Or: The problem with the Mormon approach to morality. I’m using as a reference Mark Rowlands’ book The Philosopher at the End of the Universe: Philosophy Explained Through Science Fiction Films (Thomas Dunne Books, 2003), in particular Chapter 6, which uses Hollow Man, a 2000 film based rather loosely on H. G. Wells’ classic The Invisible Man, as a vehicle to examine various approaches to morality. When someone is watching, one is more likely to follow the rules and norms of the relevant society or group. When no one is watching (hypothetically, if one is invisible) then that constraint on behavior is removed and one’s behavior is largely determined by one’s own moral views or, if one has no moral views or reasons to guide action, by one’s desires and interests, what Rowlands calls prudential reasons.

LDS culture really likes to use external monitoring and peer influence to motivate compliance with LDS rules and norms. What if no one is watching? “If we believe in God, there’s no problem. God is watching us. Even if we are invisible men or women, God can still see us” (all of the quotations are from page 160 in Chapter 6). So there is double monitoring to motivate compliance with LDS rules and norms: other Mormons, whether ward or family, and God. But the pervasive sense of following the rules because someone is watching undermines the development or exercise of a truly personal sense of morality. This is a problem.

If you are always being watched, then you are likely following the rules and norms not because they are the right thing to do (for moral reasons) but to avoid punishment or shaming (by humans) or eternal punishment of one kind or another (by God). As Rowlands puts it:

Appealing to God basically transforms moral reasons into prudential ones. Moral reasons are just one species of prudential reasons. It is in our long-term interests to act morally because if we don’t God is going to send us to Hell …. Hell being what it is, it is in our long-term interests to behave morally.

In addition to undermining a true moral sensibility, externally imposed norms leave people unequipped to deal with ethical decisions if that external control is removed at some point. This is no laughing matter for someone who exits Mormonism and suddenly finds they lack a moral compass. Or, to be fair, they realize that, being Mormon, they never really had a personal moral compass; they were just following externally imposed rules and norms while being told those rules and norms constituted morality. Here is Rowlands again:

People who believe this is the only reason to be moral [the threat of going to Hell] scare me. What would happen to them if they, for some reason, found they no longer believe in God? To tie moral behaviour so closely to the possibility of punishment is a sociopath’s view of morality. But this aside, the increasing secularization of society does leave us with something of a problem. If there is no God, then we cannot collapse moral reasons into prudential reasons in this way. So what reason do we have for acting morally?

Well, you have your conscience, but if you end up on the far side of a God crisis you might not fully trust your conscience anymore. There is criminal and civil law, which at least provides a minimum standard of behavior. The Hollow Man scenario of an invisible man who can evade (at least initially) criminal liability and has no conscience is only a worst-case scenario.

To summarize my application of Rowlands’ discussion to the LDS context, the Mormon approach features an overreliance on external encouragements to follow LDS moral rules and norms, from peers and family and your local bishop, with correspondingly little emphasis on truly personal moral thinking. Appeals to conscience or personal prayer are generally acknowledged only if they agree with the general or local LDS decision or view in question. “Pray until you agree with the bishop” is not an exercise in personal morality. We Mormons need to think harder about why we do the things we do. Maybe a Mormonish way of expressing that idea is that we need to reclaim and exercise our own moral agency, which might line up very closely with Mormon morality or may differ on some or many particulars.

I’m guessing a lot of readers will have strong responses to this discussion. Let me offer three terms to help guide the discussion in the comments.

  • Institutional Morality, which for Mormons in a discussion about the LDS Church means Mormon Morality, as used in the title to this post. This is the external system of commandments, principles, rules, and norms that the institution wants its members to follow, encourage others to follow, and hopefully internalize.
  • Personal Morality, what is given by a person’s conscience and by that person’s moral reasoning. One’s personal moral reasoning is autonomous: it can lead to a choice that is not initially directed by one’s conscience or that is not in conformity with one’s relevant institutional morality.
  • Moral Courage, the aspect of character that empowers one to follow one’s moral view of doing the right thing despite habits or external rules and norms to the contrary. In some circumstances, it takes moral courage to follow one’s institutional morality over a competing social or institutional morality (church versus society; church versus employer). In other circumstances, the conflict may be between institutional and personal views of the right thing, or between family and personal views of the right thing.