These four virtues have held prime real estate in recent generations, and are still considered top virtues by many: duty, conformity, authority, and obedience. But within the 1900s and into our century, these virtues have also come under fire, their downside exposed. These four virtues didn’t originate in scripture but are popular cultural values. For example, if you think duty is a highly moral reason for acting, you haven’t paid attention to the story of Jephthah’s daughter in the Old Testament.
These 4 Victorian virtues were considered to be essential to the health of society through the 1950s, and are still considered essential by some.
Without duty, there was no patriotism, and who would fight wars? Who would do difficult things without a duty to obligate them? Gender roles were used to domesticate men by giving them a duty to provide and protect (not just to dominate) and to domesticate women by giving them a duty to nurture and attend to moral matters, sometimes in the home, although initially in the community (e.g. the temperance movement, the “Relief Society”). Originally, women were given the mandate to be the moral force in society at large, not just in the home, but as men returned from WW2, the mandate shifted to place women in the home so that their vacancies would create employment opportunities for returning servicemen.
Duty has come under fire over the last century as well, and even before that. The Victorian Gilbert & Sullivan comic opera Pirates of Penzance poked fun at the excessive emphasis the Victorians placed on duty, and how silly duty was when it was over-applied. The central joke revolves around a boy whose hard-of-hearing nurse makes him an apprentice to a pirate instead of a pilot. He refuses to break his promise or fail in his duty of loyalty to the pirates, even though he thinks they should be arrested. He even continues in duty when he discovers that since he was born on leap day, he won’t have a 21st birthday until he’s over 80 years old, so he must serve the pirates for life despite his moral objections!
More seriously, duty came under fire when many felt we were asked to fight an unjust and unwinnable war in Vietnam. The issue divided generations in the US as young people declared a conscientious objection and refused to fight, some were branded cowards for letting others go to war, and even those who went were often reviled when the war was lost. The concept of duty is a common thread through this event. Is duty a sufficient reason to fight when the reasons for war are questionable?
In addition, since the 1960s in particular, the excesses of the 1950s in which individual needs were suborned to duty to family and society, there has been a shift toward personal fulfillment. As with any pendulum, the first swings back were the most extreme with people engaging in key swapping, spiritual retreats, drug experimentation, and sexual freedom – abandoning all sense of duty in the quest for personal fulfillment. While those excesses have become the butt of jokes in subsequent decades, there has not been a return to the stifling, repressive, duty-bound expectations of the 1950s either. People want to be happy and to “find themselves,” but they also want to be bound to others, not out of duty, but in love: loving ties between spouses and loving ties between parent and child. There’s not much joy in a relationship based primarily on duty and guilt.
For those raised on duty, though, it’s hard to let go of the idea that duty plays a critical role in those relationships or that without duty, there is enough to connect people through disagreement and differing trials of life. Many blame the high divorce rate on the ease of obtaining a divorce, forgetting that a marriage in which the spouses feel trapped is hardly a happy one. Instead of barring the exits, maybe we should focus on giving people reasons to want to stay.
Most instances of duty in the scriptures refer to a list of job descriptions for various priesthood offices or requirements for offerings. Duty is a word about societal obligation, misapplied to personal relationships. What did Jesus say about duty? In Luke 17:10 he considers duty to be insufficient: “when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do.” If we are acting out of duty, particularly within our families, that’s simply not good enough.
On the “good, better, best” scale, “duty” ranks as a “good” at most.
Conformity simply means that someone is in accordance with standards, rules or laws. Sounds innocent enough. But conformity goes further; it also means matching one’s attitudes, beliefs and behaviors with group norms. It’s why women don’t (usually) wear pants to church even if they never wear dresses anywhere else. It’s why we say “know” in our testimonies rather than “believe.” It’s why we pray for moisture even when we live in a tropical rainforest. It’s why we see a bearded man in the temple and give him the stinkeye before we catch that picture of Jesus looking at us. It’s putting cultural norms, which may be good or bad in and of themselves, above living the gospel and being Christ-like. Conformity tells us if people “look” good or normal, they probably are good or normal, a human misconception Ted Bundy exploited very handily. We are told in scripture that “the Lord looketh on the heart,” and yet most of us humans do a pretty crappy job seeing past the exterior if it doesn’t conform to our notions of “good” or “normal.”
Mormons are very familiar with conformity. We have dress codes at BYU and youth activities that align with conservative standards, going so far as to discourage tattoos, multiple ear piercings and facial hair on men. That’s a pretty strict dress code. By contrast, I went to a “clean” comedy show last weekend that was held at a local church. There were plenty of visible tattoos and all sorts of diversity in clothing, haircuts, and racial diversity not usually seen in a Mormon group. The audience was much more rowdy than most Mormon audiences, shouting encouragement to the comics. I suspect it would have been easy to spot us as the Mormons in that crowd. We can all pretty easily identify other Mormons based on dress alone: knee length shorts, tee shirts with sleeves, garmpit. I have never seen anyone who isn’t a Mormon wear a tee shirt under spaghetti straps. It’s a dead giveaway.
Conformity is an even more questionable virtue than duty. Conformity seems pro-social, but is also a shortcut to hypocrisy, judgmentalism, and groupthink. Does receiving God’s image in your countenance mean that we all look the same? Some think so. I’ve heard white shirts for the young men described as “the uniform of the Priesthood,” and while this seems harmless and appropriately symbolic, I’ve also noticed that it can be an exclusionary standard for families with economic struggles.
When we were in Singapore, my son was quickly outgrowing his shirts, and I hadn’t been back to the US recently to buy him a new one, so he was rolling up the sleeves of his shirt to pass the sacrament. He was asked what the Savior would think of rolling up his sleeves, a question intended to shame him into conformity. He wasn’t rolling up his sleeves as a mark of rebellion! Calling attention to his non-conformity may seem like it’s not a big deal, but to an insecure teen who was trying to fit in, it was alarming. When conformity is a higher virtue than empathy and compassion, we’re doing it wrong.
Conformity works well for the army. By stripping soldiers of their identity and their individuality, they become more malleable to suggestion and are more able to complete orders without second guessing or thinking. There is also less personal accountability for actions when conformity is strictly enforced. Reduced personal accountability shouldn’t be our goal at church, though.
In the 1950s, Solomon Asch conducted experiments to understand the effects of conformity (and majority opinions) on decision-making. Individuals were put into a group in which non-participant “confederates” deliberately provided false answers to see if participants would be swayed to conform to the group consensus even when it was obviously wrong. The study revealed that when individuals had to openly flout group consensus, they were very likely to simply conform, even when they knew they were giving wrong (but peer-acceptable) answers. A few other findings from the study worth noting:
- When a partner in the group also gave correct answers rather than conforming to the wrong answers given by the group, the participant was less likely to conform. If that partner left the room halfway through the experiment, the participant quickly began to conform again.
- The smaller the size of the group of confederates (those giving false answers), the less influence they had; however, with at least 3 confederates, the influence was strong and remained strong no matter how many more confederates were added.
- When confederates gave their (wrong) answers verbally, but participants were allowed to answer in writing, their conformity decreased significantly.
Apparently, conformity doesn’t change true feelings or opinions; it just encourages dishonesty.
“Question authority,” a slogan popularized by Timothy Leary after the Vietnam War and Watergate scandals, is one of the most widely accepted views among Baby Boomers. Generations before them trusted authority to a fault, although it’s possible that authority merited more trust before Richard Nixon. Does mistrust of authority and hierarchy lead to chaos and anarchy or does absolute power corrupt absolutely? Perhaps both are true to some extent.
Scriptures warn us against “trusting in the arm of flesh,” but also encourage us to do what leaders say because “whether by my own voice or the voice of my servants, it is the same.” And yet, we know that church leaders at all levels are tempted by “unrighteous dominion.” From D&C 121: “We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion.”
Try to bring up the idea of questioning authority in your average Gospel Doctrine class, though, and you should be prepared to be thought a heretic. It’s more common for people to support the debunked idea that even if you are told to do something wrong, you’ll be blessed for doing it. Refusing to question authority is the foundation of corrupt governments. Are they unchallenged because they are corrupt or corrupt because they are unchallenged?
Obedience is another virtue with a serious downside. Although rebelling is hardly a virtue, except in Star Wars (or WW2 Europe) where they were rebelling against evil, unqualified obedience can lead to some very unhealthy behavior.
As Col. Jessup says in A Few Good Men “We follow orders, son. We follow orders or people die. It’s that simple. Are we clear?” And we all know that as a true patriot, he believed that obedience was important enough to kill for. Yikes.
Being rebellious is no virtue in and of itself, but neither is obedience without understanding.
While they all have pro-social intentions, these 4 virtues also create psychological distance from personal morality and responsibility for bad behavior. That justification usually manifests in one of the following arguments:
- The ends justify the means. Do we justify our harmful actions because we think they will lead to an eventual better outcome?
- Hiding one’s actions through euphemistic language. Do we use tribal language to hide the negative aspects of our actions?
- Advantageous comparisons. Do we compare our behavior to others’ to make our behavior look better than it is? “At least we’re not out doing x,y,z like those people!”
- Victim blaming. Do we assume others, those in the out-group, deserve the bad things that happen to them, deserve to be judged or ostracized or gossiped about? Do we say they are reaping what they sow?