Harm vs. Purity

Recently, the SL Tribune broke the story about a BYU-I student who came forward about being sexually assaulted and was suspended from school for two semesters for drinking. She states that she did not confess drinking to her bishop, but that her attacker outed her for drinking, leading to her suspension.

“I knew I was in the wrong, I knew she was in the wrong,” he said. “I only went to the bishop so I could work on what I needed to work on. I didn’t go with any intentions to report her and retaliate. I was hoping she could work on her stuff, too … so she can be helped with drinking and following the Honor Code.” – Sexual assault guy

You didn’t intend to retaliate. Riiiight. You are just so helpful and concerned for the relative stranger you groped when she was incapacitated that you wanted to be sure her bishop could assist her in the repentance process. Thank you, Mr. Helpful. It’s a time-tested practice of sexual assaulters to minimize their offense by creating a false equivalence in questioning the behavior of their victim. We should certainly quit falling for it when it happens.

This points to the loophole that exists in the BYU-I school’s Title IX provision, but on a broader level, it points to an ethical question as it relates to understanding sin.

When you believe that breaking an arbitrary lifestyle rule and committing a terrible act of violence against another human are even relatively similar, first off you’re a terrible person because you should just know they aren’t. – Reddit commenter, TheVeryElect

Tattling is a time honored tradition at the BYUs, and it’s seen as a virtue, as being your brother’s keeper. Rather than treating these spiritual doxxers with a healthy dose of warranted skepticism, they are often thanked and congratulated for their integrity and courage.[1] They may even lighten their own sentence by implicating others.

Seems like he’s saying, “yeah, I assaulted her. But she drank!” That’s as stupid as saying, “yeah, I robbed a bank, but you were speeding!” – Reddit commenter, apawst8

The comparison of these two sins brings up questions about the nature of sin and how you compare the relative severity of different wrong acts. When I was growing up, like most religious children, I was very interested in what qualified as a sin. Since there were sins of omission and commission, could you sin without knowing you were sinning? Could the same act be a sin or not a sin depending entirely on your motivations and reasons for what you did? What about your thoughts being sinful–were thoughts temptations that could lead to sin (actions) or were they themselves sins? What about acts that only harmed you? What about bad things you did that were driven by illness or circumstances or depression? What about victimless crimes, breaking rules that had no impact on others like a Jewish person eating shellfish? Was it a sin strictly because of the context, because as a Jewish person it had a specific meaning that didn’t apply to non-Jewish people like me? What if we had a silly rule like not wearing pink socks on Tuesdays? Would it be a sin to wear pink socks on Tuesday because of what it meant to us if we believed it was a sin? Or was it a sin not to believe it was a sin? Was lack of faith a sin? Was doubt a sin?

Ever the reductionist, I concluded that sin was violating the Golden Rule.

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. (or even better as they would have you do unto them–Like Joseph SmithI’m not above rewriting scriptures to make better sense.)

Out of all of these youthful ruminations about sin, I developed the theory that harm was the real issue with sin, and that sins were more severe based on how much harm they did to others (and maybe to oneself–I was iffy on that one) and whether that harm was intentional, negligent or accidental. To use Oaks’ “good, better, best” terminology:

  • Good: Don’t intentionally harm others.
  • Better: Avoid accidentally harming others.
  • Best: Anticipate others’ feelings (that differ from my own) and avoid harming them in the unique ways they are prone to feel harmed.

The Law of Chastity, as it was explained to me growing up, was to avoid touching or being touched on any sexual parts (at minimum–I mean obviously, full sex was out), although people didn’t want to clarify much about what was and wasn’t a sexual part and what constituted a touch. Did backs of hands count? What about dancing too closely? What about side-boob? Was side-boob, which was practically armpit, a sexual part? As teens, we nearly had our Sunday School teacher in tears with our hectoring over these important issues of the day! By contrast, the sexual ethics of Buddhism instruct people to avoid doing harm to another person. This could be emotional harm or physical harm. Given how relationships work, that’s a pretty tall order. People accidentally hurt each other in relationships on a daily basis! Buddhism would teach that we should do all we can to avoid this, including developing empathy and treating others with respect for their choices and autonomy.

BYU Magazine recently included an article called “No More Broken Hearts: What the gospel has to say about sexual assault and consent.” This felt like a very important step to help all students understand respect for others’ choices. When I retweeted a link to the article, some dudebro on Twitter disagreed, implying that the only consent needed is marriage.

Unfortunately, that’s a pernicious attitude still held by too many in our sexually simplistic church. Marital rape is still rape. Too many of our young men and women have not had very helpful sex education because it mainly consists of people saying “Don’t!” and then changing the subject in awkward embarrassment. Even in General Conference we hear euphemistic terms like “procreative powers” (used whether procreation is involved or not) and the more recent diction horror “non-consensual immorality,” implying that you can commit an immoral act against your will (rather than one person committing both an immoral sexual act and a violent act against you).

As a church we have a very poor track record of caring about female consent which wasn’t required when early church leaders took additional wives.[2] Society at large hasn’t got a great track record of respecting women’s choices and autonomy, but Mormonism, with its focus on prescribed gender roles, is still bringing up the rear. Without consent, we don’t respect the choices others would make. We rob them of their agency. We make them slaves and victims, powerless over what happens to them. We cut off their right to the pursuit of happiness, even if their choices are mistakes or misguided–because nobody makes perfect choices all the time. Taking away consent is the cankered heart of rape, but it certainly doesn’t exclusively manifest itself as rape.

I’ve come to see as an adult that many people don’t view sin the way I do–through the lens of harm. They see sin as something we must avoid to remain unspotted, to remain pure. Many scriptures portray sin this way, too. Sin is something we avoid so that we aren’t tainted by it; even the very appearance of evil must be avoided. Associating with sinful people or being in sinful situations is more problematic for someone who wishes to achieve purity rather than avoiding harm to others.

Obviously, sins don’t have to be visible. Drinking alcohol may be visible; vengeful acts are usually not (unless you key someone’s car). A stake president I had years ago made a big impression on our stake when he called everyone to repentance for hurting the feelings of others who came to church despite not having kicked the habit of smoking. He said he would personally put an ashtray outside of every door to the building until we got the message that everyone is welcome. Invisible sins like judging others, manipulating, coercing, or controlling their choices are also wrong but not as easily identified or called out. People can claim they had good motives when they didn’t. Most people don’t confess to jealousy or spite or retaliation. They instead talk about being concerned for another person. They paint themselves as being good, their actions justified. They can even be very long-suffering about how difficult it is to do the right thing. Poor misunderstood them.

When it comes to sexual sin, whether we think about it in terms of harm or purity can create very different outcomes in behavior. When we focus on purity, we often harm others in our desire to remain (or to believe we remain) pure. For example, imagine a young couple who consensually go too far while making out (according to our bright line boundaries). This is fairly normal human sexual behavior. A person hyper-focused on purity rather than harm might be inclined to blame their partner as the source of temptation, someone who is a bad influence or has bad morals, who has led them into sin. They might break off the relationship or say hurtful things to protect their self-image, ignoring the harm they are doing to the other person. In fact, I often saw this behavior at BYU. The legalistic approach to remaining pure frequently led to blaming others to escape the conclusion that one was only human.

We also talk in our church culture about victims becoming impure, when they were harmed by actions to which they did not consent. Jesus clarified this notion by stating that people were not being able to be defiled by things outside themselves, but rather that they were defiled by what came from within them, their sinful intentions. When we preference purity over harm, we need to remember that pure intentions are more important than avoiding impure things that exist outside of us.

Growing up, here are some examples I came up with to understand why premarital sex was sinful and should be avoided, coming from my “harm” viewpoint:

  • To avoid having children without the added support of two parents in a committed relationship. (But there’s birth control, and there’s adoption, and there’s even commitment without marriage–to say nothing of marriages that don’t include commitment and supportive parenting.)
  • To avoid exposure to disease that could be passed on to others. (Of course there are prophylactics and not everyone has an STD).
  • To be a more positive contributor to society, not just obsessed with sex. (Sex might make you boring I guess; obviously being a prude doesn’t make you fascinating either, but I will say that some of my most promiscuous friends in school were in fact the least interesting–sorry, folks. I’m sure they were having fun, but they weren’t always great conversationalists. Maybe they were compensating.)
  • Because relationships are fraught enough without sex. A sexual relationship is a big step that requires maturity or people get hurt. Sex can be coercive if one partner is not ready. (But relationships are fraught with or without sex).

I’m not ready to make a case for premarital sex, but the Buddhist idea of avoiding harm really does change the game more than a list of boundaries that once breached require confession. In the Buddhist model, it would be worse to lie or manipulate another person while abstaining from sex than it would be to engage in consensual, considerate premarital sex that didn’t result in an unwanted pregnancy.

I’ve also tried this thought experiment with drinking which is not even a serious or “confession” sin (unlike boundary-breaching sexual sins). Here are the reasons I came up with:

  • Drunk driving kills people. (But most people drive responsibly).
  • Alcoholism creates a lot of broken lives and families, and you don’t know if you’re an alcoholic until you start drinking. (But most people are not hidden alcoholics).
  • Drinking can impair your judgment and lead to other mistakes. (But it can also break down social barriers and create bonding).
  • Drinking kills brain cells. (Self-harm rather than harm of others, and also less of an issue in smaller doses).
  • Drinking creates social pressure for others to join who may have problems like those listed above.

All of those reasons are very theoretical. Harm could occur in certain situations but is not a foregone conclusion. Most people drink alcohol without harming others.

If we expected ethical behavior toward others and not just legalistic behavior toward boundaries and rules, bishops could operate more like therapists, helping people understand the impacts of their actions to others, and less like referees calling (and sometimes mis-calling) fouls. I suspect the best bishops already do operate this way but there’s no guarantee. It’s easier to police hemlines than to examine hidden motives. In fact, we often hear heuristic arguments about the legalistic discrepancies, e.g. “that hemline means she’s an attention seeker.” The real remedy is for us to start thinking about these often invisible human motivations and to improve our understanding of ourselves and others.

Tattling is fine when someone is being harmed, like when a crime has been committed, or when it is necessary to prevent further harm. It’s not fine when someone is simply being foolish or breaking a rule that’s not harming others or self. And it’s certainly not OK when it’s just done to misdirect others away from one’s own misdeeds.

For purposes of this discussion, I’d prefer not to dwell on the specifics of the Tribune article’s story but to remain theoretical.

  • How has your understanding of sin changed from childhood to adulthood?
  • Do you see sin primarily as seeking personal purity or do you see it in terms of avoiding harm to others? Do your fellow congregants view it the way you do or not?
  • Do you think tattling is a good or bad thing? Do Mormon bishops tend to handle tattling appropriately in your experience?
  • How do we improve our understanding of consent in Mormonism without encouraging promiscuity?


[1] Not sure how “courageous” being a narc is generally, but much less so when you are doing it to draw attention away from your own criminal acts by creating a false equivalency or casting blame on your victim.

[2] Anyone who has read D&C 132 knows that, but it was elaborated upon in the Reed Smoot hearing very chillingly:

Senator Pettus: Have there been any past plural marriages without the consent of the first wife?
Mr. [Joseph F.] Smith: I do not know of any, unless it may have been Joseph Smith himself.
Senator Pettus: Is the language that you have read construed to mean that she is bound to consent?
Mr. Smith: The condition is that if she does not consent the Lord will destroy her, but I do not know how He will do it.
Senator Bailey: Is it not true that in the very next verse, if she refuses her consent her husband is exempt from the law which requires her consent?
Mr. Smith: Yes; he is exempt from the law which requires her consent.
Senator Bailey: She is commanded to consent, but if she does not, then he is exempt from the requirement?
Mr. Smith: Then he is at liberty to proceed without her consent, under the law.
Senator Beveridge: In other words, her consent amounts to nothing?
Mr. Smith: It amounts to nothing but her consent.


  1. John Visser says:

    How does the church fix it? Ecclesiastical endorsement revocations reviewed by the school, and vice versa?

  2. chompers says:

    It seems like most public questions about these issues comes from BYU. Does the church use it as a proxy? Or is it a millstone for the church? Who are the freaks running this place?

  3. Sin does more than make one “impure,” it is behavior which separates one from God. I never liked the purity paradigm. Too many ways it can go wrong when insensitively used.

    Including the harm principle in our discussion is valid. All sins harm ourselves. Most harm others.

    “Consent” or lack thereof must be discussed with sexual morality. The worst sexual transgressions of all are committed with and against those who did not or could not consent. That would include the rape victim, the spouse and children of an adulterer, or victims of child abuse.

    Tattling is a spiritually juvenile activity. IMO, dIrect communication is encouraged in scripture for adults in most cases (see D&C 42:88). Anonymous whistle blowing is only for those who cannot shield themselves from significant harm (major corporations, the mob, etc.). Even those who have suffered significant abuse have to come forward in the adult world to seek justice.

  4. I agree wholeheartedly with the idea of structuring our thoughts about sin around harm rather than purity.


    1. I would add into the discussion property rights. I’m thinking of Countryman’s “Dirt, Greed, and Sex” and the common observation that Mormonism and other churches on the conservative-fundamentalist end of the spectrum err on the side of “purity gospel” and “prosperity gospel.” I would like to argue that it is harm, not purity, and harm to persons, not property, that really matters.

    2. It seems to me that a “love thy neighbor” morality, one that recognizes agency and the ‘face of God’ in every individual, necessarily draws us to do no harm.

    3. As a corrolary, while I appreciate the Buddhist reference and it adds depth for me, I think it worth pointing out that this is or can be a “Christian” conversation. It is not far removed from Christian classic Old Testament vs New Testament discussions.

  5. Not to be too cute (and because there’s no way to edit comments) my Countryman and “property” reference is meant to remind us that for much of history people—servants, women, children, strong backs, slaves—all people, were property. And that a not insignificant amount of OT “laws” can be understood as having to do with such “property” rights.

  6. Hi Christian,
    I would argue that harm to property is harm to the owner, and our 19th century Mormon survivors of the Missouri experience would likely argue so. Destruction of property in this sense is an attack on well-being and life itself.

  7. “…the spouse and children of an adulterer”- Thank you. You are right.

  8. Angela, a thought provoking post.

    In my experience, as a church body, we simply lack the lexicon and framework to have discussions about moral decision making. We are so rules oriented and linear I find it difficult even to introduce these kinds of ideas in any church teaching setting. For example, I was teaching my priesthood quorum and asked them if they knew what a moral dilemma was and could they provide an example. We were talking about ways to apply doctrines to everyday situations–difficult situations–and how there isn’t always an obvious path of action, or that the right action can be counter-intuitive. Everyone stared at me. I probed a little more. Nothing. It was a new concept, not just the language but the idea, particularly when I introduced the idea of choosing between competing virtues. This was about a decade ago and it struck me that I picked up these tools in college, not in any church educational setting. I thought it was tragic then and feel badly we have not advanced. ‘Morality’ means so much more than chastity and philosophically can be applied so effectively when making decisions on how best to live a Christian life, a Mormon life.

    To your question, I would align myself firmly with harm to others as the measure of the weight of whether an action is bad or good, better or best, certainly. Morality is, after all, how my actions affect others as well as myself. The difference between fornication and adultery is a good example. Adultery is so much more serious not only because it involves the breach of a promise, but because the damage done is more significant: In adultery, your actions result in harming innocent, third parties (spouse, children, other spouse–if married–and their children) to a much greater degree than in fornication.

    In the BYU-I case, the level of moral wrong-doing of the assault is so much greater than the moral wrong-doing of breaching the word of wisdom that it makes comparing the equivalency of the two absurd. I’m shocked when people make the case that both are violations of the honor code, and both should be treated with roughly the same level of punitive measures. As if all ‘breaking the rules’ bears the same immoral weight. While we may not have all of the facts, on its face it seems the bishop acted toward the female student in the way he did more out of spitefulness that she did not demonstrate some level of outward contrition to suit his needs, conform to his demands than any careful consideration of her actions and that of her assailant’s. Given this, it’s not too difficult to make an argument condemning the actions of her bishop towards her as being immoral. But again, we seem not to have the lexicon or the framework to have this discussion on a higher level within the church. How are bad decisions made by bishops (or stake presidents) evaluated? And is there accountability when their immoral decisions have a negative, material impact on the life of the individual affected?

  9. Old Man: Clearly you can turn property crimes (sins) into personal crimes (sins), and I would argue you should because then you begin to prioritize or rank order harms appropriately. And avoid weirdnesses like making property owning people more important than non-property owning people, puzzling about people as property, and justifying harm to persons in order to protect property.. Just thinking about sex and consent in a property system instead of a harm to people system is disturbing.

  10. This conversation is fascinating, thank you for raising it.

    Also, a big thumbs up to Big Sky’s comment. We seem to lack a real awareness of power and possible harm that can come from leaders—of course, we have scriptures on unrighteous dominion but in my experience we do not seriously discuss the ethics of leadership. Often, the conversation is reduced to either magnifying or shirking one’s calling, which biases towards taking some sort of action, when perhaps no action is actually the path of least harm in most situations. My thinking here is that long-term behavioral change in adults is often best achieved when motivated internally, not externally by a Bishop’s punishment.

  11. I confess that I’m not totally satisfied with the harm model of sin. This is mostly because I’m not sure we’re very good at defining harm: it can be viewed narrowly to use “no harm no foul” thinking to justify a lot of commandment-breaking. Take the Sabbath Day, for example. It doesn’t really harm anyone if I do the same thing on Sunday that I do on Saturday. But I’m not prepared to just dismiss the Sabbath day altogether. And on the other hand it can be viewed so broadly as to be basically meaningless, like when people make the argument that rule-breaking is itself harmful in a metaphysical sense, even if it doesn’t cause any externally recognizable harm. At that point, we’re just back to rules, not harm, as defining sin.

    That said, I do think it should be obvious that actions that obviously harm other people are worse sins. It should be obvious, for example (but apparently it sometimes isn’t), that rape and sexual assault, even within a marriage, is orders of magnitude worse than consensual sex outside of marriage, and that a married person betraying their spouse is worse than a single person going a little too far before marriage with the person they love.

    So I guess I’d say that while the harm model doesn’t feel complete, because there are too many commandments/rules that I do believe come from God that don’t obviously protect against any harm. But I think it plays an important role in figuring out which sins are the worst. Not so we can justify ourselves because we’re only guilty of “lesser” sins, but so we can figure out which sins require priority in addressing.

  12. Billet Doux says:

    Mormonism’s great insight is that every material reality has a spiritual dimension. Every law has its foundation in a doctrine informed by a revealed truth. None are arbitrary but make up a spiritual ecology (what goes in, must invariably come out). Neal A. Maxwell: “There is an ecology that pertains to spiritual things, to human nature, which, when violated, brings a series of consequences—just as inexorable and just as automatic as the ecology that is born of the cluster of laws governing nature. The gospel of Jesus Christ is a collection of principles woven together in the fabric of immutable law; this is the romance and the high adventure of orthodoxy: these principles, bound together, not only give us salvation, but they also give us balance, depth, and happiness in our lives.”

    To me, semantically, the distinction between sins which harm and sins which defile is rather that all sins fall into two categories: sins that offend the first commandment, and sins that offend the second.

  13. The problem with structuring our thoughts entirely around “harm” and dismissing “purity” is that harm is not always apparent. That’s the whole point of God’s instruction — to give us wisdom that we cannot see for ourselves. Purity isn’t always apparent either, but I think the “harm” and “purity” viewpoints must be merged to give a greater understanding of the whole. To throw one out would be folly. Both are solidly grounded in scripture.

  14. Shy Saint says:

    I’d ask Martin if we wouldn’t grow in our fundamental morality and spirituality if we concentrated on developing a view of what is harm and what is purity. Naturally, mature people (and I’m referring here to spiritual rather than chronological maturity) would need to take a very long term and others-based view in order to achieve worthy goals. But that’s a good thing, right?

    How much more would we each grow as opposed to receiving our rules-based orders and going out and apply them like little robots. Doesn’t the latter model rather insure that we remain immature and apply our orders hamfistedly?

  15. Jack Hughes says:

    Shy Saint–agreed.

    I much prefer the harm model. Looking at our actions in terms of consequences for our neighbors is how we learn empathy. Sin is a necessary part of our lifelong development and learning process. Focusing on purity is how we get things like “The Not Even Once Club” and the idea that premarital sex or masturbation are as serious as murder.

  16. Ryan Mullen says:

    Love it. The online LDS glossary definition of sin as willful disobedience to God’s commandments implies that if God had not created the commandments, there would be no sin. In turn, I developed a deep-seated resentment of God. Learning that sin could instead be viewed through a lens of causing harm to others transformed the commandments into God’s advice on how to live in harmony with others. This has in turn led to a much healthier conception of God and my relationship with divinity.

  17. I’m sure there are some who might already be aware of this, but since it hasn’t been mentioned yet, maybe it’s worth noting this discussion strongly echoes some work that scholars like Jonathan Haidt have popularized on how people found their morality — care vs harm and sanctity vs degradation are two of 5-6 concerns moral issues seem to coalesce around.

    It’s interesting to consider the case & consequences of assault-guy and drinking-girl from the standpoint of some of the other concerns (fairness/cheating and authority/subversion).

    Like Angela, I tend to care much more about care vs harm than I do about purity, and in fact, I think some notable chunks of the New Testament seem to be about reorienting people in this direction and dealing with the problem of overelevated purity concerns. And I also think it’s clear that the Mormon idea of the purpose of life is simply not set up to maximize purity — if we’d wanted that, the story of Satan’s compelled obedience would have been much better suited, and instead we have the narrative of choice (never perfect, and therefore sometimes impure), experience, and atonement leading to development.

    But like others in this discussion, I’m cautious about dismissing purity. I’m not sure it’s entirely distinct. You could subsume it into the harm model and say that impure behavior is more or less self-harm, and we could say that’s minor because it’s self-contained and a chosen state of affairs (and there’s some value to that analysis). But is personal un-holiness/un-wholeness really a minor sin — is it really a non-problem for a moral agent to compromise themselves in some way or another? James 4 basically says that’s where harm starts. And there’s a pretty good argument that sexual-assault dude in the BYUI story had essentially this problem and it’s why we’re having this discussion. I suspect despite any overheavy emphasis on purity in the church, he really couldn’t have also escaped some of the care/harm teachings. And yet for some reason, he violated behavioral norms for *both* when following *either* would have prevented his behavior.

  18. Purity and avoiding harm are both useful concepts when we’re analyzing sin, but even better is asking what kind of behavior will most help us strengthen bonds of love and friendship. This question puts both the purity model and the harm model in a different light.

    There is nothing desirable about purity for its own sake. We are all sinners. The attempt to avoid all sin is the errand of a wicked fool. And even if you could claim to be more pure than the next guy, who cares? Purity has no value in itself. Purity matters because the only way to achieve it is by receiving Christ’s love. Its only value (but also its infinite value) is as an expression of love.

    Harm is a good measure of the damage that sin can do. It’s a useful approach. But even if we avoid all harm, we fall short of the ultimate goal. Avoiding harm turns out to be a subdivision of the bigger concept: creating personal and communal bonds of love.

  19. Tiberius says:

    Elder Oaks had some comments on this when he compared “transgression” and “sin” to the legal concepts of “malum prohibidum” (bad because it’s forbidden) and “malum per se” (inherently wrong). I would align sin/harm/malum per se in a single category with transgression/purity/malum prohibidum in the other. Obviously, robbery at gunpoint is more serious than breaking the speed limit. To me it’s equally obvious that sexual assault is far more serious than alcohol consumption. That Church administrators seem to find them equivalent boggles my mind.

  20. Rexicorn says:

    The most comprehensive explanation for sin I’ve heard relies in the understanding that mortal humans are the property of Jesus. We are “bought with a price” through the atonement, so even sins against oneself are really sins against God. In the Mormon framework, sins against bodies are especially bad because the body is a loan from God — we are stewards of it, but not truly owners of it until after the Resurrection. And it’s the key to our exaltation, so must be treated well. Disrespect for the body is disrespect for God, and also impedes eternal progress. So under this framework, harm against the body of another would be the most egregious thing, because you’re hurting multiple things that God cares about (God’s spirit children and they’re physical bodies), but harm against one’s own body is still bad.

    Is that conception of God unusual in Mormonism? It’s the one I grew up with (as a lifelong Mormon), but I don’t see it a lot. Mormons don’t seem to buy into the idea of a God who can be offended in His own right, nor do we like the idea that we belong to someone else and aren’t our own. But it seems to me it’s at the heart of most Christian/LDS submission doctrine.

  21. The several comments make me think that we’re not all talking about the same thing, and perhaps that’s inevitable when the table has been opened to gradations and priorities. In examining my own reaction, I come to a 10-80-10 view of commandments or sin:
    —>80% rules for living together in this life in what the scriptures and the gospel are trying to create—a heaven on earth. In this class I suspect the harm concept predominates. (It also happens to be the class that I have most interest in discussing.)
    —>10% priestcraft—rules made up by men for purposes of control and rewards to the leaders. In this class I suspect purity concepts predominate. (I suspect nobody will agree with me on what’s in this class. I suspect some will argue this is a null set, that it doesn’t happen.)
    —>10% “higher law”—calls to be Christlike, to love, to form eternal bonds, to form heaven in heaven if you will.
    I am sympathetic to the view that attention to the higher law will subsume all the rest, putting everything in its right order and including all the nuance. I want that to be true. However, most of the time I feel like the “through the glass darkly” character of this life obliges us to spend most of our time on the 80% heaven on earth principles, and time spent on priestcraft and time spent on the higher law is too often a diversion from the real stuff.
    For what it’s worth, I think most of the teachings about how leaders should themselves behave are in the 80%, but the part of the 80% that dodsn’t get enough attention.

  22. FWIW, here’s a probably too-obvious example: the purity vs harm approach as motivation to avoid pornography. I can’t be sure this is successful, but in our home, with our teens, we have tried to frame viewing pornography as a problem not so much as a “purity” issue for the viewers, but as a “harm” issue toward others. We teach them that viewing pornography exploits the people who are in it. If we can think of the people we might be viewing as real people with real feelings–and remember that many of them may have a history of being sexually or otherwise abused–and that this continues their abuse and exploitation–then that changes it. Also, viewing pornography hurts the people around us because it gets in the way of developing real emotional intimacy with these real people in our lives. It hurts those closest to us because it substitutes a fake relationship for a real one. It distorts relationships in general and gives us hurtful expectations, or causes us to be impatient or angry with the real work of connecting to real people. We do also talk about how it harms us if we view it, because when we hurt our ability to develop relationships and care for others, then we hurt ourselves. I have come to feel that those really are the core issues with pornography, much more than one person’s “sexual purity.” When we emphasize it as an issue of purity for the viewer, then the viewer goes inward and it is all about them, which IMO is one of the problems with pornography anyway–“all about me.” When we emphasize compassion for others, and our connections to each other, we have a more meaningful and authentic life.

  23. Ryan Mullen says:

    “But even if we avoid all harm, we fall short of the ultimate goal. … creating personal and communal bonds of love.”

    Loursat, this is great. One of the things that has long bothered me about the Atonement/Christianity is that there’s no positive counterpart to sin in the gospel. We promote that children under 8 are innocent and can return to God, but once they hit the age of accountability, their sins separate them from God just like everyone else. It would be much healthier IMO to flip that on it’s head: “Now that you’re 8, you can focus on creating personal and communal bonds of love.”

  24. Thanks, Ryan. I’m glad that you see some value in that.

    Chris, I suppose mine was one of the comments that you were referring to. I don’t want to slight the value of the original discussion. It’s a great discussion, and I hope it continues. Angela’s post is really good.

    Your 10-80-10 idea is very interesting, especially the priestcraft category. The purity model, as we usually teach it, is a means of control, which makes it problematic. Maybe it’s useful (maybe–I’m not convinced) in teaching children and adolescents to avoid behaviors they can’t fully understand. In that respect, it might be a way to instill self-control in children. But for adults, the idea of remaining pure is a pernicious substitute for love and repentance. It becomes a cudgel of guilt wielded by those in authority. Priestcraft.

    I think I disagree with you, Chris, on one point. In suggesting love as the subsuming principle here, I have no interest whatever in talking about the hereafter. I’m interested in the bonds that join us to each other in this world, and in the bonds that join us to God right now. By all means, we must have a sophisticated view about the harm that sin causes, and we need the vocabulary and the store of ideas to talk about that. But love and friendship also have to be explicitly part of the picture. Otherwise we’re really just having a legal discussion.

  25. I think it is impossible to avoid doing any harm. This is one of the reasons we need the Atonement: for our transgressions and the pain of the world—not just for willful sin or intentional harm. No matter how hard we try, we are likely to cause harm, even if unintentional. Even when we do our very very most empathetic and honest best, we cause harm. Sometimes trying very hard itself leads to harm. Sometimes avoiding harm can mean inaction, and inaction can cause harm. Sometimes we act quickly hoping to avoid the harm of inaction, and the quickness of our action harms. Sometimes to avoid harming others would mean to harm ourselves. We may not know the good or the pain we have caused until years later, or never at all. But we do cause harm. We have to figure it out, we cannot just learn by reading or thinking. We have to act, whether slowly or quickly or choosing the act of not acting, and we make mistakes not because we intend to but because we just cannot figure out what is best because we lack experience. We can tell our kids stuff hoping they avoid our mistakes, but they will make their own mistakes. God can tell us stuff but we still have to try things to really internalize the nuances of our decisions—even our best and most thoughtful and caring decisions. The nature of the world means rough choices where we have to balance all kinds of conflicts, where we walk amidst things we know and things we do not know. “First, do no harm,” is such a great guiding principle. And it helps us. But “no harm” is impossible in real life.

  26. Loursat, going with the flow, not meaning to argue or disagree . . .

    “otherwise we’re just having a legal discussion” triggers good memories of discussions with my father, a flash of “guilty as charged,” and then the following multi-part thought maybe worth sharing . . .

    Not always, but often, when the conversation turns to ‘love and friendship’ my crotchety old cynical self thinks “you’re diverting from hard issues, thinking ‘love and friendship’ is both easy and an easy way out of the conversation.” (An empirical statement about what actually happens in my head. I don’t say it out loud. That would be rude and I’m not THAT old yet.)

    Then what I want to do is deconstruct ‘love and friendship.’ Because the phrase is poorly understood and has been devalued in our culture.

    For example, “to know you is to love you” is a way we say that knowledge is a key component. Knowing you is real work. It takes time and attention and will. I am called to know you.

    For example, loving is not necessarily liking or agreeing but it IS necessarily respecting. Respect is a challenge. It is real work. I am called to respect you, wherever you are, whoever you are, with no requirement that you come my way first.

    For example, love and friendship involves trust. But is that trust in your best self? Or trust in your fully-realized complicated self? The latter especially sounds like real work—learning, seeing, practicing.

    All this makes me think perhaps it IS just a legal discussion for me, but I would beg that we don’t sell ‘legal’ short. ‘Legal’ for me includes learning and respect and trust, all of which are (I argue) important aspects of both the first and the second great laws.

  27. Thanks, Chris. In the same vein, some quick, rambling thoughts:

    I don’t want to sell legal discussions short either. Legal discussions set a baseline for civility. That’s an incredibly ambitious, difficult, honorable, uplifting thing. Strong civil culture is seldom found and hard to maintain. Yet I see religion as aiming even higher.

    I hear everything you say about the squishiness of “love and friendship.” You’re right. It’s hard to pin down what we mean.

    What grounds me as I think about this are my best experiences with the people I’m closest to, the people I love most. If I have to describe my relationship with my wife as meeting a baseline for civility, then I’m missing something essential. The same goes for my friendships. As for the people I don’t like, I think you’re right that love requires respect at a minimum. That’s more than the law requires, which is only civility–the form or simulacrum of respect.

    My intuition is that the most productive way of describing sin frames it not only in terms of damage done to others (or to myself), but most importantly as damage done to the relationships that connect us.

  28. Loursat, I don’t think I disagree with one word. But in actual fact as I read your last comment the hymn “There is Work Enough to Do” grew to earworm status in my brain. I guess that will stand as my next line in a grateful-to-be-part of dialogue.

  29. And one more thought in response to Chris. I agree that legal discussion requires learning and respect and trust. Legal practice (which is what lawyers do) and legal behavior (which is what everyone does) require only civility. This is the greatness of law: it uses noble means to establish conditions in which we can survive without being noble. The law often nods in the direction of something better, but it’s always content with civility.

  30. OK, not done yet. If we use “the people I love most” as the standard, it is first of all pretty clear that we’re bringing Eros into the picture. That’s interesting but maybe too uncomfortable. Backing away a tad, is “family” the model for Zion? Or something closer to “civil society”? (In all cases idealized, of course.) I think modern Mormonism of the last 25 years and probably much longer has come to use the family metaphor. It is somewhat distinctive of Mormonism. But in posing the question I realize that my personal view is that “Civil Society” is in fact the very project, the objective toward which we strive—it is Zion. Obviously these different definitions or metaphors will inform our discussion of law and commandments and sin.

    For all that, we seem to agree that “damage to relationships” is part of the calculus. That may be the key point of lasting importance.

  31. Pokemom used porn to illustrate why using the “harm” angle is more effective than the “purity” angle in teaching kids to stay away from porn. And she/he isn’t wrong in every case — just probably in most. The fact is, it’s very hard to demonstrate that simply viewing porn is actually hurting anybody. There are plenty of people who indulge in porn who would testify that it hasn’t hurt their personal relationships or that it has anything to do with their personal relationships at all. Porn is free, it’s easily accessible, and whether or not one random teenage boy views it or not makes no difference to any exploited actors. Plus, even among the readers of this blog, you’ll find a substantial number who think the dangers/harms of porn are vastly overblown. Even if you think the arguments in defense of porn are specious, they certainly give enough cover for your average, attempting-to-be-moral-but-horny teen to justify indulging. Desiring to maintain personal purity, and desiring not to tempt others into damaging their own, is still a valuable motivator to a lot of people.

    To further illustrate this point, if you take the “harm” angle to it’s logical conclusion, unless an action can be demonstrated to cause harm, it cannot be considered immoral. So, those aforementioned blog readers who think the harms of porn are vastly overblown would also not view indulging in porn as being immoral. Judging from what Jesus has said in the New Testament about “lusting after”, He doesn’t sound like he’d agree with that point of view.

    Please don’t get me wrong — I use the harm angle in my personal evaluation of morality more than I do the purity angle as well. But if it’s the only angle (which seems to be true of many progressives), then what choices does one make when the harm, which may actually be there, isn’t apparent? I think it’s much wiser to blend all the angles presented to us in the scriptures, rather than smugly dismissing one as inferior.

  32. Angela C says:

    Martin: I think pokemom’s point is that she uses empathy (how porn affects the lives of the individuals who perform it) as the tool to teach her children why porn is bad rather than focusing on their own purity (how porn affects me as a consumer of it). I don’t think the requirement is to demonstrate that an individual WAS harmed, but I think your point is valid nonetheless. Someone who only looks at an act to see if an individual was harmed may be inclined to excuse their misdeeds (e.g. the “no harm no foul” argument upthread). But I believe that teaching empathy as the reason to avoid sin rather than teaching personal purity is a more effective way to improve moral reasoning. I doubt you would disagree with that.

    Purity can’t be entirely dismissed, but should be trumped by harm if harm to others exists, and shouldn’t be an excuse to inflict harm on others.

  33. sidebottom says:

    To echo Martin’s point, discussing pornography in terms of the harm done to the participants is absurd. Most folks who appear in pornographic pictures or movies are there of their own free will and choice. There’s the potential for exploitation/abuse but it’s certainly not the norm. We might imagine some spiritual harm to the participants, but then we’re arguing that the real *harm* is that the participants are damaging their purity.

    We discuss pornography with our children the same way others have recommended discussing alcohol, in terms of potential harm to the user. Many people view pornography without any discernible harm to themselves or their interpersonal relationships, but there’s a real risk of addiction or otherwise ruining one’s life.

  34. sidebottom: the idea that the participants in pornography are not harmed in ways other than purity is simplistic. Sex work is exploitative because it’s underclass, low paid work that almost always goes hand in hand with a cycle of poverty and abuse. There are women and children who are enslaved and forced to do this type of work in the US and in other countries. Not all sex workers, but many of them. By contrast, nobody is enslaved and forced into high paid professional class jobs like accounting or advertising.

    Being forced into a life of dangerous sex acts for the amusement of others is only one negative outcome for these people. This limits their options in life (which were already limited), and can even curtail their lives due to the exposure to disease, substance abuse, and violence. People love the myth of the high-class, liberated, pro-sex, high-class call girl, but that’s because it’s such an exception to the rule. IRL, Julia Roberts is not really going to be turning tricks.

  35. it's a series of tubes says:

    I recognize that this isn’t exactly on topic, but all the relevant posts are closed for commenting. I just read the order in the Joseph Bishop case, dismissing the claims against him and dismissing some (but not all) of the claims against the church.


    Some of the arguments the church has made in defending the suit are repellent. As summarized by Judge Kimball in the order: “The COP argues that the statute of limitations has run because Denson knew when she was raped that the COP’s representations that Bishop was safe, honorable, and trustworthy were not true.” Ugly, ugly stuff.

    If it turns out that Bishop’s misdeeds were known and actively concealed, the relevant heads should roll.

  36. Adam Selene says:

    Just some thoughts in no particular order:
    1. I suspect that most commandments exist for the protection or benefit of ourselves or others, but the reality is that we may not know why and may never, in this earthly existence, know why. For instance, we can look at the prohibition on eating unclean animals under the law of Moses and realize that it makes sense because most are animals that tend to have large numbers of parasites–something probably beyond the ken of the ancient Israelites, although understandable to most any person with minimal education today. We need to likewise remember, however, that we are not all knowing, and so we must accept that some commandments with which we disagree may, in fact, serve to benefit us in ways we don’t yet understand, or, perhaps even, refuse to understand. For instance, scientist have only recently discovered that watching pornography can cause physical and chemical changes to the brain (see https://www.inverse.com/article/31799-brain-on-porn-erotica-neuroscience), but this was unknown to anyone even a decade ago and, I surmise, unknown to the population at large today.
    2. While many people bridle at the idea of bright line rules, they have the benefit that they are easy to understand and apply. E.g., not drinking coffee, not eating pork (law of Moses), no sex outside of marriage, are straightforward and easy to understand commandments. I taught my children to not touch the stove when they were young without going into a long explanation of when it might be okay or why it was bad; a two year old is not going to understand, let alone sit through, a discussion about heating elements and different types of burns; and telling teens not to watch porn because it may adversely affect their amygdala probably will probably be ineffectual as well.
    3. “Purity” refers to being unstained or clean of sin (something impossible for us to achieve without Christ’s grace), but keeping different commandments builds the self-discipline we will need to exercise as we increase in power and knowledge in the Celestial Kingdom and allows us to be a “temple” which the Holy Spirit can visit. Does purity require us to stay away from sinners? No, as Christ examples of dining with sinners and tax collectors show. But hanging out with people that are going to tempt us to engage in sinful acts can be playing with fire, especially for those that have a need to seek approval from those around them. Besides, bad things happen to people that do stupid things, in stupid places, at stupid times, and/or with stupid people.
    4. Tattling is awfully subjective, and the difference between tattling and honest reporting often seems to be a mixture of the motivation for telling on someone and the severity of the wrongful act. However, whether a wrongdoing is reported for malicious reasons or for honest reasons is irrelevant as to whether there was wrongdoing. A person should not be absolved of the consequences to an action simply because they were turned in for malicious reasons rather than self reporting or being reported by someone with pure motives.

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