This is sort of a follow-up to hawkgrrrl’s post last week, “Performative Christianity.” Ethics and morality are huge topics, so there are always more things to talk about. Here’s one of the claims in her list of bullet points:

  • Complying with group norms is a completely different type of activity than discipleship and self-improvement. You can become a “good Mormon” (as gauged by outward, visible behaviors) while internally being a terrible disciple and Christian.

Let’s focus on that loaded term “Good Mormon.” What does it mean to be a Good Mormon? Too often the focus is on loyalty, obedience, and conformity. Those are institutional virtues, not personal ones. Sure, we hear a lot about faith and love and service. But the institutional stamp of approval (a TR) turns on whether you attend meetings and write checks, not on whether you commune with the Spirit or practice random acts of kindness. In terms of personal morality, one has to sink very low before the bishop even notices or cares. Even then, too often local leadership and membership close ranks with perpetrators and blame victims.

But the problem with critiquing “Mormon morality”in this fashion is there are no universally accepted alternatives. Philosophical ethics produces a lot of discussion but few reliable conclusions. “Be nice to others” and “do no harm” are better guides to personal behavior and morality than anything you’re going to find on the shelves in the philosophy section of your local library. Other churches don’t do any better. Other institutions in society suffer from the same problems, often to a greater degree. Mormons tend to be good people.

So I’m going to take a different approach, following a discussion by Simon Blackburn in Ruling Passions: A Theory of Practical Reasoning (OUP, 1998). He has a discussion of what he calls “emotional ascent,” which I glossed in the title as intensity. Let’s talk about scope and intensity as reflected in the Mormon system.

Scope and Intensity

First, scope. There are lots of decisions in life. You face dozens every day. Which are moral decisions? When does a bad decision become not just dumb or wrong but immoral, some kind of transgression? Opinions are going to vary quite significantly on this score. For most Americans, drinking a cup of coffee is a morning ritual. For Mormons, it’s a transgression. For the vast majority of Americans, taking a second or third wife is a transgression. For Mormons, it’s an article of faith, albeit a non-practiced one. I’m sure you can think of dozens of additional examples. Another observation is the Mormon practice of placing moral weight on institutional imperatives: attending meetings, writing checks, supporting your local bishop.

Some of this gets taught explicitly in lessons and talks. Other features of the Mormon system just get absorbed. It requires real effort to take a step back and reflect on which personal actions *should* have a moral component and which decisions *should* reflect moral considerations. Obviously, it’s not just Mormons who could benefit from this exercise. It’s part of growing up for any person, part of the development of your adult personality and sensibilities. The Mormon hymnbook is probably a better practical guide to moral behavior than anything heard in talks or lessons. Have you done any good in the world today? Helped anyone in need?

Second, intensity or “emotional ascent” as described by Blackburn. He first observes:

What kind of thought or feeling is involved when we have a moral reaction to some conduct or some situation? Centrally, a moral transgression is something that is other peoples’ business, something that is against mores or norms. It is some kind of trespass. As such it is of legitimate concern to others. This is not a strict definition … [b]ut it points to the right area.

Simon Blackburn, Ruling Passions, p. 9.

He then outlines a “staircase of practical and emotional ascent” looking at the degree of emotional engagement or reaction one has to a transgression. I’ll use a list to make it clearer.

  • Simple preference, like or dislikes.
  • Basic hostility to some kind of action or character, to which we have an aversion or hold in contempt or get angered by.
  • Express that anger or disappointment or contempt to someone.
  • Attempt to rally others to that reaction, encourage others to share your anger or contempt.
  • Make it compulsory: express unhappiness or anger with anyone who doesn’t share your reaction or sign on to your moral campaign.
  • Even further, be upset with anyone who doesn’t ratchet their emotional response up to your level. Just agreeing is not enough, their righteous anger needs to match yours. Those advocating tolerance become enemies. Dissent is beyond the pale.

Blackburn calls this “a spiral of emotional identification and demands.” What’s interesting here is not merely the rising scale of emotional engagement and intensity. It’s the fact that what started as a moral decision or moral issue or moral reaction quickly morphs into an emotional response and a scale of rising emotion. To transpose this into the Mormon system, being a Good Mormon means getting upset about the right things, to the right degree. A critique of the Mormon system would be that Mormons get upset about the wrong things (or fail to get upset about things they should be upset about) and go overboard in their reaction.

My general sense is that often Mormons get upset about the wrong things and get too worked up (go too far up Blackburn’s emotional reaction staircase). A discussion can be had about whether the examples one sees are outliers and exceptions or are part of a general problem. Recently, a number of official LDS announcements or letters to the membership have stressed civility and tolerance toward other members, suggesting that at least the leadership sees a problem. Pres. Oaks addressed this very directly in his recent Conference talk. It seems too many Mormons are publicly broadcasting their unhappiness and anger at perceived (or misperceived) transgressions by others. Well, maybe that is what they’ve been taught to do in church! My sense is the leadership is trying to dial that back, but it’s a real challenge. It generally takes a generation or two for Mormons to realign their thinking and actions on a given topic or doctrine.

So here are some questions for readers. Let me quickly remind everyone that, as noted above, Mormons tend to be good people and I’m not suggesting Mormons are abject failures in terms of moral reasoning or emotional response. There are lots of people in the world who get righteously angry about stupid little things. But here at W&T it’s generally Mormon things we talk about, so that’s what we’re doing.

  • Do Mormons get upset about things that should not be a big deal?
  • Do Mormons ignore or let slide things that ought to be a bigger moral concern?
  • Do Mormons get too worked up (too far up the emotional response staircase) about some things?
  • Do Mormons sometimes view tolerance as a misguided response rather than the proper one?