Friday, October 23, 2009

Nephi: The Criminal

One night, a man crept into a city in the dark of night. His brothers awaited his return, hiding behind the city walls. The man went forth toward the home of a city leader and found the leader lying unconscious on the ground. Rather than assist the leader, the man took the leader's sword, which had a golden hilt and a precious steel blade. After calm deliberation, and using the leader's own sword, the man grabbed the leader's hair and decapitated him in cold blood. Then, donning the leader's clothes, the man imitated the leader's voice to deceived a servant in charge of the treasury into delivering valuable records, kept on metal plates, to the man. The man ordered the defrauded servant into following him out of the city. When the servant tried to flee, the man tackled the servant and physically detained him. Taking the sword, records, and the tricked servant, the man and his brothers then absconded into the wilderness to escape detection.

Crimes the man is guilty of:
1) Larceny, 3 counts (of the sword, garments, and metal records)
2) Burglary (the illegal conversion of property from an edifice at night)
3) Premeditated Murder (typically considered the most pernicious crime in any society)
4) Battery (of the servant)

Crimes of which the man may also be culpable:
1) Impersonation of a community official
2) Fraudulent deception of a bondsman
3) Obstruction of justice (fleeing the scene of a crime)
4) False imprisonment (holding or confining someone without legal authority)
5) Kidnapping (asportation of a person in furtherance of another crime)
6) Assault (of the servant)

Later, a religion claiming adherence to 1) "honoring, obeying, and sustaining the law" and 2) the 6th commandment (Thou shalt not kill) venerates the ethical behavior of the murderer. The man's name? Nephi, son of Lehi.

So what does this story teach about proper ethical behavior? In the LDS church, the faithful sing a hymn:
Do what is right, let the consequence follow.
Battle for freedom in spirit and might;
And with stout hearts look ye forth for tomorrow.
God will protect you; then do what is right.

Non facias malum ut inde veniat bonum - "you shall not do evil that good may come of it."  The hymn and the maxim illustrate a commitment to deontological ethics (do your duty first and foremost, rather than consider the consequences of a particular act and then decide on that basis).  Yet the religion that sings this hymn also manifests a loyalty to a nearly opposite ethical approach.

The Nephi story illustrates a commitment to teleological ethics, sometimes known as consequentialism (the consequences of a particular action form the basis for any valid moral judgment about that action). When Nephi hesitated, the Spirit persuaded him to murder by balancing the man's life against the consequent unbelief of a nation. Consideration of the consequences justified the breach of Nephi's duty to 1) obey the law and 2) obey the "not kill" commandment.

It seems to me that a consequentialist/teleological ethical approach is superior to a deontological one for two reasons. 1) I think a deontological approach's best justification can be sufficiently analyzed from a teleological framework. There's little justification for complying with a duty outside of the argument that that compliance is most likely to result in the greatest net benefit to all stakeholders. Therefore, it seems to me that deontological ethics are subsumed by teleological ethics. 2) A deontological approach seems more lazy because it requires less thought. Sure it's tough to reach a conclusion when balancing the competing and overlapping demands of a constellation of duties- but how much more difficult is it to account for a suite of consequences whose nature, impacts, and number are as difficult to predict and quantify as penetrating the foggy fabric of the future?

One result of adherence to a consequentialist approach, then, is a headache. Though guiding principles exist (e.g. obey the law or don't kill), they are also subject to being trumped by a compelling teleological argument, which one must think about in order to evaluate. That means engaging the difficult and cumbersome process of trying to think through all the consequences of a candidate course of action. This process sometimes leads to surprising deductions. Few of us would consider the perpetration of 4-10 crimes in a single evening as a typical discipleship expectation, but be prepared- and don't forget your thinking cap.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Brad, I appreciate the discussion you provide about this Nephi dilemma. The reality is that this passage is both difficult and dangerous for a lot of people, inside and outside of the LDS church.

    I have a friend who left the church after wrestling with this passage for years, concluding that God couldn’t inspire Nephi to do this (remember that his primary motive was that he was constrained by the spirit (1 Ne 4:10), even though he fought against the prompting).

    I call it dangerous because I know of another LDS man who used this passage as justification for committing a heinous and immoral act because he felt that he was inspired to do it, despite the commandments of God.

    Here’s another approach: Nephi killed Laban to obey both the commandments of God AND the law of the land. Let me explain:

    When Laban stole from Lehi’s family (1 Ne 3:25), he broke the law of Moses, and in the same act he tried to have them killed, which also violates the law. In Jerusalem circa 600 BC, the law of Moses was The Law, and that’s what the community operated under. There was no justice department, no police, no real judges (there were High Priests who served in a sort of judgment-based sense, but they didn’t rule in most matters).

    Paul Hoskisson, former associate dean of Religious Education at BYU, who has both a legal background and a Hebrew studies background, taught a seminar about the fact that under the law of Moses, it was the responsibility of each individual to enforce the law, and seek retribution for crimes committed against the individual. Thus we have the mercy seat flight, where supposed-criminals can seek an appeal if they are being pursued by the family of someone who they didn’t actually kill, etc.... Families avenged families, individuals avenged individuals. (Thus Jesus was really breaking ground when he encouraged people to NOT always demand justice, but to exercise mercy on an individual level. People could do that, legally, because the law was on a personal level.)

    Brother Hoskisson also pointed out that an attempt to kill is punished the same way as an actual killing; intention and effort were punishable on the same level as the actual act. Thus, Nephi and his brothers were responsible for punishing Laban for both robbery and murder, the consequence for each being death. (Look at Laban’s response in 1 Ne 3:13: “thou art a robber, and I will slay thee.”)

    When the Spirit constrained Nephi to kill Laban, it was telling Nephi to obey the law of Moses. Nephi knew that, but he shrank away. Why? If he felt it were a violation of commandment, he would have said so. But instead he says, “but I’ve never killed anyone before!,” so the Spirit nudges him onward and gives him a few more reasons why Nephi should just do what the law says, and not exercise mercy (or give into fear) in this case.

    That’s a severely abbreviated version of what I’ve learned about the issue from both Brother Hoskisson and Donald Parry (Hebrew teacher at BYU), who both taught me a lot about the law of Moses. It’s a different approach to the topic, but one perhaps worth considering.

  3. Though I conclude above that a teleological approach is superior to a deontological one, I continue to find evidence which seems to undermine this conclusion.

    1) Not a lot of scriptures lauding attempts to increase one's proficiency at consequentialist analysis come to mind

    2) Plenty of deontological scriptures do come to mind- e.g. D & C 4: 5 And faith, hope, charity and love, with an eye single to the glory of God, qualify him for the work.
    6 Remember faith, virtue, knowledge, temperance, patience, brotherly kindness, godliness, charity, humility, diligence.


    "To me, integrity means always doing what is right and good, regardless of the immediate consequences." (Joseph B. Wirthlin, “Personal Integrity,” Ensign, May 1990, 30)

    3) President Monson's famous maxim, “Do [your] duty; that is best; Leave unto [the] Lord the rest!" (Thomas S. Monson, “Do Your Duty—That Is Best,” Ensign, Nov 2005, 56) You don't get much more deontological than that.

    Perhaps these bits of evidence suggest that some duties and virtues are ends in themselves. For instance, say a group of honor code-committed girls and boys at BYU have returned from a late evening activity at the football stadium where it was raining and cold. They walk across the street to a complex where one of the boys live. They all go inside and are about to try and warm up with blankets and hot drinks and dry clothes when one of them reminds them that it's 12:05 am (past the midnight curfew), which means that the girls would have to leave. There seems to be little justification for this course of action from a utilitarian (teleological) perspective. It might be the ethical choice, though, if honor is itself an end and not merely an instrumentality of another benefit (utilitarian measurements are always quantified in benefit/cost terms).

  4. Garrett, thanks for your post. Maybe I should be more careful (to the effect of not posting some blogs I otherwise would)- I hadn't much considered the dangerousness of the passage.

    You are the third person now to reference a scholarly attempt out there to explore the legality of Nephi's actions in the legal context of his day. Turns out Paul Hoskisson is a friend of mine- I may have to go seek out the chapter or article or book that treats this subject. Thanks so much for the clue!

  5. Deontological musing #1:

    Sometimes a single scriptural passage implicates both a teleological and a deontological approach to evaluating an ethical obligation (note the distinct deontological duty-base in verse 11 and 13, versus the consequentialist basis in verse 15):

    D & C 123:
    11 And also it is an imperative duty that we owe to all the rising generation, and to all the pure in heart—
    12 For there are many yet on the earth among all sects, parties, and denominations, who are blinded by the subtle craftiness of men, whereby they lie in wait to deceive, and who are only kept from the truth because they know not where to find it—
    13 Therefore, that we should waste and wear out our lives in bringing to light all the hidden things of darkness, wherein we know them; and they are truly manifest from heaven—
    14 These should then be attended to with great earnestness.
    15 Let no man count them as small things; for there is much which lieth in futurity, pertaining to the saints, which depends upon these things.

    Deontological musing #2:
    Also, scriptural accounts sometimes evidence a hierarchy of duties. Example: obedience trumps sacrifice (1 Samuel 15:22, "to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams").

  6. Legal Perspectives on the Slaying of Laban
    John W. Welch
    Journal of Book of Mormon Studies: Volume - 1, Issue - 1, Pages: 119-41
    Provo, Utah: Maxwell Institute, 1992

    Abstract: This article marshals ancient legal evidence to show that Nephi's slaying of Laban should be understood as a protected manslaughter rather than a criminal homicide. The biblical law of murder demanded a higher level of premeditation and hostility than Nephi exhibited or modern law requires. It is argued that Exodus 21:13 protected more than accidental slayings or unconscious acts, particularly where God was seen as having delivered the victim into the slayer's hand. Various rationales for Nephi's killing of Laban are explored, including ancient views on surrendering one person for the benefit of a whole community. Other factors within the Book of Mormon as well as in Moses' killing of the Egyptian in Exodus 2 corroborate the conclusion that Nephi did not commit the equivalent of a first-degree murder under the laws of his day.

  7. Brad- I was reading in my Visual Rhetoric book today (of all places to find something to add to this!) and found this quote from Charles S. Peirce:

    "Ethics is the study of what ends of action we are deliberately prepared to adopt. That is right action which is in conformity to ends which we are prepared deliberately to adopt. That is all there can be in the notion of righteousness, as it seems to me..."

    I like what Garrett pointed out about the law of the time. And I think the way the spirit was working with Nehpi at the time is upheld by Peirce's definition of ethics. The means (slaying one) were in conformity with the ends (so that a nation did not dwindle in unbelief). Law of Moses aside, following your original argument, Nephi acted ethically while following the spirit.

    That to me makes this less dangerous. The ends have to be in alignment with God's will...then the means will be ethical.

  8. Interesting post and comments that help me better understand these 2 types of ethical thinking.

    I also appreciated Garrett's comment about the law. I had heard that before, but couldn't recall where. Great to have a source. I also hadn't heard of a 'mercy seat flight'--Fascinating! Resonates with my ideas of the medeival European church's practice of right of asylum or "Sanctuary" (See Hunchback of Notre Dame). It also provides some humorous mental images of people running to church as fast as they can.


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