Positive Virtue, Pornography, and the Buttonmoulder

If the maxim ‘He who does
No ill does good” is valid—then
I can be sure, more than most people,
That my past mistakes will be overlooked
And my virtues be seen to outweigh my sins.

—Henrik Ibsen, Peer Gynt,  Act IV


Ibsen’s Peer Gynt operates from the maxim that “he who does no ill does good.” He is quite wrong. His life is a mashup of good and evil—but he is generally good natured and usually tries to avoid doing harm. When he comes to the end of his life, he finds that simply not doing evil won’t count as doing good. In the end, he faces neither God or the devil, but the “Buttonmoulder”–a soul recycler who takes the essences of those who qualify for neither heaven nor hell and melts them down to make brand new souls.

When he discovers that his ultimate fate will be to cease existing, he approaches the devil and begs to be admitted into hell. He gives a catalog of his sins, but he is rebuffed because, as the Buttonmoulder says, “it takes more than paddling in the dirt; It takes strength and a serious mind to sin.”

Peer Gynt is an excellent example of what happens when we conceive of virtue negatively, as a list of things that we should NOT do: don’t engage in sexual activity outside of marriage, don’t look at pornography, don’t wear immodest clothing, don’t listen to unrighteous music, etc., etc., etc.

A list like this has nothing to do with being good. At its very best, it is a description of how to be not bad. And “not bad” is not the same thing as good. Not bad is not even a thing at all. It is just a negative description like “not a zebra.” It says nothing about what you are, what you believe, or whether or not you are a virtuous person (or even a virtuous non-zebra). We cannot be saved by what we don’t do. We cannot avoid our way to heaven, and there is no inherent value in not being something. Our job in this life is to be things.

During World War II, C.S. Lewis delivered a brilliant sermon about affirmative virtue called “The Weight of Glory.” “If you ask twenty good men today what they thought the highest of the virtues, nineteen of them would reply “unselfishness,” he begins. “But if you asked almost any of the great Christians of old he would have replied ‘love.’ You see what has happened? A negative term has been substituted for a positive one, and this is of more than philological importance.”

What Lewis observes is that, when we shift our understanding of virtue from a positive definition to a negative one, we immediately shift the focus of virtue from other people to ourselves. “The negative ideal of unselfishness,” he argues, “carries with it the suggestion not primarily of securing good things for others, but of going without them for ourselves.” When we frame virtue as self-denial, than the point of virtue becomes to deny ourselves.

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to talk about this topic with both the youth of our ward and the High Priests group. I teach both groups periodically, and yesterday I drew the assignment to teach a lesson on “virtue” in both classes. In both cases, a good part of the discussion focused on the vexing issue of pornography.

Here’s what I found when I taught these lessons. If you ask Latter-day Saints why they should avoid pornography, their first set of answers will always frame virtue negatively: we need to avoid the stain of sin, resist evil, not allow ourselves to be tainted by the wickedness of the world. If we do this, we will get blessings. If we don’t, we risk losing our eternal salvation. Me, me, me, me, me, me, me.

When I reframed the issue and asked them to state the positive values they should try to develop by avoiding pornography, instead of the negative values they should try to avoid, the conversation changed dramatically. The youth were able to articulate the idea that pornography embodies an ideology—the idea that other people’s bodies, and women’s bodies in particular exist primarily to gratify my desires. The High Priests were at least able to understand that looking at a naked picture of somebody is not very nice to the person being looked at.

One cannot participate in the ideology of pornography without seeing other people as instruments for our own use—which is exactly the opposite of how Christ sees them. And this is the point. The scriptural term for learning to see others the way that Christ sees them is “charity,” which means “the pure love of Christ” which means loving other people the way that Christ loves other people.

It is no accident that the famous LDS scripture “let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly” occurs in the same verse as “Let thy bowels also be full of charity towards all men” (D&C 121:45). These two injunctions mean the same thing: virtue, when we turn the negative definition into a positive one, always ends up being about other people. This is the same conclusion that Lewis comes to in “Weight of Glory, which ends with this magnificent peroration on the true status of other people:

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations–these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.

It is to these immortals that we owe the debt of virtue. When we make virtuous behavior all about avoiding stuff so we can get blessings, we miss the point as completely as a point can be missed. And we create souls that are good for nothing but the Buttonmoulder.


  1. Dante's Shadow says:

    I took a similar tack in EQ yesterday. But in order to emphasize that virtue is a positive or action filled state, I talked about meaning of the greek work arete that is translated virtue in the admonition of Paul.

    In short it means valor, manliness, and moral excellence or purity especially achieved through great effort, and it focuses more on acts than on a state. I think too often discussions of virtue tend to be: “don’t do x or you won’t be virtuous anymore” which is completely the wrong way to think of it all.

    I’m glad the youth were more willing to engage in the positive thought process in your lesson.

  2. Brother Sky says:

    I like your thoughts on this, Michael. Although I disagree with what the Mormon church teaches about sex and related topics (especially, IMHO, the rather quite harmful way it thinks and teaches about sexuality), I agree with your larger point about what I call the Mistaken Way of Absence. You frame it wonderfully with your use of Ibsen’s great play. Living a life of sin-avoidance or seeking an absence of sin (usually based on fear, I think) instead of seeking to cultivate Christ-like compassion (based, on the other hand, on hope and faith and love) is a mistake. I can understand why some folks think this way, especially given how such lessons on virtue and other topics usually get taught at church, but I think the path of true discipleship lies, as Lewis says, in cultivating an awareness that we have a choice: we can help other beings we meet or we can hinder them. The true disciple chooses to help others on their path to everlasting splendors without spending one second thinking, “wow, I’m going to get awesome blessings for doing this.” Well done.

  3. Thank you for this explanation of “affirmative virtue. I love the idea of implementing this application of virtue instead of the list of don’ts we keep handing out, especially in the discussion about modesty. I suppose I can see the reasoning behind giving youth concrete lines not to be crossed. However, the proscriptive part of the discussion should be a footnote instead of the main idea.

  4. I agree with the notion of positive virtue. And certainly if we stop at the negative we’ve missed the complete picture. I think, however, you disparage the “Don’t do this. Don’t be like this.” aspects of Christian living. What do you make, then, of the commands we’re given by God that are framed negatively? (Also thinking here of Levinas and the face that says “Do not kill.”) Don’t be this way is a good starting point. Stop hitting or bullying may be a proper injunction at the beginning. And one can stop that, but not yet actually have love and respect. But they have stopped and that’s a good start.

  5. Thanks for sharing. I wish this was written a couple weeks back before I gave the lesson on virtue in EQ. One thing in particular that helped direct the discussion in class was the 1828 Webster’s Dictionary definition that stated virtue is “nothing but obedience to truth”. It put a very positive angle on what is often shame inducing.

  6. If virtue is nothing but obedience to the truth, which I agree; wouldn’t a lack of virtue be shameful?

  7. @Keith Lane (12:10 pm) – The greatest commandments, that encompass the whole, are affirmative only: Love God and love thy neighbor.

  8. Bpe, you make a valid point. The lesson in the manual starts out with a story about a building be constructed and be used for 30 years, then being destroyed in a matter of moments by way of a controlled detonation. This is all to draw a point about morality and virtue as we typically define in in the Church. I chose not to share that comparison in the lesson, because I don’t like how we often focus on the “rubble” and “destruction”.

    The point being, I didn’t define virtue in terms of chastity and sexual purity. And much of the discussion was based on how we increase truth and our understanding of it rather than how to avoid the perils of not living virtuously.

  9. Apologies for the grammar, we’re not that far removed from talk like a pirate day, right?

  10. Kevin Barney says:

    Very Mormon. Or at least it should be. Well articulated.

  11. Well done. I suspect that it wouldn’t need saying if not for the age-old but also distinctly Mormon mis-use of virtue as a euphemism for intact hymen.
    Turning to positive values is (or should be) both Mormon and Christian. Personally, I would go on to talk about balance and mean, but that’s going to sound Aristotelian. .

  12. Michael,

    Thank you for your thoughts. I was dreading the virtue lesson as officially outlined and I too, reviewed the1828 definition of virtue. Instead, there we had a review of President Uctdorf’s recent talk on fear. I will keep this in my back pocket for the inevitable mislabled morality lesson.

  13. Brian: “The greatest commandments, that encompass the whole, are affirmative only: Love God and love thy neighbor.” Agreed. What I’m arguing is that part of seeing that whole is also seeing what love is not. And certainly in our blindness there are times we need to be told ‘Don’t do this. Don’t be this way.” God, who wants us to love, to be like he is, does give negative commands (and it’s best if they are seen in context of the loving end, though we may not always see that at first). They aren’t the whole and certainly not the end of it all. But they do serve a purpose–both to show what love is not and, in some instances, to get us to a place where we can see properly to know that we should love, what love looks like, how we should love, etc.

  14. As a woman, I feel victimized whenever pornography becomes a topic of conversation at church. I do not like the preoccupation. And no joke. My pre-ks have turned to me and asked me to explain what pornography is to them as pornography talks in sacrament meeting are going on. NO! My kids are “exposed” to porn whenever anyone brings it up in church. I’d like that to end right now. I’d like everyone to just stop it. Talk about Jesus and the woman taken in adultery. Talk about Jesus healing lepers. Talk about mercy and forgiveness. Talk about Jesus and leave the discussion to parents. For reals. It’s like the D.A.R.E. program. Just stop.

  15. I subbed in RS yesterday and also taught the virtue lesson. Like others, I introduced the topic by discussing how the word virtue is used in the scriptures, specifically how it is translated in other editions of the Bible (capable, power, goodness, excellence), and using that 1828 dictionary for the D&C and BofM (just the Alma reference. I refused to bring in Moroni.). I was honestly a bit peeved when I agreed to teach a lesson on virtue and found out that it was a chastity/pornography lesson. While I understand that virtue is being used in the YW Personal Progress program as a euphemism for sexual purity/chastity, it just felt deceptive. After going into the scriptural definition of virtue, though, I talked about the seven heavenly virtues, and thereafter referred to chastity as a particular type of virtue rather than a synonym. The point being that all virtues (chastity, temperance, patience, kindness, etc.) empower people with types of strength, excellence, goodness, capability, etc. There were two benefits being in control of the lesson, though. One was that I could talk about the sexual abuse aspect that Elizabeth Smart has recently re-emphasized (that victims have not lost virtue or been unchaste), and the other was that I could set aside time for discussion of how the talks at Women’s conference related to Hinckley’s quotes in the lesson. We had a great discussion, and honestly the pornography section wasn’t even as painful as it normally is. Overall, I was pleased how it went, and I think starting out with that positive view of virtue (like discussed in the OP) helped set the groundwork for a healthier discussion.

  16. You know, the recent and much-beloved prophet Gordon B. Hinckley had some rather important things to say in that lesson, and he stated them with urgency and in no uncertain terms. As much as I like Ibsen and C. S. Lewis, if they are distracting you from the words of the prophet, or leading you as a teacher to teach some other message…pluck them out.

  17. Glenn Thigpen says:

    Maybe we should throw out some of the ten commandments also. All of those that begin with “thou shalt not.” Evidently the Lord felt that we need some thous shalt nots in our lives. Unselfishness is not a negative virtue. Its invocation brings up images of positive, virtuous actions towards and by our fellow men ans women.
    I do agree that just not doing anything wrong is not really a virtue though. Just having virtue garnish our thoughts unceasingly does nothing if those thoughts do not lead to service for our fellow men and women.


  18. Anthony: Actually, I did not go in to the lesson with the CS Lewis quote. It was contributed by a class member, who also happened to be the Stake President (who is in our ward). While we were having the discussion, he grabbed his tablet and looked it up before I could stop him. When it came up, I thought seriously about telling him to stop using Church wi-fi to preach the philosophies of men mingled with scripture and focus on the words of our much-beloved prophet. But that seemed a little bit disrespectful, so I did my best to roll with it.

    Glen: I think that the fact that the Ten Commandments (and the other 603 mostly negative commandments of the Mosaic Law) represent a lesser law, and that true virtue means something much greater, has been reasonably well established by the New Testament and subsequent revelation, no?

  19. The CS Lewis excerpt is found in more than one General Conference talk. I have this dim recollection of other apostles from the Q12 offering it with great sincerity. So I imagine that Stake President is in pretty good company with both CS Lewis and a bunch of prophets, seers, and revelators who are just as dead (right now) as good Brother Hinckley and Professor Lewis. Except of course that the Stake President is clearly, most sincerely not dead.

    But that Ibsen quote? Past the line, Michael! Past the line! Because I can’t think of a member of my quorum who has ever heard of him! Got any allegories from Star Wars you could suggest instead?

  20. Bishop Bill says:

    Our HPG lesson on Virtue was derailed (by me) and we never got to porn. (I was not the teacher) In the middle of the lesson, I asked if virtue could be forcibly taken from somebody. They all agreed that no it could not. I then asked how they reconciled Moroni 9;9, that says that the Lamanite daughters had their virtue taken from them. We got in a long discussion on how JS translated the BofM, and I was even able to introduce the “Loose vs tight” translation theories. Needless to say we never even said the word “Porn” in the class. I count that as a success.

  21. I’m with Amy. Enough already. (Although I am impressed her kids are actually paying attention in sacrament meeting.)

  22. Would the people here opposed to the current framing of Virtue be willing to share if they were married as a virgin? Watched sexually explicit content?

    Curious if there is any cognitive dissonance causing the rejection of virtue framed today around sexual purity.

    In either case, I’m not sure why we feel we should take it on ourselves to hear a prophet speak about virtue in one context, have a lesson outline it in the same context and then say that’s wrong and what I’m going to teach is the better context.

    That said, I whole heartily endorse the approach here of tightly connecting charity with virtue. Ultimately, if you have the pure love of Christ, talking about sexual purity is practically redundant. But that doesn’t mean it’s not very very extremely crucial.

  23. Equating virtue with sexual abstinence is a morally corrupt development in our language. Unfortunately, we Mormons have capitalized on this development more than any others I know, to the point that Mormon children (and many adults?) typically do not understand what “virtue” really means.

    By speaking as if virtue is a synonym for sexual abstinence, we impoverish the concept of virtue—a concept that is one of the richest and most powerful ideas we have in teaching righteousness. Why do we do this? There are several reasons, but our Mormon cultural reflex is to treat the word “sex” as a vulgarity to be avoided. That’s a silly, cowardly choice that becomes colossally stupid when it causes us to lose the richness of the word “virtue.”

    Let virtue be virtue. Let chastity be chastity. Don’t confuse the two. Let these good, sturdy words be what they are, and don’t pervert them. Then we’ll have the tools to teach properly.

  24. Bpe, I certainly do not think it is cognitive dissonance. I grew up in a very conservative mormon home. We did not have a television, and I saw less than a dozen movies before I graduated from high school. Not only did I not watch sexually explicit content, I didn’t watch/read any sexual content. However, I did read CS Lewis. And I do remember purposely derailing one of the seemingly innumerable YW law of chastity lessons when I was a Laurel with the same definition of virtue and the same CS Lewis quote. That approach made more sense to me then, and still does now.

    Rather than imply that one must be a sinner to like this approach, I think a better indicator of the people that would enjoy this framing of the lesson would be to ask, “Are you literate?”

  25. Glenn Thigpen says:

    Michael, You said: “Glen: I think that the fact that the Ten Commandments (and the other 603 mostly negative commandments of the Mosaic Law) represent a lesser law, and that true virtue means something much greater, has been reasonably well established by the New Testament and subsequent revelation, no?”

    I would hardly define the ten commandments as a lesser law. They have been carried over into our present circumstances. In fact they contain the greatest of all the commandments.

    Matthew 22:
    36 Master, which is the great commandment in the law?
    37 Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.
    38 This is the first and great commandment.
    39 And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
    40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

    Jesus reiterated portions of the negative lesser law to a young man asking what he needed to do to attain eternal life.
    “Matthew 19:18 He saith unto him, Which? Jesus said, Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness,”

    That was echoed by Paul: “Romans 13:9 For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness”

    And again in the Latter days: “D&C 59:6 Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. Thou shalt not steal; neither commit adultery, nor kill, nor do anything like unto it.”
    The Christ deemed it wise to repeat those Thou Shalt Not edicts for a reason. Of course thou shalt not view pornography was not one of them at the time.

    For some reason Jesus keeps repeating those negative commandments.

    Again, I do agree that filling our lives with positive virtuous actions best fills the vacuum that would otherwise exist just from not doing all of the thou shalt not edicts. We are commanded not to do stuff and commanded to do stuff.


  26. Confirmed: Mormons have really bad taste when it comes to porn.

    I’d recommend my favourite, heartwarming queer smut to you all, or some of the stories I wrote as self-therapy. But I don’t think the links would survive moderation.

    I personally feel that they’ve helped me develop positive virtues, though, like kindness and empathy.

  27. Glen, calling something a lesser law is not to say it is unimportant or does not exist. It just says that it is more basic or a beginner’s law. The greater laws of loving God and fellow man are advanced laws. Sort of like not bullying is your law for grade school, and not only not bullying but doing things that help is the adult law. The higher law is the lesser law plus all the lower laws. So of course Jesus mentioned them, then he went on to add the higher law. Jesus knows we have to go through grade school in order to become a full adult, but he sure does not want us to stay in grade school. If all we ever focus on is on is the grade school rules, then we will never make it to Godhood. Which is the whole point of the original post. We have to do *more* than avoid the basic sins. Not that avoiding the basic sins is unimportant.

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