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Monday, April 04, 2005 

Morality? Overrated!

I am trying to think back to my parents talking to me about morality and chastity and while I am sure they did I don’t recall the conversation. I always knew where they stood and what behavior they thought was okay (the behavior I never managed to exhibit) and what behavior they didn’t approve of (the behavior that always left me on restriction). But truth be told I heard more about morality and chastity in Young Women’s then anywhere else. There was the Sunday the Bishop spoke to all of the Young Women, or maybe just the Laurels, and requested each of us promise to him that we would only marry a returned missionary and an Eagle Scout and in the temple. I have it all written out in one of my journals and I remember thinking that I would try, but I wasn’t sure if I could promise... it was the Eagle Scout thing I struggled with most, would I still marry him if he wasn’t an Eagle Scout? I thought I might. Then there was the trip all of the Young Women took to Salt Lake for one of our practices to sing in the Tabernacle for a Young Women’s conference that was going to be broadcasted EVERYWHERE... we all had to wear pastels and my mom got me the greatest pink top (my mom always bought me really cute clothes... they were not all name brand like I wanted, but they were extremely stylish... she is a great shopper). Anyway, my point was that I remember sitting on the Salt Lake City Temple grounds all dressed up one evening with all of the Young Women from my ward, I must have been 13 or 14. All of our leaders were there and they were each taking a turn telling us the importance of marriage and the importance of saving virginity for the day we were married. We discussed the significance of white and our own purity and why it is important to marry in the temple. That evening our leaders gave each of us a white satin hanger with a poem and potpourri attached that should hang in our closets until the day when we could put our wedding/temple dress on the hanger. Their purpose, which is already apparent, was to stair us in the face on a daily basis and remind us to stay pure for that special man that we would one day marry. Ironically I think my wedding dress (which if any of you would like to purchase for a very reasonable price let me know... I might even throw in a ring) still hangs on this very hanger. Ironic considering I didn’t get married in the temple, the man I married hadn’t gone on a mission, and my dress technically should have been off white. But the man I married was an Eagle Scout and we did meet at BYU... that is like a good third of the requirements, right? And then of course there is the “my body is a temple” lesson that I think I heard every Sunday in Young Women’s and possibly even every Tuesday at Mutual.

So did I listen and take it all to heart and remain “moral”? Oh I listened, I listened closely and then I think I created a list of everything that was said and for some reason used it as a check list of how not to live. I have had a problem with listening to authority since the day I came out of my mother’s womb. I can’t explain it, but it is true -- it has been a real pleasure for my parents, I am sure! You know though I turned out just fine - I love my family, they love me, I have amazing friends, a great job and live in a beautiful City that I absolutely love. I really enjoy the life I have made for myself even if it is one that has not and may still not include all of the “morals” that I was heavily encouraged to live by growing up. I’ve had a few hiccups here and there, maybe even a big fat belch every once in a while, but probably so has the person that followed every rule in the book, that is just life for you my friends.

But the thing with morality is that it has a flip side to it. It is supposed to be this great thing that should make everyone a better person, but it doesn’t always work that way. In fact instead it often provides guidelines by which you can judge a person. Morality, meaning “the quality of being in accord with standards of right or good conduct; a system of ideas of right and wrong conduct; virtuous conduct” but who is it that decides the standards of right or good conduct? Is it the Mormon Church? It is for people that believe in and practice the Mormon religion, as it is for the Catholic religion and the Jewish religion and every religion out there. But the thing is we each define right and good and virtuous a little differently. We each view ourselves as moral, but not one another. I don’t live by all of the Mormon morality standards I was taught growing up, but I think I am a moral person, yet I know plenty of people who I don’t think are moral or virtuous. I’d be willing to put money on it that they think they are. So where then does this leave us? It leaves us all as moral AND judgmental individuals. We are all right and we are all wrong. So then really what is the point?

"should have been off white"? Yikes! TMI, Rebecca. (By the way, non-white wedding dresses have a long and distinguished history -- as I recall, you're only supposed to avoid black and one other color (green?)).

Interesting comments, though. This looks like it may be yet another interesting week at VSM.

Also, without meaning to sound too much like your father (who could certainly do a better job of explaining this particular aspect than I can, so maybe I _should_ be trying to sound like him) --

"Morality" as we use it colloquially in the church has a connotation of sexual purity, law-of-chastity, etc. But that's an awfully narrow, specialized use of a term which has a much broader meaning.

I mean, a moral system is simply one where individuals can use cultural or religious guides to determine whether or not an action is "right" or "wrong."

(Also, I tend to think of moral systems as being more ontological than utilitarian, and I think that most people do -- basically, the ontological-utilitarian difference is tha that in an ontological system, rules matter independently of the effects of the consequences of an action -- but Jim can probably split that particular hair in a half dozen directions and show that a moral system does not need to be ontological).

Your position seems to be anti-morality as defined by the LDS church, but pro-morality in some other sense. If I'm reading you correctly, then let me ask the obvious follow-up --

What are the particular cultural/religious/social guideposts which you think _should_ have moral weight? (And, of course, why?).

(This is not meant to be combative, I'm just wondering what moral guidelines you're suggesting).

I got married in the temple AND my dress was rented AND I had a big old blue silk sash/cumberbund thingy...with sparklies... wedding dresses don't HAVE to be white. They've only traditionally been white for a few decades. I'll bet your grandma's dress wasn't white...just thought I would throw that out there.

I enjoyed your comments and, as always, your perspective.

I don't see the LDS chasity/moral code coming from the church itself, I believe that it comes from God through modern revelation. I would be much more UNwilling to follow it myself (stubborn) if I thought it was being "made up" by a bunch of octagenarians in suits in Salt Lake City to keep me from having fun. I don't see it that way, though there have been times in my life when I tried my best to justify it that way. Without giving away my Saturday post, let's just say I'm a happier person (and my life is WAY less complicated) because I am trying to follow the LDS moral/chastity code.

I guess the moral of the story is that whatever we chose to be the parameters or guidelines in our lives we need to utilize them in the best way possible; so as to always be able to not have regrets, resentments and misgivings. This is of course is a pretty bold statement coming from a man who’s entire former life was fraught, no, make that based, on behaviors of a rebellious nature, and where looking back can sometimes be a tad painful. Bit it was not something that I could have avoided had I let’s say listened to an indoctrination of a society, sect or organization. After all the ends justify the means as it was only something that I could achieve through my own journey by making my own mistakes along the way!

Societal morality is relative to only just where you are standing at this time in this world of ours and personal morality is just that – personal. And once again an individual choice…

Kaimi raised good questions.

Rebecca and Fromage: Even if one doesn't believe in God, the alternative is not necessarily "morality is relative to the person" or "morality is relative to the society at a particular time." There are lots of explanations of morality that are neither relativistic nor religious, so the claim that they are relativistic requires more than just the denial that they are religious.

And of course there is an important element of choice in morality, but it is far from obvious that we choose our moralities any more than that they come to us, even when we take up a morality different than that of our family or community. After all, we don't make up the morality we have, and we don't decide whether to feel that this or that is right or wrong. Things are a lot more complicated than that.

But don't you think the definition of right and wrong, good and evil changes over time? Don't you think that morality is defined different among different cultures? Isn't that the point of Friedrich Nietzsche's On The Genealogy of Morals? Morals have to be somewhat societal.

Actually, I don't think that is the point of Genealogy of Morals,. Instead, it is an argument that what passed for morality in the Europe of Nietzsche's day was really a kind of cowardice that needed to be replaced by the will to create. But he didn't argue that creation was creation from nothing nor that the result was merely subjective.

Of course there is a social element to morality. There can't be morals--rules for how people relate to each other--if there aren't people in relation. And of course there have been different moral rules for different people at different times and places. I doubt that anyone could argue otherwise without ignoring a lot of history and anthropology. But it doesn't follow that moral rules are subjective in an individual sense. In fact, they couldn't be or they wouldn't be rules for relations among people.

It also doesn't follow that moral rules are merely relative to the culture or time period in question. The real question isn't whether there have been different rules at different times, but whether there is something common to sets of moral rules, a substratum of morality, if you will. I think the evidence is that there is.

Kant identifies that substratum with reason and the categorical imperative (which, noticeably, doesn't require that one believe in God in order to have non-relative morality). Mill identifies it with the greatest good for the greatest number, also non-relative and non-subjective. And also not a philosophical explanation that either requires or excludes God. As I said, there are lots of ways of talking about morality without introducing God.

However, even many religious people will talk about religious morality in terms of one of the theories of morality--Kantianism, or utilitarianism, or . . . . In other words, religious people don't necessarily believe that what is moral is moral simply because God commanded it. They may, but it isn't required by the fact that they are religious. In fact, many Mormons explicitly do not accept that theory of morality. (I haven't yet decided whether I do. There may be something to the divine command theory of morality, even if it isn't sufficient.)

My own belief is that Emmanuel Levinas explains the origin of morality better than anyone, but this is hardly the place to try to explicate that. His best essay on the topic is perhaps "The Ego and the Totality," though he makes the argument in a number of places. Needless to say, Levinas's explanation leaves room for God without ignoring the situated character of moral judgments.

Morals are not instincts and morals are not DNA, morals are teachings from a doctrine passed down through the years and they slowly evolve just as religions do. After all why aren’t we all Catholics or better yet Muslims? As what do we think the Age of Enlightenment was all about? Where even the church had to take a look at how badly it treated its subjects and if further proof of radicalism in theology is needed why look any farther than the Germanic followers of Luther?

I for one can’t buy the theory that my sexual relationship manual was initiated by Eve’s bite of the apple! I also don’t adhere to the teachings of a power greater then myself threatening me with damnation if I disobey. And one only has to live in a major metropolitan area of our country to see that the very so called moral fabric of our society is outdated and whether or not one cares to admit it – evolving! Just as we as a species are evolving along with it and to shun such revisions and new beliefs is to hide your head in the sand hoping that it will all go away and leave you alone!

Jim F., morality is subjective whether its religious or not. The acceptance of any moral standard or system at all requires a moral judgment that is anterior to the standard—specifically, the judgment that the moral standard is good (virtue ethicists like MacIntryre struggle to overcome this, but to no avail). Of course, relativity doesn’t follow from subjectivity, but that’s a separate issue.

What I find interesting about LDS morality is what gets emphasized and what falls by the wayside. It is often noted that the Word of Wisdom offers more dietary advice than avoidance of tobacco, hot drinks, and strong drink. In the temple, we covenant to abstain from loud laughter and extramarital sex alike. When was the last time we heard a conference talk on the evils of loud laughter and the joys of being gloomy? (Of course, it is customary to take the “loud laughter” thing to refer to respect for the sacred. But shouldn’t such an important covenant have been clarified back when they made the “Law of the Lord” update?) At any rate, from everything I can tell, chastity didn’t become a Mormon watchword until the early 20th century, but you won’t find people talking about this when they try to provide a context for Joseph Smith’s polygamy.

Rebecca, I think that your discussion of the Mormon emphasis on chastity is the most candid I’ve read. I think your right that the ridiculous approach taken by your bishop explains why so many Mormons are so very prude.

I, along with Arturo, appreciate the post addressing the subject of chastity candidly. In my experience, many members of the church can't even say the word sex without blushing and looking terribly uncomfortable. Most members' exposure to sex from a church perspective involves hard-line chastity talks and lessons with a lot of "don't's", as was described in the original post.

Going along with the last comment Arturo made, there seems to be a growing problem with Mormon couples not being able to enjoy intimacy within marriage because they cannot think of sex as being something they can do and enjoy without feeling guilty about it. I know this is especially a problem with YW who get married, some of whom have developed a complete aversion to sex. There have been a few books published in the last few years by Mormon authors on sexuality (e.g., Between Husband and Wife, And They Were Not Ashamed) and one of the main points of these books is that it's actually okay to enjoy sex once you're married. No doubt most members know in their mind sex in marriage is not a sin, but many cannot disassociate it from being evil and dirty even with this knowledge. Does this suggest that the way in which most church leaders teach and encourage chastity does not allow for a very positive image of sex, even when it is morally sanctioned?

Here is an excerpt from a comment about the book, And They Were Not Ashamed: "I really appreciated the section with all the quotes and scripture references letting us know that sex is good and okay. Before I got married I asked my mom to give me the talk and she wouldn't. She just said I'd learn everything I'd need to know from my wife. I felt ashamed and embarrassed for asking. I didn't know enough to get married. I had always felt that sex was just for procreation and that sex for pleasure or enjoyment was dirty or wrong." http://inspirebook.com/product_reviews_info.php?products_id=28&reviews_id=9&osCsid=a380a45ee6128ec0eac08d153026373f

Sadly, I think there are many LDS who share these views, if not in whole, than in part, and one of the reasons I think is the way in which chastity is taught at church.

I, along with Arturo, appreciate the post addressing the subject of chastity candidly. In my experience, many members of the church can't even say the word sex without blushing and looking terribly uncomfortable. Most members' exposure to sex from a church perspective involves hard-line chastity talks and lessons with a lot of "don't's", as was described in the original post.

Going along with the last comment Arturo made, there seems to be a growing problem with Mormon couples not being able to enjoy intimacy within marriage because they cannot think of sex as being something they can do and enjoy without feeling guilty about it. I know this is especially a problem with YW who get married, some of whom have developed a complete aversion to sex. There have been a few books published in the last few years by Mormon authors on sexuality (e.g., Between Husband and Wife, And They Were Not Ashamed) and one of the main points of these books is that it's actually okay to enjoy sex once you're married. No doubt most members know in their mind sex in marriage is not a sin, but many cannot disassociate it from being evil and dirty even with this knowledge. Does this suggest that the way in which most church leaders teach and encourage chastity does not allow for a very positive image of sex, even when it is morally sanctioned?

Here is an excerpt from a comment about the book, And They Were Not Ashamed: "I really appreciated the section with all the quotes and scripture references letting us know that sex is good and okay. Before I got married I asked my mom to give me the talk and she wouldn't. She just said I'd learn everything I'd need to know from my wife. I felt ashamed and embarrassed for asking. I didn't know enough to get married. I had always felt that sex was just for procreation and that sex for pleasure or enjoyment was dirty or wrong." http://inspirebook.com/product_reviews_info.php?products_id=28&reviews_id=9&osCsid=a380a45ee6128ec0eac08d153026373f

Sadly, I think there are many LDS who share these views, if not in whole, than in part, and one of the reasons I think is the way in which chastity is taught at church.

Sorry about the double post.

Fromage: I don't think anyone on the thread has argued that morals are either instincts or DNA. I certainly didn't. I could have argued that they have an evolutionary explanation, which would perhaps reduce them to DNA. The argument is plausible. But I didn't make that argument. Nor has anyone argued that morals don't change. And if you don't buy the theory that your "sexual relationship manual was initiated by Eve's bite of the apple" or that a power greater than you threatens you with damnation if you don't obey, then you are in good company at "Various Stages." Mormons don't buy either of those, and nothing that I or anyone else said suggested that we might. It is better to respond to what people actually said than to what you assume they said.

Arturo Toscanini: I won't quibble with your use of the term "subjective." Certainly to accept a moral standard is to judge, as an individual, that it is good. In that sense it is subjective. But that kind of judgment cannot be made outside of history and culture. It doesn't occur in a rational vacuum, and that absence of a vacuum complicates matters considerably: my judgement of what is good is not merely an expression of a personal preference; a great deal of it is learned—absorbed—rather than chosen. As you say, however, that it is subjective doesn't make it relative. Neither would its historical/cultural character make it relative.

But neither my quibble with Fromage nor my non-quibble with Arturo is the point of Rebecca's thread. As Arturo points out, she raises an important point: the usual Mormon focus on sexual morality to the exclusion of other questions of morality is often silly and can be dangerous. SJC says something like that, though I would be interested in knowing whether empirical data support the claims he/she makes about young married Mormons having a difficult time with sex because they think it is forbidden or dirty. That they do gets said a lot, but I would like to know whether it is something we say or whether there is data to back up the claim. I don't know which is right, but my suspicion is that most young Mormons don't have that problem. However, my suspicion is backed up only by my particular experiences. It would require more than anecdote or rumor to answer the question.

In any case, Mormons who think that sex is inherently sinful, don't understand their own teachings.

Jim – I appreciated your observations. You’re right, the problem may be overstated; I don't have any figures to match what I've heard and read, but I’ve heard and read it a few times from different sources. I think one of the reasons these books are released, however, is to address a problem people are frequently seeing. Though most likely only a very small minority has a “sex aversion”, I think many in the church are plagued with doubts, confusion, frustration and a lack of knowledge on the subject. To complicate the issue, I did see one statistic from an article on the FAIR LDS site saying about 50-60% of LDS have had premarital sex before the age of 20. http://www.fairlds.org/pubs/conf/2002HeaT.html (This figure, of course, doesn’t tell us anything about guilt or confusion associated with sex.)

Anyway, getting back to the point though, I think that the strong rhetoric of church leaders on chastity could be implicitly construed as anti-sex, whether or not that’s completely compatible with church doctrine, and this is a cause of confusion and frustration for many. As the societies in which many LDS live become more and more open about discussions on sex, the church continues with the same dogmatic approach, which in many cases stifles discussion and dialogue. Many members who are having trouble reconciling in their minds what is taught at church with what they hear, read and see outside of church don’t have much to turn to besides hard-line lessons and talks. I think more dialogue and discussion is warranted.

"In any case, Mormons who think that sex is inherently sinful, don't understand their own teachings."
I agree, yet I think many intellectually understand that it’s not wrong once you’re married, but still can’t free sex from the negative connotations it has always had for them in the church. BTW I’m a male.

After thinking about it for a little while, I think I'd be livid if a bishop tried to get my girls to promise to marry an RM, Eagle Scout in the temple.

To be fair I don't think my Bishop meant any harm. He just wanted the best for us and thought that the promise was it... that these guidelines, standards, whatever word you want to use, would provide us with a better life. But in the end they don't guarantee us any form of happiness.

I think that this whole explanation is boggis because things do turn out better in the eternal figurative speeech. An from the blessings recieved from god for staying faithful.

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This Week's Topic:

  • The Sabbath Day

Various Authors

  • Monday:
    Kaycee opted out of Mormondom 4 years ago. She calls herself agnostic.
  • Tuesday:
    Sarah is not your average Gospel Doctrine Teacher.
  • Wednesday:
    Carrie Ann comes from pioneer stock, and lives in Provo, but is open minded and fair.
  • Thursday:
    Ned Flanders hasn't been to church in a while, but maintains an interest in all things Mormon.
  • Friday:
    John C. is an academic with a sense of humor and a testimony.
  • Saturday:
    JP's not going to church and feeling okay about it.

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