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That can't really be why you think that


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I was going to post this as a comment to Pris' thoughts, but thought that it might run a little long for that.

The most interesting issue raised by Pris and J. Max Wilson, in my humble opinion, is the question of evaluating motives and justifications. JMW worries that expressing generalizations or ideals is taken to be offensive when it actually is nothing more than an expression of one's conception of truth. Pris (quite rightly, in my book) sees too much judgment, too many insults, and not enough respect of choice.

Where this issue is decided (in my book) is in the treatment of the reasons people give for action. You see, Pris doesn't smoke with the knowledge that God hates smoking (presuming that He in fact does). He doesn't see that issue as settled. So, he provides his own reasons for making that choice. I do believe that decision to be foolhardy, but it doesn't affect me (provided that we win the public spaces debate). His reasons work for him.

Does that follow that his reasons are inherently respectable, especially when they apply only to him? Not to me. The whole point of discourse in an open forum is to talk about stuff. Disagreement usually implies a disdain for the views of another, whether those views are wrong due to moral weakness, a lack of intellectual rigor, internal inconsistencies, or a misstatement of the facts. The fact that Pris has reasons does not make them good reasons and we're entitled to debate that.

I think Pris gives too much presumption to the justifications of others, although he makes a good argument in noting the difficulty of comparing different types of justifications and argues that this is where the debate should be focused. I'm with him that the morality of the person should be judged based on the warrants and not on the conclusions. For example, let's say that Person A withholds food from a starving man and Person B provides it gleefully. Easy call, right? Wrong. Person A may be withholding the food because he believes it to be poisoned. Person B may be providing the food to gain the adulation of the world (or because it is poisoned). The act isn't always enough to judge. This is why there is general counsel and specific exceptions. It's also why you shouldn't write Elder Oaks and nag him about it. You build your own warrants.

JMW is right that we shouldn't take offense at general statements that contradict specific things in which we believe ourselves to be exceptions. For example, our stake president got up today and talked about how part of his life change to be more of a leader involved shaving. I'm a proud beard wearer. Did I take his point as a personal rebuke? Honestly, a little bit. But that isn't really justified, given that I don't feel that the Lord wants me to shave. (Or not shave. I just don't think he cares.) He didn't get in my face about it. He didn't call me an idiot or a product of the drug culture, as some gentlemen in the highest councils of the Church have chosen to do. I can take his point as his general counsel and move on.

Here's the problem, though. A blanket moral judgment of most any activity involves a judgment of motives. Given the example above, this makes generalizations sticky. Should we shy away from generalizations? Not always, or even frequently. But overly stressing the generalizations makes one unable to even perceive the views of another that disagrees. For example, I have a friend that does not choose to keep the law of chastity. She knows that I don't think any premarital sex is appropriate. Despite this, she knows that I understand her differing value system and that I respect her choice to do what she perceives to be right within that system. While we disagree on the proper values (and have debated these in some depth), we recognize each other as basically good people that are trying to do the best with the knowledge that they have.

In my view, generalizations can get in the way of building those bridges, regardless of the accuracy of the generalizations. If all we say is that "premarital sex is bad", we've upheld a point of truth, but we've thrown away a chance to build a bridge with another. How did we burn that bridge? Folks such as JMW would argue that their offense is the price of expression of truth. How, they might ask, could anyone take offense if one thinks him/herself to be right with God/other arbiter of truth/whatever else represents the good life?

The way that offense is taken is simple. JMW is right that living outside of a single principle doesn't make anyone a bad person and that most people don't try to make that claim. Their actual argument is less malicious, but significantly more paternalistic and condescending. The "espouse general principles and let the malingerers sort themselves out" view presumes that yes, you can be a good person if you don't keep this law, because there are probably lots of other things that redeem you. It's a black dot, but there might be other black dots you don't have.

This does a lot to clarify a position on proper and improper actions. It does nothing to persuade others that you care about what they have to say. It does nothing to convince others that effort and intent matter in morality. And it does nothing to affect the concept that discourse is irrelevant to judgment.

I think this is what Pris was getting at. Arguments that get stuck on ends and never on intent don't talk about morality, but about your concept of "what you'd do in their shoes". Sometimes useful, but often offensive. It's much better to emphasize the effort to be moral over the products of a given moral vision.

Here's what stinks about this whole debate: I agree with JMW that there is absolute truth in morality in every situation. I also agree with him that we can't be timid in talking about that. However, I recognize Pris' quite strong argument that we can't ask people to be openminded in evaluating the Church and never pay any attention to what they have to say back. Responding with "but that's wrong" is not only intellectually lacking, but misses the spiritual point as well, which is best expressed in D&C 58:27:

"Verily, I say, men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness."

If you're looking hard for a good cause, and you're looking hard for ways to move it along, you're probably alright with me. Persuading others that are sincerely interested that our cause (the LDS cause) is the best cause requires a good-faith acceptance of their effort. All too often, we generalize that part away under the cloak of truth.


4 Responses to “That can't really be why you think that”

  1. Blogger Pris 

    I'll respond more in-depth later when I have more time, but until then:

    Some good points and it helps me clarify my own position--I think I was getting to this in my initial post, though I never quite articulated it:

    Perhaps on these types of blogs there is an expectation of an LDS audience. With that, one can (usually) assume a certain set of beliefs and common ideas. So, in a way, the fundamentals don't need to be discussed. Consider the whole liminting-children debate at M*: the discussion seemed to be primarily concerned with how to interpret statements and data, not if having lots of kids is a "good" thing. (Had I commented, that's what I would have argued.)

    But in LDS/non-LDS discussions, there isn't that shared system of ethics. This isn't always a problem. However, it does become a problem when one condemns the specific by condemning the general (or the other way around).

    That is, the insult arises not because of a disagreement/argument on one specific idea, but because the offender, puposefully or accidently, condemns an entire system of belief. Which, really, isn't always bad--assuming that the "offender" knows the gravity of the assumption and exercises the requisite amount of tact.

    If not, then it's essentially saying, "Well, D-Train's wrong because he's a Mormon." And that's just asinine.

  2. Blogger lchan 

    I can't believe guys with beards still get hassled at church! What is the deal?! Seriously.

    Nice post.

  3. Blogger annegb 

    Pris is a guy?

    I don't think smoking is immoral, I think it's not good for you, but not immoral.

    I missed the original discussion, but I also get lost when there's a lot of words.

    There are a lot of things the church teaches against that I personally believe are not immoral, just not good for you.

  4. Anonymous Anonymous 

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