Cleaning Our Lenses

LensesImagine that each of us are born with a complete set of virtue-lenses, paradigms by which we’re capable of viewing the world in its proper light. Some of these lenses enable us to see life through perspectives such as (but not limited to) love, justice, freedom and order. Each of these lenses are undeveloped at first. Through time, experience and choices, some of these lenses develop or degrade. A young child may quickly switch from the lens of justice when a toy of theirs is taken, to the lens of love and forgiveness a moment later. A young adult may develop a keen perspective for freedom while their authorities are attempting to administer and maintain order.

Each virtue-lens enables us to decipher truth from error but if any of them are clouded then our virtues can become varying degrees of vices. Much like the lesson from the parable – The Blind Men and The Elephant, an incomplete witness of what is true can lead to faulty conclusions. By matching the columns (clouded lenses) with their respective rows (clean lenses), the following table depicts examples of some vices that we might gravitate towards if one paradigm is clear but another isn’t.

Love (clouded) Justice (clouded) Freedom (clouded) Order/Authority (clouded)
Love (clean) – – –

Dupe who stays with abuser

Millennial “tolerance”

Authoritarian Parent

Socialism

Hippy
Justice (clean) Pharisee: “The law commands that such should be stoned” (John 8:5) – – –

Robbing Peter to pay Paul (aka “social justice”)

(NOTE: Freedom is a boundary of justice but many don’t recognize it)

Revenge

Vigilante

Freedom (clean) Sociopath

Greed

Thief – – –

Libertine

Line cutters

Order/Authority (clean) Inspector Javert (Les Mis) Adolf Eichmann

Milgram Experiment

Fascism

All forms of statism

– – –
Definition of Terms

Love – compassionate caring for the wellbeing of others.

Justice – moral rightness determined by universal (aka “natural”) laws. (malum in se)

Freedom – ability for someone to act according to their free will, unrestrained by others.

Order/Authority – manmade rules aimed towards organizing human to human conduct. (malum prohibitum)

Virtue-blind-spots can be catastrophic to our spiritual journey. Each of us are inclined towards certain virtues but not others. For example, freedom and order seem to be diametrically opposed ideals and so very few people take their opposing view seriously. In his short book, The Enoch Letters, Neil A. Maxwell pointed out that among the righteous, “liberty does not rob order, and order does not mock liberty.” Understanding how our inclinations towards certain virtues can result in the negligence of others helps us to avoid traps we are likely to fall into. It guides our development in a well-rounded, balanced direction.

Approaching disagreements with the understanding that the other person is probably partly right is more likely to open minds and hearts than approaching disagreements with the assumption that the other person is absolutely wrong. Most people have good intentions and valuable perspectives; it’s often the completeness of those perspectives that determine the degree to which they’re correct or not. When our love and justice lenses are clean, we can love the sinner and hate the sin. When our love, justice and freedom lenses are clean we will voluntarily help the needy. When our freedom, justice and order/authority lenses are clean we will want to respect the freedom of others insomuch as they are doing no direct harm to anyone else.

Just like it’s necessary for someone who is visually impaired to wear corrective lenses to see where they’re going physically, it’s even more imperative that we keep each of our virtue-lenses clean so that we can see where we’re eternally headed. Taking a holistic approach to our progression will mean that we will seek improvement in all virtues of life and we will recognize the risks of focusing on some virtues at the expense of others.

Obeying Authority and the Rule of Thirds

soldier shooting civiliansHalf a century ago Adolf Eichmann was captured and taken from Argentina to an Israeli civilian court to answer for crimes against humanity and the Jewish people. Several decades earlier, Eichmann was a German Nazi lieutenant colonel tasked with the responsibility of managing much of the logistics of the Holocaust. During Eichmann’s cross-examination the prosecution asked him if he considered himself guilty of the murder of millions of people. Eichmann’s defense—that he was just “following orders” and that he “never did anything, great or small, without obtaining in advance express instructions from Adolf Hitler or any of (his) superiors.” His defense was rejected; he was found guilty and hanged the following year.

Inspired by the Eichmann trial, Stanley Milgram, a Social Psychology professor at Yale, performed an experiment aimed at answering the question: “Could it be that Eichmann and his million accomplices in the Holocaust were just following orders? Could we call them all accomplices?” In Milgram’s own words the experiment went as follows:

“A simple procedure is devised for studying obedience. A person comes to the laboratory and, in the context of a learning experiment, is told to give increasingly severe shocks to another person (who is actually an actor). The purpose of the experiment is to see how far a subject will proceed before refusing to comply with the experimenter’s instructions.”

The experiment was originally performed on 40 test subjects. Each one of them was told by Milgram (the authority in the room) to ask questions and administer shocks by increments of 15 volts to the person in the other room whenever that person answered a question incorrectly. This was to persist until the voltage reached the full 450 volts. The person in the other room, who was not really getting shocked, acted as though each shock was getting increasingly worse by screaming, complaining about his “heart condition”, and then after the 300 volt administration he went silent. Many of the test subjects, assuming that they were really inflicting pain or possible death on the man in the other room, felt bad and asked to quit the experiment. Milgram’s scripted response was that he took personal responsibility for whatever happened and that he required them to continue until the experiment was completed.

Of the 40 test subjects 26 administered the full 450 volt shock. That is a 65 percent compliance rate. After the experiment was published some astonished psychologists presumed that the experiment was done incorrectly so they tried their own variations and found almost identical results. Variations of the experiment have been conducted across time and cultures to see if the results would change. The compliance rate averages around two thirds.

It appears it is generally in our nature to obey an immoral command when that command is administered by an apparent authority figure. But should that relieve us of accountability? If you or I were in the shoes of Eichmann, Milgram’s test subjects, or acting as agents of some other despot we would probably tell ourselves that we would disobey. “I am different. I would act morally. I would not be acted upon.” we tell ourselves. But would we? Let us hope so- for our own sakes and for the sakes of others. Edmund Burk is oft-quoted as saying, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” It appears that evil also needs mindless agents willing to obey orders. Let us be neither the complacent good nor compliant to evil.

Looking at Milgram’s experiment alone might offer us little hope as to how we would likely behave if commanded to execute an undesirable action but an experiment performed by Indiana University psychology professor Steven Sherman suggests that “education can strengthen the power of conscience over authority” when we consciously decide ahead of time to do so. Interestingly, the experiment showed that consciously making that decision ahead of time dropped the compliance rate from 2/3 to 1/3.

While I am not a social psychologist nor do I have sufficient evidence to back up this theory- there does appear to be some proof, in my mind, to submit a theory of obeying authority and the rule of thirds. That is that there is a breaking point at which, for better or for worse, a group is broken up into three factions for a particular cause- the obedient, the neutral, and the defiant.

In a 2009 Rasmussen poll—31% of Texas voters said that their country had the right to secede from the union and form their own independent country. Similarly, a 2012 HuffPost/YouGov poll given to 1000 adult Americans across the country found that “29 percent said states should be allowed to secede if a majority of their residents supported secession, while 38 percent said they should not, and a third weren’t sure.”

Following the War for American Independence, British General James Robertson, in his testimony before a committee on the conduct of the war, estimated that the American population during the war was one-third for the cause of American independence, one-third neutral, and one-third loyalists.

John Adams similarly wrote in a letter to Thomas Jefferson on Nov 12, 1813 concerning the Continental Congress that “To draw the characters of them all would require a volume, and would now be considered as a caricature-print; one-third tories, another whigs, and the rest mongrels.”

In response to the former Delaware Continental Congressman Thomas McKean who believed that “the great mass of the people were zealous in the cause of America” Adams wrote in Aug 31, 1813 that:

“Upon the whole, if we allow two thirds of the people to have been with us in the revolution, is not the allowance ample? Are not the two thirds of the nation now with the administration? Divided we ever have been, and ever must be. Two thirds always had and will have more difficulty to struggle with the one third than with all our foreign enemies.”

Upon reflection Mckean agreed.

Referring to the French Revolution in an 1815 letter to Massachusetts Senator James Lloyd, John Adams estimated that the Americans were generally one third “averse” to the revolution, one third for the revolution out of “a hatred of the English”, and the “middle third” that were, as Adams put it “the soundest part of the nation” and “averse to war”.

Finally, the war of wars which has existed since before the beginning of man on Earth—The War in Heaven, as it is known amongst latter-day saints, repeats a similar social psychology statistic. One-third of God’s spirits rejected the appointment of Christ as their savior, were cast down to Earth, and became devils. As the Bible Dictionary points out:

“Although one-third of the spirits became devils, the remaining two-thirds were not all equally valiant, there being every degree of devotion to Christ and the Father among them.”

Could it be that of the two-thirds who accepted the appointment of Christ that half of them were fence-sitters? I truly don’t know but that’s what I might guess.

So if all of these examples teach us anything it might be these: 1) choose the right regardless of who your authority is and 2) be prepared to have anywhere from a third to two-thirds obey a different authority than you—whether that authority is natural law or man’s law. To conclude his findings Professor Sherman wrote:

“When you look before you leap or predict behavior before you behave, the leaping and the behavior are likely to be altered; and indications are that the behavior will become more socially desirable and morally acceptable.” (Sherman, On the Self-Erasing Nature of Errors of Prediction, p 220, 1980)

It’s time to ask ourselves- “What would I do…?”

Principled Pragmatism

Principle SifterWhen faced with an idea or choice one of the first questions most people ask themselves is- “Is this practical?” but few back up and ask, “Is this even right?” The first question deals with pragmatism (or with what works) while the second question deals with principle (or a fundamental truth, a foundation on which to base all other reasoning and behavior). If we ignore principle and merely look at what will “work”, we often fall victims to silly, expensive, addictive, and/or dangerous ideas and behaviors. We suffer the consequences of our ignorance and moral decadence. We would be better off if we filtered ideas and choices through principle first, practicality second. If an idea doesn’t pass the first test then there is no sense in even contemplating how to execute it. If it does pass the first test then we can contemplate the practicalities of execution. This is principled pragmatism.

The term principled pragmatism is actually a redundancy since true principles are indeed pragmatic. It isn’t always obvious (in fact many times it is paradoxical) but when we base our decisions and convictions on truth- it always works out in the end.

Isaiah Messianically wrote:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9).

For many sincere individuals, experience and revelation have proven that the Lord’s ways are higher and more practical than ours. Though we may be tempted to believe that our “pragmatism” is more expedient than principle the Lord also taught “lean not unto your own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5), “yield to the persuasions of men no more” (D&C 5:21), and “keep all my commandments” (D&C 43:35). It’s been wisely said that, “When someone bases his life on principle, 99 percent of his decisions are already made.” Having made these decisions based on gospel principles beforehand helps alleviate the temptations to make bad decisions when those choices arise.

The pseudo-pragmatism that many subscribe to might be best termed shortsightedness. The pseudo-pragmatist looks at what works here and now but since he failed to consider the principle, there will likely be unintended and/or unforeseen negative consequences eventually—whether in this life or the next.

Look at excessive debt as an example. A father of four on a $40,000/year income who goes into debt for a $70,000 BMW was being a pseudo-pragmatist. He saw something he wanted, asked himself how he could get it, and he went out and executed that plan. If only he had stopped to ask the questions- “Is this even right? Am I being responsible? What risk am I putting my self and family at?” But because of his “pragmatism” he did what “worked” and got what he wanted. Eventually his bills will come due. Hunger, loss of freedom/opportunities, embarrassment, marital issues, and/or bankruptcy will likely afflict him and his family.

Unnecessary spending applies to individuals the same way it applies to families (unaffordable vacations), businesses (lavish executive dinners/bonuses), governments (bailouts, imperialism, welfarism, etc) and other institutions. When spending exceeds revenue (debt, inflation, and taxes) government agents hardly ever consider serious spending cuts (a responsible direction) but instead look for ways to raise revenue (enslave). It seems as though much of the things being considered by agents of government are pseudo-pragmatic. Some could make a strong case that taxes are a form of pseudo-pragmatism since it is using force to take someone else’s property. But what correct principle is thievery or legal plunder being based on? A long list could be compiled of things we do through government that defy principle but are done because it’s “practical”. A few might include:

  • Unwarranted searches/seizures and spying on innocent civilians to prevent crime
  • Pre-emptive war because striking them first gives us the advantage
  • Total War- destroying the moral, lives, and property of innocent people in order to “win” war
  • Economic sanctions because causing a nation’s civilians to suffer usually causes their government to bend our way
  • Torture- using pain, or disfigurement apparently gets our enemies to talk
  • Protectionist regulations and licensure which favors one sector over others because it raises power/gain for government and gets rid of competition for certain industries
  • Bailing out big banks and businesses because it would be economic disaster otherwise
  • Welfarism (robbing Peter to pay Paul) because people will suffer/die if we don’t redistribute the wealth
  • Enforcing social justice because certain groups of people with less opportunities deserve more- even if it’s at the expense of the right and control of property for individuals
  • Inflating the currency because it’s a good way to reduce the national debt and pay for warfare and welfare
  • Maintaining the American Empire because we want to enjoy our standard of living and we don’t want any “bad guys” to become a world superpower

Look at each of these things and notice how immoral and shortsighted they are. Also notice that fear is at the root of all of them. Many excuse or attempt to justify these things because they don’t see any other “practical” alternatives. Though choosing the right may not have immediate/obvious results Joseph F. Smith taught us:

“That through [Christ’s] atonement, and by obedience to the principles of the gospel, mankind might be saved (D&C 138:4).”

Unprincipled pragmatism is a form of focusing on ends at the expense of means. As explained here, worthy ends do not justify immoral means. Paul had to debunk the false idea attributed to him— “Let us do evil that good may come” (Romans 3:8). Elder F. Burton Howard also taught:

“The war in heaven was essentially about the means by which the plan of salvation would be implemented. It forever established the principle that even for the greatest of all ends, eternal life, the means are critical. It should be obvious to all thinking Latter-day Saints that the wrong means can never attain that objective.” (Repentance)

So does something being “practical” automatically make it right? Do the principles “Thou shalt not steal, lie, or murder” take a back seat to Machiavellian statism because fear and aggression seem to work better than love and persuasion? Lest someone assume that this is condoning anarchism then please read the story of King Benjamin (Mosiah 2:14). Did he, an agent of the people, rule by fear and aggression or did he serve by love and persuasion? Government can exist in a proper frame when its role is based on correct principles—not pseudo-pragmatic ones. Our lives can also exist to their fullest extent and maximum happiness when they are based on correct principles.

“Once they are driven off the high ground of principle, so many people then settle for being “practical.” But immorality is so impractical! Provisional morality always emerges once people desert a basic truth. Such individuals are forever falling back trying to develop substitute rationales, drawing new lines beyond which they vow they will not be driven, only to abandon these also under the pressure of growing evils…

Moral uncertainty always leads to behavioral absurdity. Prescriptions which are value-free always prove to be so costly. Unprincipled pragmatism is like advising someone who is hopelessly mired in quicksand not to struggle—so that he will merely sink more slowly!” –Neal A Maxwell (The Stern but Sweet Seventh Commandment)

George Albert Smith: Loving Persuasion Over Force

Disclaimer: the following post contains the author’s opinion and may not necessarily reflect the complete views of George Albert Smith.

A year after being called to be an apostle in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and at the age of 34, George Albert Smith wrote his personal creed—11 values by which he wanted to live by.  The creed emphasized his desires for peaceful living, service, love of mankind, faith in God and using loving persuasion.  His creed is as follows:

“I would be a friend to the friendless and find joy in ministering to the needs of the poor.

I would visit the sick and the afflicted and inspire in them a desire for faith to be healed.

I would teach the truth to the understanding and blessing of all mankind.

I would seek out the erring and try to win him back to a righteous and a happy life.

I would not seek to force people to live up to my ideals but rather love them into doing the thing that is right.

I would live with the masses and help solve their problems that their earth life may be happy.

I would avoid the publicity of high positions and discourage the flattery of thoughtless friends.

I would not knowingly hurt the feelings of any, not even one who may have wronged me, but would seek to do him good and make him my friend.

I would overcome the tendency to selfishness and jealousy and rejoice in the success of all the children of my Heavenly Father.

I would not be an enemy to any living soul.

Knowing that the Redeemer of mankind has offered to the world the only plan that will fully develop us and make us really happy here and hereafter I feel it not only a duty but a blessed privilege to disseminate this truth.”

Many who knew George Albert Smith exclaimed that his creed was not just what he believed but the manner in which he lived. When one carefully reads each point they will realize Elder Smith’s understanding of truth and his attitude towards his relationship with God and fellow man far surpasses most of that age. It’s interesting to note that all of those values are selfless. Paradoxically, those few who live this creed (sometimes unaware) are the happiest, fearless, peaceful people on Earth even though they seek little for themselves.

“For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: but whosoever will lose his life for my sake, the same shall save it.” (Luke 9:24)

The most notable goal Elder Smith brought up, as it pertains to liberty, was his desire to use persuasion rather than force: “I would not seek to force people to live up to my ideals but rather love them into doing the thing that is right.”  If parents, teachers, businesses and governments were to follow this simple principle authoritarians would turn to loving parents, disciplinarians to mentors, despots to developers, and tyrants to statesmen. Persuasion rather than force is also more likely to turn offspring to family, student to learner, staff to equals, and serfs to freemen.

While those who act in accordance with persuasion instead of force are guiltless of any wrong doing in that particular thing, there is no guarantee that those who are acted upon through loving persuasion will actually repent of their wrong doing. But, as it pertains practically, persuasion has a much higher success rate than force in the long-term. While force might yield temporary results it is the nature of the human spirit to resist force and thus force ultimately fails. On the other hand, when persuasion and truth are paired the results are everlasting. As it pertains morally, persuasion is the only just method of using power and influence that are positive in nature. Force is only justified when it is negative—as an act of defense of last resort.

Mark Skousen (author, professor and statesman) wrote a pamphlet titled Persuasion vs. Force in which he argued that persuasion is the morally justified use of power. President Hinckley received this pamphlet and replied in letter:

Dear Brother Skousen, I have read with appreciation your pamphlet, “Persuasion vs. Force.” Would that the world and its leaders might follow the philosophies set forth therein. As I read it I thought of the 121 Section of the Doctrine and Covenants verses 39–44. Keep speaking along these lines. It is a message that needs constant repetition.

Sincerely,

Gordon B. Hinckley

The moral use of power through persuasion also passes the Benson Test—that is that we can only delegate to government the powers which we have as individuals. If a person doesn’t have the moral authority to force their neighbor to live by their dietary code then they are not morally justified in delegating that authority to government. That is why legislating vices is wrong. A person would not be justified barging into their neighbor’s home, confiscating their mind altering substances, destroying their contraceptives, and taking their money to pay for someone else’s education and retirement. Yet, there are many who feel justified in imposing their moral codes under the banner of government, in the name of morality but in the reality of mob-rule. Though their intentions are usually pure—to rid the world of evil—they unintentionally perpetuate the very thing they aim to annihilate. How are their methods any more justified than the crusaders who wished to bring people to Christ? Whose plan was it to force all mankind to be righteous? Conversely, whose plan was it to allow man their agency and to use love and persuasion to win them back? (Moses 4:1-2)

Not only is it immoral to make laws forbidding vices, it doesn’t make practical sense either. Prohibition in the 1920’s and the war on drugs since the 1970’s serve as sufficient examples of why punishing vices through force is expensive, impractical, and unsustainable.

There are a myriad of reasons why people support liberty or freedom of choice. Some are good and some are bad. George Albert Smith taught many important lessons in his creed. One of them being that loving persuasion ought to be used instead of force (D&C 121:39-42). Freedom is an empty vessel. With what freedom we have we should fill it with good things. The more freedom- the greater our capacity to do good. The more good we do- the fuller our joy.

Know this, that ev’ry soul is free
To choose his life and what he’ll be;
For this eternal truth is giv’n:
That God will force no man to heav’n.
He’ll call, persuade, direct aright,
And bless with wisdom, love, and light,
In nameless ways be good and kind,
But never force the human mind.
(Know This, That Every Soul Is Free)

Two-Dimensional Thinking

It would serve us well as a society and individuals if we quit seeing the world two-dimensionally.  “There are two sides to every coin”, “Both sides of the political spectrum”, “Both sides of the isle”, are common terms used in an attempt to more easily understand issues or categorize people.  This pattern of thinking, though, severely limits other, often more viable options from being considered in the first place.

For example, take the scam known as the “political spectrum”.  Whether by design or accident we, as a society, have accepted the false notion that there are only two options available to us politically—either you’re a conservative on the right, or a liberal on the left.  If you are a conservative you are a republican.  If you are a liberal you are a democrat.  Deductively a two-dimensionalist would reason that if a person is not a democrat than they are automatically a republican and vise-versa.  Partisans who assume they know what others think based off of this mis-applied reasoning often find themselves puzzled or embarrassed when they discover that the labels they attempted to stick on people don’t always stick.  The reason for this is because, like individuals, possibilities and choices are unique.  When people follow a left to right scale that places big-government fascists and zero-government anarchists next to each other on the far right it is obvious why there is so much confusion and narrow-mindedness.

The monopolistic stranglehold that both major political parties have in the United States contributes to this inconsistent narrow way of thinking.  Perhaps this is why more and more people are considering themselves independents instead of affiliating themselves with one of the major political parties.  Or perhaps people are becoming disfranchised by partisan politicians saying one thing and almost always doing another.  Either way people are beginning to wake up to the failures of the American one-philosophy/two-party system.  Perhaps one day soon, if this trend continues, other parties and independents will receive mainstream attention and credibility.  In reality, a political system which truly reflected the will of the people would have more than just two “viable” options.

Us-vs-Them-syndrome is common amongst sports fans.  People grow up with “their team” not ever questioning why their team is so special or why the rivalry is the enemy. Team dynamics may shift.  Strategies may evolve. Players may change.  None of these seem to sway the loyalty of the sports fanatic though.  While this mostly harmless attitude exists amongst most sports fans this same attitude is detrimental when applied to the field of politics.  When people unquestioningly align themselves with an ever-changing philosophy/group they fall victims to groupthink and are tossed to and fro by the whims of the collective body or controlling bureaucracy.  Political fanatics care more about beating the rivalry than about winning what matters most—moral victories.  Partisan rivalship distracts participants from alternative solutions and perpetuates narrow-mindedness.  Even more common than partisan opposition is when both major political parties adopt the same horrible policy (ie- an aggressive foreign policy) or completely ignore a crucial policy.

Elder Dallin H. Oaks taught this applicable principle for the best way to prioritize our decision-making:

“As we consider various choices, we should remember that it is not enough that something is good. Other choices are better, and still others are best.” (Good Better Best)

While most choices made by the party-spirited don’t deserve the label of being “good” the principle still applies that there are better and even best choices to consider above what is “good”.  The idea that there is a best option coincides with the only true two-dimensional reality—that is that there is right and wrong, good and evil.  Considering alternative solutions is not moral relativism.  It’s acknowledging that there are more than two possibilities to a given scenario—especially when those two choices are bad.

Alternative solutions, thinking outside the box, or questioning the status-quo earns people labels such as being extreme or irrational but there are more than two possible solutions to the issues which face society—many of these solutions are better than what is being considered.  Only those who monopolize one of the top two mainstream ideas would have you believe otherwise.  Let us give alternative choices a chance by removing two-dimensionalism from our vernacular and thinking.