A is for Agency

One of the more intriguing ideas at this year’s Sunstone Symposium was Lavina Fielding Anderson’s suggestion that True to the Faith: A Gospel Reference, the short but authoritative doctrinal handbook issued last year by the First Presidency, is “the new Mormon Doctrine.” To make us all a little more familiar with this gem (and to determine if there’s really any “new doctrine” in it), I’m going to start a feature summarizing and discussing topics selected from the roughly 160 articles in the TTTF booklet. You’re a bright bunch — I’m sure you can guess the format of the next 25 posts in this series. “A” was a toughie: I picked Agency, but other entries worth mentioning include Abortion, Abuse, Addiction, and Apostasy. The topics selected for inclusion in TTTF include liberal coverage of contemporary moral choice issues as well as the standard doctrinal summaries, which makes TTTF especially interesting reading. The booklet seems to be directed primarily at LDS youth, which explains the simplified exposition of some doctrines and (at some points) a rather paternal tone.

Agency, Conscience, and the Light of Christ

The Agency entry is particularly careful to avoid the now-disfavored term “free agency,” which must appear too permissive to some of the Brethren. Nor does one see the term “moral agency” used. The article defines agency as “the ability to choose and to act for yourself,” and quotes 2 Nephi 2:27. To remind us that it’s not “free agency,” it states: “You are free to choose and act, but you are not free to choose the consequences of your actions. The consequences may not be immediate, but they will always follow.”

This stress on the necessity of good outcomes for good choices can cause problems. It invites the reader to feel that someone who is depressed or who has a run of bad luck in health or in business must necessarily be involved in sin or be otherwise out of favor with God. How, after all, can anyone who is “living the gospel” not be visibly happy? How could God not bless them with success rather than adversity? Frankly, the TTTF Adversity article doesn’t do much to correct that view, suggesting much adversity stems from pride and disobedience. The Agency article winds up with this paragraph:

You are responsible for the decisions you make. You should not blame your circumstances, your family, or your friends if you choose to disobey God’s commandments. You are a child of God with great strength. You have the ability to choose righteousness and happiness, regardless of your circumstances.

There you go: Happiness is a choice. If you’re not happy, you’re just not choosing to be happy.

Two other articles bear directly on the question of the relation between the LDS doctrine of agency and the more general concept of morality or moral choice. Conscience states that “[a]ll people are born with the capacity to distinguish between right and wrong.” It is to help a person stay out of “situations that are spiritually harmful” and to avoid sin. “Conscience is a manifestation of the Light of Christ,” states the second article, “enabling us to judge good from evil.” The light of Christ is specifically distinguished from the Holy Ghost as not being “a personage.” This suggests a further question: What, exactly, is the light of Christ? It’s hard to escape the impression, even from the TTTF article, that “conscience” and “light of Christ” are simply interchangeable terms for the same phenomenon.

Morality versus Obedience

One interesting thing about these three related TTTF articles is that they never call it “moral agency” or “moral choice” and, in fact, the term “morality” is never even used in any of the articles. Granted, they talk about right and wrong, good and evil, but they aren’t really encouraging Mormons to develop or clarify their own moral values or moral sense and make good choices accordingly, they are encouraging Mormons to simply choose to follow the counsel they are given by their leaders. This is evident in the article Prophets, which explains that prophets today “make known God’s will and true character. They speak boldly and clearly, denouncing sin and warning of its consequences.” And: “You can always trust the living prophets. Their teachings reflect the will of the Lord ….” More simply, when leaders speak of agency or choice, the choice they are advocating is one of obedience, not morality; choosing to obey counsel, not choosing to follow one’s own moral compass. Which is not to say the two are in conflict: the idea that there might be a conflict between received counsel and one’s moral sense is almost inconceiveable to those giving the counsel. Any objection to counsel phrased as a moral objection is almost invariably ascribed to pride or disobedience.

This distinction between obedience and morality is worth exploring in more depth. The initial distinction is between moral law (not really law at all) and ritual law as presented by Old Testament prophets. When Isaiah upbraids the Israelites for their moral failure (“Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.” Isa. 1:17 NIV) despite their array of ritual performances (see Isa. 1:10-16), he is arguing for the priority of morality over ritual law. Likewise, Jesus rebuked the “teachers of the law” for neglecting “the more important matters of the law — justice, mercy, and faithfulness” in their zeal to conform to ritual requirements (Matt. 23:23 NIV). Today, in a capitalistic, democratic, free-market society of corporations and hierarchical churches, the concept of ritual law is perhaps better represented by what might be termed “institutional law,” revolving around institutional values like attendance at meetings, financial contributions, performance of assigned tasks, and of course obedience to one’s leaders. Such obligations are based on institutional values, not moral values like justice, mercy, or charity. Institutional values have a high priority in Mormonism and get a disproportionate amount of airtime in meetings and publications.

Let’s put the matter more starkly: Obedience is not a moral value any more than is punctuality. Any request for obedience raises the question of what and whom should be obeyed, and making the “obey or not obey” decision, especially in hard scenarios, raises moral questions. A moral norm or value is what allows one to decide whether to obey a particular command or requirement or not. I suppose a hardliner could argue that the norm “always obey, obedience is the highest value” is itself a moral norm, but that “blind obedience” position is generally considered moral abdication rather than moral justification. “I was just following orders” is rarely deemed to be a sufficient moral justification. So while a command or directive might present a moral choice, obedience as a concept or value does not equip a person to resolve a moral dilemma raised by a command or directive.

The US Army understands this, and educates its soldiers not only about the requirement to obey orders, but also about orders which violate moral norms and which should not, even must not, be obeyed. In the LDS Church, on the other hand, we are taught that the leader of the Church must always be obeyed, generally by appealing to a grant of divine revelation vouchsafed to the leader, but sometimes with the explanation that before a leader would be allowed to give us errant counsel, God would remove him from his place (i.e., cause him to die). I don’t find that a particularly attractive position. And I find it odd that the Army does more to caution its soldiers about the moral pitfalls of blind obedience than does the Church. I suppose there’s an argument that people with guns and the duty to use them ought to be held to a higher standard than the rest of us.


I’ve gone on a bit, but it seems like an interesting topic. This post expands on a pleasant exchange I had recently with a T&S permablogger on one of their characteristically lengthy threads, helping me realize how my view of moral choice differs somewhat from what one might call the orthodox LDS model. My overall point is that choice, agency, and conscience should be defined primarily in a moral context, whereas TTTF (and Church rhetoric generally) seems to discuss it primarily in relation to obedience and what I have called institutional law as opposed to moral law. There are no doubt other approaches to moral choice that can be phrased in terms of agency, conscience, values, and authority; perhaps some of these will come out in the comments.

Next week: Body Piercing.


  1. Nate Oman says:

    Dave: To a certain extent, I think that you are arguing against a straw man. The claim is not that obedience per se is a moral virtue, but rather that obedience to proper authority is a virtue. Furthermore, if you think of morality in aretaic terms, that is in terms of cultivating a certain kind of character, rather than in simply substantive terms, that is in certain sorts of actions, then the act of obedience to divine authority itself can have moral significance independent of the substantive content of what we are doing. Elder Maxwell’s writings on discipleship are, I think, very illuminating here. It seems a bit crude to simply dismiss the whole thing with a cute distinction about spiritual v. institutional rules and write the whole thing off as an exercise in moral obtuseness or crass institutional control.

    As for blind obedience, the concept of authority always requires blind obedience in some sense, because as an analytic matter authority is offered as an exclusionary reason. In this sense, authority is analogous to promising. Normally, I am free to do X based on my all things considered decision of whether X is a good idea. However, when I promise to do X, the promise acts as a reason for excluding my all things considered judgements. (Note, my point here is analytic rather than substantive; I am talking about how the concept of promising works, not whether promise keeping is justified in particular cases.) Authority is similarlly exclusionary. (Again, the point is analytic not substantive. Note also that the analogy goes only to the question of how promisory and authoritative reasons function, not to their genesis. Distinguishing promises as voluntary misses the analytic point.)

    This does not mean that any particular authority is justified, but it does mean that authority operates as a reason for rejecting our otherwise all-things-considered best choices.

    It seems to me that you could be making one of two claims: (1) The practical authority of LDS leaders is not justified (or not justified to the extent implied by some); or, (2) the concept of authority is itself mistaken. These are perfectly respectable positions to take, but it seems a bit rich to suggest that those who disagree lack any concept of morality.

  2. I imagine that if the Bishop planned my day out for me down to the minute and enforced my compliance, we might hear a different line from Church Hierarchy. The military is an institution that micromanages the individual – very literally, “conform or die.” I’m not sure the comparison is fair.

    I imagine that everyone here believes the Church leaders have resilient conceptions of morality. They have simply chosen to define agency and conscience in terms of our relationship to God and the church and not in terms of our relationship to ourselves and others.

  3. Dave,

    I would also suggest you’re creating a straw man, but in a different way.

    Your argument is that because the article does not use the word “morality” it is not advocating the use the use of agency in terms of moral law, but of institutional law. You then go into a lengthy aside on the issue of moral law vs. institutional law, none of which has anything to do with agency and none of which has anything to do with the article presented.

    The straw man that Nate correctly points out is yet another straw man within your first straw man.

    I should also point out that agency is free by definition and that the term “free agency” is redundant. For some reason, the word has become popular in Mormon culture – I think some early prophets created the term by mistakenly blending the terms “free will” and “agency” into one term and that the phrase simply stuck within Mormon culture. You may notice that, in the Wiki, free agency is defined as an exclusively Mormon concept – while, of course, agency is not.

    I would recommend the article on Agency in the Enclycopedia of Mormonism – an article that agrees with the TTTF passage while explaining the concept in greater depth.

  4. I wonder if the ridding ourselves of the term “free” agency will help separate our agency from the traditional notion of free will.

  5. Jeffrey,

    You seem to suggest that the two don’t agree. I would contend that not only do LDS agency and traditional free will fully agree, but that they are virtually synonymous. I would be interested in hearing how they differ, but then, I have not yet taken the time to go through all the many lengthy discussions on agency that have occurred in the ‘nacle in the last year, so maybe this is old hat.

  6. “There you go: Happiness is a choice. If you’re not happy, you’re just not choosing to be happy.”

    I believe there is substantial truth to that. We somtimes put limitations on ourselves or are blind to our poor choices that lead to lack of happiness. I’m not discounting that external forces can play a role, but our choices are important. (eg. I hate my job–am I willing to work for a better one? My spouse and I fight a lot–am I too eager to be right?)

    As you pointed out, TTTF seems to be geared toward the youth. Teenagers are master excuse-makers, a talent that can be hard to shed.

  7. I think it is pretty interesting that someone in the church leadership has decided that it’s important to try to stamp out the term “free agency,” redundant as it may be. For example, I noticed that this year’s primary curriculum explicitly instructs leaders to use the term “agency” instead. I’m not sure where this idea came from, but I suspect it comes from Elder Packer. This
    1990 talk by him seems to be the first anti-free-agency GC talk I could find, and in several earlier talks he always used only the term “agency.” Interestingly, he explicitly prefers the term “moral agency.” Later talks by Ballard and others reiterate this theme.

    Of course not too long ago the term “free agency” was used unapologeticly by our leaders. Here is an example of Pres. Hinckley using it old-school-style in 1995.

    I am happy to report that the term “free agency” is also used liberally in quotes in the David O. McKay manual and has not been redacted out, although the term “agency” is preferred in places like chapter titles, captions, and introductions.

  8. “Crude,” “cute,” “crass” … Nate, you’ve been reading too many FARMS reviews again. Your articulate defense of obedience as a virtue (in the sense of Aristotelean moral excellence) avoids the central question, perhaps best presented by a simple case: What does one do when faced with a proper authority giving a morally questionable directive? My position is that, in a serious matter, you had better follow your own moral sense. “I knew it was wrong but I did it anyway because I think obedience to proper authority is a characteristic of excellent character” is a pretty weak defense.

    Just calling it “proper” authority doesn’t take away the moral dimension of one’s choice or action. It’s not like Isaiah would have said, “Oh, I forgot those are duly ordained priests officiating over the religious affairs of Israel; just ignore my earlier moral critique and do what they say.” Authority is not exclusionary in any sense related to morality. If anything, authority is contingent on its accordance with morality: “Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man” for those who attempt to exercise “dominion or compulsion” with “any degree of unrighteousness” is a familiar LDS formulation that expresses the point with admirable parsimony. [Not that I’m appealing to authority to make my point …]

    Eric, I put in headings to help readers notice section breaks. I thought it was pretty clear by context that the first section discusses the three articles I linked to in the first section, while the second section discusses an issue that seems to present itself to a careful reader of the TTTF articles (or at least to me). What exactly do you take to be the reason “free agency” was discarded in favor of just “agency” in current LDS discourse?

  9. Elder Packer did use the term “free agency” in the April 1976 Conference, but he repented. Spencer J. Condie mentioned Elder Packer’s issue with terminology in a September 1995 Ensign article.

    But I’ve noticed that President Hinckley and Faust have used “free agency” in General Conference in the last few years.

  10. Eric,

    I have gone through or hosted many of those discussions on free will and agency and I am also of the opinion that libertarian free will and free agency and agency are all synonomous. Jeffrey likes to try to separate the meanings in an effort to defend his idea that we are all actually causally determined (and thus we do not actually have libertarian free will). But as far as I can tell he is the only Mormon on the planet that believes this… (but men are free to choose what to believe after all)

  11. Geoff, while I’m not a determinist I’m also not a libertarian. I know several other people like that as well.

  12. Oh no! What have I started?

    Being a compatibilist, I do not believe in indeterministic free will of any kind, and unfortunately this is what most people mean by free will. Instead, I accept a form of agency which is actually quite compatible with the definition given in TTTF. “The ability to choose and to act for yourself” without any appeal whatsoever to indeterminism of any kind. Thus I personally define agency this way and define free will and being inherently indeterministic since that is what most people mean by it. I can see, however, how an indeterminist would equate the two in their mind.

  13. Oh yeah, I know Clark. I just couldn’t resist a little jab at my ol’ pal and sparring partner JG.

    Dave — This institutional authority vs. moral authority discussion is an interesting one. But in practice it only becomes interesting when we are asked by leaders to do something that we find morally objectionable.

    The teaching in the church is not necessarily that leaders are always right per se — rather it is that God is always right. What’s President Monson’s favorite quote lately… “When God speaks and a man obeys, that man is always right”. Thus when Nephi is asked to do something that seems morally objectionable (the Laban incident) God insists that he do it anyway. Apparently God’s authority overruled the internal misgivings he had. This becomes a great deal trickier if we are asked to do something by church leaders that we have misgivings about. The cheap answer is to turn to God and get his opinion on it (admittedly most offer this response in hopes that He will agree with the leader). If God agrees with the leader then do it. If one feels that God disagrees then I guess the leader loses out on a 2-1 vote… (Internal moral misgivings plus personal revelation beating out ecclesiastical authority).

    (Of course if one is not near enough to God to get his opinion then that is a more important problem to deal with than whatever other question is at hand anyway. Pulling an Enos might be in order…)

  14. First of all, I want to point out that my dear Serenity Valley suggested the connection between TTTF and Mormon Doctrine back in April: http://ldsliberationfront.blogs.com/ldslf/2005/04/take_that_mormo.html

    So, Lavina and SV have parallel thought processes. (Gotta keep SV from publishing any chronologies of ecclestiastical abuse, though!)

    Dave, I think this point is beautiful. We seem to be forgetting, as a church, that the point is to develop a relationship with God and Christ–to be their children, not their robots. We sometimes forget that Christ not only challenged and denounced the most obedient Jews, he also broke the law himself (see Mark 2:23-28, in which Jesus defends himself and his disciples for breaking the Sabbath). The reason, I think, is that the law is only a tool for helping us have a relationship with God, not an end in itself. But, in the modern church, I worry that obedience to the law is replacing the goal of developing a direct relationship. How often do our leaders tell us about how to have revelation? Compared with how often they talk about tattoos and earrings?

    p.s. Geoff, you’re letting the church hierarchy’s moral authority claims off too easily. The church has repeatedly claimed that, if you obey the prophet, it will be counted as virtue even if the act in question is actually wrong. In this teaching, church members are in a perpetual parent-child relation with the prophet in terms of morality: just doing what daddy said is a permanent moral excuse. I think this is a bit of a doctrinal wrong turn. At any rate, it has no scriptural basis that I’m aware of, so I think we’re free to disregard.

  15. Dave,

    I really appreciate this post. The moral/institutional law distinction is very well put. Just as you say, I think it’s one that is overlooked in the Church. Not only that, but it’s the kind of thing I’d love to say but would probably be less civil about.

    If we’re concerned only with an individual’s behavior, the distinction may not be so obvious, but if we consider a person’s choices, I think there’s a huge difference.

    One example to me is the Word of Wisdom. In all honesty, the reason I don’t drink has more to do with the fact that I want to keep my standing in the Church as a temple worthy member — in other words, I’m obeying the institutional law — than with any feelings of what kind of person I want to be or what principles are important in my life. I suspect I may not be alone in this particular circumstance, and there are dozens of other, though perhaps subtler, similar circumstances that permeate life in the Church.

  16. RT,

    I was nodding my head vigorously in agreement with your comment until I hit this sentence:

    The church has repeatedly claimed that, if you obey the prophet, it will be counted as virtue even if the act in question is actually wrong.

    Wha..? Is there some First Presidency message I missed? Who is this “church” that says this?

    I’ll readily admit that some individual leaders holding various positions of authority have said things like this — I heard a stake president say something along those lines with my own ears once. But those people are not “the church”. I agree that anyone that makes such claims (and demands obedience sans confirming revelation) is overstepping their authority.

    The Lord prepared us for such things when he warned us that is the nature and disposition of almost all men to exercise unrighteous dominion. Why should we be surprised when occasionally a leader proves the Lord right? That does not, however, mean that such statements are the position of “the church”.

    I still stand by my earlier recommendation. In fact I have been posting on this very subject lately. If management is getting you down in this organization, we all have a standing appointment with the Owner. Talk with Him directly about these things. Then do what He says. “When God speaks and a man obeys, that man is always right”.

  17. Geoff, who is the church, then? I can provide you with at least one top leader teaching that, if the general authorities lead the church into incorrect paths and church members follow, the blame falls on the general authorities.

    Elder McConkie wrote, “This means, among other things, that it is my province to teach to the Church what the doctrine is. It is your province to echo what I say or to remain silent. You do not have a divine commission to correct me or any of the Brethren. The Lord does not operate that way. If I lead the Church astray, that is my responsibility, but the fact still remains that I am the one appointed with all the rest involved so to do.” See http://messenger.mormonfundamentalism.org/McConkie_England.htm for the quote and context.

    For an interesting extended discussion of this topic, see http://www.signaturebooks.com/excerpts/god.htm#him which is Janice Allred’s essay on the fact that the “follow the prophet” doctrine can’t be found in modern form in the scriptures and may in fact contradict the scriptures. This essay provides several additional church leadership sources for this idea.

    Anyway, you’re right that there’s no canonized statement or official policy position on this doctrine. But it and ideas linked to it have been repeatedly taught in general conference. Still, I agree with your recommended solution–although I wonder what you would do if God told you to disobey or leave the church? (A hypothetical, of course.)

  18. Regarding the BRM quote — A similar comment by a sitting prophet in a public setting would be great deal more convincing when arguing for the position of the church as a whole. I don’t doubt that Elder McConkie said or even believed such a thing (although the quote was from a (mostly) private letter). Thankfully McConkie is also the one that is credited with saying something to the effect of “for some reason God allows false doctrine to be taught in His church”.

    As for what I would do in your hypothetical situation — I would do what God wanted me to do, whatever that might be.

  19. From “Fourteen Fundamentals in Following the Prophets”, a talk by Ezra Taft Benson:

    “President Marion G. Romney tells of this incident, which happened to him:

    I remember years ago when I was a Bishop I had President (Heber J.) Grant talk to our ward. After the meeting I drove him home….Standing by me, he put his arm over my shoulder and said: ‘My boy, you always keep your eye on the President of the Church, and if he ever tells you to do anything, and it is wrong, and you do it, the Lord will bless you for it.’ Then with a twinkle in his eye, he said, ‘But you don’t need to worry. The Lord will never let his mouthpiece lead the people astray.'”

  20. VeritasLiberat says:

    “The church has repeatedly claimed that, if you obey the prophet, it will be counted as virtue even if the act in question is actually wrong.”

    I think this only applies if you, personally, didn’t know that the act was wrong. (Even if you “didn’t know any better,” a prophet is expected to, so the blame will be his rather than yours. You get credit for trying to do the right thing.)

    Here’s an analogy. Suppose a mother of two (who has authority over her children; they are expected to obey her), impatient with the crying of her toddler, tells her eight-year-old to make the toddler shut up by beating it. If the older child recognizes that beating her younger sibling is wrong, and refuses to do it, that’s great; but if the older child fails to recognize that this is a command she should NOT obey, and hits the little one, is it really her fault? Her mother told her to do it, and her mother is supposed to be teaching her right from wrong.

  21. Aaron Brown says:

    Anyone who thinks they can survey authoritative statements by Church leaders over the last 175 years and come away with an internally consistent approach (among all leaders) to resolving the tension between institutional authority and personal revelation/morality is fooling themselves.

  22. Aaron Brown says:

    Yikes, it’s beginning to sound like LDS-PHIL around here!

    Aaron B

  23. Aaron, I think you’re certainly right that there isn’t any consistent resolution to this tension. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that there’s an institutional authority-personal morality paradox. The thing that gives me pause with institutionalist resolutions of the paradox is that the New Testament seems to dislike the institutional authority side.

  24. I agree with Aaron. However, I think that if you look at statements from just at the last 25 years or so, the consistent approach is simply not to acknowledge that any conflict between institutional authority and personal revelation/morality could exist.

  25. Nate Oman says:

    Dave: My point is not that whenever we are faced with a conflict between authority and our own perception of morality, we ought to go with authority. Rather, my point is that as an analytic matter, to say that X has authority is to say that there are cases when we ought to follow X notwithstanding our personal judgement otherwise. This analytic point does not deny that there are not times when authority conflicts with our own moral judgments nor does it deny that there are times when we should follow our own moral judgments in the face of authority. I am simply trying to make two points: (1) It is not possible to have a concept of authority that will not imply that at least on some occasions we ought to follow the authority rather than our own substantive moral judgment; and, (2) the concept of authority is not an abdication of morality per se but rather the introduction of a particular sort of moral (or perhaps one should better say) ethical concept. My argument here is basically a very crude restatement on my part of Joseph Raz’s argument in his essay “Legitimate Authority.” I think that he puts it nicely when he says:

    “There is a sense in which if one accepts the legitimacy of an authority one is committed to following it blindly. One can be very watchful that it shall not overstep its authoirty and be sensitive to the presence of non-excluded consideration. But barring these possiblities, one is to follow the authoirty regardless of one’s view of the merits of the case (that is, blindly). One may form a view on the merits but so long as one follows the authority this is an academic exercise of no practical importance.”

    Remember, my point here is analytic. If Raz is correct, any attempt to set up an authority will require some level of blind obedience. This fact alone cannot be a reason for or against this or that notion of authority, nor — and here Raz’s point is a bit more involved — the concept of authority itself.

    The aretaic point admittedly is not a good argument for shooting an innocent person because you are followoing orders. However, this is not the only sort of dilemma presented by the concept of authority. For example, there is the case of Naman being asked to wash in the river Jordon. It seems to me that in these sorts of situations a virtue-centered account of authority has some bite. Furthermore, it seems that most of our hundrum conflicts of authority do not present the stark moral conflicts upon which you wish the argument to turn, but more often involve cases where our substantive moral intuitions are less clear, or where authoritative directive seem pointless rather than immoral.

  26. Bob Caswell says:

    “…but more often involve cases where our substantive moral intuitions are less clear, or where authoritative directive seem pointless rather than immoral.”


    Yes, I’ve experienced both. Perhaps we could develop our moral intuitions more so if we felt the need? But that’s part of the paradox, isn’t it, our moral intuitions are less clear precisely because of the authority in front of us. Though I think your point is valid to a certain degree (roughly restated, it sounds like you’re arguing that this dilemma is nothing special, and that it’s just the nature of the beast in or out of the Church), I also think that that doesn’t negate the idea that the Church could deal with the paradox waaaay better even if there’s no perfect solution.

    And about “pointless” vs. “immoral”… For the record, pointless authoritative directives – at least for me – aren’t so easily tossed aside as you imply, not-immoral-and-thus-not-necessarily-that-big-of-a-deal. Even if “pointless” was all we had to work with in this discussion, it would still be enough for me to want to address the issue head on.

  27. Nice points, Nate. It sounds like you would at least agree, then, that obedience to authority would be predicated on its legitimacy rather than on some sense of obedience as a virtue per se. I’ll agree that any “legitimate” authority does, in some sense, have some latent moral claim to be obeyed despite one’s personal views to the contrary to the extent it is, in fact, legitimate. Legitimate authority must mean considerably more than simply being able to ask people to do something provided they don’t have any personal moral objections.

    For those interested, the question of legitimate authority and some views of Raz are explored in some detail in this entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. However, I’m not sure that the Razian discussion of political authority is directly applicable to the type of authority claimed and exercised by General Authorities as they direct the Church and provide doctrinal and moral counsel to its members.

  28. Nate Oman says:

    Dave: I agree with you that we need to be very cautious about using analogies to political or legal authority simplisticlly. However, much of Raz’s discussion of authority centers around how authority of any kind operates analytically as a reason for action. I think that his discussion of the meta-issue is very useful.

    I suppose that my reaction to your initial post came from the fact that I don’t actually think that the Church claims that obedience per se is a virtue, but rather I think that it is obvious from both context and explicit statements that we are talking about obedience to God’s commands or to directions from his prophets. Nor do I think that invoking the Prophetic literature in the Old Testament over and against priestly authorities really gets at the issue, as the Prophetic literature itself is framed in terms of proper obedience to God or in some cases to prophetic denuciations. Obviously, we can have all sorts of discussions about the scope and legitimacy of these authorities, how we can identify them, etc. It strikes me as rather unfair and unilluminating, however, to suggest that what is being advocated is the virtue of obedience per se regardless of the legitimacy of the claimed authority.

  29. Nate Oman says:

    Bob: For what it is worth, I think that the issue of obedience to pointlessness is addressed head on. I take it that this issue — among others — is what Elder Maxwell’s discussion of discipleship seek to address.

    The question of whether or not a discourse of authority blunts the development of moral sense requires that we enter deep waters of moral pyschology and development. Maybe you are right, but it is not obvious to me that you are. I can think of lots of people with what seem to me to be finely attuned moral intuitions who nevertheless see obedience to prophetic authority and divine commands as a primary duty.

    I agree with you that we could do a better job in how we discuss the issue of authority in the Church. On the other hand, I doubt that there is any issue that we discuss in the Church that we couldn’t do a far better job of discussing.

  30. Probably the most obvious way to not hearken to the commandments of God is to deny that they are from God. So, although the prophet is not always right, he is right more than you are, so a presumption of correctness seems like a good idea.

    As for developing one’s moral vision, I am not sure what this means except developing the same vision God already has. And so that would indicate that one should listen very closely to those who are authorized to speak and act in God’s name– so that we can better discern God’s moral vision and mimic it.

    And, as the scriptures make clear, “ye receive no witness until after the trial of your faith”. Or, as Christ puts it, “If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself.” Thus active obedience precedes and causes knowledge of truth.

    This is probably why the disciple is often characterized as a sheep– a follower, not a leader or a lone voice set up by itself. Leading and moral vision probably comes much later in one’s eternal quest.

  31. Bob Caswell says:

    “So, although the prophet is not always right, he is right more than you are…”

    Frank, I’m afraid I don’t like this logic. Not because I think I’m “right” more than the prophet (whatever that means) but because it tries to quantify the problem in some sort of utilitarian fashion making it as if we need to make one choice of the lesser of two evils that will somehow govern us forever. In this case, I’m much more on the case-by-case team than the he’s-more-right-than-you-therefore… team.

    And this statement, “Leading and moral vision probably comes much later in one’s eternal quest.” I just want to point out that one thing the Church is actually pretty good at is giving almost everyone a shot at some sort of leadership or “leading” calling. So I’m not sure what you mean here. Why does it probably come later in one’s eternal quest? And when then?

  32. Bob Caswell says:

    Thanks, Nate, for your response. I’ll have to revisit Maxwell’s discipleship discussion.

  33. Bob,

    If the choice is between two slot machines where one is a winner 30% of the time and the other wins 50% of the time, pick the 50% every time. For example, we follow God because God is always right (among other reasons).

    There is nothing in the argument that requires you to always do one or the other. If, in a particular situation, you decide that you are more likely to be right than the prophet, then you can ignore that counsel and see where that gets you.

    As for leading, I didn’t phrase it well and doubt I can do a better job now, but basically I am pointing out that there is no leadership on Earth that is not also following God more or less blindly. There is no moral vision in our theology that doesn’t reduce to “Do what God would have you do”.

  34. Frank’s “portfolio theory” of prophetic authority is a clever and constistent answer to why we should follow prophets even if they’re sometimes wrong. They’re more likely to be right than you, so if you decide to follow your own wisdom you’re like a sucker who thinks he can somehow beat the market by picking stocks.

    The problem is that this theory, as far as I can see, finds little or no support in the scriptures or modern church teachings. These sources instead stress the following points (1) Church counsel is correct, and (2) We have the right and responsibility to recieve guidance and confirmation from God. These themes are stressed over and over.

    Any conflict between individual conscience and authority is deemed to be either temporary or caused by a lack of sincerity, humility, or righteousness on the part of the individual. You have to search pretty hard to find any authoritative statements dealing with the possiblity that church leaders could get it wrong, and as Aaron pointed out, these statements don’t give a consistent picture. And even among these few statements I haven’t seen anything resembling the “portfolio theory.”

    (Apologies to Frank if I’ve misrepresented his views…I’m not completely sure I’ve understood all the nuances of his theory, or if he even believes the theory himself.)

    (Note also that I’m talking about situations where the church leaders are actually wrong, not situations where their judgement is perhaps arbitrary but is not in any way harmful. So I don’t think we can learn much from the story of Naman washing in the Jordan.)

  35. Frank, I think your theory is too simplistic in another area, too: it only takes actual actions, or behavior, into account, while I think that mental processes and inner choices need to be considered if we’re talking about morality.

    I think Christ would agree: whoso looketh upon a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.

    What about someone like me, who “hath broken the Word of Wisdom already in my heart” as per my previous comment? My actions are the correct ones (assuming the prophet is “right” — whatever that means; I’m with Bob in being unsure), but is it the same morally as someone who has a deeper convinction than my motive simply to retain my temple recommend?

  36. ed,

    The Eyring talk from last conference specifically talks about Church leaders making mistakes. So the issue, though not a big topic, does come up occasionally. And so what if portfolio theory is not an intuitive way to explain the gospel? For goodness sake, most people don’t understand the original portfolio theory! It is true that the scriptures don’t spend a lot of time on wrong prophetic counsel. But that is a critique that applies to the whole topic, not my particular analogy. It suggests that prophetic mistakes are not of first order importance.


    Certainly we are judged for actions and for deeds. But I am not sure why that is a problem for the theory. If I think X and the prophet says Y, and so I do Y because I don’t get any direct revelation telling me what to do, then I’ve acted on faith, right? That’s generally good. If I think X, the prophet says Y, and I decide that I might well be wrong and maybe Y is actually right, well, all the better to show that humility. To be learned is good if we hearken to the counsels of God. Obviously it is better to have a conviction of things, but that conviction comes through obedience, according to John 7:17.

  37. Bob Caswell says:


    Your slot machine example still doesn’t quite do it for me. Let me give you a counter-example: We’ve all heard that when guessing on a multiple choice test, you have a better chance of getting more guesses right if you stick with one type of answer for all your guesses (such as “C”). But that doesn’t change the fact that those who actually study for the test usually get a better grade than those who mark answer “C” for each problem. And even if I somehow knew beforehand that the answer to every problem is “most likely” C, by marking C every time, I still think I’d get a worse score than someone who had that information AND studied for the test.

  38. Being judged for our actions isn’t a problem for the theory. It’s when our actions are at odds with our thoughts and motives that I see a problem for the theory.

    See Frank, I don’t think you’ve necessarily acted on faith in your little X and Y scenario. Look at my situation, again. I don’t care whether the WoW is “right”. I care that my Branch President will yank my temple recommend if I drink. What’s more, I’m certainly not acting on any sort of faith. Nor have I decided that “I might well be wrong” or decided to show any humility about it.

    I assume there are people in the Church who have decided that the Word of Wisdom is something they live because they think it’s the “right” thing to do. They’ve made a moral choice. I am not one of them. I don’t necessarily think it’s the moral thing to do, yet I do it anyway.

    The point is, as Dave mentioned in his post, I’m choosing to obey authority, and I’m not following my moral compass. Is my action really moral?

  39. Frank,

    I assume you’re referring to this talk from two conferences ago. Elder Eyring talked about leaders who are “human” and have “frailties,” but I think this is quite different from saying that they might make mistakes in directing those under their authority. I don’t think it comes close to dealing with the issue real, heartfelt conflicts between individual conscience and authority on important matters.

    I guess you’re saying that you think the revelation portfolio theory is true, but nobody teaches it because most people would just misunderstand it?

  40. Frank,

    I don’t think you want your explanation labeled as “Portfolio Theory”. It seems like it is more closely related to market efficiency (but you know how chicago guys get worked up over market efficiency).

  41. ed,

    “I guess you’re saying that you think the revelation portfolio theory is true, but nobody teaches it because most people would just misunderstand it?”

    I think so.


    It sounds like you are indeed doing things for the wrong reason. What can I say? Recognize the moral component of obedience and you will be better off.


    Your exemple works because the MC guesser only gets a 25% score. If you knew for a fact that (A) was the right answer 95% pf the time, you’d have to know God’s will pretty well to beat that. So once again, the theory rests on a belief that the prophet is more likely to be right than you are (as opposed to the MC example where the “prophet” is right 25% of the time by dumb luck). If you don’t believe that, then the theory has nothing for you.

  42. Karl!

    It is good to see you are alive.

    And you’re probably right. But labeling something efficient just gets the non-economists in a huff. They have no clue what it means.

  43. Bob Caswell says:

    “Recognize the moral component of obedience and you will be better off.”

    Wait, but what moral component? I wasn’t aware that we had unanimously agreed upon a moral component necessarily being a part of obedience. Doesn’t Logan’s example prove otherwise?

    “..you’d have to know God’s will pretty well to beat that…”

    First of all, we’re not talking about God at all. We’re talking about His leaders, a subtle but important distinction. Secondly, I think you may have missed my point. Even if (A) were the right answer 95% of the time, the point is that 100% is still achievable even if harder. And I suspect that while you use a number like 95%, my own idea of where the number is to fit my example would be more like 80% (admittedly, this is all arbitrary but still fun!), in which case all the more reason to actually read the questions and try to answer them myself even if my default answer is the one most likely correct.

  44. Frank: and yet I’m being obedient. I’m just saying that doing the “right” thing doesn’t make an action moral.

    My example might be a bit extreme, but to the extent that we make our decisions based on institutional values ( and I think we do this far more than we might realize) we reduce the moral aspect of those choices. If we do something out of obedience we’re not doing it our of charity, mercy, justice, or whatever moral codes we have.

  45. Nate Oman says:

    Bob: I think that you are mistaken about Frank’s theory. Look, if you believe that the prophet has a comparative advantage in dicerning God’s will, then mathematically you will have a better chance of following God’s will by always following the prophet in cases of conflict than in not. I don’t see that there is a way around this fact.

    It seems to me that if you want to attack Frank’s approach you must either:

    (1) Deny that the prophet has a comparative advantage in dicerning God’s will.
    (2) Deny that one’s goal should be maximizing the number of actions that are in accordance with God’s will.

    I take it that the logic of (1) is obvious. (2) is not as far fetched as it might at first appear to some people. For example, one might believe that one’s goal is not necessarily correct action, ie action in line with God’s will, but rather the transformation of the soul. One could then argue that ignoring authority in favor of one’s own moral compass is an important part of that transformation, etc.

    It seems to me, however, that if you play the numbers game, Frank wins…

  46. Bob,

    Elder Maxwell talks about this moral component issue. It is moral to obery God, so it is moral to obey what you think God wants done. So if you obey the prophet because you think he is likely to know what GOd wants, then that is moral. As opposed to Logan’s reasoning– do it to keep your reccomend.

    As for the rest:

    The point is that the prophet is right about God’s answer 95% of the time, so he is “right” 95% of the time about God’s will. Thus you’d have to be doing very well to know God’s will better than the prophet.

    And yes, if you think you can be right 100% of the time, then your optimal path is to ignore the prophet and do what you think is best. Just like in the MC example if you can get 100% through study then don’t just guess. I am quite sure I will not be right 100% of the time left to my own devices. I am quite sure I will do better following the prophet in just about every case where he makes a suggestion. You are free to try something else if you think you can do better at discerning God’s will than the prophet can.

  47. Steve Evans says:

    Nate: “if you play the numbers game, Frank wins…”


  48. Logan,

    I do not have a code of charity or justice or mercy that is readily discernible from my beliefs about God. I believe that we are to do what God wants done and that is what defines what is right i.e. the correct combination of justice, mercy and charity). Thus I collapse these questions into a simple query about what God’s will is.

    For example, the first and greatest commandment is to love God completely. We do this in two ways- by loving others and, “if ye love me, keep my commandments”. This is a naked appeal to obedience to God as a virtuous display of love. And I love my neighbor best by loving him as God loves him– which defines charity. So once again I am trying to do as God does.

    Thus (to badly paraphrase Brigham Young) my quest is to ascertain the will of God and to do it. I’ve already explained why the prophet is valuable to that endeavor.

  49. It’s also possible that the prophet is right more than you in general, but that there is a set issues on which you are right more often than the prophet. If you can identify such a set, then your best strategy is to follow your own judgement within that set, and follow the prophet otherwise.

    I think that those who wish to favor individual judgement about some specific issue are implicitly arguing that the issue falls into that set. For example, the prophet says to read the BOM but he doesn’t know about my personal situation, for which it might be better to read something else. Or, the prophet says that we should oppose same-sex partnerships, but I don’t think he has the experience or insight into the struggles of gay people that I have.

    It’s not hard to see the danger here…at a minimum, one should be very humble in identifying issues belonging to the set. But I wonder whether the “portfolio theory” must reject the possibility that such a set can be reliably identified at all? In other words, if we allow the possiblity that an individual can recognize issues on which his own conscience is more reliable than authority, does that destroy the concept of authority? (Nate?)

  50. Frank,

    I like your theory, but can you further explain this sentence: “I am quite sure I will do better following the prophet in just about every case where he makes a suggestion.” Why have you included a qualifier–is this simply leaving room for personal revelation?

  51. I agree with ed’s assessment of one way to modify the theory. For example, some people seem to claim that the prophet has no authority to speak God’s will on “political matters”. Then they feel free to ignore the prophet in such cases. Or they could assert that the chance the prophet speaks for God on such matters is very low, and so forth.

    Obviously, I think they are deluding themselves to think that there exist large, readily identifiable sets of things that God won’t speak to the prophet about. And often these sets seem to be defined by those areas wherein the prophet disagrees with the individual. But it does explain some people’s behavior.


    I try to remember to leave caveats in things when I am writing publicly off the cuff. It’s one of my rare displays of humility.

  52. Bob Caswell says:

    Nate / Frank,

    Leaving the numbers game aside (or maybe not), I just want to point out that I do, in fact, follow the prophet (or other leaders) more frequently than not. And I don’t necessarily feel the need to question as frequently as I might make it sound here.

    Though having said that, I have a slight addition to the test analogy. There have been times (not many) when I have absolutely known that answer (C), though the right answer in every other case, is in fact the WRONG answer. I’m not saying that out of a 100 question test that I necessarily know the right answers to those five that might not be (C). But in the case where I know I’m right and the answer is not (C), it’s no longer a game of chance on my part and the comparative advantage of answer (C) does not hold true for that one problem. Thus, I’d change my answer for the one problem while probably recognizing the comparative advantage of answering (C) for every other problem. The key is that I would not have found that one problem for which I have the advantage had I not read all the problems for myself (even if marking C for each of them).

  53. Nate Oman says:

    Bob: The problem with your test analogy is it it is based on the assumption that your ability to discern correct answers is better than simply going with a random outcome (ie filling in all of the answers with C.) In effect, you are looking at two different strategies and saying that one has a comparitive advantage over the other. Frank is saying that we look at two different people (you and the prophet) and say that one has a comparative advantage. Looking at strategies rather than persons, however, does change the basic logic of the problem. Hence, your test response to Frank amounts to a claim of comparative advantage a al option (1) that I sketched above. There is nothing wrong with this, but you need to be clear about the nature of the claim, you must assume that prophetic announcements are essentially random, or at any rate less accurate than your own moral judgements.

    All of this, of course, assumes that prophetic announcements are not sensitive the practical responses of prophetic audiences. This, however, is both historically and doctrinally wrong. We know that prophets change what they say based on the response of their audience. This means that there may be a response to Frank’s argument that takes his numbers as given but assumes strategic behavior. This, however, requires more game theory than I know. This, of course, is why we need more economists in Mormon studies.

  54. Nate Oman says:

    “Looking at strategies rather than persons, however, does change the basic logic of the problem.”

    Oops, this should have been:

    Looking at strategies rather than persons, however, does NOT change the basic logic of the problem.

  55. Bob,

    You’re arguing that there are particular situations where you think you know better than the prophet. Nothing requires that the prophet’s hit ratio has to be constant across all subjects. Whenever you think you are more likely to know God’s answer for you better than the prophet, then of course you are free to give that a shot and see what happens.

  56. Frank,

    Okay, I withdray my rejection to “Portfolio Theory”; I was worried for a second you had let go of the Iron Rod (economically speaking, of course).

  57. Bob Caswell says:

    Yes, I agree, more economists in Mormon studies would be a good thing. And Nate, if it makes you feel better, I’ll be a little clearer, I do deny that the prophet has a comparative advantage at discering God’s will in certain circumstances and most likey within the context of God’s will for me specifically, though he definitely has the comparative advantage in discerning God’s will for the Church as a whole. But my beef is almost never with the prophet himself, it’s with those in the Church with which I’ve had experiences, who subconsciously think they fall into the same category as the prophet when discerning God’s will for other people.


    Though the scenario you describe isn’t very likely (at least when talking about the prophet), I’m glad to see that you feel it’s always a possibility.

  58. Frank,

    I’m asking because I think it would go a long way to bridging the distance between you and Bob. The difference between you and Bob may simply be one of degrees, or it may be a fundamental difference in how you each approach the problem. At this point it is hard to say. You seemingly acknowledge that there are times when it wouldn’t be appropriate for you, Frank, to follow the prophet’s general counsel, but you don’t attempt to provide an explanation of how you discern this.

    I guess I find your position unsatisfying because you are essentially saying “We should follow the prophet because he is better at knowing God’s will than we are–except when we shouldn’t.” Among believing members, the first part of the statement is so uncontroversial as to hardly be worth mentioning, although you get points for couching it in novel terms. Now that you’ve hedged your bets, though, you need to explain why, despite the belief that the prophet is an excellent stock picker, there are times when you should disregard his advice and rely on yourself.


    I can’t tell if you are making the case that you believe that with practice you will become a better stock picker than the prophet as it concerns you personally, or if you believe that the prophet is Warren Buffet but once in a while you get some inside information that gives you an informational advantage.

  59. Bob Caswell says:


    Very well said about Frank’s position, I’m thinking the same thing. And, yes, the prophet is Warren Buffet but even Warren Buffet doesn’t have knowledge that can penetrate access to the inside information I might have, as CEO of my own company. But of course I still use him as my portfolio manager. You follow?

  60. Mathew,

    Let me mdify it a little:

    Instead of :”We should follow the prophet because he is better at knowing God’s will than we are–except when we shouldn’t.”

    “We should follow the prophet whenever we believe he is better at knowing God’s will on the subject than we are.”

    For the third time, let me reiterate that one is free to make this determination however one wishes. Personally I don’t think I’ve run into any obvious cases, but I’m open to the possibility that it can happen. It all depends with how spiritually in tune you think you are, and how out of tune you think the prophet is, on a given subject.

    And, of course, one must weigh the relative risks of over-obedience vs. under-obedience.

  61. I do not have a code of charity or justice or mercy that is readily discernible from my beliefs about God. I believe that we are to do what God wants done and that is what defines what is right i.e. the correct combination of justice, mercy and charity). Thus I collapse these questions into a simple query about what God’s will is.

    In that case, Frank, I think you have missed the point of Dave’s moral law/institutional law distinction. One of President Hinckley’s roles (his primary role, I would argue, although that’s a different discussion) is that of top administrator in the Church. Policies are set all the time that, as Dave put it, “revolv[e] around institutional values like attendance at meetings, financial contributions, performance of assigned tasks, and of course obedience to one’s leaders. Such obligations are based on institutional values, not moral values like justice, mercy, or charity.”

    It may very well be that it’s God’s will to follow these policies and rules, but I don’t see that that makes them issues of morality. And most of these I wouldn’t call “commandments”. In other words, I don’t think it’s necessarily out of love for God that we follow all these procedures. This becomes even clearer if we talk about our local leaders, who don’t give commandments — just execute and make policy and have a “counsel” slot machine much closer to ours in payback percentage. God may want us to follow these leaders in these capacities, but if so it’s out of institutional values, not moral ones.

  62. Logan,

    I think you’re right that we should, in some cases, follow leaders who are no more inspired than we are, simply because they have the stewardship. And I agree that this comes up more with local leaders than with the prophet.

    But if God asks us to follow (sustain) our leaders, it is virtuous to do so, because to do so is to follow God’s will. If it is vituous to obey GOd, strictly because He is God, then it is probably virtuous to obey God’s authorized representative, even when they are making merely institutional rules.

  63. “local leaders, who…have a “counsel” slot machine much closer to ours in payback percentage.

    What is the foundation for this idea? I mean, how do we know that General Authorities are more reliable than local leaders? Certainly the GAs have a broader domain of stewardship, but on what do we base the assumption that they are much less likely to be wrong? Does the “portfolio theory” apply equally well to local leaders, and if not, why not? This may seem like an odd question, but I’m completely serious.

  64. Sure, Frank, it might be virtuous. But it’s virtuous according to institutional values, not moral ones.

    If you define morality as what God’s will is, then perhaps there’s no difference between moral and institutional values. But again, I think the action must be differentiated from the motivation for the action. And if you do something out of obedience, while it may (or may not) be a good act, you’re not doing it out of a principle of justice, charity, etc. In other words, you’re not exercising your own morality.

  65. ed, I admit I threw that out as an assumption that isn’t necessarily supported. So I’ll say for now that I’m not sure what it’s justification is.

    But what are you getting at? Are you saying that local leaders may in fact be much more reliable than we may think, or that GA’s might be much less so?

  66. Logan,

    “In other words, you’re not exercising your own morality.”

    I deny that you have your own morality. I think that is nonsense. You and I are entirely piggy-backing on God’s morality. Any differences between us and God are the result of us being wrong. Does that clear it up at all? Probably not.

    Yes, it is better to obey God out of love than fear. Motivation does matter. But, when Christ is asked why he came to the Earth, it was “to do the will of the Father”. Obedience to God is a virtue in and of itself. This message is plastered all over the scriptures. Is obedience better for the right reasons? Absolutely. Why is that a problem?

  67. Bob,

    I follow. Thanks.


    I’m not sure it should depend on how spiritually out of tune you think the prophet is, but you cleared up your argument for me. Thanks.

  68. Frank, you avoided my point with a neat little semantic trick. Instead of my sentence you quoted, let me change it to “In other words, you’re not exercising your ability to discern right from wrong based on your own perception of moral principles.”

    I happen to agree with Dave when he says “Obedience is not a moral value any more than is punctuality,” but let’s assume for the sake of argument that obedience is a virtue. Just because it is it doesn’t necesarily become a moral value. Honesty is a virtue, and so is patience, yet honesty is not patience. By calling obedience a virtue you’re trying to sneak it into the moral values category, when I still think it’s a different thing.

    “God’s will” keeps finding itself in this discussion, but my real point concerns “what our leaders say”, with God’s will being involved in only a secondary, (at least) once-removed sort of way. Obeying our leaders may be a good thing, but it’s similar to doing what your boss says — it’s important in that it keeps the organization working. Since we’re talking about God’s Church, it’s probably his will that we keep this organization running well, but doing things out of obedience is still a different thing than doing it based on a judgment of the correct action to take according to your perception of moral principles.

  69. Fine discussion, but I’m really appalled that people can seriously defend morality as a numbers game. There may be public policy scenarios where that sort of decision mode is quite applicable, but not to individual moral choice. Even granting hypothetically that Leader X is right 90% of the time, the whole question here is what does a person do when faced with a directive that’s in the bad 10%? And there’s the popular adage that Satan tells nine truths to get across one good lie. Our job isn’t to rely on the 90% truth ratio, it’s to spot that one big lie and avoid its consequences.

    Furthermore, this idea that if Leader X has a higher moral batting average we are somehow justified in delegating our moral judgment to him is simply wrongheaded. “The Spirit of Christ is given to every man, that he may know good from evil” (Moro. 7:16). You’ve got it; use it! Our responsibility is not to obey blindly but to “see that [we] do not judge wrongfully” (Moro. 7:18).

    Caveats: Life is complicated and messy. If one is confused or uncertain, relying on the advice of trusted friends or leaders is natural and reasonable. I’m not trying to suggest otherwise. My point is simply that one’s own clear moral sense, in cases where it is clear, should trump any significant organizational directive that is contrary to one’s moral position. [And if it turns out that one’s moral sense is badly askew or simply mistaken, that’s a problem, but at least one has remained true to one’s moral sense. Better to err defending one’s principles than going against one’s principles.]

  70. Dave, Logan

    It is not clear to me that we are open to the same page in the book. Let me back up and see if I can figure out where we diverge. Here are a few statements. Tell me if you agree with them or, if not, why you disagree.

    1. It is moral to do what is right.

    2. It is moral to do what God wills, equivalently, it is moral to obey God.

    3. 1 or 2 are only moral if done for the right reasons.

    4. Merely knowing the “right reasons” is not sufficient to being moral, one must also act in order to be moral.

    5. The highest and best use of agency is to submit our will to the will of the Father and keep his commandments.

    6. We have no insight into morality apart from what we learn from God. Thus the perfect individual moral compass is to know God’s view on the morality of an action. That completley and totally reveals the best moral view for us to have on a iven subject.

    If you could give me some quick answers on these, then maybe we can move on to the question of where the Church, the prophet, and the Holy Ghost fit in. Or maybe you have other stuff going on, in which case we can worry about this some other time.

  71. I do not see how anyone could find fault with the definition of agency in True to the Faith. It is perfect and true. Is is the doctrine of Jesus Christ, and the doctrine of his church and kingdom on earth.

    I do not understand the many objections to the Mormon concept of obedience in the Bloggernacle. Who are we supposed to obey? Jesus Christ, of course. Is he going to give us foolish or ill considered commandments? Did we not covenant with him to obey his commandments when we joined the Church? Do we not renew that covenant every Sunday when we take the sacrament? Is there anyway for us to love Jesus without obeying him? What is the problem?

    Where do we learn the commandments of Jesus? From the prophets of God, of course. We learn them from the scriptures which were written by the prophets. And we learn them from the prophets who run his Church. Finally, because of the Gift of the Holy Ghost we can learn for ourselves that the commandments given us by the prophets are truly from Jesus Christ. Agency is the complete freedom we all have to disobey the Savior’s commandments if we are that stupid. Because of agency we all have perfect free will to go to hell if we want to.

    I agree with those who have pointed out the straw men in Dave’s post.

  72. Dave says: “the whole question here is what does a person do when faced with a directive that’s in the bad 10%?”

    No, there’s also the very important question is whether you can recognize when a directive is in the bad 10%.

  73. Ed, yes, that really is the essence of the problem, isn’t it? A statement like “it is moral to do what is right” (item 1 from Frank’s draft of an upcoming T&S post) sort of skates right on by the heart of the matter. People struggle with moral questions, after all, because the proper course is often neither simple nor obvious.

  74. Well, Frank, this looks like it might turn into a completely different discussion, since I don’t agree with any of those statements (at least, not without some qualifications). But at least we might be able to see why we disagree on this obedience/agency thing.


    1. Kind of — I think it cold be better stated, ‘it is moral to do what we feel is right, based on our inner convictions which are, one would hope, heavily influenced by the Spirit’. (This statement seems like it could be undermined by pointing out that people act very hatefully because of deeply help convictions. But this is the best I can do in a short answer; morality is a pretty complex issue, and I’m not sure I necessarily have the most robust theory of it myself.)

    2. Again, I’d change it slightly: I think God wants us to follow our Holy Ghost-influenced convictions, and he wants our convictions to become ever more like his. But the fact that God wants us to do that isn’t what makes it right.

    3 and 4. I’m not sure about these “right reasons”. I think that morality and obedience are the reasons. Actions are simply actions; we can do them out of obedience or our own morality (or probably for other reasons, too).

    5. My answer is basically like that for 2. I think God wants us to become wise enough and close enough to the Spirit to make the best decisions, but again, that’s not the reason they’re the best decisions.

    6. Hmm. Maybe, but maybe not. It depends on how far back you want to trace things. God set up the world in which our experiences lead us to learn — again, largely through the Holy Ghost, which is basically God talking to us, I suppose — our morality. I mean, many of who I would consider the most moral people I know don’t believe in God at all. They’ve learned their morality through their interactions with the world and what their spirits/intuition/the Holy Ghost/whatever has confirmed to them about the world. So I guess you can argue that all that comes from God, but I would say that it does so indirectly.

    If it comes down to defending each of these statements, I don’t know how well I’d be able to do it, but they’re where I’m coming from in our current discussion. So maybe we’ll have to leave it at that.

  75. Logan,

    Well I’m glad I asked because I think this is where the confusion lies. Let’s just look at 1 and 2 and I have a comment and a question.

    It seems to me that God reiterates constantly that we should “keep his commandments”, that if we love him, keep his commandments, and we take oaths of obedience in the Temple and as part of baptism and as Melcheezidek Priesthood holders (live by every word that proceedeth form from the mouth of God). He, in fact, never implies that we should do otherwise. He notes that giving a gift grudgingly is no better than not giving a gift, but even then, to obey willingly would not be grudging and so once again we are to do as God says. In fact, we have made oaths so to do.

    Here’s the questions:

    1. Apart from its morality, does God wish us to do what we think is moral, even if that contradicts what He has told us to do? Is there scriptural support for this idea?

    2. If the Holy Ghost reveals to you that A is wrong, is it moral right to stop doing A because of that revelation?

  76. Dave,

    Ed is just reiterating the theory he and Nate and I were explaining above. I did not skate past it in my comment because I had not gotten there yet. I was starting from basics. If one does not believe following God is closely linked to morality, I don’t see that it matters so much how one interacts with His prophets. But you didn’t answer the questions. Could you at least answer 1 and 2 so that I know if this is the place where we disagree?


    Er, at the top I meant 2 questions. Sorry.

  77. To me, much of this discussion is about what happens when our moral sense conflict with instruction from those whom we have recognized, at least in the past, as having some kind of authority. To me, I read this authority as being indicative that we have accorded the holders of that authority a presumption of correctness based on the priesthood keys they hold, which entitle them to greater discernment and revelation on some matters for those within their stewardship. This presumption is analygous to Frank’s description of the problem in numbers. According this act was, or at least should be, based on some testimony independent of any specific piece of counsel–that is, it is based on a testimony of the atonement and the validity of the restored priesthood. Hence we have a general persumption of authentic divine authority. When there may exist a conflict, then, because this general presumption exists, it seems to me that our first question must be not, should I act in blind obeidience to either the holder of the authority or to my own moral direction, but to consider the specific applicability of the counsel to my situation and to make darned sure that my own moral sense (which may be clear) is right. After all, the way emotional responses work in situ are to suppress some thoughts, memories, and mental processes and to activate others (for an easy intro, see Jon Elster’s Stong Feelings: Emotions, Addiction, and Human Behavior). This tendency, which I think can be considered part of the natural man in all of us, can perhaps cause us our moral sense to be clearer than it might really be. To fail to impeach and try (though not necessarily convict) our own moral sense before just ‘following our principles’ when they are in conflict with the counsel of those whom we have already accorded a presumption to seems to me a particular kind of pride, one strengthened by the emotional systems (note that I do not say emotions as feelings, but rather as neurological systems) of the natural man. So, by all means do what is just and charitable and merciful, but make sure that the clarity that says ‘do this’ is not a false clarity of the moment. A pattern of obedience to authority, by if nothing else creating these conflicts and making them real, helps ensure that the clarity of the moment does not suppress true morallity (or even a recurring moment, if a subject is so emotive that just thinging about it activates the same pattern of neurological response: which is to say that if everytime you think about something, you get worked up in the same way, your processing of information is not improved).
    I would note that this literature on emotions stresses its usefulness: in many circumstances it helps us, and if the patterns of our lives and minds are attuned to the Gospel it can be a powerful help to making better moral decisions: but it developed evolutionarily as an aid to the natural man, and if the mind is not properly trained, it can tend to serve that naturalness first.
    A caveat in response to Dave’s caveat: not all agree that the world is so messy: rather, much like a need for cognition or authoritarianism, this is a psychological disposition (note that I didn’t say it was a pathology!); as such, the fundamental ways that people understand reality can genuinely and fundamentally differ.

  78. Well Frank, I have to admit that I’m losing steam a bit here. I’m not quite sure where you’re going, and these questions, again, require very long answers. But here’s at least a little:

    1. In all honesty, I don’t know. Maybe. I don’t think this choice necessarily comes up very often. At the very least, I’d say that as a practical matter, knowing for certain what God wants us to do is rarely clear. Also, if God can tell Nephi to kill Laban to get the plates, I certainly don’t exclude the possibility that I can receive spiritual confirmation that doing what I think is right in a given situation is more important than obeying what I think his commandment is.

    2. I don’t know either. My inclination is to say ‘no’ — that if your moral sense tells you that A is good but the Spirit tells you to stop doing it then you’re stopping out of something other than morality — but I could probably be talked out of that one. I’d have to think about it one for a while.

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