another such nuance comes in Helaman 12, where Mormon engages in the very spiritualization TT cautions us against. Although the chapter begins by explicitly describing the temporal consequences for righteousness and wickedness, it ends by extending the theme to spiritual consequences. The Zoramites of Alma 31-35 were allowed to practice their wickedness with a virtually unchecked continuity, and yet Mormon does not attempt to show how “they got theirs” in the end beyond their joining the Lamanites and later the Gadianton robbers (Alma 43:4). The result of their iniquity was apparently more spiritual than temporal.

Therefore, the Book of Mormon worldview is simpler and more vague than TT describes. It is not a systematized theodicy, nor is it an attempt to explain the problem of evil. It is an open delineation of consequences for righteousness and wickedness without a consistent timetable or menu for such consequences. It does not say that the only explanation for suffering is personal wickedness, nor does it maintain that the fortunate must have also been righteous to deserve their fortune (cf. Zoramites). Book of Mormon ethics ought to be taken for what they are and not conflated with other scriptures or with LDS culture.

Nevertheless, you may say, saying that the righteous are always temporally blessed is still a problem. We all know that doesn’t happen, right? I say it depends on whom you talk to, which makes any kind of empirical evaluation impossible. TT is certainly entitled to his opinion, but we shouldn’t infer that there is this wealth of evidence against it compared to a dearth of evidence for it. Obviously the Book of Mormon authors thought there was enough evidence to put in their writings for us to learn from. Also, certain groups today feel that personal ethics and morality have a direct impact on the economic prosperity of a nation. Nathan Lott gave a great presentation about this very topic in the Religious Education Student Symposium two weeks ago. In his paper, “If Ye Keep My Commandments, Ye Shall Prosper in the Land”, he tells of the group Transparency International, a German group dedicated to the internal promotion of business ethics, which assigned all the major countries in the world a corruption index from 2 to 10, 10 being the least corrupt. The corruption index was determined through a survey of 70-120 individuals per country based on questions about ethics in general, but mostly about bribery. North American and EU countries typically score the highest, while African countries score the lowest. Eastern European countries are somewhere in the middle. Nate then mapped the index for each country against the per capita gross national income. Both sets of data are from 2006. Unfortunately, Nate asked me to wait to post the chart, but it showed a linear correlation between the data; as the corruption of a country went up, the GNI went down, indicating that countries with a higher level of integrity were more prosperous. Nate closely connected this with Book of Mormon promises that the righteous are blessed with temporal prosperity.

This is not to say that the procedure is without questions. As Nate concedes, the question remains as to whether strong ethics translate into economic prosperity or whether prosperous countries are able to enforce ethics (which question TI discusses elsewhere). Furthermore, you may argue that there can be no real measure of corruption since it is such a vague and complex concept. Yet this is a two-edged sword. If there can be no adequate measure of righteousness/wickedness than how can one determine that the righteous are not always blessed? What gives the observer sufficient theological or historical perspective to make that kind of judgement call if the parameters are so hard to define?

But assuming TI is right, this would be a considerable piece of evidence against the untenability of Nephi’s and Mormon’s worldview; after all, it seems to work in practice. This is the main problem with TT’s argument, because although (s)he is correct in pointing out that the righteous don’t always prosper and the wicked don’t always perish, this isn’t to say that it doesn’t happen a lot! It is a very subjective evaluation, from either side, based primarily on anecdotal evidence and one’s individual experience. Both sides of the issue can point to instances where it has worked and where it hasn’t worked, sometimes from the same set of historical circumstances. If evidence for or against a position is based primarily on theological or historical interpretive grounds, little can conclusively be said for or against it based on empirical evidence. Nephi and Mormon may very well be wrong, but not for TT’s reasons.

So in short, I completely agree that the worldview described by TT is problematic. I just think it’s a different view than that of the Book of Mormon and the one I attempted to defend above.


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