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Ethics

by F. Neil Brady

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is typically involved in three levels of ethical concern: the theory of values; the foundations of moral decision; and the integration of personal and professional codes of ethics, such as those relating to medical, military, or governmental service. The inner dynamism of the Church and its increasing involvement with a confluence of cultures point beyond closed ethical systems. Latter-day Saints espouse an ethic of divine approbation; to discern the will of God and receive assurance that one is acting under God's approval are the ceaseless quest of discipleship. This may be called Spirit-guided morality.

The scriptures affirm that questions of the good and the right are intertwined with questions of the holy and with the primal Jewish-Christian imperative "Be ye holy for I am holy" (1 Pet. 1:16; cf. Lev. 11:44). Daily tensions between the sacred and the secular are part of the ethical dilemma, and Latter-day Saints seek help from the scriptures and classical sources.

Philosophers often distinguish two approaches to ethics: teleology and deontology. The teleological approach appraises the morality of an act by its relation to an end or purpose, while the deontological approach understands morality primarily in terms of duty or response to law. In Christian ethics, these views have proved difficult to reconcile. For Latter-day Saints, however, both obedience to divine imperatives and pursuit of ultimate happiness are correlative elements in the maturation of human beings. The conflict between duty and desire is overcome as one grows closer to God through faith and service and finds joy in upholding divine counsels and commandments.

Ethicists likewise contrast performance and motive in the religious life. Rabbinical tradition, for example, emphasizes the continuous study and scrupulous observance of Torah, while Reformation Protestantism stresses motive. Again, Latter-day Saints reject this perennial division; both are crucial in the religious life. "Ye shall know them by their fruits" (Matt. 7:16). Grace transforms men toward a Christlike nature. But purity of heart is manifest in scripture study and vigorous service; thus, mastery of law and inner change go hand in hand as components of discipleship and joyful living.

Classical Christian thought encourages the cultivation of habits and dispositions tied to both intellectual and moral virtues. Both ancient and modern revelations advocate such virtues as "knowledge, temperance, patience, brotherly kindness, godliness, charity, humility, diligence" (2 Pet. 1:5-7; cf. D&C 4:5), and all the Christlike attributes of the Sermon on the Mount. There are correlative warnings against besetting vices: pride, unrighteous dominion, lust, anger, unforgiveness, covetousness, idleness, halfheartedness. The Saints are constantly reminded to "seek not the things of this world but seek ye first to build up the kingdom of God and to establish his righteousness" (JST Matt. 6:38). Nephi 1 and Moroni 2, both prophets of the Book of Mormon, teach, as does the apostle Paul, the importance of faith, hope, and charity, which is defined as "the pure love of Christ" (1 Cor. 13:1-13; 2 Ne. 31:20; Moro. 7:21-48).

Much ethical discussion today revolves around whether there are any external and binding sanctions for ethics and morality. In the theological context, there is the classical dilemma of whether God's will is right because he wills it or whether he wills it because it is right. Latter-day Saints are not committed to certain theories of natural law. Modern scriptures suggest that ethical laws and "bounds" and conditions exist independent of God (D&C 88:3-40; see Law: Divine and Eternal Law). They also teach that God both institutes laws and adapts them (TPJS, p. 320). Both the meaning and the application of law in changing circumstances require revelation of the present will of God.

LDS ethics are neither extremely atomistic nor social-communitarian but recognize the importance of both the individual and social aspects of human existence. "And that same sociality which exists among us here will exist among us there [the eternal world], only it will be coupled with eternal glory, which glory we do not now enjoy" (D&C 130:2).

Ethical discussion often focuses on how one comes to know what is good or right. Appeals to intuition or conscience are opposed by radical conventionalism, which presumes that values are reducible to custom and that the mores of a given group or individual are not known (discovered) but simply preferred. Latter-day Saints respect conscience, and the scriptures reiterate that conscience must be refined and directed by the Holy Ghost. They consider ethical maturity to derive from experience; including religious experience; from rational and practical deliberation; and from the mandates, both general and specific, that recur in scripture and the counsels of the prophets.

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Bibliography

Hill, Donald G., Jr., ed. Perspectives in Mormon Ethics. Salt Lake City, 1983.

Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Vol. 1, Ethics

Copyright 1992 by Macmillan Publishing Company

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