Monday, May 16, 2005

RIGHT & WRONG: Reform Mormonism, ethics and morality

How does one determine what is right or wrong, good or evil, moral or immoral, ethical or unethical? What is the basis of morality? A new series of Reform Mormon Gospel Doctrine lessons will explore these question.


When it comes to determining what is right and wrong, most people may, at first, think that the answers are pretty obvious. After all, since early childhood most of us have probably had rules regarding what is moral or immoral drilled into our heads.

For instance, when it comes to honesty, most of us have probably been taught the following ideas:

“It is wrong to tell a lie.”

“Always tell the truth.”

“Honesty is always the best policy.”

As a result, most of us probably consider it immoral and unethical to lie. Many people mistakenly think that one of the Ten Commandments is “Thou shalt not lie.” (No such commandment is found in the Bible, though there is a commandment against “bearing false witness” against others. But telling a lie can encompass much more than “bearing false witness” against others. In fact, many--if not most--lies that people tell have to do with themselves or things that they thought, said or did.)

It is generally believed that telling the truth is always ethical, and that telling a lie or being dishonest is always unethical.

But consider the following situation:

You live in Germany in 1942. Your are hiding Jewish neighbors in your home, fully aware that if government authorities find them, they will be sent to a concentration camp where they will suffer and probably be executed. Nazi authorities come knocking at your door, and ask if you are hiding Jews in your home.

Knowing that if you are honest, innocent human beings will suffer, is it moral or immoral to tell the truth? In this situation would it be moral or immoral to tell a lie?

Such situations took place during World War II, and those who lied to save the lives of innocent men, women and children are now regarded as heroes who did what was moral by lying to authorities.

How can this reality be reconciled with the idea that it is wrong to lie and right to be honest?


Most would answer that the rule concerning the immorality of telling a lie can be broken when a human life is at stake. Indeed, when the issue is one of life and death, most people would tend to believe that any rules concerning morality--that any concepts of right and wrong--can be temporarily suspended.

And by resorting to this reasoning, yet another “rule” concerning right and wrong is laid out.

But is this “rule” sound?

For instance, most people believe it is wrong to steal from others. (This concept is found with among the Ten Commandments: “Thou shalt not steal.”)

What if one’s child or a loved one is starving to death? Obviously a human life is at stake. Is it still wrong to break into someone’s home and steal food or money with which to buy food? Would this suddenly be the “right” thing to do simply because one is saving an innocent person’s life?

What if one’s own life is at stake? What if you are the one starving? If to save your own life, you resort to theft, is it still wrong to steal?


Many would reason that it may be alright to suspend the “rules” concerning right and wrong when it is done to save the life of another, but not to save one’s own life.

Thus, yet another “rule” concerning what is moral or immoral is laid out.

This rule hearkens back to the saying, “It is more blessed to give, than to receive.” This statement is embraced by most people are a moral truism. (Many people also mistakenly believe that this saying is found in the Bible. In fact, this idea is not found any where in the Bible.)

But is this idea true?

Consider that in order for you to do what is “more blessed” and good (that is, to give something to another), someone else is required to do something less blessed (that is, they are required to “receive” what you have given).

This concept--regarded almost universally are a moral truth--actually sets up something of a “Catch-22”/ “Damned if you; damned if you don’t” situation. In order for one person to do what is regarded as morally positive, someone else must first do what is regarded (under the same concept) what is regarded as morally negative.


All of the above are examples of the questions one may ultimately face when one approaches the issue of morality from the point of view that what is right or wrong is determined by a set of commandments or rules that are applicable to all situations.

The Mormon prophet Joseph Smith taught: “What is wrong in one situation can be, and often is, right in another.”

Does this mean that morality is completely subjective; that, when it comes to issues of right and wrong, anything goes?


In the coming lessons, we will explore these questions from the Reform Mormon perspective.

We will consider the Mormon concepts of God, the nature of reality, the individual and Free Agency (freewill); we will explore how these concepts contrast with those that have been traditionally accepted by a majority of the world’s religions, and how these concepts relate to issues of right and wrong.

Reform Mormons believe that “God is not someone who requires obedience.” This seems to fly in the face of the traditional concept of a God who establishes morality by laying down commandments which all are expected to obey.

Also, contrary to what one might conclude from the teachings of LDS Mormons, Christian Evangelicals and Fundamentalists, morality--according to Reform Mormonism--is far more than a sexual code.

Reform Mormonism teaches that:

“There is a difference in our decision-making process between simple rule-following and the ongoing process of morality…morals and morality…are our entire basis for decision-making.”

Discussion Questions:

What is the basis of your decision-making?

How do you currently approach the issue of morality?

How do you determine what is right and wrong, moral or immoral, ethical and unethical?


''I do not accept any absolute formulas for living. No preconceived code can see ahead to everything that can happen in a man's life. As we live, we grow and our beliefs change. They must change. So I think we should live with this constant discovery. We should be open to this adventure in heightened awareness of living. We should stake our whole existence on our willingness to explore and experience.'' - Martin Buber


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