Moral Obligation and Mormonism:
A Response to Francis Beckwith
In his contribution to The New Mormon Challenge, Francis Beckwith argues that the LDS view of God(s) cannot explain the existence of objective moral obligation and that the “Classical” view which he purports to defend can.1 Beckwith’s essay is an argument based on meta-ethics and not ethics proper. That is, he bases his arguments on the theoretical underpinning of moral obligation–“what is the source and explanation of the fact that we have objective moral obligations?”–and not on the practical ethical question: “what are we morally obligated to do?”
Beckwith argues that Latter-day Saints cannot account for the fact of moral obligation given their view of God. Beckwith argues that the Evangelical god can explain the existence of moral obligation because moral laws are grounded in God’s nature. Beckwith reviews several moral theories cursorily and then declares that no meta-ethical theory is available to Latter-day Saints. This claim is bold indeed, given the very limited discussion of the issues he provides. His conclusion is even more daring because he fails to discuss the best candidates for a Mormon view of meta-ethics. I show that the revelations of the Restoration point to a profound and thoroughly Christian view of ethical obligation that is not available to Evangelicals.
In addition, I will show that Beckwith cannot adopt the view that moral law is grounded in God’s nature given the constraints on moral theory that he outlines in his article. I argue that Beckwith’s position is necessarily false because he takes all moral laws to be logically necessary. Moreover, I argue that the moral law cannot be the result of a rational mind if it is grounded in God’s nature. I also argue that if God is necessarily good, as Beckwith’s argument implies, then God is an a-moral being in whom we cannot repose interpersonal trust. Finally, I argue that the view of God that Beckwith critiques is not necessarily the LDS position.
Beckwith begins his elucidation of the LDS view of God by observing:
According to a prominent stream of LDS theology, God the Father is a resurrected, ‘exalted’ man named Elohim, who was at one time not God. He was a mortal on another planet who, through obedience to the percepts of his God, eventually attained exaltation, or godhood, through ‘eternal progression.”2
Beckwith cites Bruce R. McConkie’s Mormon Doctrine to support this assertion. However, Beckwith cannot support this assertion by citing McConkie, for McConkie merely explains that Elohim is one of the names that the Father is sometimes called. The additional assertions that: (1) there was a time when the Father was not “God” and (2) that the Father became God at some time by following the moral laws established by another god are not supported by reference to McConkie.3 Of course Beckwith may claim that this view is somehow entailed by the King Follett Discourse–but I intend to argue against that interpretation as adequate to represent Joseph Smith’s thought. In particular, I contend that (1) and (2) are not necessarily true given LDS commitments. However, Beckwith contends that given this view of “God” it follows that: “the Mormon God is not the being in whom morality ultimately rests, for the moral law is something that he had to obey in order to achieve his divine status.”4
That is all that Beckwith needs for his argument against the LDS view, for he claims that given this view, it follows that God is not the source of moral law but subject to it:
Just as our wills, desires, and interests are independent of the existence of moral law, so are Gods will and decrees [on the LDS view]. That is, if God’s decrees and acts are good, they are only good because they are consistent with an unchanging moral law that exists apart from him. God’s decrees are not good merely because they are God’s. For God was himself once a man who, through obedience to certain eternal principles and laws, eventually became God.5
In contrast, he argues that there is a neat explanation for the existence the Good and moral obligation in classical thought. He claims that God’s commands are necessarily good and morally obligating because: “God’s nature (or character) is such that it is eternally and perfectly good. That is, God’s commands are good, not because God commands them, but because God is good. Thus, God is not subject to a moral order outside of himself, and neither are God’s moral commands arbitrary. God’s commands are issued by a perfect being who is the source of all goodness.”6
Beckwith begins by observing that both Evangelicals and LDS are committed to the existence of objective moral absolutes: “the LDS Church teaches that there is an unchanging moral law that all humans are obligated to obey.”7 Beckwith then outlines five conditions of “moral laws” which he maintains must be met by any adequate moral theory. First, moral laws are capable of being known; otherwise, we would have to be moral skeptics about our ability to conform to the moral law. Second, moral laws are such that they are necessarily capable of taking a linguistic form of a command that conveys the content of the law “to another mind.” Third, moral laws have an incumbency or “oughtness” about them that obliges us to act in conformance with them, though we are free to not do so. Fourth, a moral law is capable of inducing feelings of guilt in us when we violate it–though we can resist that feeling. Fifth, moral laws are not physical in the sense that they are material or extended realities–they are purely ideal realities.
Beckwith then contends that the LDS view is incapable of giving an adequate account of moral obligation and laws. To make this argument, he suggests that the LDS view does not fit well with Platonism or the philosophy that there are simply ideal moral absolutes. His arguments at this point are not really against the LDS view but Platonism. He suggests that Platonism fails because it does not fit well with his list of requirements for moral theory. For example, Platonism fails to explain why violation of moral principles engenders guilt. He argues that Platonism must be false because we cannot owe any obligation to ideal absolute principles, for obligation arises only toward other persons. Finally, there is “no purposing agent or mind behind” such moral principles; but it seems to Beckwith that moral principles and laws are such that they must be the result of mind or purposing agent.
He also reviews the divine command theory (the view that an act is good or evil solely because God wills or commands it), a “Rawlsian” social contract theory (which bases moral obligation on voluntary and implied contracts among “ideal” persons in the social context of the society in which they reside), Aristotle’s theory of final causes (which bases moral theory on the fulfillment of human nature) and a theory of moral properties emerging from physical realities (the view that moral obligation arises from the natural environment and supervenes on physical states of affairs analogous to the way that complex properties such as mind arise from biological complexity in the theory of evolution). He suggests that each of these theories is not a good fit with his set of criteria that any moral theory must meet–and that this ill-fit is especially true for LDS thought. He thus concludes (rather hastily) that LDS cannot avail themselves of any explanation for the source of moral obligation and should therefore be rejected: “The above options seem to be the most viable alternatives to classic Christian theism that Mormonism could appeal to, but they all fail.”8
Why Beckwith’s Argument is Necessarily Unsound
In contrast to the LDS view, Beckwith contends that the classical view of God easily accounts for the existence of moral laws and obligation. Beckwith asserts:
[T]he moral law does depend on God, but not because God issues moral commands and is the all powerful Creator of the universe. Rather, it is because God’s nature (or character) is such that it is eternally and perfectly good. That is, God’s commands are good, not because God commands them, but because God is good. Thus, God is not subject to a moral order outside of himself, and neither are God’s moral commands arbitrary. God’s commands are issued by a perfect being who is the source of all goodness.9
Beckwith maintains also that there is “an unchanging moral law that is true in every possible world.”10 Of course, it follows that based on Beckwith’s view God must also exist in every possible world. Remember that a “possible world” is a maximally inclusive description of the ways things can possibly be. If God exists in every possible world, it means that no matter how we conceive things, it is impossible to consistently think of any way the world could possibly be without including God. However, this latter proposition is dubious at best.
Thus, there is a very simple reason why Beckwith’s position regarding the relationship between the “classical” God and moral law cannot be accepted. On Beckwith’s view, moral laws and principles are metaphysically necessary in the sense that they obtain in every possible world. It is indeed impossible to imagine that there is some possible world where it is morally right to torture children just for fun. However, as I have shown in response to Parrish, the notion that God exists of logical necessity in the sense that God exists in every possible world is false.11 God (as conceived in the classical tradition defended by Beckwith) does not exist in those possible worlds where there are vast amounts of unjustified evils. It follows that there are possible worlds where God does not exist but the moral laws still obtain in those possible worlds because they are necessary truths. Thus, it also follows that moral law cannot be dependent on God, or be included within God’s nature, because they can exist even if God does not exist.
It seems to me that Beckwith, and others who locate necessary moral truths in God’s nature, have simply substituted necessary truths about moral goodness with truths about God. However, necessary moral truths have a different logical status than God, and thus we run into an incoherent view. The view that moral goodness must be independent of God’s existence in some sense is strongly supported by our moral intuitions. Consider the following conditionals:
P. If God did not exist, no one could be morally good or bad.
Q. If God were not loving and just, no one could be morally good or bad.
These conditionals seems obviously false to me.12 Consider the proposition that Beckwith presents as an example of a truth which must be objective and obtain in every possible world: “It is morally objectionable to torture little babies.” If God did not exist, would there be some possible world in which “it is not morally objectionable to torture little babies” is true? Hardly. In fact, it seems to me that the proposition: “It is morally objectionable to torture little babies” is analytically true because what we mean by “torture” is “a morally wrong action.”13 An analytic truth is one that is known to be true in virtue of the meaning of the words used, such as: “this wife is married.” By wife we mean a married woman, so saying that “a wife is married” is necessarily, though vacuously, true (not to mention redundant). In the same way, the assertion that “it is morally objectionable to torture babies” is necessarily true. Now with the exception of Descartes, no theologians in the creedal tradition have maintained that logically necessary truths are created by God. Indeed, logically necessary truths are logically prior to God’s existence and thus cannot depend on God.
Beckwith would undoubtedly counter that a possible world where there are sentient beings but where God does not exist is impossible because God exists of logical necessity and any world with sentient beings can only exist if God creates it (assuming that he agrees with Parrish). However, such a view requires us to alter the nature of logical space to assert that possible worlds where there are unjustified evils are not really possible. Such a view is a very large stretch of logic to make room for a logically necessary God. In any event, until we have some compelling argument to support such a revisionist system of logic, the assertion that God exists of logical necessity is dubious at best.
Are Moral Laws Logically Dependent On God’s Nature?
Beckwith also attempts to save his view of God from two compelling objections. My objections to Beckwith’s view are versions of Plato’s Euthyphro dilemma. In its standard version, the dilemma is posed as follows: Is an act good because God commands it, or does God command it because it is good? To take the first horn of the dilemma is to adopt the view that moral laws are arbitrary. For God could then command us to kill innocent children just for the fun of it and that act would be our duty because it is good. On the other hand, if we assert that God commands an act because it is good, then we acknowledge that there are moral standards independent of God’s command by which we judge the goodness of God’s command. Beckwith wisely realizes that any divine command theory that bases moral principles on God’s commands is inadequate:
Like many classical Christians, I do not find the [Divine Command Theory] (or its modified version defended by Adams) to be an adequate justification for moral law. But that does not mean that God is not the ground of the moral law. It simply means that it is not his commanding that gives the moral law its authority…. That is, God’s commands are good, but not because God commands them, but because God is good.14
But does locating goodness in God’s nature rather than his commands solve the problem? In a review of a previous book authored by Beckwith and Stephen Parrish I stated two objections to this supposed solution. First, I argued that it makes God’s commands arbitrary: “If God’s nature is logically prior to God’s will, then God is stuck with whatever his nature happens to dictate–and in this sense moral values are clearly arbitrary.”15 Beckwith responds by guessing: “What Ostler seems to be saying is that God’s nature is a sort of impersonal, undirected force to which his will is subject.” He goes on to conclude:
Thus, if God commands, “Don’t torture babies for fun,” because he wills it in every possible world “torturing babies for fun is wrong,” and that principle is the result of a good nature, then God’s command is “arbitrary” because he has no control over the nature that apparently directs his will.16
First, note that Beckwith has shifted the grounding of moral goodness from God’s nature to God’s will. He answers my objection by asserting that moral laws are grounded in what God wills in all possible worlds. But isn’t this response an abandonment of the very position he seeks to defend? After all, if moral laws are grounded in what God wills rather than in God’s nature, we have a form of divine command theory, which Beckwith expressly rejects as inadequate to explain the existence of moral laws.
Moreover, Beckwith attempts to answer my objection to his view by asserting that my objection “doesn’t help the LDS worldview … [because in the LDS worldview] moral law does not have its source in a mind, nor is it under the direction of any being.”17 Hold on a minute. My point was that Beckwith’s view is deficient. In defense, he then turns and asserts that somehow LDS doctrine holds that moral law is not subjective but universal and objective (or mind independent) so it can’t solve the problem either. But this won’t do. Beckwith’s response is simply the assertion that two wrongs make his view right. In fact, Beckwith is correct that I reject his view (that moral goodness is a constituent of God’s nature) because I accept (as does Beckwith) that the moral law arises only in the context of interpersonal relations among persons. If the moral law is located in God’s nature, then it does not arise solely in the context of interpersonal relations. God’s nature obtains prior to any interpersonal relations on Beckwith’s view of God. I also accept Beckwith’s suggestion that the moral law requires a personal mind to give it existence and content. Yet if the moral law is located in God’s nature then it cannot be the result of a rational mind because God’s nature is logically prior to any rational thought by God.
Beckwith can’t successfully respond to my argument against his view by saying that the LDS view can’t respond to the criticism either. Indeed, Beckwith never responds to my criticism that because God’s nature is logically prior to his will, it follows that the moral law is arbitrary in the sense that it arises from an impersonal universal that is neither the product of a mind nor arises in the context of interpersonal relations. It also follows that God has no say or control over the moral law at all because it is a given in his existence in the same way that “humanness” is a given in my nature. Thus, such “goodness” on Beckwith’s view becomes merely a surd given (i.e., a reality that is not created but simply given prior to any of God’s acts) that is logically prior to God’s will and mind.
This argument is doubly telling against Beckwith, ad hominem, because he explicitly argues that the moral law must be the product of a rational mind and arises only in the context of interpersonal relationships. Beckwith can’t accept his own view given the criteria for moral laws that he has elucidated. God’s nature is logically prior to God’s decisions and mental acts. Thus, if the moral law is based on God’s nature rather than his commands, then the moral law already obtains logically prior to anything God can do or think. God’s nature is logically more basic than any of God’s rational acts because, according to Beckwith’s view, God’s rational acts must conform to God’s prior nature. Therefore, the moral law cannot be the result of a personal mind given Beckwith’s assumptions about God’s nature, for the moral law is what it is prior to any thought or rational input on God’s part.
Equally problematic for Beckwith is the fact that locating moral goodness in God’s nature rather than God’s commands only moves the Euthyphro problem back one step. What is it to have a nature? It is commonly thought that a person’s nature is that set of properties she possesses in every possible world in which she exists. If God is good by nature then he has properties of goodness in every possible world in which he exists. Thus in every possible world in which He is located, God has properties such as being perfectly benevolent, loving, kind, etc. But if we identify moral goodness with God’s nature, as Beckwith does, then we must ask: Is God good because he has these properties, or are these properties good because they are God’s? If God is good because he has these properties, then we imply that there is a standard apart from God by which we judge his goodness. That is, God isn’t the ultimate standard of moral goodness; rather, the moral content of his properties is thus the standard of moral goodness. On the other hand, if properties such as being generous, loving, kind etc. are good merely because God has them, then their content is not important, what is important is that they have a certain “owner” rather than a certain moral content. But then it seems that moral goodness is arbitrary and loses its meaning. Don’t generosity, loving kindness, and faithfulness have moral value regardless of who has these properties? It seems to me that they do.
However, Beckwith further argues that the moral law is not arbitrary because moral values obtain in every possible world:
But to paraphrase Ostler’s critique of my view, if the moral law is logically prior to God’s will, then God is stuck with whatever the moral law happens to dictate–and in this sense, moral values are clearly arbitrary…. But Ostler would clearly reject this. He would deny that an unchanging moral law that is true in every possible world is arbitrary. I would agree.18
I would indeed agree that a moral law that obtains in every possible world is not arbitrary because such a moral truth is logically necessary. But what has that got to do with locating moral law in God’s nature? What convinces me (and I propose Beckwith also) that truths like “it is morally wrong to torture babies for fun” is that such moral truths are true by virtue of the meaning of the words we use–not that they are constituents of God’s nature. What we mean by “torture” is a morally wrong act. Thus, such moral truths are logically necessary in the same sense that “this bachelor is not married” is logically necessary. Indeed, as I argued earlier, the fact that such truths are logically necessary only shows that they cannot be dependent on God’s nature. Such necessary moral truths obtain even in possible worlds in which God does not exist and therefore they cannot be dependent on God for their nature. Thus, Beckwith can respond to my arbitrariness objection only by impaling himself on the other horn of the Euthyphro dilemma–if the moral law is not arbitrary then there must be moral standards independent of God’s nature. In this case, the moral standards are established by the meaning of the words used and not by God’s nature.
Is God a Morally Perfect Being?
Beckwith also seeks to defend his view of God against the argument that if God is perfectly good by nature rather than by choice, then God is an a-moral being. The argument is essentially that if God is perfectly good by nature, then he is not a moral agent because a being who must, of logical necessity, do what is good is not free to do what is wrong and therefore is not free in a morally significant sense. Now Beckwith admits that his God who is perfectly good by nature is in fact not a moral being in the sense that he is subject to moral obligation because: “God is necessarily good, and because to have a duty to do something implies that one has the ability not to do it, God, strictly speaking, does not have a duty to obey the moral law.”19 Note that Beckwith maintains that “God is good” even though it is impossible according to his view that God be subject to any moral obligation. Thus, the type of goodness exemplified by God cannot be “moral goodness.” It follows that we have a being that cannot be called “morally good” without a vicious equivocation; and yet this a-moral being is supposed to be the source of all moral goodness. How can that be? God is not morally praiseworthy in Beckwith’s view.
In response, Beckwith suggests that most people would find the view of a God who could go wrong much more difficult to swallow than the view that God is not morally praiseworthy. He argues that God need not have every great-making property; rather, he needs only the greatest set of properties that are compossible or jointly possible together. He admits that “no being can have both the ability to choose good and evil and necessarily always choose the good…. Thus, these are not compossible properties.”20 Given the choice between moral goodness and perfect goodness, Beckwith argues that we should give up moral praiseworthiness. He quotes Katherine Rogers who observes that if God’s “choices simply flow from his character and disposition, if there is something that forecloses evil as a really viable option, how is there choice and hence morally significant freedom involved? If it is possible for God to be tempted by evil and choose against His character, then it is not unthinkable that He would do so.”21 The point seems to be that if God really could do evil, then such a thought is very discomforting because we must admit the real possibility that he will do evil.
I agree that if God is free in a morally significant sense then it cannot be logically impossible that God would do evil; what I deny is that the logical possibility of God’s doing something evil is a reason for failing to trust or have faith in God. Indeed, I claim something profoundly more important and significant for religious faith: In the absence of genuine ability to go wrong, we cannot genuinely trust or have faith in God in any significant sense.
The Hebrew emunah is translated as both “faithful” and “trust,” but its essential sense is interpersonal in nature. It is the type of trust that means a person is faithful to his or her word, or faithful to his or her spouse. In fact, it is the way that God is faithful to his covenant.22 This type of interpersonal trust is essentially such that it presupposes that the person who is trusted has the ability to refrain from doing what we trust them to do. Suppose that we are in a room together and you have a gun in a safe in that room. You know that I don’t know the combination and I’m not strong enough to rip the safe open. In this situation, would it make any sense to say that you trust me not to get the gun and shoot you with it? Or that you morally commend me for not getting the gun and shooting you? Hardly. A part of the meaning of the word “trust” is the ability of the trusted person to act contrary to the trust.
The notion that God is good by nature entails that we cannot truly trust him. A nature is not a person, nor can a nature enter into interpersonal relationships. Nor can we praise and express gratitude to God for doing what is good on this view because he simply can’t do otherwise. Could I trust my wife to be faithful to me if it were impossible for her to be unfaithful? Suppose that she were in a vegetative state, or suppose that she has a mental disorder that caused her to remain faithful to me no matter what. In these latter cases, could my surety that she will remain faithful to me be called “faith” or “trust” in any sense? Would the outcome be any different if, for some reason, she were incapable of being unfaithful to me because of the makeup of her nature? Say that she were, by nature, an immaterial spirit incapable of engaging in unfaithful conduct. Could we call it trust when I am sure that she won’t engage in unfaithful conduct? Surely not. Epistemic warrant or certitude is not the same thing as trust. I may be certain that an immaterial spirit is such that, by nature, it will not engage in certain acts that require a body to perform. But my certitude that this immaterial spirit won’t engage in such acts isn’t based on trust; it’s based on logical meanings and usage.
It also follows from the fact that trust presupposes the ability to refrain from doing as trusted that trust is essentially interpersonal in nature. Trust can arise only in a relationship where the other is a Thou–a person whom we encounter in reciprocal and mutual trust. We cannot trust a rock to abide by the law of gravity even though, necessarily, it will do so. We cannot trust a machine, the weather or a law of nature. We may depend or rely upon them; but we cannot repose our trust in them. Nor can we trust logical necessities. We can only trust persons when we repose faith in them to do as they say they will. Moreover, we cannot trust a person if we know that she is not good for her word. Trust arises only in the context interpersonal faith in the trusted person.
Trust is the essential act that we must engage in as the necessary starting point of every truly interpersonal relationship. Trust is essentially an act of commitment and openness to the other. I trust my wife to remain faithful to me even though it is logically possible that she will not be. If I knew or suspected that she would break her word of faithfulness to me, then I really don’t trust her because of this suspicion. But I trust that she will be. However, it is no less trust simply because it is possible that she won’t be faithful–in fact, it is trust only because it is possible for her to be unfaithful. What is wonderful in our relationship is that she is free to choose out of it at any time, but she freely chooses to love and remain faithful. Such freely given love is more valuable to me than any love that would be impossible for her to refrain from giving. It means that her love for me is a choice, an expression of who she is and what she chooses to give.
I propose that such examples show that we trust persons, but we cannot trust natures or logical necessities. In fact, my greatest concern about the so-called classical God presented by Beckwith is that such a being is sub-personal. My concern about “faith” in such a being is that it is not “faith” at all unless guaranteed by logical necessity–and what faith is needed when it is guaranteed by logical necessity? I suggest that those who believe in the classical God do not repose trust in Him; rather, they repose their trust in logical necessities and semantic guarantees.23 They say, in effect, “I trust God only so long as I can know of logical necessity that he will always act in conformance with his logically perfect nature”–which is to say that they don’t trust him at all. Their faith is in logic and necessity rather than God.
There is therefore a very important reason why a Christian cannot give up the view that God is a morally free being. The importance of God’s ability to violate our trust, even though we trust that he won’t, is essential to our ability to trust and have faith in God. In addition, it is of surpassing importance to see that such moral freedom is also essential to God’s ability to love. Both trust and love are a gift that is freely given–the gift of one’s self to the beloved. When we open up to trust another we necessarily speak to a Thou, and in the act of trusting we speak with our entire being: Thou art worthy of trust. In trusting another we give ourselves to them in the sense that our well-being is tied up with their faithfulness to us. Thus, to trust another is to make a free choice to be vulnerable in relation to the trusted Thou. We stand in a vulnerable relation to a trusted Thou because we give ourselves freely when we are not compelled to do so. Moreover, the trust we repose in the other makes us vulnerable because in a sense we have placed ourselves at the mercy of that person to do what we trust is best–knowing that it is possible that it will not be so. Trust is a very valuable gift to give to another. As Ted Gulesserian stated: “Trust is a highly precious and significant gift of love…. Can love be given without being freely given? If it can, I think that we can all recognize that such love would not have nearly the intrinsic value of love that is freely given.”24
Thus, I suggest that faith in logical necessities and a perfectly good nature, rather than trust in the Holy Thou who is a morally perfect person, is a shallow faith. We can trust God because we know of his moral excellence. Moreover, we trust that God, as a perfectly rational being, will not do any act inconsistent with his perfect knowledge. We can be perfectly confident that God will not do anything wrong out of sheer stupidity as we mortals so often do. We can rest assured that God will not do something wrong out of lack of consciousness. We can be sure that God will not do anything wrong because of weakness of will or because of bodily urges that are difficult for him to control. Thus, he will never violate a moral law out of stupidity or failure to be conscious of the best for us. Moreover, our trust in God arises from a knowing that surpasses mere excellence in logic, but involves our entire being in the most profound interpersonal sense possible–his light and truth shine in our hearts at our very core. If we can ever truly trust God, then we must know him in the intimacy of our hearts where he dwells in us. We know of his love because it is made manifest to us at the core of our being. It is logically possible that such a being could do something wrong, but in the presence of his love, trust in him is the only meaningful response. While it is logically possible that God could perform a morally wrong act, it is not a practical concern that we can have in relation to God if we know him. Merely knowing about him–merely knowing about the logical qualities of his nature–will never suffice for the demands of religious faith.
Beckwith’s Equivocation in Use of “God”
Beckwith uses the word God in several different ways that create confusion and equivocation in his argument. In a footnote, Beckwith acknowledges that “one can find in contemporary Mormonism at least two distinct identifiable views of deity: (1) plurality of finite gods theology; and (2) Monarchotheism, a view that holds that there is one eternally existing though finite God, who is above all the other gods.”25 However, Beckwith argues that even if this latter view were to gain ascendancy in LDS thought, “it is not clear that this god could serve as the ground of morality, for there is too much in Mormon writings that maintains that the moral law is something different than God.”26 Let me make clear that in my opinion we ought not consider God to be the only ground of moral laws and obligations because that view is unacceptable. However, Beckwith overstates his argument.
Beckwith argues against a particular view of God(s) that is not held by many LDS. In addition, even if we accept the view of God(s) critiqued by Beckwith, his argument does not necessarily follow. There are at least three different views of an “eternal God” in LDS thought. First, there is the view (critiqued by Beckwith) that the Father became “God” at some first moment through obedience to moral principles that were given by a prior god, the Father’s Father. Second, there is the view that there is “an Eternal God of all other gods” and this eternal God is the Father (which Beckwith calls “Monarchotheism”). Third, there is the view that there is an eternal Godhead of three divine persons. Although a divine person may become flesh, as Christ did, there is always a Godhead from all eternity. Views (b) and (c) seem to me to be consistent with LDS scripture and I believe that they can be reconciled with the King Follett Discourse as well. However, even on the first view there is an acceptable sense in which there is an “eternal God” that can function as a source of moral law and obligation–in the sense that there has always been an eternal chain of gods who act as one council of gods. This eternal council of gods could eternally function as the ultimate authority, moral and otherwise. Even though the Father has not always been God in this view, there have always been gods who act as one Deity to govern the universe.
Beckwith argues that “God” cannot function as a source of moral laws in Mormon thought because God (in this case the Father) became God by obeying laws laid down by the Father’s Father, and his Father (or Grandfather) arrived at his divine station by obedience to his Father, and so on ad infinitum. However, there is no god who is not preceded by another prior god who was the basis of the moral law for that god. Thus, he concludes that “God” cannot account for moral laws because he couldn’t lay down any moral laws that existed before he was God–and the laws are, according to LDS scripture, irrevocable and eternal. However, if the eternal council of gods is the source of moral authority, then there is still an eternal entity that is the source of moral law. Thus, his argument fails even against the particular version of LDS thought that he argues against. If it is accepted that God (in some sense of the word) has always existed, then it cannot be argued that God cannot be a source of moral obligation because he became God by obedience to moral laws that are logically prior to his existence as a divine being. Beckwith’s argument has no application to the view that there is an eternal council of gods.
It should be clear also that his argument has no application to the view that there is an eternal Godhead of three divine persons. Quite clearly the eternal Godhead can function as an (and not the) eternal source of moral obligation and law–and I believe that this is precisely the LDS view. Moreover, Beckwith equivocates in his comparison of “God” in the “classical” and the LDS traditions. When speaking of “God” in the classical tradition, Beckwith invariably refers to the Godhead or Trinity as a whole rather than to the divine persons. However, when he speaks of the LDS use of “God,” he invariably refers to the person of the Father. This equivocation allows him to say things that seem strange to traditional ears–like the Father was at one time a mortal on another planet who progressed to become God. However, if we refer to the Son rather than the Father, such strangeness disappears–the Son at some time became a human on a particular planet and learned from what he suffered. Moreover, it sounds strange to say that “God” was a person on a planet because “God” as a Godhead is not a divine person, never became mortal and never suffered.
However, there is strong scriptural motivation for LDS to adopt the view that there is an eternal Godhead of three divine persons and also that there is an eternal council of gods under the authority of “the Eternal God of all other gods.” First, the LDS scriptures repeatedly assert that the “Father, Son and Holy Ghost are one God, infinite and eternal, without end.”27 In addition, the Mormon scriptures assert that there was a plan “ordained in the midst of the Council of the Eternal God of all other gods before this world was.”28 Indeed, Joseph Smith read Genesis 1 to refer to the “Head of the other gods” who brought them forth and organized them into a council of gods.29 There is of course a question about how broadly we should take the scope of the word “eternal” in Mormon scripture in general and in Hebrew and Greek scriptures in particular. The word “eternal” could mean something like the Hebrew ‘olam or the Greek aeion, both of which are translated as “eternal” but mean an unmeasured span of time like the English “aeon.” The most obvious reading, however, is that the Godhead and the council of Gods are eternal in the sense that they have no beginning or end. It appears that God the Father is the “Eternal God of all other gods” in the divine council of gods. In addition, the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost exist in a unity so profound that they are “one” “in” each other from all eternity.
Is this scriptural view of God inconsistent with the King Follett Discourse? It seems to me that there are at least two different ways to read the King Follett Discourse with respect to the eternity of God the Father as a divine person. On the first reading, there was a time when the Father was not yet divine and he became divine, that is, he became “God” after having lived on an earth like ours. The second reading is that the Father, like Christ, was divine before mortality and then left his exalted status and emptied himself of a fullness of divinity and became man, but he regained a fullness of divinity after his mortal sojourn. I can state the distinction a bit more precisely:
(A) There was an interval of time from T2 through T3 during which the Father was mortal and not fully divine, but the Father was fully divine eternally prior to T2 and forever after T3.
(B) There was a time T2 at which the Father first became fully divine, but he was not fully divine prior to T2.
Either of these readings is consistent with Lorenzo Snow’s aphorism: “As man now is, God once was; as God now is, man may become.” However, only (A) preserves the scriptural base text in John 5:19 to which Joseph Smith refers to support this doctrine that the Son did exactly what the Father had done, for Christ was divine prior to mortality. It seems to me that reading (A) is better supported by the King Follett Discourse and is certainly more consistent with the LDS scriptures that speak of an eternal God. Beckwith’s reading of the King Follett Discourse requires (B) as the basis for his critique. However, the support for the view that reading (A) is better supported by the King Follett Discourse.30
The Possibilities of Ethics Within LDS Thought
It seems to me that Beckwith commits the fallacy of a hasty generalization when he concludes that the LDS cannot avail themselves of any moral theories. His assertion that the moral theories he reviews are the “most viable” theories for the LDS is simply short sighted. I don’t know any LDS person who adopts the moral theories reviewed by Beckwith (at least not without significant modification). Moreover, it seems to me that Beckwith overlooks numerous moral theories that are more congenial to LDS thought than any of the theories he reviews. Here, I will discuss only two of them. It seems to me that as far as ethical theories go (and they don’t go very far), either a utilitarian or deontological theory of ethics is more aligned with LDS thought. A deonotological theory of ethics is one that bases moral obligation on moral duty. A utilitarian ethic bases moral obligation on the utility of a rule or an act to promote the greatest happiness.
An LDS Utilitarian Ethic?
The English philosophers John Stuart Mills and Jeremy Bentham adopted “utilitarianism.” Jeremy Bentham gave a tight definition of utilitarianism: “By the principle of utility is meant that principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever, according to the tendency which it appears to have to augment or diminish happiness of the party whose interest is the question: to promote or oppose happiness.”31 In their view, right or wrong acts are not judged on the moral quality of one’s motivations or any intrinsic quality of the act done, but upon the consequences of the act: “The multiplication of happiness is, according to the utilitarian ethic, the object of virtue.”32 That act (or moral rule) is right which results in the greatest quantity (Bentham) and quality (Mills) of happiness for the greatest number. The “good” achieved by a good act according to utilitarianism is happiness. It seems self-evident that happiness is intrinsically valuable and that decisions that lead to happiness are good in virtue of that fact. Joseph Smith made some statements that suggest a utilitarian ethic:
In obedience there is joy and peace unspotted and unalloyed. And as God has designed our happiness, and the happiness of all his creatures, he never will institute an ordinance or give a commandment to his people that is not calculated in its nature to promote that happiness which he hath designed and which will not end in the greatest amount of good and glory to those who become the recipients of his law and ordinances.33
Joseph Smith also stated:
Happiness is the object and design of our existence and will be the end thereof if we pursue the path that leads to it, and this path is virtue, uprightness, faithfulness, holiness, and keeping all the commandments of God.34
Aligned with these thoughts is Lehi’s well-known aphorism: “Man is that he might have joy.”35 Joseph Smith seems to have suggested that an act is not good merely because God commands it; rather, God commands us to do acts because they will make us happy and lead to joy. God’s purpose in giving us commands is to lead us to the way that results in the greatest happiness for us. The ultimate good on such a view is grounded in the fact that happiness is intrinsically good.
Joseph Smith also made a statement that seems, at first blush, to teach a divine command theory of ethics or the view that an act is good or evil solely in virtue of the fact that God commands it. Joseph said:
That which is wrong under one circumstance may be, and often is, right under another. God said, ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ At another time he said, ‘Thou shalt utterly destroy.’ This is the principle on which the government of heaven is conducted–by revelation adapted to the circumstances in which the children of the kingdom are placed. Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is, although we may not see the reason thereof until long after it transpires.36
Now I am open to the possibility that Joseph Smith is inconsistent in the various statements he made. After all, he was a prophet, not a systematic theologian. Yet there is an easy way to reconcile this statement with the view that happiness is the greatest good and that God commands only what will lead to our happiness. The italicized words imply that God has a reason outside of his will upon which he bases his commands. The “reason” for God’s commands is that God can see how what he commands will lead to our happiness. We obey him because we trust him to lead us to the greatest happiness and joy unalloyed. Given his superior knowledge of what leads to happiness, it is simply irrational not to obey him if we trust him to seek our greatest happiness. Thus, even this statement seems to assume something like a utilitarian principle rather than a divine command theory of ethics.
Notwithstanding these suggestions, Beckwith totally ignores utilitarianism as a viable option for LDS. I acknowledge that there are problems with consequentialist or utilitarian theories of ethics (such as whether it would be right to sacrifice individual political rights and welfare for the good of the masses); but these problems have been addressed in available literature.37 I would also agree that a utilitarian theory would have to be modified in the context of LDS beliefs to allow for sacrifice of present happiness for eternal gain. For example, a rule that an act is right if it leads to the greatest happiness would have to be measured over the eternities rather than just this lifetime to make sense of LDS commitments to sacrifice present comfort (and in a sense also present happiness) for the kingdom of God. Whether a utilitarian theory of ethics can be successfully defended in the context of LDS beliefs remains to be seen–but it isn’t a theory that can simply be ignored as Beckwith does.
A Duty-Based LDS Ethic
Both Kim McCall and Rex Sears have argued that LDS should adopt a form of Kantian ethics.38 For Kant, moral obligation is grounded in the pragmatic necessity that we must have a reason for what we choose to do. The good is grounded in the good will which acts for the sake of duty: “It is impossible to conceive of anything in the world, or indeed out of it, which can be called good without qualification save only a good will.”39 The good will acts out of the duty imposed upon us by the dictates of reason. Reason provides a ground for morals because there are maxims of conduct that we must accept as universally binding on all persons to act rationally. For example, we must accept a duty to make it our will to keep promises or the very idea of a promise loses its meaning, for a promise that can be broken at will simply is not a promise. The structure of reason demands that we will to act for a reason, that is, there will be some reason for our actions. We cannot rationally question the demand that we act based upon some rational principle that directs our practical actions. These principles will necessarily be laws that apply to all persons. Thus, we arrive at a law of action that is universally applicable to all actions: “Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”40
A form of this imperative is stated sometimes in popular advice from parents: What if everybody did what you did? Although such a question is often asked to focus our minds on the consequences to society if everyone acted the same way, that is not how Kant would formulate it. For Kant we focus not on the results that would occur if everyone did what we did, but on what happens to the very notion of a law of action that guides our actions. For example, we could ask: “What if everyone butted in line?” The answer for Kant is not that it would be bad because there would be chaos. That answer focuses on consequences rather than duty. Kant would say that if everyone butted in line then there would be no possibility of a line at all, for the very concept of a line includes waiting in order.
The second categorical imperative focuses this same principle on the duties that obtain in human relationships: “So act as to treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of any other, always at the same time as an end, and never merely as a means.” Kant reasoned that if there is something that has absolute value in itself, then we must consider it as an end (or final and ultimate purpose for action) in itself. That is, if by our conduct we seek something else of less value by using that which is of absolute value, then by that very act we implicitly assert that what we are seeking is really more valuable than what we are using to achieve it. For example, if I exploit an employee to get money, then I fail to recognize that the person I have employed is worth more than any amount of money I can earn. However, I cannot consistently treat a person as a mere means to get things without failing to recognize that a person is not a thing. For example, if I make a promise to you that I will pay you for work that you do without an intention of keeping my promise, then I treat you as a mere means to get work done. I have failed to value you as a human when I don’t intend to keep my promises.
The notion that we must respect every rational will as an end in itself and not as a mere means leads to “the idea of the will of every rational being as making universal law.” We must recognize the rational will as universally binding because the moral will gives itself the law that it obeys. The only law that can bind me is the law that I give to myself because if the law were given by another, say by God, then it would be conditional on my acceptance of God. I can always ask why I ought to obey the divine will. To be bound by what God commands in a moral sense we must first recognize obedience to the divine will as a duty. It follows that what is given by another is not a moral law because it is not binding on me unless I myself recognize it as binding. The only way I can be bound by a moral law is if it is given to me by my own will. Thus, I must regard myself as legislating a universal law for a “kingdom of ends.” The autonomy of the will is thus the ultimate source of moral obligation.
Kant’s theory quite easily meets all the criteria for a moral theory that Beckwith states. First, Kant’s categorical imperatives are available to us through rationality itself. Thus, the specter of moral skepticism is avoided. Because the moral law is expressed by each rational agent as a form of self-legislated moral law, the Kantian imperatives are the result of a rational, purposive mind. The incumbency of moral laws derives from their status as an imperative for rational action, for we must act for reasons and these reasons have been adopted by us as a guide to action by their very nature. For Kant, the moral imperatives arise only in the context of our universal humanity and thus only in relation to each other. The feelings of guilt that we have are not a necessary feature of moral action for Kant. Sometimes we feel guilty when we shouldn’t and some people don’t feel guilty when they should. Feelings of guilt are common but not a necessary feature of moral obligation. However, to the extent feelings of guilt arise as a guide to moral action they must be in accordance with the rationality that gives rise to moral obligation in the first place. Thus, such feelings of guilt are a secondary feature of morality that are explained by our recognition that we have acted in a way that violates the obligations that we have accepted and in fact legislated for ourselves. Finally, the categorical imperative is not material. Thus, Kant’s theory of ethics actually meets the criteria identified by Beckwith better than his own view.
But how does Kant’s theory align with LDS beliefs? The view that persons are uncreated intelligences capable of rationality opens the way to ground eternal and objective moral principles in our rational nature. In addition, persons are recognized as ends in and of themselves having an absolute value in LDS thought in a way that is foreign to classical Christian thought. The LDS scriptures state that “the worth of souls is great” and strongly support the view that persons are of absolute and unconditioned value. In classical Christian thought such a view of persons is impossible because the value of created things is conditioned on God’s purposes for their existence. For classical Christians, God can treat us as mere things for his ends even to the extent of predestinating some for damnation if he wishes, just as a potter would treat a mere piece of clay for his ends. In classical Christian thought, persons cannot have absolute value because human value depends on what God creates it to be and is therefore necessarily conditioned on God’s purposes. In LDS belief, in contrast, God ultimately does not create the purpose of human existence, for he does not create the eternal part of intelligences at all. There is no question that God framed the purpose of this mortal probation, but those purposes arise in the context of our eternal existence. The purpose of God’s creation and commands is not found solely in the fact that they are God’s as in classical thought, but in the fact that they guide us to happiness. God’s glory consists in glorifying us, and in so doing we glorify him. The relationship is a mutual and reciprocal regard for persons as ends in themselves having absolute value. In everything God commands he seeks to bring about our happiness and thereby treats us as ends in ourselves. God’s purposes are expressed in the desire for us to fulfill our potential to be as he is: “For behold, this is my work and my glory, to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.”41
Now LDS beliefs don’t preclude a person from adopting an ethical theory along the lines suggested by Kant. However, there is nothing in LDS thought that requires adoption of a Kantian theory either. Further, any kind of competent treatment of Kant’s theory requires much more space than I have devoted to it here. However, I have provided a sufficient reason to believe that Beckwith’s failure to deal with LDS thought in relation to Kant’s moral theory is a glaring oversight.
An LDS Theory of Ethics In Alignment with the Gospel of Christ
I want to outline a “pre-theory” of moral obligation in LDS thought merely to show that it has the resources to provide a profound basis for a Christian ethic–pace Beckwith. The starting point for an LDS ethic is the realization that whatever we are is essentially uncreated. Our eternal nature defines our inherent capacities. The next step is the recognition that the purpose of life is to advance and learn so that we can enjoy “eternal life,” or the very kind of life that God lives. As Joseph Smith stated:
The relationship we have with God places us in a situation to advance in knowledge. He has power to institute laws to instruct the weaker intelligences that they may be exalted with himself, so that they might have one glory upon another, and all that knowledge, power, glory and intelligence which is requisite in order to save them in the world of spirits.42
The most natural view of ethics in LDS thought, it seems to me, is one that grounds moral obligation in the eternal nature of uncreated realities and our inherent capacities for progression and growth to realize our divine nature. Moral laws define the conditions that are necessary for the growth and progress of intelligences to partake of the divine nature to be pure as God is pure.43 Moral laws are grounded in our eternal divine nature, for the good is whatever leads to realization of our humanity in a fullness of divinity. However, because the realization of our nature is to be divine, the good is also defined by the nature of God. Indeed, only by being as God is can we become fully human. As Truman Madsen noted:
Now, Joseph Smith taught that absolutes derive from the ultimate constitution of two things: the self (including the divine self), and the cosmos. The permanent, undeviating aspects of these provide the foundation…. What then is absolutely good [in LDS thought]? A godlike condition of existence–the fulfillment of destiny.
At this point the Prophet is close to the views of stoics, aristotelians, and thomists, viz., in maintaining that all men have an ‘essence’ or ‘nature’ or potential, and that ‘good’ consists in the fulfillment, and ‘bad’ in its frustration. There is also similarity to self-realization theories such as in Bradley and Green. But the ‘perfection’ Joseph Smith envisioned is superlative. It is literally godlike.44
We must next ask what laws define the conditions that we must abide to partake of the divine nature? The answer is that there is one eternal law that defines this possibility: the law of love. God, as a unity of divine persons, is love. The Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost share an interpersonal relationship of indwelling unity and, in virtue of this relationship, they are one God. They share a relationship of interpenetrating love where they live their lives “in” each other because of the type of love they share. Because the divine persons are divine in virtue of their love one for another, it follows that “God is love” in a literal sense. However, this “nature” is one that is freely chosen. The Godhead would cease to be God if the divine persons ceased to love.
The Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost share the attributes of godliness because they have the relationship of divine love. Their love is a free choice to be in such a relationship, for love by its very nature is freely chosen. Thus, this view of ethics is possible only if the divine persons are in fact distinct in the sense that they are separate, individual personalities each having a distinct mind and will. The type of love we are discussing is a freely chosen love that expresses the personality of the lover for the beloved. We have been invited to share this divine relationship and thereby to be glorified.45 Thus, by learning to love one another, we learn to be as God is. The purpose of life is to learn–and it is to learn one thing in particular–to love one another. As we progress in knowledge, as we learn to love, we reflect the image and likeness of divinity in our countenances.
Thus, good and evil can be defined solely in terms of the law of love. Love itself is intrinsically valuable, for love is the fullest expression of who we are in relationship with one another. In terms of this ethic, good is whatever leads to greater love and unity in interpersonal relationships. Good acts are acts that arise out of and express our love–and our expressions of love are revelations of who and what we really are in our eternal being. A good act is one that leads to healing a broken relationship or growing in intimacy and meaning in existing relationships. I would add that those choices and acts that lead to personal growth are the same as those acts that lead to interpersonal growth. Personal growth entails an increased capacity to love and to be loved. Such personal and interpersonal growth are also intrinsically valuable as ends in themselves. However, there is a byproduct of love that also makes love worth pursuing for its own sake–happiness.
In contrast, an evil act is whatever injures or destroys a relationship. The relationships at issue can be broader than relationships between persons, for it is evil to torture animals just as it is to torture humans. It is evil to destroy the environment. The relationships at issue thus include the broadest array of relationships, the relation we have with each other, the relation I have with animals, with the earth and with myself. An evil act is one that injures relationships or which leads to alienation or separation. The alienation, destruction and separation that result from acts injurious to relationships make us miserable. These terms seem to me to capture the views of good and evil described in scripture much better than the metaphysical view that the Good is God’s nature.
Paradoxically there is only one way to realize our nature, only one path to actualize our potential to be as God is–that is to be as God is. How can that be, that to realize our potential to be as God we must be already as God is? By being loving, for that is how God is.
All of the commandments are given to us by God to teach us how to love one another, for all commandments are summed up in the great command to love God with all of our heart, might, mind and strength and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Now God’s purpose in giving us the commandments is also to lead us to exalted happiness and joy unalloyed. God has given us the law of love to guide us to happiness. Now this law is one that obtains independently of God, for God is divine in virtue of the fact that he is love, he is not love in virtue of the fact that he is God. Not even God can make it so that hate and alienation lead to human happiness. We are so constituted that by our very eternal nature we are fulfilled and find our greatest joy in committed, meaningful, and eternal relationships of love one for another. We realize our inherent divinity by eternal, loving relationships. Neither can God bestow salvation on us without our abiding by the law of love, for not even God can force us to love if we choose not to. Love cannot be coerced or forced or manipulated–it must be freely chosen as a choice of the heart. If we love God, then we keep his commandments because we trust that what he has commanded us to do leads to joy, happiness, eternal life in the presence of God and eternal increase. We keep his commandments because we respond to his love for us.
Ultimately, it is only through the healing love of the atonement that any moral act is possible, for without the atonement we would be incapable of any morally good act. That is, without the atonement we would be slaves to our past and unable to break free of the barriers and walls we create. The atonement is what allows us to let go of the past, to break down the walls that imprison us, and to be free to love in an eternal manner.
Now this law of love cannot be formulated easily, for it is known only through the spirit rather than the letter of the law. Yet this law is near to us, for it is written in our hearts precisely because it is an expression of who and what we are eternally. We know the moral law of love because it is a part of us. To the extent that it can be defined, this law can be formulated simply as the practical law of the harvest: What we give, we receive–what we sow, we reap–what we send out returns to us. Therefore, do unto others as you would have them do unto you, for as we judge others we shall be judged. This is the eternal law decreed by God before the world was and by which we shall be judged. The judgment simply declares the natural consequences that necessarily follow from the law of love: The love that we give shall be returned to us and the love that we fail to give shall be withheld from us. We cannot have the joy and happiness that naturally arise from loving relationships if we choose not to love. God cannot save us if we do not freely choose to give our love and to receive his love. Love is expressed by giving ourselves to the beloved, and receiving the beloved into our lives without condition.
The law of love is objective and universal in two senses. First, the force and effect of the law of love cannot be escaped. The results of failing to live the law of love follow naturally. If we refuse to open up and love, there is no power in the universe that can give us the joy that is known only in intimate, loving relationships. In this sense, the law of love is not a law instituted by God, although it is a law expressive of who and what God is. We cannot enjoy loving and intimate relationships if we choose not to love–it is that simple. On the other hand, living the law of love as one’s entire way of being in the world inexorably results in the happiness and joy that can come only from being in intimate and loving relationships. The law of love is universal also in another sense: it is the same for everyone though its expression is as individual and unique as each of us is. The law of love is “objective” in the sense that we cannot choose to define love as something other than what it is, although we can choose whether and how we will express our love.
There are eternal moral principles which condition even God, and these principles are found in the very nature of godliness and the divine love. Thus, an outline of moral theory in LDS thought ties together the moral intuitions that underlie several ethical theories. Like Aristotelian and Thomist theories, the good is defined in terms of what fulfills our human nature. Like utilitarian theories, the good is what leads to the greatest happiness and joy. Like Kant’s theory the good is a good will that expresses our rational legislation of morality as a universal law. Like social contract theories, the good is not something imposed on us by another but something to which we mutually agree, for the choice to love is certainly an autonomous choice that expresses our deepest being. Like Platonic theory, the law of love is not open to a point of view or merely a subjective judgment, for there truly is conduct that is not loving no matter how we judge it.
In addition, this view also has important affinities with the view that God’s nature is the ultimate measure of moral goodness. In this view, the greatest good is the divine nature, for God is love and the divine nature arises from the love of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost as one God. The law of love is based on the divine nature in the sense that if defines the way of being in the world that leads us to be one as the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost are one. Because we share the divine nature when we fully share their loving relationship, the law of love is another way of saying that the ultimate source of moral law is grounded in the divine nature. The moral law teaches us that we are fully human only in the context of loving relationships. However, the divine nature can be a law for us only because we share the same nature. God cannot be the ground of a moral law that is good because it fulfills our nature if he does not share our moral nature with us. God cannot ground the moral law if he is himself not subject to any moral laws.
How well does this cursory outline of an ethic of love in the LDS tradition line up with Beckwith’s list of requirements for moral theory? First, the law of love is capable of being known because it is written in our hearts. It is known through revelation in the form of commandments when our hearts are too hard to get it. It can be stated in the form of commands or imperatives of the type we find in the Bible and other scriptures–indeed, that is precisely where it is given as a command! The law of love has an incumbency or “oughtness” because when we violate it we betray who we are at the deepest level of our being. We feel the incumbency because when we violate the law of love we act against ourselves and everyone else by damning them and us in our eternal progression. We know that violating the law of love is a foolish choice to be miserable rather than to experience happiness and joy–and it is utter stupidity of the silliest sort to choose misery when we could choose joy. Thus, the law of love explains why we appropriately feel guilt–we know that we have betrayed ourselves, God and our neighbor. We know that we are choosing against our real interest because we know that what we really want, above anything in the world, is to love and to be loved. The law of love arises only in the context of interpersonal relationships. In fact, it defines the nature of our interpersonal relationships. Finally, the law of love is not “material,” for a relationship cannot be reduced to either me or to you, it arises between us. However, such a view is fully consonant with LDS commitments because it follows that love must supervene on persons, and all persons are material. Thus, this view of ethics more than satisfies Beckwith’s list of desiderata for a moral theory. In fact, it fulfills these requirements far better than his own theory that the Good is grounded in God’s necessarily good nature.
Beckwith’s attempt to show that Classical thought fares better than LDS thought to provide a grounding for ethics is, in my view, a miserable failure. He cannot even adopt the view of God that he seeks to defend given his criteria for an adequate moral theory. If “the Good” is grounded in God’s nature, then “the Good” is logically prior to God’s mind and will, and thus cannot be the result of a mind. It doesn’t arise only in the context of interpersonal relations. Moral goodness on such a view is a pre-rational or surd given in god’s nature, much like the surd “evil” given in god’s nature according to Edgar Sheffield Brightman. Moreover, if god is necessarily good, then god is an a-moral being who can’t be praised or thanked for doing what is good, for god literally cannot do otherwise. The view that god is good by nature is fatal to the Christian imperative of faith and trust in a living God.
Beckwith fails to give us a real assessment of LDS thought and meta-ethics because he fails to consider the most-likely candidates for comparison. While his article will fool many unwary Evangelicals into thinking that it is thorough and fair, in reality it commits the fallacy of hasty generalization and is anything but a fair treatment of the issues. I have presented a very brief outline of a view of the source of ethical obligation in LDS thought that I believe is more profoundly Christian than the metaphysical meta-ethics adopted by Beckwith and many Evangelicals.
1 The New Mormon Challenge, edited by Francis Beckwith, Carl Mosser, and Paul Owens (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2002), 219-241.
2 Ibid., 222. Italics added
3 I have an additional concern about Beckwith’s use of McConkie to support his view. Despite the repeated insistence in The New Mormon Challenge that Evangelicals seek dialogue with LDS, Beckwith ignores LDS response on this point. For instance, Beckwith previously published an identical statement wherein he also cites McConkie in a stridently anti-Mormon work entitled “God” in The Counterfeit Gospel of Mormonism (Eugene, Oregon: Harvest House, 1998), 51-97. Richard Hopkins reviewed his article and made the same criticism, which Beckwith simply ignored: “One would think that his footnote [to McConkie’s Mormon Doctrine] might cite some proof that Mormon theology does teach that God ‘was one time not God,’ but it does not. Instead it supports the mundane point that common parlance in the LDS frequently uses the name Elohim to designate the Father. Actually, nothing in any authoritative source of LDS theology can be cited for the point Beckwith has emphasized in italics.” Richard R. Hopkins, “Counterfeiting the Mormon Concept of God,” FARMS Review of Books 12:1 (2000), 242.
4 The New Mormon Challenge, 232.
5 Ibid., 226.
6 Ibid., 232.
7 Ibid., 226.
8 Ibid., 239.
9 Ibid., 232.
11 See my response to Robert Parrish, “Necessarily, God Does not Necessarily Exist,” forthcoming.
12 I derive these conditionals from Wes Morriston’s paper, “Must there Be a Standard of Moral Goodness Apart from God?” http://stripe.colorado.edu/~morristo/goodness.html
13 See T.J. Mawson, “God’s Creation of Morality,” Religious Studies 38 (2002), 1-25.
14 The New Mormon Challenge, 223.
15Blake T. Ostler, “Review of The Mormon Concept of God: A Philosophical Analysis by Francis Beckwith and Stephen Parrish,” FARMS Review of Books, 8/2 (1996), 125.
16 The New Mormon Challenge, 233.
18 Ibid., 234.
19 Ibid., 235.
20 Ibid., 236.
21 Quoted in The New Mormon Challenge, 235.
22 Robert Girdlestone, Synonyms of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1897), 102-103; see Deuteronomy 32:4; Psalms 33:4, 98:3, 100:5, 119:30.
23 Evangelical theology in its entirety is shot through by a lack of trust, all the way from the assurance of the elect and of guaranteed salvation by grace alone to guaranteed goodness by logic alone. This same lack of trust in God as a person is demonstrated when Evangelicals refuse to pray and get a response from God because they don’t trust their relationship with God enough to trust him when he speaks to them; rather, they repose trust in biblical and philosophical scholars and their own ability to interpret dead prophets.
24 T. Guleserian, “Can God Be Trusted?” Philosophical Studies 106 (2001), 301-302.
25 The New Mormon Challenge, 461 n. 9
26 Ibid. However, Beckwith still insists on calling God a moral being even though he lacks moral obligations and cannot choose between right and wrong. He asks, “how should Christians think about their morally good God, who is logically incapable of doing evil?” It seems to me that Beckwith has missed the very point he is making-God lacks a moral dimension to his so-called “goodness.”
27 D&C 20:27; compare to Mosiah 15:2-5, Alma 11:44, Ether 12:41.
28 D&C 121:32.
29 See Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon Cook, The Words of Joseph Smith (Provo: Religious Studies Cener, 1980), pp. 341, 345, 351, 379, and 383.
30 See, Blake T. Ostler, “Re-Visioning the Mormon Concept of God,” Element: A Journal of Mormon Philosophy, online.
31 Jeremy Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (London: 1789, rev. ed. 1823), chapter 1.
32 John Stuart Mills, Utilitarianism (London: Publisher Unknown, 1863), chapter II.
33 Joseph Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, edited by Joseph Fielding Smith (Salt Lake City; Deseret News Press, 1946), 256-257.
34 Ibid., 255.
35 2 Nephi 2:25.
36 Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 256.
37 See T.L.S. Sprigge, The Rational Foundations of Ethics (London: Routledge, 1988). For example, it would be possible to modify the utilitarian ethic to measure what is right based on the greatest happiness for the individual over the individual’s eternal life rather than the greatest happiness for the masses. Obviously, one problem with any utilitarian theory is how we should go about measuring “happiness” in terms of either quantity or quality. Utilitarian theories run the risk of turning ethics into economics.
38 Kim McCall, “What is Moral Obligation in Mormon Theology?” Sunstone 6/6 (1981); Rex Sears, “Objectivist Ethics Within the Limits of Mormonism Alone,” unpublished paper.
39 Approaches to Ethics, edited by W.T. Jones, Frederick Sontag, Morton O. Beckner and Robert J. Fogelin (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1977), 219-247. See also Critique of Practical Reason, translated by Lewis White Beck (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949).
41 Moses 1:41.
42 Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 181.
43 See 2 Peter 1:4.
44 Truman G. Madsen, “Joseph Smith and the Problems of Ethics,” Perspectives in Mormon Ethics: Personal, Social, Legal and Medical, edited by Donald G. Hill (Salt Lake City: Publishers Press, 1983), 33.
45 See John 17 and 3 Nephi 27.