July 15, 2009

Means, Ends, and Agency

Imagine this scenario: a person with whom you're acquainted professes his or her love to you. You're not interested. He or she tricks you into drinking some magical potion that casts a spell on you, making you fall desperately in love with him or her. Did this person do something wrong? At this point you want nothing more than to stay with him or her, because you're desperately in love, so what's the problem? Is there a problem?

The question is centuries old. Moral judgment could be broken into 2 schools of thinking: deontology, and consequentialism. A consequentialist would say that it didn't matter how the person did it, but now you're in love and very happy, so the act was not immoral. The ends justified the means. A deontologist would say that this was a horrible thing, because the means robbed you of your choice in the matter. Even if rejection ended in the person feeling horrible and worthless, he or she must let you make your choices. It makes no difference whether you are happy in the end, it was the method in which it was carried out that violated ethical action. The means are how the morality is measured.

The way most people lean tends to depend upon the situation, but I like this illustration of the importance of agency. Most people respond to this scenario by saying that it doesn't matter how much in love you ended up, the immoral thing was robbing you of the choice. Most healthy people, when they love another, at least want that person to have his or her agency.

It is for this reason that I find so many of Joseph Smith's proposals to be troubling. Consider the following from Helen Mar Kimball and decide if this young woman's agency is being manipulated:
Without any preliminaries, my father asked me if I would believe him if he told me that it was right for married men to take other wives. The first impulse was anger... My sensibilities were painfully touched. I felt such a sense of personal injury and displeasure; for to mention such a thing to me I thought altogether unworthy of my father, and as quick he spoke , I replied to him, short and emphatically, NO I WOULDN'T! This is the first time that I ever openly manifested anger towards him. Then he (my father) commenced talking seriously and reasoned and explained the principle (of polygamy) and why it was again established upon the earth, etc. This first interview had a similar effect to a sudden shock of a small earthquake. When he found (after the first outburst of displeasure for supposed injury) and I received it meekly, he took the first opportunity to introduce Sarah Ann to me as Joseph's Wife. This astonished me beyond measure. Having a great desire to be connected with the Prophet, Joseph, he (my father) offered me to him; this I afterward learned from the Prophet's own mouth. My father had but one Ewe Lamb, but willingly laid her upon the altar: how cruel this seemed to my mother whose heartstrings were already stretched until they were ready to snap asunder, for she had already taken Sarah Noon to wife and she thought she had made sufficient sacrifice but the Lord required more. (source)
She later expressed the following: "I would never have been sealed to Joseph had I known it was anything more than ceremony. I was young, and they deceived me, by saying the salvation of our whole family depended on it." (quoted in Van Wagoner, 1992, p. 82)
And so how does this reflect upon Smith's respect for this young woman's agency? Is he justified because her entire family was now guaranteed eternal salvation: the benefits outweighing any negative feelings she had? Or is the method in which he convinced her to marry him a very real violation of Christlike morality and respect for agency?

This is also compounded by the fact that she was 14 years old (source)! If agency is what Christ died for, how could it be righteous and godly to coerce this young woman into marriage with a 37-year-old man? Is that how a perfect, merciful, loving god acts?

Post script: If Satan's goal is to have all of us be miserable (2 Nephi 2:27), it sure seems like Joseph Smith did a lot of his footwork in this instance.

Van Wagoner, R. S. (1992). Mormon polygamy: A history. Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books.


FREE at Last! said...

AMEN! I have been following your blog since the beginning and find your thoughts to be spot on. I began my journey down your same path two years ago. Lucky for me my family joined the search for truth with me. We have never been happier. I hope those around you will have greater understanding soon. Keep up the great blogs!

Eli said...

Response to Free: Thank you for following! I hope to continue to be of interest! All the best to you and your family!

I. Puerility said...

Your analogy here also applies to the church in general.

Most people who get sucked into Mormonism are appalled when they finally realize the crap that happened in the early days of the church and how half baked a lot of the stories we here really are.

Most of them have an emotional umbilical cord to the church by that time, however, so even the gory details of the church history do nothing to affect them.

These types of members have a similar apathy: It doesn't matter if the church has told me the whole truth in the past, it works for me NOW, and that is all I care about.

Excellent post.

Christopher said...

Note: The link for "source" brings up a blank search page for FamilySearch.org.

In response to the last comment, I actually enjoy the teachings of the early church leaders as much, and occasionally more than our current general conference stuff.

Don't blow this out of proportion, other commenters. I'm not trying to defend against these allegations. I'm just trying to keep you from falling into the pit that many Mormons fall into. That is, thinking we are so much smarter than everyone else, especially past generations.

Everyone has some truth. Which is another reason to love your enemies, because you can learn from them.

Thanks for the thought.

I. Puerility said...

Transparency, Christopher. Transparency.

You're right. It is risky to exalt oneself in terms of knowledge. This isn't something I think is healthy.

My qualms are not intellectual in the sense that I am placing myself above the early church leaders. My frustrations are ethical. You cannot hide these true though not useful (thanks Boyd K. Packer) things from church membership.

You cannot send young people on missions and not tell them (at least on an FYI basis) about some of these tough parts of church history.

I think you and I would both agree, it's hard to learn from ANYBODY when they are not telling the whole truth.

After all, you would want your surgeon to tell you the risks and scary truths of the operation you are about to undergo, right? You'd want to know about it before you went under the knife? You might think he was a second-rate surgeon if he didn't, right? You are not saying he isn't a good surgeon because you think you are smarter than he is. You are saying it because he has proved on an ethical basis that he is not worth your time.

And you know what, Christopher? You'd be right.

Eli said...

Response to Christopher: I'm sorry about the link. I guess it won't take you to the results of the search, but just enter in Joseph Smith Jr. and Helen Mar Kimball and the information will come up. You can also google "Plural wives of Joseph Smith" or check out Todd Compton's book or Van Wagoner's book. Anyway, several sources, both LDS and non, confirm that Helen was 14 at her marriage to Smith. Thank you for letting me know about the link.

Anonymous said...

Love the blog! Keep up the good work! I found out about it months ago on exmormon,org. I was "investigating" the Mormon religion a while back when I was seriously dating a member of the Mormon Church. I did a lot of research and came to the conclusion that it's a made up religion by a sex crazed, con man who used an invented religion to get power, respect, women, money and a place to live. Nevertheless, I find it interesting that so many people (and some real intelligent ones at that) believe it so staunchly, even with all the mounting evidence that it's false. Anyhow, I'm rambling... just want to say good work and I stop by weekly to read your new stuff.