The Morality of Age

An announcement was released by the LDS Church that young Priests can officiate baptisms and girls assist in ways adult women do in the temple. Most discussion about this predictably is about the different roles girls and boys have related to the Priesthood. Another issue pretty much ignored is how age determined what could be done or not in the first place. The reasoning for the change is that Priests have the right and responsibility for baptism, and that should extend to the temple ordinance. What that doesn’t answer is why these were not in effect long ago. More than likely it was because of age and maturity perception.

Choices about age permissible actions are common in both religion and secular society. Like many things the two are at odds in some circumstances. A few vocal critics insist anyone under a perceived adult age should not be taken to a particular church, much less initiated. For some religions the age of marriages should be up to the parents and ecclesiastic leaders, and not a soulless government. Difference in opinion can go both ways with one side believing a person must be older and another a younger age is acceptable. How the ages are decided may seem at times logical, but the laws and edicts when given a closer look seem arbitrary.

The argument for ages is often dependent on a belief that the young are not capable of deciding for themselves. Cognitive abilities for understanding the consequences have not developed enough to make intelligent choices. Although there is some science to back this up, the exact age when a person can be considered mature enough is wildly inconclusive. Studies indicate anywhere from about 10 to the unbelievable 25 before the brain is fully matured. Much of this difference is based on what the study is trying to discover. It could be language acquirement, ease of learning new material, ability to make logical inferences, and more. What they don’t do is ask when a person gains a moral center for independence. That is what most laws and codes of conduct rely on for determining age permissions. Yet, it is the most vague evaluation.

Mormons learn from the Moroni 8 that little children are not accountable enough to repent. Because of this, it is a sin to baptize any little ones. After the Book of Mormon was revealed and the LDS Church organized, a revelation was given (Doc. and Cov. 68:25-27) that says to teach children the Gospel of faith, repentance, baptism, and the Holy Ghost. It would then be a law, “their children shall be baptized for the remission of their sins when eight years old, and receive the laying on of the hands.” The Scriptures specify that they are accountable at that age. This does not mean they fully understand the consequences of their action as any parent or observer can attest. It is a revealed base line of when a child can understand the concept of right and wrong. The Lord then gives the age of 12 when the first authority of the Priesthood is given to a boy. Joseph Smith received the First Vision when he was 14 and organized the LDS Church when in early twenties. The Lord has never given an age when a person becomes an adult.

Governments don’t have prophetic insights, but they do act as if the final authority for a person’s life. Despite questions of appropriateness for an eight year old to be baptized (age 10 seems better), at least there is consistency of progression. Secular laws end up all over the map with little more justification than that is what has been determined. Sure, they claim many reasons for declaring age restrictions anywhere from maturity level to avoidance of undue influence by authority figures. Instead of a catch-all age, the activities can be 14 for driving some places, 16 for marriage some places, 18 for joining the military, and 21 years old for drinking alcohol. The excuse for this is a circular logic. A person isn’t old enough because they aren’t adults, although there is no official age to be an adult when some adult activities are possible at different ages.

Probably the most arbitrary of age restrictions and laws has to do with physical relations and marriage. A person who is a teen can have physical relations with another teen, unless they are 18. Anyone 18 and above cannot have physical relations with anyone below 17 even if they are only a few years apart. True, some states do have age distance laws that have limited protections for those who are barely past their teens themselves. But, there is no real reason given why an 18 year old is not still considered a teen. Beyond that, a parent or judge can give permission for a teen to marry a teen even though a non-teen cannot under any circumstances marry a teen. The logic behind all this is missing. There is no underlying moral reason a person who is a teen should have the right to physical relations with another teen and not a non-teen save it be a cultural displeasure. Since the argument is that a teen cannot choose properly with an adult, the same should be said with another teen. Certainly it would make more sense for age distance laws (say, no one can marry or have physical relations ten years older or younger than themselves), or specific adult determination age (nobody can have physical relations or marry before age 20).

Having mentioned it before, there are all kinds of age laws based on some vague morality that somehow transforms at a magic number. A person can learn how to kill and be killed by the U.S. government at age 18, but not drink alcohol until 21. Of course, its not everywhere on the planet this is the case. Some European countries allow very low ages (if any) where a person can drink. Not too long ago the safest drinking was at least a light alcohol if you didn’t want to get sick and die. Then there is heinous crimes where by law a minor cannot be charged as an adult, until they can be. Simplicity of law should dictate that certain acts are adult ones and no matter the age should be tried as an adult. If not that, then stick with (not preferable) no minor for any reason can be tried as an adult.

The discussion of age, morality, and law could go on for a long time. It is neither a conservative or liberal weakness, as both sides seem content to let things remain illogical. Despite the complicated issue, it is not much talked about either in church or society. The reaction to bringing it up is either “its for the children”, or “of course that is the way it should be,” with virtually no thought. A person who studies or practices the law would have to describe how much or little this discussion exists among the field of law. At the moment questioning the relationship between age and morality might as well be taboo.

9 thoughts on “The Morality of Age

  1. Anyone looking for grand reason for why things are as they are will be disappointed (or enraged). And anyone errs who insists that there should be a grand reasoning behind these things. These things are decided in a patchwork sort of way, community by community, with no grand reasoning at all — and I’m okay with that. Each community makes its own rules for all sorts of happenings, based on the prevailing thought at the time, and so it is until the community decides to change it.

  2. ji, the problem is that we don’t live in a patchwork world anymore. We all must live by the laws of central government, often increasingly having communities at odds with each other. The Unites States, for instance, is no longer working the way it used to be where States and communities were allowed to be more or less autonomous. I personally am not okay with that. The more a government controls a larger group of people, the more logical the laws should be to not be overburdensome or even cruel. Nothing to me represents the arbitrary and troublesome condition of modern law than age based laws. The only reasoning is “because” and that leads to dictatorship.

  3. Sometimes, “because” is a very good answer.

    Dictatorship will more easily come from your approach of centralized decision-making. I prefer the patchwork local-decision approach for many matters, especially matters such as age-based laws we are discussing — the risk of dictatorship is much lower.

  4. I work in the temple baptistry. Now and then I have wondered why a priest can baptize except in the temple. Because we begin at 5 AM we often experience a shortage of Melchizedek priesthood holders to staff all the positions that require priesthood. Since we usually perform over a thousand ordinances in less than five hours, if we have adequate staffing, this new direction will have the potential to release three brothers to staff other positions throughout the temple which require the Melchizedek priesthood. I think it will encourage older teens to attend the baptistry. For example, there seems to be a perception in some wards that members of the deacons quorum should be willing to do proxy baptisms but teachers and priests feel less interest. You might say they feel ‘too old’. This is not universal, but a noticeable trend. By encouraging older Aaronic priesthood member to participate it is likely to alleviate the perception that attendance at the baptistry is only for deacons. I really appreciate this change although I doubt it will have much impact on the female staff. While witnessing and performing baptisms are important, they require very little training and can be quickly accomplished. On the other hand, the sisters require more training and coordination. Including walk in volunteers will require assigning a regular worker to instruct and supervise them which could eliminate any benefit of merely adding willing but untrained people. As an example, one of the temple matrons decided to help in the laundry. It took a period of time to instruct her in procedures but she seldom has free time to use the training, thus making her participation cut into the overall productivity. I believe that including girls in the announcement was more a matter of political expediency in the current climate as opposed to the real utility of acknowledging the authority of priests to perform and witness proxy baptisms. On the other hand, if a girl is willing to train in procedures and devote several hours to regular attendance as a baptistry worker, she will be very welcome and quite helpful.

  5. ji, you misread my post response to yours. I too am for localized and community based decision-making. If that were still how laws were made and maintained then I think “because” is still problematic, but tolerable/acceptable. What I am saying is we currently DO NOT have such a type of government. That means that arbitrary (National) laws with one size fits all philosophy is dangerous to everyone. We are more in agreement than you might think.

  6. I think I understand better now. Thanks. Even so, I’m still okay with “because” as the reason for many national laws. To disallow “because” is to effectively disenfranchise everyone who doesn’t have the right credentials as so-called experts in whatever matter is being passed upon, and will result in a tyranny of the so-called experts. For example, I am not an expert in when an adolescent mind turns into an adult mind, but I still will want to participate in the public square when we’re debating whether youth should be tried in adult criminal courts. Maybe I’ll be in majority, maybe in the minority. My rationale for my opinion might be little more than “because” and the so-called experts might laugh at it, but my opinion is still valid and I’m still a voter in our republic. Looking at it from a more mundane perspective, isn’t it okay that the reason for many parental decisions, and the answer to the child, is “because”?

  7. I don’t trust experts either. Logic isn’t in the domain of experts only. Consistency in law isn’t such a bad idea, such as all are equal (not meaning the same) under the law. When it comes to age based laws we need to all have the conversation on what constitutes the maturity dividing line. Not everyone will agree, but at least finding that line will create fairness that doesn’t seem to exist at the moment.

  8. I was quite pleased when I heard the announcement about increasing the scope of responsibilities the youth can accept with regards to temple service. Like Pat, I could see significant utility in allowing priests to officiate in performing baptisms. Not being a temple worker myself at this time, I was a bit fuzzier on what young women would be doing that would be helpful, though I recall times when youth were rowdy and needed shushing. Though I’m certain this is far from the only duty of the women assisting in the baptistry, I can see that having the older teenagers setting the tone for temple conduct would be beneficial.

    Mostly, I was building off a thought regarding the so-called “IKEA Effect,” where one’s valuation of a thing is increased by participation in the creation of the thing. Typically this is reported in terms of the someone over-valuing a ill-made piece because they themselves helped make the piece. But as I was listening to a talk in another Ward (so many friends singing beautiful music, so little time…) I was struck by how we become vested in the gospel narrative as we ourselves deliver the talks and teach the lessons.

    Of course, this matter of being vested is about to increase, with the shift from traditional lessons to the more interactive council model that rolls out in 2018.

    I reflected on the wisdom of a Father who knew we would not value a salvation we had not worked to achieve. And this is why a plan where salvation was given to all without condition would be as disastrous as a salvation we all received because we’d been forced to “correctness” against our wills. I’m not certain which path was the one Lucifer reportedly proposed could eliminate risk of failure versus the plan Father proposed.

    At any rate, the LDS Church has a wonderful way of engaging its membership, to increase the amount of investment members have in the gospel. The move to increase the participation of the youth in temple ceremonies is a welcome move in that direction.

    Now back to the lofty disputes about law and community.

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