Mormon morals, ethics, metaphysics
(I wanted this on permanent record as an important element in the way I think, morally.)
“Mormonism doesn’t have a morality; it has an ethics?” Asked by Joe Spencer at Times and Seasons.
Many years ago, more than 25, I read a book, or it might even have been an essay, that presented a very simple model that helps me think about these things. I believe it was written by a professor at UC Santa Barbara, but I can’t recall.
The model is this: morals rest upon ethics which rest upon metaphysical assumptions. Morals can be summed up as rules and norms, ethics as assumptions about what is good, and metaphysics as assumptions about the nature of reality. That is to say, we derive our rules from our assumptions about what is good, and our assumptions about what is good from our assumptions about the nature of things. In this model, I would not only prefer to say we have a Mormon ethics than that we have Mormon morals, I would prefer to say that we have a Mormon metaphysics from which we derive those ethics.
In practice, we often try to do this in reverse: we know the rules, and assume an ethics from those rules, and even a metaphysics from those rules. We think that we can know something about God and the nature of reality by knowing the Ten Commandments, for instance. We take morals to be the most concrete thing, and the nature of God and reality to be mysterious, possibly pointless. In fact, just the reverse is true, the nature of reality is constant (I would prefer to build a deeper level yet and call it the eternal), and morals are ephemeral. (In extreme cases of doing this in reverse, morals are mistaken for facts, and one is horrified that Jesus turned the water into wine. How could He break a rule?) Ethics, also, and not morals, is where the rubber hits the road, in terms of our desire to “do what is right”, since it is there, and not in morals, that one _begins_ to cope with metaphysics as a matter of practical importance.
Another problem with doing it backwards is that our ethics are in danger of not being grounded in reality, and hence we are less effective and more confused in our attempts to _be good_. Our ethics, however we try to justify them, become more or less a matter of personal sensibility – and, in particular, our personal reaction to moral propositions, rules.
So, to answer the question, I would say that Mormonism has a metaphysical stance rather, even, than an ethics. It is adaptable forward, which progress has the ability of radically reworking our views. (This is an ethical statement: one learns in Mormonism, one does not forget (ultimately). The metaphysics behind it assumes the learn-ability of reality.) Within this model, statements from Joseph Smith begin to make more sense to me. For instance, he says something like,’it is the first principle of the gospel to know for a certainty the nature and characteristics of God.’ What he is saying is that our ethics and morals will not be founded sufficiently unless they are deriving from right understanding of reality. The primary function of revelation becomes inquiring into and receiving answers concerning the nature of God, while we are living lives in which moral and ethical questions are constantly needing to be dealt with. But our prayers, or requests, rarely go into this territory, consumed as we are with moral and practical living. (There is nothing inherently wrong with this, I think. Jesus says about keeping the rules, this you ought to have done without leaving off the ‘weightier matters’, i.e inquiries into the nature of reality. He gives justice and mercy as examples.) The process of revelation becomes not so much a matter of how to live morally and practically (should I break my kid’s skull?, should I take a new job?) as a constant unfolding to us of reality.