Moral Ambiguity

A very difficult part of going through a faith transition is feeling certain about many of the moral decisions that you need to make. Often, people in the church rely on what leaders tell them to be able to make moral decisions, and leaving the structure that the church provides makes them feel like they don’t know what constitutes a morally correct decision anymore. The point of what I’m going to say isn’t to give you a clear direction in that regard, but rather to give you things to consider and to start you thinking about how to figure out what your new moral code will be. First of all, it is important to note that even within an LDS framework it’s hard to pin down exactly what constitutes morally correct actions. An easy example is with the ten commandments. God said, “Thou shalt not kill,” and that seems pretty straight forward, but if you think about it you realize that there are tons of exceptions to that rule. Some cheap shots would be Nephi killing Laban, the Israelites slaughtering the canaanites, and others.

Some more tricky examples would be in cases of war, which we can find examples of in Alma. One of the other things that church leaders teach is to “follow the spirit.” The idea here is that anything that the spirit says comes from God, and therefore is morally correct. Again, this seems straightforward, especially because it is difficult to find clear-cut situations where following the spirit is demonstrably false. This is because often the response when someone follows the spirit and does something wrong is that they weren’t -actually- following the spirit, but instead they were deceived by Satan or some other thing.

In reality, the fact that it is difficult to distinguish between the two itself is an evidence of it not being so clear-cut to follow the spirit because the morality of an action seems based on whether the action turns out fine instead of any kind of principle. However, setting that aside we can find examples in church history where people have followed the spirit and ended up doing things that were morally wrong. For one thing, many believe that Joseph Smith’s polygamy was wrong, even though he claimed to receive direct revelation from God instructing him to practice it. An even more clear-cut example is with the blacks and the priesthood. In the past the doctrine in the church laid the foundation for denying the priesthood to african americans, and prophets and apostles actively enforced this rule. We must assume that they were guided by the spirit in enforcing and preaching this rule because the salvation of God’s children is of utmost importance. However, now the church has released the gospel topics essays which explicitly denounce that teaching. The reason why this is an important example is because we can assume in both cases that the prophets and apostles were “following the spirit” and ended up at mutually exclusive conclusions, where both decisions were seen as immoral according to the others’ criteria. In the end, “following the spirit” doesn’t stand up even to an evaluation of itself.

With that said, the next thought that many people have is: well great, so the church doesn’t always know what is right and often gets it wrong, so what is right? Especially for people who were really committed to the church, and people who really care about doing the right thing, this can be a very unsettling issue. The short answer is: it depends. And also: nobody really knows. That is to say, lots of people agree on things that are explicitly bad, but there is almost no unanimity about what is explicitly good. Just off the bat 99.9% (This isn’t a statistic more of a hope/guess) of people will agree that things like torture, murder, and rape are bad, regardless of the religion they come from. However, when it gets to questions like “How should I use my time?” “Is pirating OK?” “Should I turn in the $50 I found on the street or should I keep it?” “Is sex before marriage OK?” “Is drinking alcohol/coffee/smoking OK?” or even, more generally, “Am I a good person?” the answers aren’t as clean-cut and there’s nowhere near as much consensus.

Again, the purpose of this isn’t to give you concrete answers, but instead to give you some things to think about that will hopefully point you in the right direction where you can begin searching. These are questions that everybody in the non-mormon world struggles with (hopefully), and there is by no means a consensus. For a concrete example of this, consider the current debate about abortion. Some people consider it moral because women should be allowed to have control over their bodies, while others say that all potential human life is just as valid as any other human life, and therefore abortion at any point is murder.

The important question for you in this is: What do you think?

Then, just as important: Why do you think what you think?

One of the problems that people run into is that they come up with an answer to a question like this and then hold as zealously to it as they would any religion, and that itself is an issue. Because these problems are so complex and plenty of smart people have worked on them and come to different conclusions, it’s almost irrational that any one person thinks they have the absolute solution. That’s why it’s important to know what you think and why you think that way, your reasons give the foundation for your position, and if you don’t have good reasons for thinking something, you might want to re-evaluate your position. On the other hand, if you do have good reasons, then you might want to talk to others about them and see if you can refine them and guide yourself to even better/more moral positions, and that’s part of the fun of figuring it out.

With regard to the questions themselves, some people try to answer them individually, while others subscribe to moral frameworks like utilitarianism, kantianism, or simply the golden rule. Some people might not that Jesus was divine but still believe he had the right idea in terms of how to treat others, and that’s OK too. A good place to start if you want to figure out your own moral code is to read about some of these frameworks and consider whether or not you agree that they are effective moral systems. An important thing to keep in mind is that thus far no perfect universal moral system has been found. A quick example is with utilitarianism, which posits that the morally good thing is what brings the greatest amount of happiness to the greatest amount of people. At first this might seem reasonable, however, you can quickly find issues when you consider that this could justify a majority tyrannizing a minority, and there are many other problems that could be discussed here.

It’s essential that you understand very smart people have worked on this for a long time and haven’t come up with perfect answers. In the end, thinking about these questions, being thoughtful, considerate, and doing your best is the most you can ask of yourself.

Regardless of what framework you decide on, you will probably do things that go against what you think is right and feel bad about them, and that’s also OK. Making mistakes and updating our beliefs based on new information and experience is part of what makes you human.

That’s part of the fun!

So, consider this, and good luck on your adventure!