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 generally 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.

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 personality 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, then, is 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.


6 Responses to “Mormon morals, ethics, metaphysics”

  1. Wow, very nicely done! I would love to hear this presented at General Conference it might begin to reverse pharisaical tendencies.

  2. Thanks, Howard. When they make me an apostle, I’ll invite you on the stand and we can tag-team. 😉

  3. I like your reductionist approach to personal revelation. Ultimately, it’s God who reveals to us the great cosmic realities as we become ready to accept them, and we are told to keep them to ourselves so as not to be deemed insane.

    • Hi Bradley, Thanks for stopping by. I don’t know if I’d call my view of revelation reductionist. Possibly I’m not sure what you mean. I do certainly agree with this “we are told to keep them to ourselves so as not to be deemed insane.”

  4. I’ve been reading your blog and wanted to see if I could offer you a free copy of my soon to be released novel Tongue of Fire in exchange for a fair and honest review on your blog. The plot synopsis is as follows:
    The charismatic new preacher at the local mega-church is drawing followers by the hundreds. There’s only one problem. He’s a Mormon, and nobody knows it.
    John Peterson tries to follow the Spirit, but it tells him to preach, and preaching only seems to get him into trouble. His strident defense of the Mormon Church has gotten him fired again, forcing his family to move for the third time in as many years. Looking for a fresh start in Mayfield, John agrees to keep his head down. But when the owner of the local mega-church loses his pastor, he invites John to preach without asking the name of his church. After a spiritual prompting, John decides to preach, but as his following explodes, his new-found fame threatens to expose his religion and shatter his family’s hopes for a new life.
    The town of Mayfield is growing impatient with high school football coach Paul Connelly. The former pastor was hired to help save the football program after the greatest scandal in school history, but after four straight losing seasons, his time is running out. With John Peterson’s meteoric rise, the town appears to have found a new moral authority, and an excuse to find a new coach. When Paul discovers that John is a Mormon, he finds the key to restoring his moral standing—all he has to do is expose and destroy John Peterson.
    You can see the cover art at the Tongue of Fire facebook link and like the page for further updates and news.
    Thank you for your time!
    David McKnight

    • jenheadjen Says:

      I don’t know if you’re still looking for reviewers, David, but I do a book review blog and would love to read what you’ve got. Drop me a line if you’re still looking. (can be found at jenheadjen.blogspot… 🙂

      Enjoying your blog, Thomas, and your comment over at BCC on Letting it Be. Agree wholeheartedly with you and hope to see more posts on this blog.

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