Why We Fight: The Bloggernacle and the Morality of Personal Attacks

Lost Sheep

As I was reading this excellent discussion on the “Bigots and Fanatics” post about how to have a tolerant and polite (and possibly even Christ-like) discussion about Church teachings, I had one of my posts come to mind.

A while back I wrote a post about how the parable of the lost sheep is often abused and often even reversed by the person using this meme so as to claim that the Church needs to accommodate the lost sheep in some specified way or else the church isn’t being Christ-like. I mentioned John Dehlin and Richard Dutcher as examples of people that misused this parable in this way and also mentioned that I felt the same tactic was being subtly used in a popular Bloggernacle post called “Our Sisters or Leaving.”

Through the grapevine I heard that one person that frequents Mormon blogs (I don’t know who) really hated my post and even thought it sick and wrong because I was (in this person’s opinion) claiming that I knew who the lost sheep were and was unilaterally deciding that the group of people mentioned in the “Our Sister are Leaving” post were not the lost sheep.

I think this “Bigot and Fanatics” thread, my post, and this unknown person’s reaction to my post are a good example of why it is so dang hard to be tolerant of each other’s views and ideas and why I have little hope of even reaching the ideal of “tolerance” much less “Christ-like love” in any sort of ideologically motivated discussion. Of course, the point is the journey, not the destination. The point is to strive, never really reaching our ideals. But it couldn’t hurt to at least acknowledge why this is such a difficult — indeed, currently impossible — problem to solve.

I think we all honestly  believe (even me most of the time) that its easy to differentiate between polite conversation and personal attacks. And given that it is easy (or so we believe) when someone makes a personal attack of necessity they must be doing it on purpose and knowingly, and therefore are in need of some moral correction.

Our biological morality sense is just like this. It functions as a conversation stopper. It is not rational. In fact it specifically circumvents rationality. One of the main survival advantages of evolving a biological moral sense is to cut off certain lines of rational consideration, like say murder, as a way or resolving one’s problems. [1] So if someone says something morally reprehensible, we just feel it that we need to morally correct the person because the only possible reason they could have violated what we perceive as objective morality — for all morality is felt to be both objective and absolute or else we do not perceive it as morality in the first place — is that they are being a jerk. Although there are a few people that do intellectually buy into the idea that morality is really just a human construct, and therefore really just a personal preference, even those people ignore their own beliefs the moment someone behaves in a way they feel is immoral. And thank goodness, because societies would not function properly if people started thinking of morality as just a personal preference, or even as just a societal preference.

Moral Correction and the Upside of Gossip

Unfortunately years of scientific study on this subject assure us that when dealing with two different moral paradigms, both think it’s ‘obvious’ that the other is wrong and thus they must be violating morality on purpose. In other words, morality isn’t obvious. But try to tell your brain that.

Reading Jonathan Haidt I came across what science has really discovered about our moral psychology. Haidt makes the following points that have bearing on what I am saying:

  1. Society functions in part precisely because we fear being branded as immoral and gaining an immoral reputation. We care about our good name and it hurts deeply to have our good name soiled.
  2. Studies show that we both universally hate gossip and also universally engage in it. (The Happiness Hypothesis, p. 52-55)
  3. This is because gossip is the biological means we use to keep people in moral line according to our cultural definition of morality. Gossip is therefore underrated because keeping people in-line morally via branding someone as immoral via gossip is a much nicer solution than using violence on them. Society could not function without gossip. (The Happiness Hypothesis, p. 55)
  4. But biologically speaking, what matters is not that you are moral but that you have a moral reputation. Therefore, if evolution (which always takes the least costly path) is true, science predicts — and studies confirm — that we should care far less about being moral than being considered moral, as it is far more cost effective to build a moral reputation than to be moral in all circumstances. (The Happiness Hypothesis, Chapter 4)
  5. Evolution and biology are therefore the source of widespread human hypocrisy. We are all hypocrites due to our biology because we are quite literally born this way. (The Happiness Hypothesis, p. 60)
  6. Biology pulls this off through a series of mind tricks. We simply do not hold ourselves to the same moral standards we try to hold other people because we easily make excuses for ourselves via ‘what our intentions are’ but don’t for others. (The Happiness Hypothesis, Chapter 4.)
  7. In addition, the conscious part of our brain (what Haidt calls the rider) evolved to serve the subconscious part (what Haidt calls the Elephant) and not the other way around. Split brain studies have very convincingly demonstrated [2] that the conscious part of our mind will — on the spot — make up post facto excuses for the actions of the Elephant. (The Happiness Hypothesis, Chapter 1)

The Evolutionary Basis for Self Deceit

The conclusions above are scary, I admit. But Haidt lays out considerable evidence that it is the case. His other book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion even goes further into the problems of morality and the human condition.

In fact, it shouldn’t surprise us much at all, really, because we happen to be Christians and already believe in the concept of us being “fallen man.” This is really just science finally confirming what we Christians have known for forever — we are not very moral creatures. We are sometimes, but we are extremely inconsistent and hypocritical about it. Being moral is hard and we constantly rationalize our immoral behavior as moral rather than bother to correct it. We are all hypocrites because we are biologically fallen in our nature. We constantly fail to practice what we preach and universally hold others morally accountable for that which we ourselves do not do. This is just simply true of every one. Period. [3]

What makes this idea of our fallen nature / biological evolutionary hypocrisy so difficult is — and this is Haidt’s main point — that we are only barely conscious creatures. As mentioned above, the conscious part of our mind exists to serve the subconscious part, and not the other way around.

This means that we are literally not consciously aware of our true motives, so we can convincingly lie about them because we believe our own lies completely. Evolution and biology saddled us with the perfect way to tell a lie — but honestly believing it is the truth.  This is what we call self-deception. We literally and routinely lie to ourselves about our own true motives. Haidt points out that this is what we should expect of evolution (or of a fallen nature for us Christians — or both) because the best lie is the one that is believed.

But that’s a contradiction isn’t it? If you honestly believe an untruth, isn’t it not a lie? A lie is very specifically an intentional untruth. But here is the rub. The vast majority of the time, when we ‘lie’ we deceive ourselves. Therefore human lying, in the strict sense of knowing untruths, is actually quite rare. Most of the time when we ‘lie’ we aren’t lying at all — we are rationalizing on the spot to post facto justify our “elephant’s” behavior.

The Paradox — Moral Correction is a Personal Attack

Which brings me to my main point — there is a difficult, perhaps even impossible, to break paradox here. Society does not function without us morally correcting each other and building moral reputations of each other. But moral correction is quite literally, almost by definition, not rational, and is therefore actually really just a personal attack that is self-justified by its moral need. When someone says “you’re really being a jerk” what they mean is you’ve done something that they feel is in need of moral correction and they have a moral duty to point it out.

But since we’re biologically programmed to react strongly to attacks on our moral character, degrading someone’s moral’s is one of the worst possible personal attacks imaginable.

Honestly, stop here and think about moral correction you’ve given. Is it even possible to give moral correction that isn’t personal? For morality to function biologically in the first place it had to make us deeply profoundly care about our moral reputation. A moral correction is by definition an attack on that moral reputation that we care so much about.

You can make it more polite or less polite. You can call someone a ‘jerk’ which is clearly more rude, but you can also call their post ‘sick and wrong’ which arguably is addressing an idea and not a person, but we all know is actually calling the person in some sense also sick and wrong morally. So it too is a personal attack. So is calling someone a troll. Or even telling someone, “hey, you’re acting too much like a troll.”

What makes this all worse is that because we rationalize our own bad motives (and by this what I really mean is that we are not consciously aware of our bad motives), we rarely feel we are in need of moral correction — even when we are.

I talked about this same paradox at more length, but in a different light, in my post on morality and coercion, where I pointed out that morality is in fact a form of coercion but we feel a justified form of coercion given the fundamental necessity of forming a moral society.

But we also feel coercion is immoral, too. So not surprisingly, we differentiate between appropriate coercion and immoral coercion based on our cultural moral standards. Which leads to the question: what if two cultures — say a liberal Mormon and “TBM” Mormon culture — have differing moral standards? What then? [4]

I believe the ‘what then?’ is known as the Bloggernacle.

Moral Correction and the Oppression of Women Through Modesty

I have no real history with liberal Mormon blog called By Common Consent. I’ve been asked about my opinion of them and I have so little to go on that its hard to form an opinion. That is probably a deficiency of me that needs to be corrected, I admit. I’ve probably read a total of 20 or so BCC posts in my life and I’ve commented on probably 3 or 4 at the most.

And frankly, its not that shocking that I just haven’t spent much time there. After my time on Mormon Matters I was fairly burnt out over being morally corrected — remember that’s the same as a personal attack — for standing up in favor of the teachings of the Church while rarely was there ever moral correction of those that attacked the teachings of the Church.

So not surprisingly, on one of the very few occasions where I commented on BCC, the reaction I got to my comment pretty much reassured me I’d be facing the same problems there as I did at Mormon Matters — though over many different issues, of course.  [5]

My Adventures at BCC

Let’s take a look at what happened back when I tried to comment on BCC in 2011, as its relevant to the case I’m making.

The post was called Short Skirt, Long Jacket and thus was one of BCCs famous “modesty” posts — a flash point of moral outrage within Mormon liberal communities, even believing ones.

In the discussion I asked Kristine about her hostility towards the Church encouraging women towards modesty as a compassionate way of helping their brethren with their own temptations. Clearly the Church has never taught this as the purpose of modesty and I doubt its ever been some officially sanctioned doctrine. But I have heard Bishops mention this as one possible reason in favor of modesty before and there was a recent case of a general authority stating this in a talk in the Ensign.

And many will laugh at me, but I honestly had never heard of someone objecting to this before that day. Today liberals hate this so much they actually call it ‘rape culture’ (a term that I still have no idea what it means, but that a pretty provocative thing to call something.) So I honestly and sincerely asked Kristine about this and why she had issues with it.

Kristine’s response was a moral correction to me for even asking, albeit a relatively gentle one correction:

Women are not responsible for men’s thoughts about their bodies. Full stop.


This short response said, without a doubt: Bruce, you’re a moral idiot for asking this question. It is morally obvious that encouraging girls to be modest because boys are visually stimulated is morally equivalent to saying women are responsible for men’s thoughts.

To avoid derailing this post into a modesty fight, let me just say that given I had never heard this before, no, it was not at the time at all morally obvious to me. And, yes, I felt some level of personal attack in this moral correction being offered to me for what to me at the time was nothing more than asking a sincere question.

Kristine then immediately sent me a link to one of her posts where she discusses the pain she felt growing up being told what was or wasn’t modest and how she should dress and how it would affect others, etc. While I’m quite certain (having now asked other Mormon women) that Kristine’s experience here is far from universal, it is nonetheless her honest sincere experience and she is not alone in feeling this way.

Now remember, this is the very first time in my life I’m hearing this. But Kristine’s moral correction to me just wasn’t enough for the BCC commenters. I was also told by one commenter that  I was trying to hedge the law, thereby likening me to the Pharisees. This wasn’t even a gentle moral correction like Kristine’s. It was, to be blunt, shocking in how similar it was to being on Mormon Matters.

So what did I do? Why I morally corrected them back — also in a gentle way:

No reason to get mean guys. It was an honest question.

So now I’ve called them mean. It is certainly a personal attack of sorts. In my opinion at the time, a factually accurate one given that (in my opinion at the time at least) all I had done was make an honest and sincere inquiry.

Kristine then encouraged me to read her post, which I did. And I come back with a far more sympathetic response now because I can really feel that she is sincerely pained by how modest was handled growing up in the Church. However, at that point in time I still did not entirely agree with her — not at all surprising given my more conservative background and that this is literally the first time I’ve heard this:



I read your post. It looks like you are agreeing with me [that the church does in some small part encourage modesty to create a better environment for the men in the church out of compassion towards their struggles], but you’re adding several other reasons as well.


I feel your pain, Kristine. I hope my daughters will have very different experiences with modesty. But I think a hard fast rule of “Women are not responsible for men’s thoughts about their bodies” is probably going too far the other way, since clearly it *is* possible for a women to be intentionally provocative as well. No man or woman is an island in this manner and it’s a mistake to avoid the truth. But I am sympathetic to the pains you talk about. I would not like to be treated in that way either. Thanks for the food for thought.

Let’s face it, this is about as polite as a disagreement gets. And Kristine, despite her initially moral correction, has by this point backed way off the moral correction and was really starting to speak to me now and share her honest feelings without trying to make me feel stupid.

So what happens next? Why I am morally corrected for the above show of sympathy of course — this time by Steve Evans, one of BBCs founders:

Bruce, I don’t think there’s any way for you to possibly know Kristine’s pain. That’s a pretty condescending little pat on the head you just gave her. Have you considered the possibility that as an empowered male, you have absolutely no way of really knowing what a woman has to endure when she’s told that she is a potential trap for men, that she must continually cover herself and make herself unattractive so that men might not be tempted?


Seriously, you’re just being insulting at this point, though I am sure you feel you are justified in your views and have what seems to you to be a clear line of logic in your thoughts.

This was, to me (at least at the time), a shockingly mean response from Steve. I had literally just admitted I felt compassion for her point of view and made several agreements with her. But Steve had decided I needed moral correction for that because in his mind it was condescending for me to acknowledge her pain by saying “I feel it.” Steve must have figured it was morally obvious that I can’t possibly feel a woman’s pain, being a man, so it is morally obvious that I should never say that. In fact, to him I clearly came across as a real jerk (isn’t that the word for someone that is being ‘insulting’ like Steve says I am being?) for even implying I can, as a man, feel a woman’s point of view at all.

Now to me it’s morally obvious (or so I think) that there is nothing wrong with me telling Kristine she’s managed to write a good post that helped me feel her pain. In fact that seems rather compassionate to me. So I almost did what my biological drive was telling me to do — morally correct Steve. Turns out I didn’t have to because Adam Greenwood did so in his own satirical way:

OK, Steve E. Bruce N. is being insulting by trying to be sympathetic, but some guy saying he’s sorry for James N.’s kids isn’t? You need to recalibrate your orwellometer.

Satisfied that Steve had been “appropriately morally corrected” — and frankly sick of being treated this way by fellow Mormons over what to me was a sincere and honest question and a show of compassion, I left the conversation and have rarely returned to BCC.

BCC Comment Policy: Don’t be a Jerk

One point of contention between BCC and M* that I hear all the time is over the difference between our comment policies. M* boils down to “we’ll edit as we please to create the community we want — you’ve been warned” and BCC’s has often been summarized as “You can say what you want as long as you’re not a jerk about it.”

BCC contends then that M* is oppressive in their comment policy — and perhaps we are — while BCC is itself an “open forum” for all sides of debate.

Now I want you to ask yourself a question. Was there in fact any way I could have disagreed with Kristine that wouldn’t have been taken by Steve and the other BCCers as equivalent to me being insulting? (and thus a ‘jerk’)

Really ask yourself that question honestly, because its the crux of the problem. Maybe you feel I could, maybe you feel I couldn’t. I think this is THE key question required to ask if you want to understand of the problems of the Bloggernacle. At a minimum, I think its fair to say that even if you think I could have made my response to Kristine nicer or more compassionate while still disagreeing with her, I hope you can at least see that the level of diplomacy required of me (as a “TBM”) is a drastically different level than BCCers are holding themselves to. In fact the level of diplomacy skill being required of me is a level most human beings simply do not have after a life time of training themselves and trying to bridle their passions.

There is No Such Thing as an “Open Forums” for Dialogue

Now it’s well known that I do not believe there exist any open forums at all (though I do believe there may be various levels of closed-ness) and now you can probably see why I feel that way. Because at BCC, “being a jerk” from a liberal Mormon viewpoint may literally be nothing more than (from a “TBM” viewpoint) asking sincere questions and showing compassion. And further, liberal Mormons will literally allow personal attacks (which they sincerely see as moral correction of course, and thus morally necessary) towards “TBMs” for nothing more than a sincere question or a show of compassion — which they sincerely interpret as ‘insulting’ and thus being a jerk.

Given this reality — no, BCC is nothing even remotely close to an open forum. In so far as they think they are, they are fooling themselves. But so what?

I believe all successful blog communities (or any type of community, for that matter) must of necessity have what I call “value-boundaries.” Steve and Kristine and others could  not let my statements go without personally attacking me (or from their point of view, morally correcting me) because my statements violated the BCC value-boundaries on the subject of feminism and the Church leaders current views on modesty.

How BCC Enforces Their Value-Boundaries

BCC knows they have a large community that will vocally enforce this value-boundary via moral correction — i.e. personal attacks from a “TBM” point of view. And if I were to insist on morally correcting the BCCers back insistently (which would of course also be a personal attack from a certain point of view) I’d be labeled as a jerk and banned.

From a “TBM” point of view, I would have been banned for merely disagreeing. But from a BCCer’s viewpoint it would sincerely look to them like I was only banned for being a jerk and that had I just not been a jerk I could have disagreed to my heart’s content without being banned.

And thus we see how it is that the illusion of being an open forum can be maintained within the minds of one community while actually being nothing like unto an open forum; or at least is not an open forum in the sense of being a place where all can share their thoughts from positions of equality.

This enforcement of value-boundaries via moral corrections (I.e. group dog piling and personal attacks) is how BCC can enforce their value-boundary on me without needing to ever explicitly state in their comment policy: “if you disagree too strongly with us too often, we’ll ban you.” Yet that is the end result nonetheless.

But again, so what? This only matters if you believed you deserved some sort of moral approbation for being able to freely participate in an ‘open forum.’ If this is something you believe then, yes, me pointing out a strong example that demonstrates you are not an open forum is going to sting. You may feel a strong urge this very moment to whip out your nastiest moral corrections (i.e. personal attacks) at me, or at a minimum you are ‘holding your tongue’ right now. 

But why? Because loss of that moral approbation is a personal attack from your point of view. I am calling your moral character into question, in a sense (i.e. you don’t deserve a moral approbation you thought you deserved), and you deeply care about that moral character. Therefore your “elephant” may already be asking your “rider” to come up with reasons to dismiss my point of view, without having to consider it any further, to save that moral approbation you think you deserve. Your “elephant” insists on dismissing me on moral grounds because morality is a “conversation stopper.” If you can dismiss me on moral ground you needn’t even consider my arguments. Even if I said nothing whatsoever that can be thought of as a reason to dismiss me on moral grounds, your “elephant” will get your “rider” to make up a false reason to do so. Such reasons may already be flitting through your head.

Commenting Policies and Value-Boundaries

I’ve had years now to reflect on the above exchange and what it really all means for us as human beings and as members of the same Church, but with some vastly different moral cultures.

This is a more conservative site, so I think the vast majority here are simply going to side with me on the above. You’ll say “Bruce was totally nice, asked a sincere question, and was acting polite and compassionate, therefore the BCCers were being jerks.”

But I want you to hold that judgment for the moment. The key point here I’m making is that moral corrections are equivalent to personal attacks. The reason you think the BCCers are being jerks is precisely because you have different cultural moral standards than they do and therefore you see their moral corrections of me as unnecessary, unjustified, and therefore mean-spirited.

It is also abundantly clear that BCC strongly disagrees with “TBMs” on what constitutes a proper moral judgment. That is precisely why their moral corrections aimed at me do not come across to them as being mean-spirited. To them, I really was in some sense ‘being a jerk’ and really did need moral correction. And given that it was moral correction they were giving me, it was by definition morally necessary and thus not at all mean-spirited — and moreover not a personal attack from their point of view, merely a statement of fact.

To Kristine, it is just morally obvious that caring about modesty for the sake of a male is totally completely equivalent to telling a female she is responsible for a male’s thoughts.  And since morality is literally a cutting off of rational thought, we should find that it would be biologically difficult (maybe even impossible) for her to stop and spend time (at least at this point with her current cultural understanding of what is moral) considering the possibility that the two are not exactly equivalent. So of course she felt the need to morally correct me. She wanted to wake me up to my moral lack and make sure I ‘got it’ that I was tolerating and maybe even accepting something that was clearly immoral. For her to not stop and morally correct such an obvious moral gap would be immoral for her. She honestly felt like she had no real choice because if she didn’t morally correct me it would be in some way legitimizing an obviously immoral point of view.

And to Steve Evan, it is just obvious that part of the moral problems we have in our world is that men think they understand women’s point of view. That’s “mansplaining’ of course! For me to say I ‘feel your pain’ had to be morally corrected because its an outright example of what’s wrong with the world. To let it go without comment would be to in some way consent to the idea that men ‘get’ where women are coming from and so they know what is best for women based on their empowered male point of view.

And even the fact that I was not condemning the Church’s past use of strict modesty guidelines was morally obvious to the BCC commenter that I was falling into the same trap the Pharisees fell into of hedging moral law with overt moral guidelines. So of course he needed to correct me or else he would be in some way consenting that what the Pharisees did was morally legitimate in some way.

Value-Boundaries Are Required for Online Communities to Exist

Let me sum up what I am saying: At BCC they (like all blog communities) have moral value-boundaries that they feel they need to enforce through moral correction when someone crosses that boundary — just like we do here at M*. In fact, without these moral value boundaries, it would be impossible to have a ‘site culture’ and therefore a ‘site community’ at all. This is what in the past I’ve called a blog’s “safe zone.” And it’s why I have no issue at all with BCC’s choice of enforcement of their liberal Mormon value-boundaries — at least on their own site. I frankly think “TBM” cries that BCC should stop “being jerks” to those they disagree with are really just a demand that BCC disband as a community. Because if they were to stop morally correcting us on things that matter to them, that issue would no longer be a value-boundary for their community, and so the community could not survive.

And when BCC makes these “moral corrections” they do not in their minds count as inappropriate personal attacks. The same can be said of us here at M* in reverse. We feel the need to make moral corrections too, but over very different things.

We certainly won’t morally correct any opinion at all about the Church’s current views on modesty (though we might over someone supporting immodesty — particularly pornography) but we do feel the need to speak up and morally correct someone that, say, disagrees with the Brethren’s teachings — perhaps even their teachings on modesty. And how do we morally correct such people? Well, honestly probably by either quoting or paraphrase the Brethren morally correcting their view point. General Conference is a veritable playing ground for quotes to use against liberals views.

Read my responses in the above exchange a bit closer now. That is in fact what I seem to be doing, though subtly. I was only really satisfied after I got Kristine to admit she was at odds with the Brethren’s current views. Had you asked me to admit that was what I was doing at the time, I’d have told you “no way” and it would not have been a lie. But I was and it seems sort of obvious to me now.

“The Prophet’s Make Mistakes”

But think for a moment how quoting the Brethren at a liberal must feel to them. Let’s take a hypothetical liberal Mormon who did the John Dehlin-thing and studied Mormon history and had a faith crisis. But then, unlike John Dehlin, they found a way to keep believing in the Church by deciding that “the Prophets make mistakes” that all purpose way to reduce cognitive dissonance when the Church teaches or does something you can’t morally agree with.

Now we all — even everyone here at M* — believe that ‘the prophets make mistakes.’ None of us believe in infallible prophets. Indeed, Mormons have never believed in infallible prophets. Joseph Smith reportedly said:

I have my failings and passions to contend with the same as has the greatest stranger to God. I am tempted the same as you are, my brethren. I am not infallible. (John D. Lee, Mormonism Unveiled, 111)

So in and of itself, this isn’t a false view even to a “TBM.”

But it seems to me that if one decides to use “prophets are fallible” to simply disagree with a teaching, doctrine, or revelation from the past that was causing them trouble, then one (perhaps unintended) consequence of that choice is that that gives said “liberal Mormon” rational wiggle room to cut out anything he/she does not agree with as part of that ‘prophetic fallibility.’

The “TBM” approach of “coming to grips” or “learning to accept” what at first seems like God commanding something immoral, becomes no longer at all necessary. Never mind putting things on a shelf until you understand them — just assume its all part of prophetic fallibility. When prophetic fallibility is used in this way, it saves the person’s testimony by allowing them to believe in some LDS Church teachings while disbelieving whatever it was that bothered them morally in the LDS Church’s past — say polygamy perhaps. And let’s face it, polygamy is no easy pill to swallow for anyone. This approach literally eliminates all issues one has with the LDS Church.

It is also precisely what the concept of a “Menu Mormon” was derived from.

By simply deciding that polygamy was one of the ‘mistakes the prophet made’ one has an instant solution to the moral cognitive dissonance that reading a book like Fawn Brodie’s No Man Knows My History creates in them.  They simply decide polygamy was not from God and a mistake, but that some of the rest was true.

All Beliefs Have Rational Consequences

This ‘easy out’ in fact isn’t easy at all.  Historian Todd Compton gives us a good example of how this one little tweak quickly becomes a massive change.  His book In Sacred Loneliness multiple times makes the claim that Mormons believed Joseph Smith to be infallible. [6]

Why does Compton make this claim when there is overwhelming evidence that from the very outset Joseph Smith, as first prophet, taught that he was fallible? (As given as an example in the quote above.)

Mormon defenders have taken Compton to task over his claim, easily pointing out that Mormons have never taught prophetic infallibility. But the Mormon Defenders are wasting their time on the wrong issue here.

To understand where Compton is coming from you have to realize that he is fully aware that Mormons have always taught that prophets are fallible. He’s not claiming otherwise. He’s claiming that despite the Church always teaching that prophets are fallible that they mistakenly thought Joseph Smith infallible anyhow.

And what historical basis does Compton have for believing this? Why the fact that Joseph Smith taught polygamy of course. Because Todd Compton is taking as a starting assumption that is morally obvious that polygamy is immoral. And given that polygamy is obviously immoral, it is obvious that God would never reveal it or command it. And given that God would not command it, then when someone was approached by Joseph Smith to practice polygamy and they went away and prayed about it and felt God was commanding them to practice it, it must be the case that  they were mistaken; for Compton is assuming that it is morally obvious that God would not do this.

And given that said historical figure was mistaken it must be the case that the reason they thought God commanded them to do it was not because they prayed and God answered their prayers — as they believed was the case — but was because they thought Joseph Smith to be infallible. (A common liberal view here is that their internal moral sense that caused their initial bad reaction was God’s revelation to them.) What other conclusion is available given the starting assumption that it is morally obvious that God would never command polygamy? Compton is rationally forced to this position because its the only rational possibility left once you’ve decided that plural marriage should fall under “prophetic fallibility.”

So now we’ve started with that little bit of wiggle room that all agree upon — prophets are fallible — and we’ve been rationally forced to conclude that all early Mormons were mistaken.

And not only that, but we are now also forced to conclude that all Mormons today that believe Joseph Smith’s polygamy was actually commanded of God (i.e. all the Brethren and probably the vast majority of believing active members) are also mistaken and are making the same grave mistake of believing their prophets and leaders are infallible.

That is to say, the whole church has gone astray and is in need of correction  — or so “TBMs” are likely to see it. And furthermore, it is now rationally obvious that these Mormons that believe plural marriage came from God — you know, pretty much all active Mormons — need to be taught God’s true will on this subject. [7]

And what started out as a single exception based on prophetic mistakes soon becomes, at some level, a rational necessity to correct the entire Church. While at the same time the “TBMs” instantly see that this person is taking it upon themselves to (in their view) correct the whole church — and to them it is morally obvious that this is a moral problem in need of correction — you see where this is going right?

The “TBM” Charge of Liberals Being Apostates?

Now the “TBM” may never call such a person an apostate or a heretic at all. But the very fact that the “TBM” tells (or even just implies) the “liberal Mormon” that they are trying to correct the Church and the Brethren implies within Mormon culture at least a tacit call to repentance and therefore a charge of drifting towards apostasy. In any case, it’s a moral correction which is a personal attack on the liberal Mormon’s religious and spiritual beliefs.

Now remember that the liberal Mormon honestly feels like they won’t be able to continue to believe in the Church if they are forced to (for our example) believe God commanded polygamy. So naturally the liberal Mormon is incensed that he/she has been made to feel like an outsider and “charged with apostasy” (if only by implication) when they know in their hearts they believe in the Church. (I am here assuming we’re talking about believing liberal Mormons.)

The logic of this seems inevitable to me. The liberal becomes angry for being ‘called an apostate’ and gets mad and feels like the “TBM” is being a jerk — and this is just one more example of ‘prophetic mistakes’ where the Brethren have just not been ‘open enough’ and ‘compassionate enough.’ And even that quote from the Brethren being quoted to the liberal Mormon, to “call them to repentance”, is just one of those many ‘prophetic mistakes’ anyhow and yet another example of how the Church needs to stop teaching ‘that prophets are infallible.”

In turn, the “TBM” gets angry that the liberal got mad when they know they never actually called the liberal Mormon an apostate and were merely quoting or paraphrasing the Brethren — which is what we do in this Church since we believe we’re led by prophets of God! The “TBM” feels the liberal Mormon is being a ‘jerk’ because the liberal Mormon is blowing up over nothing but a factual statement. And besides, the liberal Mormon is in the moral wrong anyhow given that they are trying to correct the church — which mind you is in fact the case from a certain point of view. “Those liberal Mormons are just trying to steady the ark!” cries the “TBM”.

And in turn, having now been called a “jerk” for doing nothing more than defending morality (i.e. God’s will!)  against a ‘prophetic mistake’ the liberal Mormon feels the “TBM” is being a jerk and is an example of all that is wrong with Mormon culture. “See,” cries the liberal, “Mormon Culture (all the way up to the Brethren!) just isn’t ‘inclusive’ enough or ‘compassionate’ enough to ‘include me’ without making me feel like a pariah.”

And in fact, the liberal Mormon is correct about Mormon culture on this — we do quote the Brethren as a source of moral authority and this will often cause the liberal Mormon to feel like a pariah. So the liberal Mormon feels the need to give moral correction right on back and does not feel like they are being a jerk in the slightest when they do so.

And thus starts an never ending battle that is the Bloggernacle that has no solution even in principle save to convert the entire Church to your point of view — which ever view you happen to hold.

On Being the 99 and the 1

Which brings me back to my post on being the lost sheep and the liberal reaction to it.

From within a “TBM” viewpoint, the idea of using a scripture to call out “TBM” church members as “un-Christ-like” because people are “leaving the church” — rather than as a way to motivate individual church members to not give up on those leaving the Church — is a totally alien concept. To a “TBM” this seems like “weaponizing” the scriptures rather than learning from them. Furthermore, a “TBM” simply could never accept the idea that a doctrine (in this case, let’s say women not receiving the priesthood) they believe in — remember they believe in it, which means they sincerely believe its from God not from themselves! — must be changed just to keep someone from leaving the Church. For one thing, that undermines the entire purpose of the Church from a “TBM” viewpoint. Church membership is not an end, its a means. The desired “end” is always “belief” which in this case means either believing the doctrine or at least accepting it. To a “TBM” this scripture is about going out and assisting the liberal Mormon who is thinking of leaving the church for disagreement with a doctrine — which they believe comes from God! — to instead choose to accept the doctrine enough to stay. Therefore to the “TBM” this scripture is about doing home teaching, reaching out to the less active, reaching out to those falling away, and doing their best to help them come back into belief.

Once you realize how a “TBM” reads this scripture, you realize immediately that a “TBM” calling out what they see as a “misuse of the scripture” could never consciously be a case of deciding who is or isn’t the lost sheep.

But does it then follow that this critic of mine was wrong? At the time I would have answered, yes, to that question. But I’m no longer so sure.

At a minimum, this critic is right to point out that it is possible to read my post that way, even if I didn’t intend it. So his criticism is valid in at least that sense.

But let’s be honest given all that I’ve written above — can I even know my own “elephant’s” true motives? Is it possible that at some subconscious level he/she is right? If I could open up my full mind and make myself aware of my subconscious’ motives, might I not find that there is some truth to his moral rebuke to me? Do I not sometimes treat the liberal Mormon — even the believing ones — as an enemy?

Let’s be honest here, given my own background with liberal Mormons it seems to me very likely that there is a deeper truth that this critic expresses about me. No, it’s not the whole of me nor maybe even the primary motivation. We can easily have good and bad motivations at the same time. But I’m not so sure any more that he (or she) is entirely wrong about me.

Is there Hope?

I think “TBMs” are probably correct that liberal changes would destroy the church. There is good scientific reason now to believe that is probably the case. (More on this in a future post.) But I also think Liberals Believers are correct that TBM policies are causing people to leave. They are both right. Could we be both right?

Many know I am a fan of Karl Popper, the philosopher of science. One of the things he believed is that criticism and therefore often conflict are good things in many cases. While its easy to see how this must be true for the sciences, perhaps it’s even true for the Bloggernacle. Perhaps its even the case that simultaneously I was right to right to rebuke FMHW for their misuse of scripture and it was right for the liberal Mormon community to criticize me back as “deciding who the lost sheep are.” Perhaps, in the end, due to our dual good and bad motives, that is actually the ideal.

This is also why I think trying to shut down criticism by calling it “mean-spirited” or “unnecessary” is the wrong direction. What we need is more conflict, not less.

It is too bad, in a way, that my critic can’t see that my original post should not be dismissed solely on the moral grounds that I am “deciding who the lost sheep are” though truth be told, whether or not liberals come to see it that way, they may nonetheless learn to stop using this meme if it just gets them in trouble because “TBMs” learn to call it out as a ‘tactic’. There may be some benefit to the liberal community from my post even if it was mean-spirited and easily dismissed. Its also too bad that I was unable to see that the criticism was probably valid and also that I need to learn yet more diplomacy. But even if I had never come to admit there was some truth to it, might I not have even still learned to be more careful with my words if only to make future criticism harder? Popper points out that criticism is like that — it works even when you don’t intend it to. But we were both too dismissive and not listening well in our own different ways.

Could some liberal Mormons some day learn to see a post like mine and say ‘Whoa! That was a sincere and honest view point expressed. And I can now see why this is coming across really bad to ‘them other guys’… I should improve my discourse.” And perhaps someday there will be some “TBMs” that will say “You know, I can totally see why being in the church as a liberal Mormon is so difficult. And I’m not sure I really see a good answer here. Perhaps we’re going to have to learn to combine doctrine and compassion in ways we have yet to even think of. And maybe that Bloggernacle isn’t such a bad thing, after all, for the right group of people that truly need it.”


[1] One of the main advantages of evolving a biological moral sense is to cut off certain lines of rational consideration, like say murder as a way or resolving one’s problems. An obvious example is if you have disagreement with your father over something, if you are a normal well adjusted member of society without mental illness, you never even consider the rational possibility of murdering your father to get your way even though that does in fact make rational sense. It is this ‘cutting off’ of certain rational options because they are immoral that allows us to build cultures and societies. It also frees us up all the time that we would have to spend if we were simply rational creatures that considered all possible rational options, like planning out the perfect murder ‘just in case’ you decide that’s the best way to get what you want.

I know this might sound like I’m being humorous to some, but I am not. This is an important function of our biological moral sense  — I’m sure it has many functions — and since evolution functions purely on utility, there had to be some sort of utility to an organism for the moral sense to evolve in the first place. In a Theistic world, God would know this and would arrange for the environment to form us in this way via utility.

[2] Split brain studies have very convincingly demonstrated…

For those not familiar with the experiments with split-brain patients, this is a bit shocking perhaps. Essentially the two halves of the brain are connected by a large neural net that runs between them. For certain epilepsy patients it is necessary to cut the cord between the two halves of the brain. Now we all know that the right side of the brain controls the left half of the body, and vice versa. (Actually, it’s more complicated than this, but this is approximately correct.) So what happens to a person who no longer has the right and left side of their brain communicating?

Well, for the most part, they can live a normal life. But they effectively have two minds from then on. This is quite literal. For example, the two hands might get into a fight over who gets to button up the shirt, knocking each other away, or (in one case) trying to chocked the neck of the person for not doing what it wants. There was even one case that Roger Penrose mentions of teaching both sides of the brain to communicate (normally the left side has the language and the right side does not) and finding out that each half of the brain had different ideal careers and life goals. (Though if you think about it, don’t you have multiple competing career desires and life goals too?)

Experiments included putting up a sign for one half of the brain to read while the other half doesn’t know what was said and then watching the reaction of the person. For example, one might give a message to the right half to “get up and walk across the room” while the left half (which has the language and is therefore the conscious part) has no idea why they just got up and walked across the room. So of course they then ask the person “why did you just get up and walk across the room?” Now the surprising thing was that the person didn’t say “oh, I don’t know why.” Instead they made up on the spot a rational justification for why they had behaved as they did, e.g. “I wanted to get a coke.” This led to increasing experiments into what degree the “elephant” (the subconscious) controls the “rider” (the conscious mind) and basically the answer is “almost total.” The “rider’s” job is to be a press agent for the subconscious elephant’s desire and activities. The conscious mind exists to deploy all reason and rationality it can in defense of whatever the elephant already wants. This is why our reasoning is so completely post facto — we make up our reasons after we already did what we wanted to do.

There is hope here, I might add. The conscious “rider” can be deployed to train the “elephant” to want something different. But that usually takes considerable persistent effort. This is why pursuit of “virtue” is a skill, not an intellectual understanding.

[3] We are all hypocrites, yes, but not all equally so. So there is hope.

[4] What is a TBM? So here is the problem as I see it. Liberal Mormons and Ex-Mormons made up the term “TBM” — which is supposed to stand for, depending on who you ask, “True Blue Mormon” or “True Believing Mormon.” This term was intended as a pejorative to differentiate one’s self (i.e. the liberal or ex-Mormon) from what they saw as the unthinking naïve masses of Mormons that believe more or less what the Brethren teach. So in the past I’ve refused to use “TBM” given that I don’t like to perpetuate pejorative labels like this and find them to be undermining to discussion and dialogue.

However, I have since bumped into another problem. Liberal Mormons (not ex-Mormons) do not like it when I refer to “Believing Mormons” instead of “TBMs” because they often either are Believing Mormons (like my friend John C from BCC) or they are using the term “Believing Mormon” in a misleading way so as to position their criticisms on LDS beliefs as coming from a “Faithful and Believing Mormon” even though they have long since abandoned belief of all the defining truth claims of the LDS Church.

The issue here is that I want to talk about two specific groups of people here that exist as noticeable groups in real life and that nobody denies exists. Specifically this article is about Believing Liberal Mormons and about Believing Mormons that we do not perceive as liberal. What am I to call that second group?

I can’t in good conscience call this group “Conservative Mormons”  or even “Orthodox Mormons” because those terms (as John C hints at in this post) can refer to people that are at odds with the Brethren’s teachings or policies on some issues. For example, Denver Snuffer is arguably a very “conservative Mormon” to the point of being wholly at odds with the current teachings of the Brethren because he wants to (in his mind) go back to the way things were in Joseph Smith’s time. But Snuffer is clearly not part of either group I’m discussing.

I can’t even call them “mainstream Mormons” as it’s not that clear who that is. Aren’t most Mormons (as with all churches) not active? So aren’t the non-active ones arguably the “mainstream” of Mormonism?

So who are the two groups I am talking about and how do I refer to them? “Liberal Mormon” works pretty well, other than the fact that it refers to both a John C and a John Dehlin.  So I feel the question that must be asked is “What defines a Liberal Mormon?”

Well, to be honest, I think it comes down the LDS magisterium — those that we call “The Brethren.” It is a huge part — defining part — of LDS Doctrine that there are 15 Apostles and Prophets through whom Jesus Christ leads the LDS Church. If someone goes to church and believes in the defining truth claims of the LDS Church and mostly just agrees with the teachings of the Brethren we do not call them “Liberal Mormons”. I believe therefore “liberalness” in a religious context like this — completely separate from political liberalness — is a term meant to imply a departure of some sort in some significant way from the officially accepted doctrines of said religion — which for the LDS Church means some sort of significant departure from the Brethren’s teachings on some subject.

I know some people cringe when I say this because — within the LDS Church — this is branded such in some circles as to be the same as calling someone a heretic or whatnot. But the problem is that we do not call someone that doesn’t significantly differ from the Brethren on some subject liberal — ever. That’s what we mean when we say so-and-so is a “liberal Mormon.” If you spend even the very short time I’ve spent at BCC, you immediately see where they do depart from current church teachings on a few key subjects. The most obvious case is on homosexuality and gay marriage.

Now I want to point out that the above statement is not a value statement. If the Church is destined to eventually embrace homosexuality and gay marriage — as many liberal Mormons believe — then this departure from the current teachings of the Brethren is a good thing. These are they that saw further. But that doesn’t change the fact that currently such a person departs from the teachings of the Brethren on that subject.

So if a “liberal Mormon” is someone that departs from at least some of the unanimous teachings of the Brethren, what is someone that doesn’t?

So “TBM” for now means (for lack of a better acronym) “The Brethren-aligned Mormons.” That’s who the TBM group is that I’m referring to. That is a very approximate label that is ‘sufficiently precise’ to allow the necessary discussion and not a ounce more so. Decide for yourself where you fall on the scale. Perhaps you can even relate to both sides of this discussion if you are really lucky or unlucky.

[5] …though over many different issues, of course. I am not here saying BCC and Mormon Matters are the same. They are not. Mormon Matters was really a non-believing liberal site that included believers and BCC is a liberal and usually believing Mormon site. They are culturally similar in some ways, but also culturally drastically different in others, as Andrew S assures us. And I believe this./

[6] Todd Compton’s teaches that early Mormons saw Joseph Smith as infallible.

I found at least 7 such quotes:

  1. p.79 – Nevertheless, Zina accepted Joseph as a prophet whose words were infallible revelations direct from God.
  2. p. 253 – She undoubtedly had to deal with the tensions of two men in her life at the same time – one a prophet viewed as infallible…
  3. p.262 – Even those unsympathetic to Joseph will understand that Elizabeth, like all Mormon women, had accepted him as an infallible leader and that it was the intensity of her religiosity that led her to influence other women to enter polygamy.
  4. p. 296 – But since many early Mormons viewed Smith as infallible, it is understandable that there was often, as here, a conversion to the doctrine that originally caused shocked horror.
  5. p. 455 – Perhaps this is one of the reasons that Smith’s widows, looking back on their brief experience of secret polygamy, could idealize it, especially since Smith himself had become larger than life in Mormon folk memory – a nearly infallible figure who ranked just below Jesus Christ and higher than Old Testament prophets.
  6. p. 456 – If they accepted him as an infallible prophet, and if they wanted full exaltation, they had no recourse but to marry many plural wives.
  7. p. 456 – But it is worth noting that the women who suffered so much under polygamy gave it their unqualified support in public rallies and wrote impassioned defenses of it. They too were devoted to the idea that their church was led by practically infallible, authoritative prophets, especially Joseph Smith.

[7] On correcting the church.

Todd says:

p. 629, note 1:
I am a practicing Mormon who considers himself believing but who rejects absolutists elements of the fundamentalist world view, e.g. the view of Joseph Smith as omniscient or morally perfect or receiving revelation unmixed with human and cultural limitations. However, I do accept non-absolutist incursions of the supernatural into human experience.



and from p. 456:

This was the reason why missionaries could teach that only Latter-day Saint baptism was recognized by God. If nineteenth-century Mormons had concluded that Smith had been wrong in what he taught was the crowning revelation of his life [polygamy] , they would have been left with a very different Mormonism than the faith they followed. Neither Mormon men nor women were willing to jettison that much of their religion.


It is useless to judge nineteenth-century Mormons by late twentieth-century standards [Not that Todd doesn’t do this throughout, I’m afraid] Both men and women were given an impossible task and failed at it. All we can do today is sympathize with them in their tragedies and marvel at their heroism as they suffered.


On his website, this is the front and center banner quote:

History, despite its wrenching pain
Cannot be unlived, and if faced
With courage, need not be lived again.
–Maya Angelou

Todd here shows a solid understanding of why most LDS people do not and cannot buy into his views of polygamy as not from God, but also calls people today who believe polygamy was a revelation from God “fundamentalist” for believing in an “omniscient or morally perfect” Joseph Smith. (See also note 6 above.) I also suspect that Todd, Angelou’s quote not withstanding, has little fear that polygamy will one day return to the LDS Church. But fear of belief in current leaders being “infallible” seems like a fair concern that he’d see as easily repeatable today. His book arguably therefore represent an attempt to correct any modern LDS view of (from his viewpoint) Joseph Smith and successors as “fundamentalist”, “morally perfect”, and “omniscient” from how he understands those terms. No “TBM” would argue with Todd if all he did was claim he wants to correct “fundamentalist” from believing church leaders are “morally perfect” and “omniscient.” Indeed, no church leader would argue it either. But given that he considers anyone that believes that polygamy is a revelation from God falls into those exact categories, there is an obvious ‘talking past each other’ going on here. That is to say, from within a “TBM” view point, Todd is arguing considerably more than that LDS people should not view their leaders as “morally perfect” and “omniscient”, though within his own liberal view point, that is how he probably sincerely sees it.

62 thoughts on “Why We Fight: The Bloggernacle and the Morality of Personal Attacks

  1. Wow, this is a long post. I hope people will read it because there are lots of good thoughts here.

    I am not sure this is a contradiction of your post, but I will state it: it is possible to disagree in a polite way and for that disagreement to be universally acknowledged as polite rather than contentious. Most of the contention you see in the post you mention on BCC is based on years of baggage from the back and forth of emotional discussions. In my experience, the people who are emotional and rude will eventually acknowledge it. So, it is not a lost cause to call for polite disagreement rather than snarky, sarcastic disagreement and to continue to insist on it until it happens. Eventually, politeness will win.

    (We have seen this at M* — the word has gotten out that snarky, sarcastic comments will get deleted so people don’t do it as much anymore. It is kind of like the graffiti effect: if you leave the graffiti on buildings and subways, more people will come along and leave more graffiti. But if you immediately clean or paint over the graffiti, there will be less graffiti overall. A zero tolerance policy regarding snarkiness really does work).

    As I say, Bruce, I don’t think I am disagreeing with the point of your post as much as simply adding some complementary information.

  2. Bruce N.,

    mostly agree. I like how you highlighted that when I morally correct someone, I do it [i]with goshdarn verve[/i] (and far too many uses of initials for people’s names, but never mind that). I wouldn’t mind the liberals’ moral corrections so much if they weren’t stuffy and tedious about it. One pictures Steve E. typing that comment with his hair carefully brushed, his heels together and his posture horribly correct, while his school teacher makes an approving notation in his permanent file.

    Here’s where I disagree: as you know, I’m pretty far down the evolutionary psychology and cognitive neuroscience rathole with you. I’m in the middle of a series at the JG about understanding prophetic teaching through the lens superstimulus of evolved instincts due to transformation of the environment of ancestral evolutionary adaptedness. But the fundamental assumptions of those fields are reductionist materialist ones that do not leave room for personal agency, real morality, or the actions of supernatural agents. We can go far with them, but we can’t go all the way. Especially given the evidence that a lot of social science is dubious or over-theorized or even fabricated, I would be particularly skeptical of studies purporting to show that the conscious mind is just an auxiliary to the subconscious–that’s more or less the result these people want to get.

  3. There is room for interpretation here for sure, Geoff. I’m emphasizing one particular difficulty. While I don’t think the problem can be ‘solved’ easily, it doesn’t have to be. We just need to make improvement. And I believe that is possible.

  4. Adam, I do take science very seriously. But I always hold it as tentative. So I don’t really disagree with you for the most part.

    I do wonder, however, if the “reductionist” assumptions of science here do represent no moral will? Actually, the implication to me is that we start out life with our conscious mind subservient to our subconscious drives and then we can choose to change that over time if we wish (Haidt calls this “training the Elephant”). To me that sounds a lot like moral will, actually. So maybe I’m less convinced than you that the two assumptions are as at odds as you are suggesting.

    But remember, this is all just tentative theory and will forever be just that. The fun is in playing with ideas; both adopting them and challenging them. We should never take science so seriously that give up on our human/theistic beliefs in things like morality, moral will, purpose, meaning, etc, even if science sometimes fails to find or acknowledge those things.

  5. “We can go far with them, but we can’t go all the way.”

    This is a good quote, btw.

    I enjoyed this one too:
    “Especially given the evidence that a lot of social science is dubious or over-theorized or even fabricated…”

    However, take a look at my post tomorrow and the footnote about split brain patients. The idea that the conscious mind starts out subservient to the subconscious desires has been far more strongly established via those experiments than one might think. The only way to fight back against this subservience is to “train the elephant” via hard work, practicing virtue, etc. And that IS what science has discovered on this subject.

  6. One problem that was not addressed in the post was the lack of facial expression, posture and intonation. We rely heavily on these cues to determine if someone is being sincere vs condescending. I have been misinterpreted online too many times to count when I’ve asked an honest and non-judgemental question. So while you have many good ideas and points in your post, I’m not sure the online community will ever reach the goal of having considerate discussions because the medium is limited.

  7. “polygamy is no easy pill for anyone to swallow.” Count me the exception.
    As a child, two of my most admired people were my grandmother and her sister, both of whom I regarded as models of morality. The knowledge that the two of them were simultaneously married to the same man along with other women, was learned so early that I never struggled to accept polygamy as moral. I simply viewed it as situational, or appropriate according to the culture. I once wrote a research paper for a family studies course in my field of anthropology. The professor commended my paper but said, “I can’t determine if you are in favor of polygamy.”
    I was bemused that she would expect me to express a preference. It seemed evident to me, given my background, that polygamy was not so much a moral as a pragmatic issue. In some societies the high death rate of young men through war and dangerous occupations can result in a sexual imbalance. Are women to be condemned to never have children just because there are insufficient men to marry? In such situations polygamy enables women to have the protection of marriage for their children.
    Setting aside the demographics of pioneer era Mormonism, most modern western cultures have near sexual parity, or enough men for monogamy to function as the optimum form of marriage.
    In an age when I am expected to at least accept, if not champion, gay marriage, single women with children born of semen banks, and various multiple mixed partner arrangements, I find it amazing that a normal form of marriage that has been practiced world-wide from prehistory would be regarded as immoral. As a TBM, as Bruce defines the category, I do not advocate the current practice of polygamy by members of the Church. I ponder what would happen if a Muslim with several wives converted to the Gospel with his family.
    The forgoing comment was specifically addressed to an assertion that ‘hooked’ me. In general I enjoyed this post. I believe that introducing the rider and the elephant to each other and reducing self deception is an important function of the Holy Ghost, specifically exercised at least once a week in the period set aside for partaking of the sacrament. I wonder what relevance could be found in terms of split brain assumptions that the corpus callosum, the bundle of nerves that form communications between the two sides of the brain, are much richer and denser in women, hinting at the basis of such terms as ‘feminine intuition’ and the real possibility that men and women really do think in fundamentally different ways.

  8. “In an age when I am expected to at least accept, if not champion, gay marriage, single women with children born of semen banks, and various multiple mixed partner arrangements, I find it amazing that a normal form of marriage that has been practiced world-wide from prehistory would be regarded as immoral.”

    Very interesting and telling comment, Pat.


  9. I read the whole post. Went back and chained off to some earlier post linked to, and decided there is so much here I would spend all day and them some composing a response. I think the whole “science” part at the beginning was not essential to the main point which I believe you made very well about how firmly we believe we are right. The first time I was impressed by this was reading as a teenager of Ammoron’s umbrage at Moroni. Alma 54 is a study in just what you have posited. What a fantastic example of crossed swords, er, pens.

    That said, I had a thought about the ninety and nine and the one and the relevance of that imagery to the “bloggernacle.” I didn’t finish reading all the comments as they were long so if this idea is there then I apologize for repeating it.

    In the parable, the one is a lost sheep, presumably one not already bound to the voice of another shepherd. “Straying” could happen by not paying attention and having the herd leave you as you slept or were looking the other way as the shepherd is urging the flock to the fold, but usually I take this to mean that a sheep has been enticed by something to walk away from the flock, and away from the shepherd’s voice, and that it is alone.

    There may be hope that the shepherd, seeing his sheep in another flock, could merely call to it over the strident voice of the other shepherd, and that the sheep would respond positively to the familiar voice. Of course, if the sheep is still fixated on the very thing that enticed the sheep away, then it is unlikely the voice of the ‘true shepherd” would hold sway.

    Perhaps, the parable only works when we are searching–which the parable commands us to do–and find the sheep alone; then speak in the voice of the shepherd, calm fears, love, and beckon. We certainly must keep speaking, loudly even, to the ninety and nine, because there are other shepherds trying to claim the sheep of the true fold, and as under-shepherds we must ever point to the true shepherd and his anointed under-shepherd, but that voice, the voice I hear here (in the bloggernacle), is not likely the one that will win back the one, nor is this the place we can find the one not surrounded by other strident voices.

  10. Returning to the issue of a dissonance of world views that can call forth snarkiness as people make assumptions about what they regard as ‘common morality’, Meg has recently been labled as an apologist for Joseph and Emma. Those making this assertion seem to feel that Meg is attempting to whitewash the Prophet by saying she has found it likely that he rarely if ever had sexual intercourse with wives other that Emma. I sincerely doubt that she views polygamy as a moral issue, and therefore does not view abstinence from consummation of his additional marriages as a particularly moral choice. If anything, it was simply a matter of yielding to the preference of his beloved wife. In my view Joseph’s greatest struggle was to obey God while pleasing Emma. She was apparently okay with strictly ceremonial marriage, but was deeply resistant to sharing him physically. Can any man who truly loves his wife not understand Joseph’s profound dilemma? I would tend to say that women who married Joseph under these circumstances had reason for dissatisfaction. Traditionally most women regard marriage as a means of having children in a circumstance where they receive protection and societal sanction. To deny a women the very means of having children within a marriage is a moral issue.
    Therefore implying that Joseph failed to live the principle he urged others to accept is not an apologetic stance. I love and admire Joseph and Emma, but in this particular instance I believe that both of them displayed human fallibility that may well have left an opening for the havoc of Bennett and his ‘strikers’.

  11. Deborah,

    You posted while I was composing. I acknowledge your similar thought, and hope my comments dovetail yours to your satisfaction.

  12. Bruce, you said: “The point is to strive, never really reaching our ideals.”

    I would suggest it would be better to say “The point is to strive, even if we never actually reach our ideals.”

    As for me and my elephant, I’m trying to train my elephant to do everything out of love. Then all my rider needs to do is guide the elephant to do the loving thing that will have the greatest impact.

    I think it also helps to attempt to avoid offensive language. Heaven knows I’ve gotten my share of flack for using the terms Mormon princess, puke-tinged glasses, and cancer.

    One difference, however, is that I post with my name and picture – in which it becomes obvious that I am a smiling woman of mixed race. And I do honestly love everyone. My deepest desire is to see folks return to God. And that desire is reflected in how my driver and elephant respond to posts, for example.

  13. Joel, might I summarize you correctly as “there is need for more than one type of voice depending on the circumstance?”

    Alma 54 as psychological study. Very nice.

  14. You may so characterize my response.

    Thought you’d like Alma 54, I thought of it immediately as I read your post.

  15. *Actually, the split brain note is this post. Oops. :-)*

    Yes, and that was the specific thing I had in mind when I suggested some scepticism is warranted. You are right that you can still “save the appearances” by suggesting that free will comes into play in training our habits (though I think you still have issues with identity. Mormon Christianity requires some notion of the unity of the soul, even its a composite unity). But I’ve heard about those experiments for awhile, their results are very sexy, so I’m inclined to mistrust them. There may not be any need to save the appearances.

  16. As Pat says, I don’t think it was a “good” thing that Emma and Joseph appear not to have lived the principle, despite the large number of ceremonial marriages. But it’s an understandable thing that is consistent with all we know of Emma and Joseph.

    The parable of the sheep is interesting. Alas, we don’t currently own sheep. So I’m thinking of the parable of the baby bunnies. They are so cute and cuddly, but if you want to keep them contained, you need to erect barriers. Without these barriers, they will jump and climb over obstacles you wouldn’t have imagined possible for them to overcome. Then they are left to their own devices in a world that doesn’t naturally provide fodder, a world that can’t use bunny wastes (pee, poop) to good effect.

    The bunnies also give interesting insight into biological urges, but I decided I can’t figure out a way to talk about that delicately.

  17. “If the Church is destined to eventually embrace homosexuality and gay marriage — as many liberal Mormons believe — then this departure from the current teachings of the Brethren is a good thing. These are they that saw further.”

    I’m not sure I really believe this. There is a time and season for all things. Those who left the Chuch over blacks and the priesthood have, by and large, remained outside the Church.

    I like most everything else here.

    One thing not explored in much depth is the distinction between moral correction and intellectual disagreement. I can say A and you can say “You’re insensitive to even suggest A”, and that’s moral correction. Or you can say “I think B is closer to the truth” and, while moral correction may indeed be implied, reaching that correction requires working through enough layers of cognition that the biological threat response is muted.

    In other words: It is possible, in principle, to have a debate that discusses disagreements without degenerating into ad hominems. Maybe someday I’ll even see it in practice, though I doubt that will be via as flawed a medium as the Internet.

  18. Meg, yes, you’re wording is better.

    I suppose I was thinking of it more in totality, i.e. we will never in this life actually over come all our sins and therefore reach our *full* “ideals.” But that’s okay.

  19. “I’m not sure I really believe this. There is a time and season for all things. Those who left the Church over blacks and the priesthood have, by and large, remained outside the Church.”

    Okay, fair point.

  20. Bruce,

    I really like your assertion that moral correction is inherently a personal attack. This resonates with me on a deep level. I think this fact is, as you state, at the heart of the division in the “Bloggernacle.”

    However, I would suggest that it is possible to state a disagreement in such a way that it is not a moral correction and thus not a personal attack. This has been one of my contentions here on this site, which was not particularly well received. (Probably because I used a tone implying moral correction.) I believe that the key to polite, even Christ-like conversation, is a deep and abiding testimony of personal responsibility. When I recognize that my stewardship is not over the morality of others, even other members of the Church, I am free to state my beliefs in such a way that I take ownership and responsibility for my views.

    If I am not trying to impose my own beliefs on others (a violation of the principles of D&C 121), it is not moral correction or personal attack. It is an invitation. I believe this is the heart of the talk by Elder Ballard quoted here earlier. He seems to me to be saying that I better serve the Lord by living my own testimony and radiating a kind, unassuming example than attempting to preach to others.

    In this it really doesn’t matter if my position is in harmony with the Brethren. If I are trying to win followers through superior reasoning, appeals to authority (unless am in fact authorized to speak for the Lord to the Church), or any other means, I become a false prophet or teacher. The only approved way of leading others to Christ is through bearing my own testimony and sharing my own righteous example.

    A quote from the Joseph Fielding Smith lesson manual really stuck out to me. “It is our duty to over look the faults and failings of each other and not to magnify them in our own eyes not before the eyes of the world. There should be no fault-finding, no back-biting, no evil speaking, one against another in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.”

    I struggle to live up to this ideal. It’s not my place to correct anyone else I think might not be meeting this ideal. My responsibility is to share my own belief and strive to live up to it.

  21. Vader, on the other hand, if I were a liberal, I’d probably assert that there were also people that saw the priesthood ban as wrong that stayed in the Church the whole time and are still in it.

    However, I question the similarity between those two issues. The idea of the LDS Church taking something currently categorized as an excommunicable offense and embracing it seems unprecedented to me. Its the difference with the priesthood ban that matters, not the similarities. So I wonder if we can really draw conclusions from history like that.

    I, for one, think the old saying of “those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it” is factually false except occasionally by chance or through the invention of new institutions that carry forward.

  22. Kevin L.

    How dare you take such a demeaning tone with me!


    No, seriously, good words.

  23. Bruce,

    I am largely sympathetic to your overall thesis, but as usual, I take issue with how you get there.

    First of all, I think your appeal to your own rather unique views on the biological innateness of morality is not only the weakest link, but probably an unnecessary distraction from the point at issue. I, for one, do not see morality as being biologically based in any strong sense at all, but again, I’m not sure how relevant this disagreement is. I know you want to be able to establish a strong link between disagreement and moral reproach, but I think your way of doing this is not the only, or even the best way of doing so.

    I think Sperber and Mercier’s Argumentative Theory – Haidt is a big fan – might have been a safer and more elegant (read “shorter”) way of getting at that connection: http://edge.org/conversation/the-argumentative-theory. Of course this might be my pragmatism coming out, it being, I suspect, the essential difference between our mindsets.

    On the other hand, I found your reference to the moral importance that “prophets err” carries in the liberal mindset to be very much worth the effort. I think pretty much all such appeals to the fallibility of prophets as being sloppy and obfuscating, but your post helped me understand why they are this way. For the people who focus so much on the fallibly of prophets (I was very much one of them) this belief is very much what is keeping them in the church. In other words, focusing on the fallibility of prophets is not apostasy itself, but their greatest protection from their own apostasy. This helps me understand that if I criticize their appeals to fallibility without presenting an alternative which is (at least) as strong as that criticism, then I am actually leading people of that mindset out of the church.

    I think this point generalizes to many TBM’s attacks on the more heterodox in a way that harmonizes nicely with your main thesis. The heterodox see such attacks as attacks on their faith since, for one reason or another, they see no other legitimate alternatives for them to stay within the fold. Thus, they understandably react to these attacks with a certain amount of moral indignation.

    At this point, though, I think I”m rambling.

  24. Very interesting thoughts, Bruce. Thanks for all your work.

    I frankly think “TBM” cries that BCC should stop “being jerks” to those they disagree with are really just a demand that BCC disband as a community. Because if they were to stop morally correcting us on things that matter to them, that issue would no longer be a value-boundary for their community, and so the community could not survive.

    You say it as if it that would be a bad thing. 😉 [Ducks thrown rocks]

    I think I would modify your statement to make a distinction between public/private communities. As you know, I have argued that these kinds of “communities” are inherently forms of public advocacy. They are not private discussions among friends, but public performances meant to influence a public audience. If they were not public, then I suspect that the “Value-Boundaries” would not be enforced in the same way.

    So, I would say that they would cease to exists as a public community. They might still be able to maintain a private community where the Value-Boundaries would be enforced through other means.

  25. “As you know, I have argued that these kinds of “communities” are inherently forms of public advocacy. They are not private discussions among friends, but public performances meant to influence a public audience. If they were not public, then I suspect that the “Value-Boundaries” would not be enforced in the same way.”

    Absolutely. The same could be said for M* and any other blog.

  26. In this it really doesn’t matter if my position is in harmony with the Brethren. If I are trying to win followers through superior reasoning, appeals to authority (unless am in fact authorized to speak for the Lord to the Church), or any other means, I become a false prophet or teacher. The only approved way of leading others to Christ is through bearing my own testimony and sharing my own righteous example.

    I can see the appeal of this line of thinking, but I don’t think that this is a true principle. Experience has shown that bearing testimony and sharing your own righteous example are both invariably also interpreted as a kind of moral correction. I’ve seen it over and over again.

    Try to explain how your family doesn’t watch any television on Sundays in order to keep the Lord’s day holy, and in short order it will be interpreted as a moral judgement of those who do watch TV.

    There is simply no way to stand up for what the prophets teach or to teach the principles of the Gospel that will not be perceived as moral correction by someone.

    Our duty is to be public witnesses for the truth of the Gospel and the legitimacy of the church, the prophets, and the apostles.

    So I agree with Bruce that it is more important to learn from the conflict than it is to try to avoid conflict altogether.

  27. Jeff G says: ” I, for one, do not see morality as being biologically based in any strong sense at all..”

    Actually, Jeff G, I think your confusing “morality” with “moral sense or intuition.” The second certainly IS biologically rooted as one of our intuitions, and thank goodness.

    I really want to cite Adam here. I don’t doubt that the feelings of love are biologically rooted, but that isn’t really the same as love itself. The same could be said of morality.

    I admit I’m going a bit further than that. I’m also claiming that “morality” itself can’t be rationally justified in any sort of exhaustive sense. But I think I’m correct about that too, of course.

  28. “Actually, Jeff G, I think your confusing “morality” with “moral sense or intuition.” The second certainly IS biologically rooted as one of our intuitions, and thank goodness.”

    Well, my position is a bit more nuanced than that. I hold that whether morality, moral sense or moral intuition is biologically based or not is largely irrelevant – something which you obviously disagree with. I think the line between nature and nurture is not only porous, but largely inconsequential. In other words, even if that line were strong enough to hang much conceptual and/or moral weight upon it, I don’t think that we ought to hang much upon it.

    So, yes, I do think that our biological nature does have some moral sense built into it, but where the line between biology and something else lies isn’t very clear or important.

  29. Jeff, The Argumentative Theory seems to be (though it wasn’t called that at the time) the basis for Popper’s philosophy. I completely agree with what I’ve read so far. Reasoning evolved for arguments and therefore in some contexts works well and in others can actually reduce rationality.

    “Well, my position is a bit more nuanced than that. I hold that whether morality, moral sense or moral intuition is biologically based or not is largely irrelevant – something which you obviously disagree with”

    Hmm… not sure that I do. If there is such a thing as objective morality (which we all believe there is given that we’re Mormons) then it seems to me that at least in principle I could imagine a being that has no moral sense at all and yet morality would still be objectively true. In fact, isn’t that (to some degree) the case in some sense when we talk of animals? They have no moral sense so we don’t really perceive them as moral actors. But that doesn’t somehow dismiss or negate the existence of object moral rules (for humans.)

    Or maybe what you mean here is that I believe it would be impossible for morality to exist without us having a moral sense? That isn’t a point that I’ve ever made so far, as far as I can remember, but that does ring true to me, as per example above. Animals do ‘bad’ things from a human perspective all the time. But since they lack a moral sense, we do not perceive them (usually) as evil or good. We do not see someone as a moral actor unless they have a moral sense.

  30. “If there is such a thing as objective morality (which we all believe there is given that we’re Mormons)”

    I think that this point of disagreement is already pretty far downstream from where we part ways. As Mormon’s we certainly accept a universal morality, but this does not mean it is objective. Indeed, I think the whole idea of objectivity – the analysis of externally reified objects – has little support or place within the gospel. I see it as a wedge whereby an intellectual tradition that goes back to the Greeks infiltrates and erodes a prophetic tradition from within. This wedge commonly goes by the name of “the Euthryphro dilemma”.

    In the end, all people will be judged by God according to His moral standards that He embraces for whatever reason. This is universal, but necessarily objective at all. Only somebody influenced by the Greeks would think that our universal relationship to some external, abstract and objective standard is more important than our universal, but inter-subjective relationship to God as a person.

    This, then, gets at the irrelevance which I see for biology. If morality is inter-subjective with God rather than objective, then whether it is based in our genes or some other aspect of our subjective persons simply isn’t all that important. After all, the normativity of meaning is very clearly not built into our biological make up, but this does not undermine the meaning that we are all supposed to take from gospel doctrines.

    This is, quite obviously, tangentially relevant at best, so feel free to sideline this discussion for some other time.

  31. No, not at all, I like where you are coming from here. I’ll have to think of how, if at all, it affects my point of view. It may be I’m just misusing the word “objective” because I’m not sure “inter-subjective” is a word I care to use in the first place so it was the closest I could get.

  32. One might note that Jesus instructed his disciples to first search out the beam in their own eyes before attempting to extract the mote from their neighbor’s. He also instructed them that they must practice forgiveness (and forbearance), because “as you measure unto others. so it will be meted unto you”. Most of us follow the natural tendency to view other from the outside and ourselves from the inside, which makes us both oblivious to flaws in ourselves which are obvious to others, and utterly ignorant of the thinking and past experience in others that might make their behavior understandable or even laudable. We are not impartial judges of each other, and the more our our feelings or moral sense are outraged, the less likely it is that we are able to be impartial. We may even wind up being the greater offenders in the eyes of the only truly impartial judge of us all.
    Personal experience has led me to conclude that most people think they are far better at reading the minds and intentions of others than they actually are. A certain amount of “reading” of behavior necessary and appropriate, but it is easy to go too far in pressing our own points or trying to compel others to understand and agree with us.

  33. I suspect that much of our differences boil down to our feelings surrounding “inter-subjectivity”. I simply see very little to be gained from saying that not only is morality external to each individual subject (inter-subjectivity), but it must also be external to all subjects put together, including God (objectivity). In fact, the most obvious motive for holding out for objectivity is to retain a certain kind of symmetry between all individual subjects, a symmetry which Mormons insist does not hold between us and God.

    Thus, I think an asymmetric inter-subjectivity that holds between us and God is actually much more in keeping with Mormonism than any appeal to objectivity.

  34. Jeff, what I’m really saying is that most people probably do not use the word “objectivity” with the sort of precision you are using it as “the analysis of externally reified objects” (even though that is probably the historically correct understanding of that word) and in fact “universal morality” might essentially be what I really mean in the first place. (i.e. in this case, external to ourselves. I don’t really address if its ‘external to God’ or not.)

    Words do not have precise meanings for the most part. Words have fuzzy meanings. Philosophers realized this and have made numerous attempts to ‘fix this problem’ (in my opinion, without success). There will always be some need find out how another person is using a term differently just because words are that way for the most part. There are actually some real advantages to the fact that words have fuzzy meanings, btw, so its arguably not even a problem.

  35. For certain people, the fact that it “has been practiced world-wide from prehistory” is precisely why it would be considered immoral.

    The mark of a good theory is how much explanatory power it has and Haidt’s “moral Foundations” has been one of my favorites ever since I came across it. Not only does it explain why we seem to talk past each other so often it coheres with a lot of scripture.

    Consider: “since we’re biologically programmed to react strongly to attacks on our moral character, degrading someone’s moral’s is one of the worst possible personal attacks imaginable.” in light of D&C 121:43-44

    43 Reproving betimes with sharpness [by which, I think, the Lord means precision more than ire], when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy;

    44 That he may know that thy faithfulness is stronger than the cords of death.

  36. I would agree with everything you say about the fuzziness of words. However, I would then go further by arguing that the fuzziness of “objectivity” is exactly what allows intellectualism to erode the gospel from within, and hence is not at all as innocent as you suggest. The crucial point at issue is the ambiguity regarding the (a)symmetry which exists not only between us and God but between us and God’s representatives here on earth. The whole point behind the emergence and rise of “objectivity” within our culture was to sideline and undermine any appeal to authority by people here on earth. This is exactly the appeal which objectivity has over inter-subjectivity, from an intellectual perspective, since the latter does not sideline such appeals in the way that the former does. Objectivity says that persons – along with their positions of (supposed) authority – are totally irrelevant while inter-subjective keeps persons – and the divine authority that they sometimes do actually have – squarely within the mix.

    Anyways, the tangential relevance which this line of thought has to the OP is, in my opinion, a manifestation that your appeal to biological innateness also had to it. (How’s that for a strained attempt at relevance?”

  37. Confutus says: “Personal experience has led me to conclude that most people think they are far better at reading the minds and intentions of others than they actually are. A certain amount of “reading” of behavior necessary and appropriate, but it is easy to go too far in pressing our own points or trying to compel others to understand and agree with us.”

    While I TOTALLY agree with you on this, I have been mulling over the fact that since we are self-deceptive and sometimes aren’t consciously aware of our “elephant’s” own true motives that there actually might at times be some advantage in reading through like that rather than only looking at a person’s (conscious) intentions.

    I have a post on John Dehlin coming out tomorrow in which I’m going to vocalize a number of tacit beliefs I believe John adheres to but may not even realize he does, and that these beliefs are driving his actions. In other words, one of the things I think I have come to believe about John is that I probably know what certain of his motivations for his actions are better than he does.

    Now this might just be a case of me behaving badly, as per your quote above. Or it could be that I’m actually correct in many cases and that John would do well to hear me out and come to understand why many of his starting assumptions about his own motives are only partial truths.

    For example, I absolute do NOT believe that John’s primary motivation is that of compassion, though I do believe that is a legitimate motivation for him. But then even Mother Theresa’s primary motivation was probably more finding religious meaning than compassion — though compassion was a real motivator to her as well. I think a person driven first and foremost by compassion would not act that much like John. But I think a person driven by a need for personal meaning (a laudable goal, mind you, and probably the driving force behind much human virtue) would act exactly like John usually does.

    The literature does suggest that external people can often judge us better than we can judge ourselves, so this is at least a possibility.

    But this all might just be a conceit on my part and I might just be imputing motives that are not there, etc. I can never be sure.

  38. Jeff G, again, not really disagreeing with you.

    However, in context, if I’m suggesting that an atheist believes in “objective morality” (which I am) it seems to me that within that worldview, that’s still the right term even when used the way you’re using it. Obviously an atheist isn’t going to even be open to the idea of an inter-subjective morality that comes from God. So the rational difficulty of their position would be to come up with some way to make sense of quite literally *objective morality* (here I mean the idea that morality actually objectively exists as a set of laws that we must subordinate our own wills to for some reason) while still holding on to an atheistic worldview. Frankly, I don’t believe it can be done.

    I will grant you that for someone that believes in God, universal morality probably makes more sense than “objective morality”, so I misspoke perhaps when I used “objectivity” when referring to believers.

  39. “There may not be any need to save the appearances.”

    Adam, I think the interesting question is “what is a spirit?” And then “what is an ‘intelligence’?” And I know not what the answer is.

    I can see why you see my suggestion as “saving appearances” of moral agency, and even I would have to admit that this is more a fall back position than what I currently really want to find out will ultimately be true — but just for the sake of argument (as I always argue in my head) I must ask myself “what if this is what moral agency actually is?”

    And it occurs to me that a fair response to that question is “we only *thought* it was appearances — it was actually the real thing.”

    Not sold on this idea at all, but not willing to rule it out either.

    Yes, the split brain patient experiments are quite sexy. Maybe even too much so. On the other hand, as I point out in the OP, the idea of having two (or more) minds isn’t all that alien to any of us really. And those multiple minds (multiple conflicting ideas, beliefs, desires, etc.) do form a composite whole. They do even for split brain patients — just a bit less so.

  40. By the way, Meg, I’ve always assumed that your pic was just an avatar and that in real life you’re a fat balding white man that never smiles. 😉

  41. “So the rational difficulty of their position would be to come up with some way to make sense of quite literally *objective morality* (here I mean the idea that morality actually objectively exists as a set of laws that we must subordinate our own wills to for some reason) while still holding on to an atheistic worldview. Frankly, I don’t believe it can be done.”

    To be sure, if it can be done, it will not be simple by anybodies definition. Personally, I think that the problem is that getting a universalistic morality is TOO easy in that I think the problem is pluralism rather than nihilism. To be an person that is to any extent socialized within a linguistic community just is to be moral at some level or another. The problem arises when one such community encounters another community with a different and incompatible morality. In such a case, it is very likely that both sides have moralities that are universal in a very real sense and there is little reason to suggest that stepping outside of these moral systems adds any degree whatsoever of universality to the question at hand. The problem, then, for the atheist, is not how get moral values in the first place, but how to exclude other moral values that theirs does not recognize.

    At this point, such communities will attempt to establish one morality as being better than the other, but I don’t think that either one has the right to call itself the one real or “true” morality. All such language is, I insist, merely another, less direct way of out-maneuvering the other side in this power struggle that is little more than a negotiation disguised as a quest for some unique and exclusive truth.

    Hopefully this points to the problems that I often see with your way of arriving at conclusions that I usually agree with. I see the conflicts between different moralities being played out in the ‘nacle as nothing more than strategies aimed at outmaneuvering the other side rather than as some innate biological sense that is being activated by otherwise innocent disagreements. Regardless of how you saw them, your questions were perceived as the interrogations of a foreign and by no means neutral morality.

  42. ” In such a case, it is very likely that both sides have moralities that are universal in a very real sense and there is little reason to suggest that stepping outside of these moral systems adds any degree whatsoever of universality to the question at hand.”

    Kind of a scary thought, huh? I also like your way of framing the atheists problem of how to not include moralities that aren’t their own. One maybe small disagreement is this:

    “All such language is, I insist, merely another, less direct way of out-maneuvering the other side in this power struggle that is little more than a negotiation disguised as a quest for some unique and exclusive truth.”

    At the “elephant” level, I actually agree with you in a way. I think the elephant doesn’t really care that much about being moral, per se, and instead cares about winning, surviving, being successful, etc.

    But I do believe that the “rider” honestly believes they are in fact on a quest (or even have completed a quest) for some unique and exclusive truth.

    “Regardless of how you saw them, your questions were perceived as the interrogations of a foreign and by no means neutral morality.”


  43. Jeff, if we ever get Mormon Rocks off the ground (Silver Rain has been too busy to do the design) we’ll have to spend lots of time discussing and debating this all further. 🙂

  44. Okay, so now, Jeff, way too far off topic, but could we not propose moral rules or moral outcomes that all communities actually agree upon? And if we could, might your approach therefore wind up with a sort of “objective morality” after all?

    For example, our political technologies have reduced violence over time. Suppose most or maybe even all people would say that a less-violent society is better than a more-violent one (this probably isn’t true, but I did say “suppose.”) Could it be possible using your views to still establish an actual form of “objective morality” from such universal agreement?

    The problem I’ve always bumped into (from my viewpoint) here is that honestly I can’t think of any reason why someone that disagrees should care about everyone else’s moral rules save only that it might somehow impact their own well being or goals. If it doesn’t (which is sometimes the case), then in what sense is said moral rule “objective.” Your suggesting this is less a problem, but that no one will ever really agree upon moral rules precisely because there are multiple universal moral rules from within an atheistic worldview (which actually sounds reasonable to me.) But if we can find something everyone agrees upon (whatever meta level we need to go to to find it) doesn’t that call your view into question a bit?

  45. “But I do believe that the “rider” honestly believes they are in fact on a quest (or even have completed a quest) for some unique and exclusive truth.”


  46. Jeff, one more interesting thing I’ve pondered after reading your stuff (for those that don’t know, Jeff G and I draw a lot of the same conclusions, but pretty much always disagree on how to get there.)

    I think I can accept your description of priesthood authority in your posts. I’ve never really tried to think priesthood authority through the way you have, but everything you write rings true to me. For example, I think you are right that one ramification of belief in priesthood authority is that its really a source for determining who’s revelations are the correct ones. (I also like how you grab other areas of life where such authority makes sense — like legal courts.)

    Now here is the interesting thing. The way you describe “liberals” by comparison (particularly with the idea of — can’t remember the term you use suddenly, a culture of criticism or something?) is a pretty darn good description of my own ways of thinking, for the most part. And I am pretty sure you’re right there too.

    I know you’ve referred to me as a liberal before, and I really don’t feel any need to reject that label. Liberalism is often a very good thing.

    Do you see such beliefs as ‘exclusively’ liberal? Why do most people not think of me that way (including myself) given that my approach seems to be identical to theirs? Perhaps you’ve already addressed this in the past and I either can’t remember or missed those posts.

  47. “Could it be possible using your views to still establish an actual form of “objective morality” from such universal agreement?”

    But universal inter-subjective agreement does not equal objectivity. Objectivity – as opposed to inter-subjectivity – is the view that what any person or all people together believe or do is totally irrelevant since the truth holds independent of both anybody AND everybody at once. With objectivity, the amount of (dis)agreement is totally beside the point since the truth of the matter is an object that is outside of all persons.

    “I can’t think of any reason why someone that disagrees should care about everyone else’s moral rules save only that it might somehow impact their own well being or goals.”

    Because our attitudes toward morality are themselves morally laden actions. A failure to condemn immoral behavior is itself condemnable. A failure to praise moral behavior is itself condemnable. This is exactly why arguments between different moralities get so heated, because one side always sees the other (and rightly so) as being immoral by praising the condemnable, condemning the praiseworthy, and/or simply being failing to take a stand on some issue. Inaction or indifference on moral issues just is immoral.

  48. To expand on my first point a bit:

    If anything I think a universality of moral views would undermine the very purpose of objectivity. Since objectivity itself is not empirically available nor is it causal in nature, the entire purpose of the concept of objectivity boils down to its practical utility in our struggle against those who disagree. Nobody has ever said that objectivity is something that the “other guys” have and we lack. Thus, within a universal moral community, I wouldn’t expect people to care all that much about the objective status of their values.

  49. I think we’re back to using “objectivity” differently, really. Which sort of is an answer to my question. I am quite doubtful that “objectivity” to most people in modern usage of necessity means “the truth of the matter is an object that is outside of all persons.”

    I was reading Feser recently (Agellius sent me one of his books) and he makes this huge point about triangles being objective because they are objects that exist without us and they have definitive traits that must always be true, such as having 180 degrees.

    Feser is full of poppycock, and not of the right kind.

    Yes, triangles are “objective” at least in the way I usually intend the word. But isn’t because they are objects that exist without us nor because they have definitive traits like having 180 degrees. For one thing, triangles do NOT have a definitive trait that they always have 180 degrees unless I first start with the necessary starting assumptions of only Euclidean geometry. But a) Euclidean geometry has no special hold on triangles, b) reality isn’t Euclidean. How many degrees are in a triangle in reality is actually determined by what speed your traveling out and how close you are to a huge gravity well.

    No, the reason triangles are ‘objective’ is precisely because given a certain set of assumptions, all human beings (assuming they understand the concept correctly) will draw the same conclusions about them. And because they are very good approximations of our physical reality in many cases this ability for us all to come up with the same starting assumptions and follow the logic through in our minds means they are very useful to us in creating a sort of more easily calculable approximation of reality. (I suppose there are other reasons too, like many just find them interesting.)

  50. You’re right that the way in which “objectivity” has come to be used, especially in everyday speech, does not reflect its core meaning. The way people use it today often simply means “not subjective”. For instance, is the meaning of the word “dog” objective? Is a touchdown objectively worth 6 points? Most people in casual conversation would probably say yes by which they mean that I don’t personally get to make up what words do and do not mean nor does any person get to decide on a whim how much a touchdown is worth. But when Plato said yes, he meant something very specific – namely that there was an ideal object of dogness in a conceptual realm that existed totally independent of people and which they could access this truth through rational thought. People and their beliefs change, but truth does not precisely because it is an object.

    Thus, there is definitely an ambiguity at play here and unfortunately it very often finds its way into the gospel, especially when people insist that gospel truth must itself be objective in a universal and timeless sense. Whatever truth is in the gospels, it is not an unchanging object external to all persons. In practice, the practical driving force behind how we use the word objective is definitely the school system. This school system, however, is very much based in the vocabulary which comes down to us from Plato through Descartes and Galileo. And these men all had very subversive intentions in their use of such concepts. Thus, when “objectivity” finds its way into our beliefs about the gospel, we are setting ourselves up to treat the gospel as a scientific object (that word again!) of study. I imagine we both agree that a scientific conception of the gospel is, at the very least, dangerous to testimonies as well as a distorted view of scripture.

    Thus, while there are varying degrees of specificity in how people use the word “objectivity”, the point stands that the basic structure around which that fuzziness congregates has been anti-priesthood authority from the very start. Whether we realize it or not, our use of the word seamlessly links us up with other concepts that were built for the purpose of getting around, competing with and even subverting appeals to authority. Our uncritical usage of the term predisposes us to employing these other concepts as well until we find ourselves measuring the fallibility of prophets by the distance that lies between their teachings and “objective” truth. This is why I see it as a dangerous word, whether anybody actually intends danger with it or not.

  51. Okay, Jeff, I’ve given this a bit more thought now. I think maybe a) I *am* using objectivity technically wrong, b) the problem is that the word “objectivity” is built on philosophical notions that I don’t accept are true.

    Feser introduced me to philosophical ideas like me mechanism vs. form or realism vs nominalism vs conceptualism or contingent and .necessary truths, etc.

    The simple truth is that I feel all of the philosophical ideas his book introduced to me are all false categories based on strong human intuitions that are in fact not true, but “true enough” for evolution’s purposes. I think these are all categories that seems true but in reality ultimately fail as the all inclusive categories they were intended.

    Despite my love of Popper, I really am not into philosophy very much at all because I find it to be misleading. For example, Feser’s misunderstandings of triangles and reality, in my mind, all stem from him (or rather Plato) trying to force fit a concept like a triangle into one of a few categories when really it fits none of them. In fact, the real truth (I believe that is) that triangles are a counter example that demonstrate that Feser’s categories are false categories in the first place.

    I don’t expect you, Jeff to agree with me here. (Though I’ll be happy to debate you in a future post perhaps?) That isn’t my point. What I’m asking you to do is to put yourself into my mind for a moment. Consider the mental world from my point of view instead of your own.

    To me, triangles are “objective” not because they are objects that exist without us (that’s just bad Plato thinking in my mind) but because we all agree on them precisely because they are not subjective things. But I also don’t buy that this therefore means that triangles are nominal or conceptual. (Again, to me that’s just bad Plato thinking.)

    What I’m really doing, it seems to me, is I’m hijacking the word “objective” (though only in the very way most people use the term today) out of its philosophical roots and reusing it as a brand new category that is not realism nor nominalism, nor conceptualism but ends up having some traits of each and some traits that fit none of those.

    For example, a triangle *does* have a sort of existence of its own in that, once we all agree on certain starting assumptions, we will draw the same conclusions. But those starting assumptions are not special. We could have picked other ones (in fact, we could have picked ones closer to reality.) So Triangles are contingent in that they don’t have to be any one way, but non-contingent in that once we agree on assumptions, they do. Or more to the point — this means that contingent and necessary truths are actually the same thing (at least when it comes to triangles) and the difference is only a matter of perspective in this case.

    The point here is that I think reality defies existing philosophical categories all together, so I have no use for philosophy. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t truths here worth discussing. So I take the closest word I can existing in the English language, in this case “objectivity”, that I know for certain hews close to what I mean — at least when layman use it — and I go with it.

    I don’t really see an alternative for me. I am using the best words available to describe my point. Does that help clarify my position compared to yours? Can you see why I am rejecting the idea that “objectivity” *as I am using it* requires the existence of an object outside of us? To me “objectivity” just means “we’ll all agree on it because it has a sort of existence of its own from a certain point of view.”

    The only thing I need people to take away to understand my point is that there is a definitive difference between a belief in a morality that is just a personal preference vs. a belief in morality that it is outside of ourselves and therefore not a personal preference.

    You are probably right that some liberals would take my use of the word “objective’ the same way you are (liberal intellectuals *are* quite educated) and therefore I can see why the way I am wording things is of some (minor) concern.

    However, I honestly believe that you can’t offer me an alternative word that expresses my view better, especially to a lay audience.

  52. Okay, maybe you just proved me wrong. I have no issue with using “not subjective” in place of “objective.”

  53. “Our uncritical usage of the term predisposes us to employing these other concepts as well until we find ourselves measuring the fallibility of prophets by the distance that lies between their teachings and “objective” truth. This is why I see it as a dangerous word, whether anybody actually intends danger with it or not.”

    This goes back to my questions about my ‘liberalness.’ I am not sure I disagree with you here that my use is in fact dangerous at times — and precisely for the reasons you give. But I also think that the way you are using the terms is via false categories, so I can’t merely translate them in my mind to something else either.

    In short, I might just be a liberal — I act and treat the gospel like its some object all the time — and I believe questions like “Is good good because God approves or does God approve because it is good” are at least questions worth some discussion.

    (Though my answer to that problem is — difficult to even explain and for me is still a sort of intuition I haven’t yet been able to put words to that I am satisfied with. But then I’m the guy that thinks “God” and “Heaven” aren’t actually different concepts and are two ways of talking about the same thing.)

  54. Bruce wrote: “By the way, Meg, I’ve always assumed that your pic was just an avatar and that in real life you’re a fat balding white man that never smiles.”

    LOL – attempt to drag me in…

    You all are reminding me of my youth, when I used to care about philosophy and debate.

    I adhere to the idea that all born were once mere intelligence – a form of existence that had been since forever, and the fundamental element of any individual. This intelligence of its free will chose to align itself with God’s call to become spirit and be clothed in the greater capabilities spiritual life provides.

    In that spiritual life, the individual was still free, but in the presence of Gods, Mother and Father. In that state we desired of our own free will to become physical, a further state with additional capabilities. But in this physical state our free will could not be constantly in the spiritual presence of Mother and Father.

    Lucifer proposed an alternate plan, something (either coersion or an end to standards) that would allow all to return with no risk. But the Gods (hereafter just “God”) did not approve this plan, having experienced mortality and therefore knowing that Lucifer’s dream of universal salvation could not work in that manner. Lucifer, seriously pissed, convinced a portion of the spirits to reject God’s plan, to refuse to ever become mortal if it could not be on the risk-free terms Lucifer had outlined.

    Those of us who chose God and trusted in Christ agreed to come to this life.

    And this is why I feel free to love all who have ever lived. Because I know their hope (to return to God). I know their heart (to trust in Christ). I know that whatever they profess in this life, they at one point had faith enough to accept mortality with the risk of no return, because they had faith not only in God, but in themselves. And I have faith in them.

    As a physicist, I know that not even cesium atoms can decide to do things the same way. And if you can’t even trust a cesium atom to decay in a predictable manner, how can we imagine that there is an objective standard for individuals?

    These bodies we inhabit are odd. There are so many ways in which they can become damaged, in which they can cause us to do things our spiritual self would not agree to. But that is precisely the reason that God will judge each of us individually, according to the challenges we faced. Each judgement will be bespoke, because none of us has faced the same challenge.

    Of one thing I am certain, however, that there is only one reality. We cannot say that Hitler was in two different cities on the same moment of the same day. God is aware of what reality has been and is. They can even tell us what the future reality will be (I’ve experienced this, and some day hope to have a chance to ask how it is done). Given that there is only one reality, we can use various methods to determine what the bounds of that reality might be, when looking to our past. And this is what I’ve been doing with my Faithful Joseph series.

    I suppose this post is attempting to set up a future discussion of why John Dehlin does what he does, pointing out, perhaps, that he is less motivated by compassion than he would like to imagine (or at least portray). As this will no doubt be perceived as a personal attack, I suppose Bruce is attempting to explain why what he is doing is actually moral. I suspend judgement/assessment on this until I read the proposed post.

  55. Bruce,

    Thank you for this post.

    Particularly for this passage: “You know, I can totally see why being in the church as a liberal Mormon is so difficult. And I’m not sure I really see a good answer here. Perhaps we’re going to have to learn to combine doctrine and compassion in ways we have yet to even think of. And maybe that Bloggernacle isn’t such a bad thing, after all, for the right group of people that truly need it.”

    I grew up in Utah County in the 1960s/70s as a LDS Democrat and continue as an LDS Liberal to this day (that was to put it mildly painful). Had anyone in my Wards or Stakes during my youth (or even later) understood, expressed, and lived even a portion of the ideas you’ve enumerated in this post my life and journey as a liberal LDS Church member would have been much nicer.

    Thank you again for putting this into such a coherent “document”.

  56. Bruce, I really liked your post. God sets us at war with ourselves (the natural man is an enemy to God) and even with each other, by besetting us with unsurmountable differences. He hears and answers the prayers of those on both sides of the trenches.

    I don’t know how perfectly this relates to your thesis, but I define it this way: Paul is the same as Saul. Saul killed Christians because he loved God and was trying to obey his will. Paul converted Christians because he loved God and was trying to obey his will. The only difference between Saul and Paul was perspective. Saul loves and worships a jealous and wrathful God. Paul loves and worships a merciful God full of grace. Christ says to his disciples: “they who kill you think they are doing God a service.” Christ also says, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

    The road to hell is NOT paved with good intentions. Good intentions are everything, even when they are placed in imperfect paradigms or differing moralities. We are judged by our heart and whether we are acting as best we can according to the light and knowledge we have.

    Regarding the sincerity of both the liberal and the TBM, perhaps it doesn’t matter so much whether their sincerity is placed upon objective, universal truth or not. God is interested in our heart and how it reacts to the stimuli it encounters. The reactions may be efficient, or less efficient. It may create chaos and violence, or be constructive and edifying. But that chaos is simply a continuation of the nature of a fallen world, a world God purposefully created by limiting the knowledge of mankind and sending evil and weakness into the world. “All things work towards the good of them who love God.”

  57. Great quote J Max: “There is simply no way to stand up for what the prophets teach or to teach the principles of the Gospel that will not be perceived as moral correction by someone. Our duty is to be public witnesses for the truth of the Gospel and the legitimacy of the church, the prophets, and the apostles.”

    Sums it up really well for me.

  58. Actually, Bruce, I agree with you much more than you might think. I think a lot of philosophy, especially metaphysics, is total bunk. Of course my reasons for thinking so are themselves philosophical, so that makes things a bit more difficult.

    Basically I see philosophy as a kind of vocabulary and conceptual R&D in that they create new ways of thinking and speaking that might lead to some improvements in life. Inasmuch as they are discuss subjects that make no difference in the way that we navigate the world around us, then I look for the relevance that those subjects have to the debaters themselves in terms of who is being (dis)empowered by the theory. For this reason, I find the whole debates surrounding objectivity and realism to be a disguised struggle for legitimacy within our society in which scientist and philosophers are (supposed to be) doing something much deeper and more important than (merely) describing the world in practically useful ways.

    “I believe questions like “Is good good because God approves or does God approve because it is good” are at least questions worth some discussion.”

    This to me would be a perfect example of what I mean. After all, what difference does it practically make whether God is conceptually up or downstream from morality? The only difference I can see is whether we will prioritize God and his representatives or human reason and its representatives when we want to know what is moral. In other words, it is a power play whereby one set of would be authorities seek to dethrone the other by labeling them “arbitrary”, as if this were the worst thing they could possibly be.

    “What I’m really doing, it seems to me, is I’m hijacking the word “objective””

    That’s my worry, is that you might be highjacking the word in the same sense that the Trojans highjacked the Greek’s horse. I really do believe that the scientific community has popularlized the word (regardless of how precise their definition is) in order to accrue and display the legitimization and cultural capital of the scientific community itself at the expense of other, more traditional cultural authorities (read “prophets” and “priests”).

    Now, of course, most cases of people using the word isn’t all that big of a deal since the average person simply does not use the word very much. However, the more a person uses the word, the more intellectually minded they tend to be and thus the more in need they are of correction. In other words, the more a person uses the word, the stronger their allegiances to the scientific community tend to be and thus the more such a person needs their allegiances to be rightly constrained. That’s why I’ve stuck to my guns so hard here, because you are not the average person using the word even if your audience is.

  59. I can tell you from personal experience that BCC is not even close to living by their claim that you can largely say what you want.

    I was curious at one point whether or not Steve was capable of introspection based on his rudeness to others. I jabbed him somewhat gently to see what his response was. Insulting as expected, with a reference to me being unable to read and and a reference to me as a bonehead. I then pointed out a multitude of factual errors he made in his assumptions. He proceeded to rewrite things to meet his satisfaction as if it were me saying it. He then wrote an apology “from me” to him. When I called him on it, he announced that I had spammed the site and deleted just about everything.

    Somehow he doesn’t seem to see the paradox involved in slamming someone for saying something stupid, then admitting he’s said / one something stupid, followed by insulting the person who questioned his logic.

Comments are closed.