Value and Giving Things Up: Some Thoughts on Volleyball, Muskets, Clergy Confidentiality, Costly Signaling, and, of course, BYU

I believe—really, really believe—that the BYU Athletics Office spoke for the University and the entire Church when it said, in response a recent incident at a volleyball match, that “All of God’s children deserve love and respect, and BYU Athletics is completely committed to leading out in abandoning attitudes and actions of prejudice of any kind and rooting out racism.”

I also believe that Elder Holland was being completely sincere last year when, speaking of the trials queer Latter-day Saints, he said, “I and many of my brethren have spent more time and shed more tears on this subject than we could ever adequately convey to you this morning, or any morning.” And I think that the Church’s Same-Sex Attraction website honestly employs its tagline: “Kindness, Inclusion, and Respect for All of God’s Children.”

And I believe that the LDS Newsroom captured the feelings of Church officials about child abuse perfectly when it said, “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has spoken in the strongest of terms about the evils of abuse and the need to care for those who are victims or survivors of abuse.”

These are all admirable positions on important issues that have been taken by the Church and the BYUs, and they undeniably telegraph that the Church values such things as inclusion, diversity, compassion, and the protection of children.

But here is the thing (or, at least, a thing): The extent to which a person or institution values something cannot be derived entirely from the statements that they make about their values—even if those statements are 100% honest and sincere. The reason for this is that values in the real world always compete with other values. Very few moral choices involve one unproblematically moral and one irreducibly evil option. They involve greater goods, lesser evils, shades of gray, multiple stakeholders, and webs of consequences. We value things to the extent that we are willing to choose them over other things that we also value.

Unless things have changed since my freshman year at BYU (1984, but don’t spread it around), economists call this the principle of opportunity cost. A things value to you is measured by what you have to give up to get it. So, if I buy a Big Mac (for some reason, my Econ professor always used Big Macs as the ultimate value), my opportunity cost is not $3.99. It is whatever else I would have done with that $3.99. Say, a half-gallon of gas of two 20 oz Dr Peppers. I can value all of these things, but I can’t value them equally if I only have $3.99. I have to choose.

This works not just for the value of goods, I think, but also for the value of values. I can value both human life and my right to drive as fast I want through school zones. But, at some point, I will have to choose between them—and that choice will say more about my values than any statement I might ever make.   

So, let’s bring it home. What does all of this have to do with being against racism or in favor of treating everyone with dignity? Or with protecting children from abuse? These are all values that most of us can proclaim loudly and emphatically, with all the right words, and without a shed of insincerity. But the extent to which we value them is not measured by the intensity of the adjectives. It is measured by the choices that we make when they come up against other values.

When do these values come into conflict with other values? Here are a few examples.

The value of rooting out racism may very well conflict with the value of never seeking nor offering apologies, or with the value of preserving the myth of prophetic infallibility. A sincere apology for the pre-1978 priesthood/temple ban could do more to heal the wounds of past racism than anything else the Church might do. But it would also involve acknowledging that previous prophets were wrong, that they were not speaking for God, and that they mistook their personal beliefs for revelation once (with the clear implication that they might do so again). That is the tradeoff. We can value both racial healing and the concept of prophetic infallibility. But we cannot value them both equally when they come into conflict with each other. The one we choose is the one we value.

We can say much the same thing for treating queer Latter-day Saints with “kindness, inclusion, and respect for all of God’s children.” We can value these things, but we cannot value them the most if we continue excommunicating people in same-sex marriages, forbidding their children from being baptized, or ostracizing them from our congregations. When we take steps like this—none of which is required by our doctrines of the eternal family—we communicate that the desire for some of our members to worship in a comfortable environment outweighs the need for all of our members to be included in the body of Christ.

And we certainly can, and must, denounce the sexual abuse of children in the strongest language possible. But strong language is not always the same as strong action. If we choose anything over stopping abuse immediately—the image of the Church, the reputation of the abuser, the principle of clergy confidentiality, or whatever—we are saying that this thing is more important than stopping abuse. This is not a criticism; it is a simple statement of how values work in a marketplace of ideas.

Evolutionary biologists have developed a marvelous concept called “costly signaling” that can be demonstrated by replicable experiments under rigid clinical conditions. The theory (aggressively simplified) goes like this: organisms send each other signals all the time–things like “I want to mate with you, and I will provide good genetic stock for your offspring,” “I am stronger than you, so stay away from my mate,” “I am not going to attack you, so you can trust me,” “I can run really fast, so you should probably eat another gazelle and not waste so much energy running after me,” “there is a lion nearby, so just run away and let me guard the food”—that sort of thing.

Sometimes these signals are reliable, and sometimes they are not. Because there are evolutionary advantages to believing reliable signals, and other advantages to having unreliable signals believed, organisms have evolved ways to distinguish between the two. Many organisms are more likely to accept a signal as reliable if the organism making the signal incurs some kind of cost when doing so.

This is really just a fancy way of saying that “talk is cheap” is a principle of biology. We see it all over nature: male birds prove the honesty of their mating intentions by building nests for their intended mates, gorillas show their dominance over other gorillas by beating on their own chests, gazelles demonstrate their fitness in front of predators by expending energy to jump up and down for no particular reason. If an animal expends energy or accepts risk to send a message, other organisms are more likely to perceive that message as reliable.

It works for people and institutions too. Strong professions of value are only believable if they are backed up by the sacrifice of things that the person or institution values less. We don’t have to invent elaborate thought experiments to bring values into conflict with each other. You are probably never going to be driving a trolley and have to decide whether or not to save ten people by swerving and killing one. Nor will you ever be in a burning building with a baby in one hand and a Picasso in the other. That stuff doesn’t happen in real life.

But you may well be in a gymnasium when someone shouts racial epithets, and you will have to decide whether to sit comfortably or take decisive action to intervene. And you might very well end up in a congregation attended by a devout couple who happen to be of the same gender, and you will have to decide whether or not to extend yourself in order to make them feel welcome and risk the disapproval of your peers. And every institution has to struggle when some values that it has espoused conflict with other values that they have espoused just as much. There is always a cost to discipleship, and there are always sacrifices that must be made for the sake of integrity. It is not what we say that determines our values; it is how we act when we can’t have everything we want—and what we decide when decisions are hard.

Comments

  1. Are you trying to say that actions speak louder than words?
    I like how you ended with real life examples vs absurd extremes (like the trolley thought experiment). It’s great that the prophet gets up and says that racism is bad. The problem is, left at that, not many people are going to change. Many people are going to believe that so long as they aren’t arguing for enslaving a group of people into chattel slavery, that they are on the prophet’s side when he says that racism is bad, and no introspection is required. I can look at other organizations I’m involved with (my employer for example) and can see the actual efforts put forth towards combating racism in their sphere of influence (creating policies, and tip lines, making funny training videos about treating others with respect, making serious training videos about treating others with respect, etc). While I don’t expect the same thing from the church, it would be nice for the church to make some lesson plans about what it actually looks like to treat each other as children of God.

  2. Mark Hurst says:

    This seems to me to be an honest and valuable commentary on the state of recent events relating to the Church. As a minority in the Church (while at the same time being an active, white male priesthood holder with a recommend), I identified closely with these remarks by Brother Austin. I don’t like to call these dichotomies that we see in the Church “hypocrisy,” because I think they are mostly a lack of understanding, or perhaps a lack of sensitivity to others, or maybe just plain, old ignorance. Like others, I am ignorant of a lot of things I don’t understand (math, cubism, sushi, for example.) It’s not a condemnation. But as the Church grows and takes on more and more people around the world, we are likely on some Sundays to be sitting next to a “liberal” Democrat, or a “less-active” member, or someone who is trying really hard to believe but doesn’t, or a gay or lesbian member who is wrestling with how to live, or someone who has deeply hidden sin in their lives but is trying to come to terms with it, or any number of “other issues” that the 1950’s Church did not dream of dealing with. (Although they may all have been present.) If we are truly called upon to “bear…one another’s burdens..” (Gal. 6:2) then we have a long way to go. I don’t think that Heavenly Father and the Savior expect us to attain perfection in this life. But I think they expect us to try just a bit harder.

  3. Excellent post, Michael. Another recent illustration of this point comes from single women getting sacrament during COVID lockdowns. Sure, getting people the sacrament is important, but it wasn’t as important as maintaining all the rules around its administration, like making sure the priesthood holder blessing it is in the same room as the bread and water, even if those weren’t rules that were ever really articulated before. Women are “important” in the Church, just less important than any other part of it.

  4. Well stated, persuasive, correct. I’m done.
    Sadly, I’m hanging out here at BCC curious about any pushback to come.

  5. your food allergy says:

    This expresses so well what I was getting at in the other thread about things we might expect to see if we were really serious and convicted about our racist history and present. Thank you.

    Now I would like to know where the beautiful image is from.

  6. Shane Swindle says:

    This is so well put. Helped me organize my thoughts and feelings over the last few months. Thank you, Michael

  7. Amen and amen. No notes.

  8. Jesus was willing to bear all the burdens placed on him. You are in dangerous territory when you place social activism as a component of discipleship. I have ardent anti-socialists telling me I ought to be active in standing up to socialists. I have ardent anti-racists telling me I ought to be active standing up to racists.

    I have Christ telling me to follow him and commanding me to love others, share his message, and invite them to follow him too.

    Whom should I listen to? Those who want me to engage in (noble) activist pursuits of the day?

    Or the One who asks me to love God, love my neighbor, and follow him.

    I’ll choose the latter. I hope in doing so, I am sending a message to socialists and racists alike.

    This isn’t a trite reply. It’s a considered one. It can be applied to the covid protests, the presidential protests, and so on. I just don’t see Jesus with a picket in the street against the Romans. My faith requires me to follow him. Not some faith determined by a man in an office or pulpit somewhere. But the faith of my heart centered in the Lord Jesus Christ.

    So, yes, where appropriate I’ll say something. But don’t expect that to be as often as you’d like. Because Christ knew when it was futile to open his mouth and kept it shut on many important occasions. Others he opened it, but not nearly as often as the zealots would have liked. I think many latter-day saints would prefer the simplicity of the lamb being a zealot all the time.

    He saves that for his final day of judgement, perhaps because he knows we couldn’t possibly follow such an example in righteousness no matter how hard we try.

  9. Nailed it. Thanks.

  10. sute r, I understand your words and they sound good, but I want to draw out the meaning in context. Michael’s OP challenges us to consider whether we back up rooting out racism and respect for all and caring for victims and survivors with action, with hard choices that require we give up something else of value. Or are these examples of rhetoric without action? Are you saying one or more of these three examples are not included in the terms of your discipleship?

    To be fair, I’m picking on you only because you posted a comment. I think it is in fact what’s happening in our world, i.e., that these are nice words but that many of us are not ready to act on them when there’s a cost. I think that’s real, and as a group we’d move ahead toward Zion if we talked about it. To me that’s the prime virtue in the OP. To bring this discussion to the surface.

  11. Grateful reader says:

    I’ve been in very large group of LDS and been the only one to point out the racism.

    I’ve heard Pres. Nelson’s public statement against racism. If I was not LDS, I would call him disingenuous and a hypocrite, acting like he stands against racism but belongs to an org. that told black men they did not merit an office bc they were black…and that org has never specifically taken that back. Yes, the blanket ‘we disavow past racism’ from Elder Uchtdorf was nice but that’s just it…it was nice, not specific. We are good at going along with things because, hey, ‘Jesus will fix it all in the end’…that’s our cop out as a people.

  12. This is beautifully stated. Thank you so much for sharing.

  13. I love your focus on the individual and the (constant) choice of values that comes at a cost. An institution, for me, is a collection of these individuals (with these choices). I believe individuals can be held personally accountable (only). However, leaders in an institution, to me, can not speak for a group of individuals simply because I believe that they can only speak for themselves. This is why I love your final conclusion and “call to action” to each of us individually, except for this sentence: “And every institution has to struggle when some values that it has espoused conflict with other values that they have espoused just as much.” This accountability for action, for me, rests with each of the institutional leaders individually. Said differently, the institution does not get to be treated as an individual by me.

  14. Sooo…a couple of things. First: An organization has the responsibility to list its values, but is not responsible for individuals who don’t adhere to those values while claiming to belong to said organization. The LDS church is comprised of millions of people, Al with different life experiences and view points. I believe Joseph smith said he teaches correct principles and allows church members to govern themselves. If the church makes statements regarding loving others, respecting others, etc., it’s up to us as people who belong to the church to adhere to those standards. If we fall short, that’s on us, not the church. The church’s stated values are very clear and not in conflict with anything other than our own faults as members who may not always follow those values.
    Also, there don’t have to be conflicts of “this or that. There can be a “this AND that option.” Christ taught us a valuable lesson when he said if you’re perfect cast the first stone (don’t judge) followed by “go and sin no more” (stop doing bad stuff. In other words, while we shouldn’t judge, that doesn’t give us the green light to sin or support sin either. The Lord said he will not look upon sin with the least degree of allowance, but that doesn’t mean he stops loving us when we sin. The two great commandments are to #1 love God and # 2 Love thy neighbor as thy self. God has also stated “if he love me, keep my commandments.” So why is loving God # 1 and loving thy neighbor #2? Well, in order to love God we have to keep his commandments, so keeping the commandments is our number one priority, over loving our neighbor. If our neighbor isn’t keeping the commandments (e.g., gay marriage) our first responsibility is to love God by keeping his commandments (e.g., not supporting gay marriage), but still showing love for our neighbor. That’s all the church is trying to do, and it would be wise for us to follow as we proclaim to adhere to the doctrine. This is the church of Jesus Christ. We believe he very literally runs this church through guidance and direction to His chosen leaders. This isn’t the church or President Nelson or the Church of the Bishop, or the Church of *pick a person. Either we have faith in that and adhere to it, or we don’t, but trying to serve two masters because by belonging to the church while going against it’s pretty principles is just asking for trouble.

  15. Interesting comparisons Michael. Gotta love using the oldest sciences of human behavior: evolution and economics to analyze questions of virtue. They apply here so well. We’re all struggling to overcome the natural man with these choices about what we value and what signals we send. The Church has to do the same thing but their choices are more visible than ours.

  16. Duke volleyball player Rachel Richardson praises BYU AD for his actions after racial slur incident involving Cougars fan:

    https://www.espn.com/college-sports/story/_/id/34488855/duke-volleyball-player-rachel-richardson-praises-byu-ad-actions-racial-slur-incident-involving-cougars-fan

  17. Craig: the law clearly said that the punishment for adultery is stoning. Everyone present that day knew that. Christ’s teaching that day was that keeping the commandments (stone the woman) was NOT the way to love God. The way to love God was to love the woman.

  18. Scott Jones says:

    I remember an interview I had after getting my Master’s Degree in Management at Purdue University in 1983. The first question was Were you a Boy Scout? Yes. Were you an Eagle Scout? Yes. Good we can continue. I asked for an explanation. He responded I see you are from Utah, and I know how popular Scouting is in Utah. And if you were a Boy Scout in Utah and did not achieve your Eagle, I am not interested. And then we talked about my scholastic achievements and ambitions and the like. And then came another question. Why did you choose Purdue and not one of the Utah Universities? I gave him an answer as to why I thought Purdue was superior to the U of U and BYU. I also told him the Purdue was great for my wife. He asked if I had applied. Yes… and I mentioned that BYU had made me a wonderful offer to be the first student to do a joint law degree and MBA. And that the U of U countered with the same offer. He said he was a little surprised I didn’t go to BYU (We never discussed me being Mormon, but he knew from my resume which mentioned my missionary experience in Denmark). So, I decided to tell him the reason I didn’t. I told him about Pres. Wilkinson’s talk about the campus being “contaminated” by the presence of homosexuals. I said after reading that talk, and studying the honor code, I could not in good conscience attend. I explained that I confronted both the Deans — Law School and Business Graduate school about the talk and the honor code — and told them I could not attend a school so hostile towards its own students and teaching those principles. He paused.. and then said something I have not forgotten. He said, we have a number of homosexual employees in our management ranks. I would be very uncomfortable hiring someone who came out of an environment like that. (And, by the way, I got offered the position.) Now this was in the early 1980’s. He and I both thought BYU was out of step back then… I certainly feel it is now.

  19. Chip-
    If institutions can’t be held accountable because only individuals can, why did Christ repeatedly call out groups, cultures, and institutions for their sins, but rarely individuals? He didn’t mention Bob the Pharisee or Andre the Publican, but the groups as a whole and what they created.

    I feel that if we don’t hold institutions accountable, then they become the very source of individual sins because the culture created by the institution creates certain patterns of behavior and thought in the individual bodies who are a part of it. Those individuals aren’t helpless, but we would be foolish to deny the heavy influence of the institution on those inside it.

    For me I really relate to the metaphor of the body. Yes, each part is individual and must take responsibility for its own unique job, but it absolutely affects the other cells and systems around it and they all interplay in ways we cannot always understand, but can feel into if we’re attuned to one another. The body we have created with the church is very top-heavy with a lot of instructions coming from a small leadership core. While I don’t think they need to be held accountable in a “you are an evil/good person” kind of way (which we can’t ever know about another person), they absolutely need to be held accountable for how their actions and policies are influencing the actual body and culture of the church because that affects the very real bodies of the members inside of it.

  20. The strategy of Jesus is not centered in taking the right stand on issues, but rather in standing in the right place—with the outcast and those relegated to the margins.

    Boyle, Gregory. Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion (p. 72)

  21. Rob Farwell says:

    Well said. We don’t chose the right in a vacuum. We can’t be neutral on a moving train. We give value to things that cost us something (time, money, effort, etc).

  22. What a great way to frame this discussion. This really resonates with me and gives me some words to use to express what I have been feeling about those who profess values when they do not seem to “walk the walk.” I well remember the examples of opportunity cost in classes and it’s a very apt descriptor here.

    And 1984 was a great year to be a BYU freshman. I loved it😀.

  23. Geoff - Aus says:

    Craig sept2. If ye love me keep my commandment is John 14. You have put forward your interpretation.
    In chapter 15, in the same talk Christ gives his interpretation in verse12 This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you.
    13 Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.
    Christ is not commanding that we discriminate against anyone, but that we love them enough to lay down our life for them.

  24. This article was beautifully written. Thank you for teaching us.

    The opportunity cost for those of us who decide to leave the church is losing family, possibly a marriage, friends and built in community. Also reputation, dedication to faith and worthiness as seen in your church community.

    BUT, to those of us that walk away from our LDS faith, our values in integrity, honesty, compassion, fairness, accountability, kindness, love and truth/ wisdom matter at any cost.

    I hold the church accountable to holding to the teachings of honesty and integrity and truth they taught me. I expect Christlike values of love, fairness, compassion. I expect accountability and repentance just like I was taught and practiced.

    Because my values are so important to me to stand for (and weren’t we all taught to do so as LDS?) I was willing to sacrifice whatever it took to follow what I felt upheld these values. It was actually a relatively obvious decision once I could see all the facts as a whole and saw the LDS Church for what it truly teaches and represents in the world.

    So, once I heard/read admirable words by leaders with no action to support it and also heard/read hurtful words AND actions by LDS leaders that went against the very values I hold dear… I had to take a stand by leaving. And somehow, through it all, I am better for this sacrifice and action.

    I’m lucky I still have my marriage. I still have my kids. I’ve lost some family and reputation I had as a ‘good, LDS woman’ but I am still a worthy and ‘good’ human. I realized that I decide my worth and value, not the church.

    But I know better so I do better. LDS Church, DO BETTER. You know better.

  25. The conflicts painted in the article are both convenient to the narrative and also extremely deceptive in nature, as if there is not a correct or best choice in certain situations–and certainly in understanding, obeying, and applying doctrine–despite the gray areas of life. There are many devout and well-educated saints who have thought through these matters at length and who genuinely love neighbor WHILE standing firmly in the camp of priesthood keys, God’s laws of obedience and sacrifice, and humble submissiveness– without ever lecturing the Son of God by lecturing His servants.

  26. The problem I have with the Church is not that we don’t share the same values. It’s that we don’t share the same priorities. That’s why it’s next to meaningless to me for the Church or BYU to make statements like “racism is bad” and “child abuse is bad.” Great, you’ve managed to meet the most basic standard of human decency. But, as the AP article made clear, in some cases protecting children from child abuse is not the Church’s top priority, when it conflicts with other organizational goals. And rooting our racism is not the Church’s top priority, when it means that the Church might have to actually acknowledge and apologize for its racist past. That’s why the Church’s actions don’t seem to match these value statements. There are just other values the Church prioritizes. Loyalty and obedience are the highest and holiest principles in the Church, over charity. That’s where the Church and I diverge.

  27. “without ever lecturing the Son of God by lecturing His servants…” is some head-spinning extrapolation.

  28. Mike Spendlove says:

    Mark C., thank you for unwittingly providing a real-life illustration of the thesis of this post. Your comment is the cautionary tale we all needed.

    Reading that comment reminds me why I cringe whenever I hear Church leaders refer to “religious freedom.” Because actual religious freedom is not in danger to any degree. What’s no longer acceptable is the freedom to be a bigot and not be called a bigot, or the freedom to discriminate without being criticized for it, or the freedom to judge and not be judged.

  29. this, this , and this Michael. The church appears to value me and people like me not at all. But at least I ma grateful that it has members who do.

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