Sunday, February 21, 2010

Past behavior predicts future behavior better than our hopes

"The best predictor of tomorrow's weather- is today's weather."

I try to apply the principle of predicting how people will behave in the future based on their past behavior rather than on what I feel they will or should do or what they say they'll do. I find that this behavior-based prediction is more often validated that the predictions made on the basis of my feelings or the words and commitments of the person. (ask me for a war/drama story about a misbehaving teen at EFY this summer for a case-in-point). Here's an example I will share here:

I'm helping arrange this Stand for the Family Symposium coming up in a few weeks (as the facilities/media committee chair). I emailed the A/V fellow, *Greg, to get a cost estimate for the recording equipment and staff. He didn't reply, despite my email reminders, for two weeks. I went in to the office and tracked him down, then had an in-person meeting that was very positive, where he took notes and seemed professional and supportive. He committed on Wednesday to get us a cost estimate by the next afternoon. Thursday afternoon passed with no word. Therefore, I called him up Friday morning. He said he'd been busy, but still sounded optimistic and supportive, and promised a cost estimate by the afternoon. I reported as much to my Symposium boss and co-committee chair, emailing "I spoke with *Greg a few minutes ago via phone. He's behind but plans to get a cost estimate to us by this afternoon. (of course, that's the same commitment that failed yesterday). Cross your fingers if you think it'll help." The email reflected my adherence to the past behavior principle, but in my heart I expected he'd come through because on the phone and in person I trusted him and felt he was responsive, responsible, capable, and supportive. Plus, I talked to him that morning and the commitment was for that afternoon. I believed he would do it.

I was wrong! He didn't come through, and I still haven't heard back from him. Once again, as has often happened, the past behavior proved a better predictor than either 1) my perceptions/beliefs/trust/hope or 2) the subject's verbal assurances.

Now, past behavior may not be the best predictor, but it is better than many (think good, better, best). In the absence of superior bases for predicting, it often is the best available guide.

"The biggest danger in all new relationships is turning a blind eye to people’s limitations and falling in love with potential. If you look at the beginning of your relationship with your Ex, you’ll probably see glimpses of what became your biggest issues. The problem is that once you’ve gotten attached to someone, you start to hope that they can change. It rarely happens. If you only have one dating mantra in your life it should be Don’t Fall In Love With Potential. Sadly, most of us have had to learn this the hard way. But now is the time to stop the insanity by not repeating this lesson over and over again."

PS, I think my posts manifest a strong behavioral economics bent.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Intention, Faith, and Net Consequence Bundles

"So humans are not only prone to make biased predictions, we're also damnably overconfident about our predictions and slow to change them in the face of new evidence." -Ian Ayres, Super Crunchers

Warning: this post is somewhat long and unorganized and discursive.

People are notoriously poor at predicting consequences. (see the Super Crunchers book and #10 of my other post). Folks are more likely to fear guns than swimming pools, sharks/snakes/bears/hyenas/hippos/alligators than mosquitoes (more people die from vending machines per year than either bears or sharks), airplanes than automobiles, and driving drunk than walking drunk. All three are contraindicated fear disparities. People respond emotionally to the suffering on one person more than they do the suffering of tens of thousands (compassion fatigue).

But lambasting human predictive abilities and emotions isn't in harmony with the post title.

Therefore, gear-switch:

In or around the summer of 2008 I read a couple books which have contributed to a modest paradigm shift for me. (Rhonda Byrne's The Secret and Wayne Dyer's The Power of Intention). I think that intention/planning/faith all describe pretty much the same spectrum (much as rightness, morality, and ethics are all basically the same metric).

Faith is a hope in things which aren't seen which are true. I think learning/mastering the skill of faith is a primary purpose of mortality because most other lessons/skills could be learned/mastered in heaven/God's presence much more effectively than on earth. I think exercising faith is a pattern of spiritual creation. We practice the pattern of spiritual, then physical, creation like God did of the earth and of us. (consider the dual-creation moses account in reverse order). We intend something, then cause it to happen. Spiritual, then physical. Consider this pattern here, exemplified by our Exemplars the Gods:

Planning/intending "he said unto those who were with him: We will go down, for there is space there, and we will take of these materials, and bwe will make an earth whereon these may cdwell;" 22 And the Gods said: We will bless them, and cause them to be fruitful and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas or agreat waters; and cause the fowl to multiply in the earth.
• • •

28 And the Gods said: We will bless them. And the Gods said: We will cause them to be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it, and to have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.

Causing it to happen: voluntas reputatur pro facto "the will is taken for the deed" - 
"4 And they (the Gods) ... divided the light, or caused it to be divided, from the darkness.

14 And the Gods organized the alights in the expanse of the heaven, and caused them to divide the day from the night; and organized them... And the Gods set them in the expanse of the heavens, to give light upon the earth, and to rule over the day and over the night, and to cause to divide the light from the adarkness. And the Gods pronounced the dry land, Earth; and the gathering together of the waters, pronounced they, aGreat Waters; and the Gods saw that they were obeyed. and the Gods saw that they would be obeyed, and that their plan was good.
• • •

Caused is the follow-through; planning is the spiritual creation. This gospel pattern prescribes an intentional, planning-oriented lifestyle. This prescription is contraindicated by the fact that some people are naturally more, and some naturally less intentional-oriented. However, intentionality is like leadership- though some are more or less predisposed to the talent, intention, like leadership, is also a skill, which makes it accessible to almost everyone. Also, since we are charged to overcome our natures and the natural man (see fallacy of naturalism), I conclude that generally we should but away the childish thing of carefree/go-with-the-flowness and be responsible, forward-looking, risk-accounting, intentional adults (1 Corinthians 13:11).

Another application of this conclusion. Today I was discussing with some friends the policy discrimination where women can serve two LDS missions before age 30 but men are prohibited from so doing. Many cite the greater responsibility to get hitched resting on the man as justification. I countered by asserting that the multiply and replenish command is equally binding on men and women. I also argued that it would be strange for a worldwide church to reinforce a cultural disparity (men are more proximate causes of marriage than women) because the norm isn't particularly meritorious. My grounds for this claim: as concluded above, the gospel seems to point toward an obligation to (or at least the praiseworthiness of) planning/exercising faith/intending in order to practice the pattern of spiritual, then physical creation so vital to the success of mortal probation. Thus, if women are encouraged to be more passive as to envisioning/planning/exercising faith/intending and then causing their own marriage relationship, they forfeit a golden opportunity for practicing this most important skill. It seems unfair and unmerited to extend that privilege to men while denying it to women. Since I claim men and women are equal in their 1) need to practice this skill and 2) their capacity to do so, I would advocate a culture and a church policy which erases the disparity and places an equal privilege and responsibility on each gender to initiate and nourish relationships in pursuit of the marriage objective.

Also, intention prerequires thinking and projecting consequences, which is tough (see first two paragraphs of this post). There are many circumstances where ignorance is bliss (it pays to be stupid).

Somewhat related idea about foreseeing and intending - is there a morally relevant distinction between these two? (see page 124-128 of Biomedical Ethics by WALTER GLANNON)

I think gifts of the spirit are skills, and the way you develop them is by deliberate practice (i.e. the same way you "develop any other skill" - Gospel Principles, Faith in Jesus Christ chapter, page 104). I used to look at discernment, faith, knowledge, healing, love, etc. as gifts like Christmas presents that God hands you all wrapped up. Now I see them more as skills like playing piano, painting, woodcarving, and cooking. Though the skill acquisition in these areas is likely enhanced by prayer, gifts of the spirit skills could be developed in the absence of prayer and aren't as unique or windfall-like as I used to think.

Net consequence bundles is a good way to evaluate options when decision making. Most courses of action will have both pros and cons- go with the option that offers the greatest net benefit. E.g. a father has a duty to provide, but also to spend lots of time with his family. In a deontological framework, he should act in the direction and magnitude (to draw on the vector sum construct) indicated by the net duty. Similarly, in a virtue ethics framework, when virtues contradict, the net virtue vector is the prescription for action. I noticed this "net" idea in the "Doctrine of Double Effects" portion of Biomedical Ethics by Walter Glannon. (e.g. "In a war, it may be morally acceptable to bomb the enemy headquarters to end the war quickly, even if civilians on the streets around the headquarters might die. For, in such a case, the bad effect of civilian deaths is not disproportionate to the good effect of ending the war quickly, and the deaths of the civilians are side effect and not intended by the bombers, either as ends or as means.")

Another helpful construct for thinking: bell curves/normal distribution. Most realities can be fairly accurately captured by them (e.g. male and female compassion, or republicans' opinions on health care reform). Also, most realities in life are spectrums/gray areas subject to slippery slope counters (see slippery slope and plasticity of personhood posts). Worthiness, the right/wrongness of euthanasia, and the quality of the Democratic Party are three examples.

Now that most folks have stopped reading this discursive, loquacious beast of a post, I'm going to sneak in some more disorganized thoughts on trying to maximize righteous conduct! Ha.

Righteousness goals are sometimes somewhat futile (say, you have a habit of not performing your genealogy work and try to start the habit of doing it). Say Jiminy makes and seeks to follow through on righteousness goals to increase net righteousness by 1) reducing sin and 2) increasing time/energy for (and filling that time/energy with) righteous conduct. However, Jiminy wonders if A) time/energy isn't as scarce as he make it out to be and B) if the peace and happiness he seeks thereby is too elusive to merit the effort.

A) time is only measured unto man, not unto God, and in the grander scheme seems unlimited or at least abundant, which could lead to a conclusion of loosening up a bit and not being so uptight about his stewardship of the time Jiminy's given.
"Frodo: I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.
Gandalf: So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us."

B) worthiness/rectitude levels must be a gradient rather than binary. Even in dispositive worthiness determinations such as exercising the priesthood or attending the temple, though one either does or does not, the line is placed upon a spectrum whose foundations change more gradually (see my post on slippery slopes). There is kind of a line in the sand as to temple worthiness and temple recommend question passage, but because some of the temple recommend questions, such as "are you honest in your dealings with your fellow men," are definitely not binary, the determination of temple worthiness is not binary either. To illustrate the gray area honesty question:

Honesty/full disclosure/integrity/truth-telling conceptions are definitely more nebulous than they are clear. When someone asks how you're doing, do you always tell them the truth, or rather presume they're just saying hello and respond "fine" to return the greeting? When you have a scheduling conflict, do you say "I can't go" instead of the truth, "I choose this other activity instead?" These two examples only evidence the lack of precision in language and the lack of truth telling. What about less than full disclosure? When you dislike something another does, must you to be honest immediately communicate that dislike? What about when you're asked a direct question but for a reason you remain silent? How about when a friend asks you to read his or her poem, asks you what you think, and you only tell the friend the positive thoughts instead of the critical evaluations as well? I could go on. The point is, even the seeming black-and-white of temple worthiness is gray.

Another example. Certainly no one must be perfect to merit the Holy Ghost's companionship, yet we are taught that the Holy Ghost is easily offended by misconduct. Does that mean none of us can enjoy his companionship since we are in every moment guilty of both sins of omission (have you fully discharged your kindness, family history, and missionary work obligations, for instance) and sins of commission?  Or perhaps is the Spirit offended more by wicked disposition?  Voluntas in delictis non exitus spectatur - "in offenses the intent not the result is looked at."  The constellation of related intention concepts (desires, affect, feelings, intentions, attributes, character traits, inclinations, intentions, attitudes, susceptibilities, motivations, disposition) overlap both with each other and the zones within and outside our direct agentic control.   For instance, in speaking of homosexuality, Elders Wickman and Oaks made a lot out of the difference between unchosen same-gender attractions and same-sex behavior.  "Yes, homosexual feelings are controllable. Perhaps there is an inclination or susceptibility to such feelings that is a reality for some and not a reality for others. But out of such susceptibilities come feelings, and feelings are controllable. If we cater to the feelings, they increase the power of the temptation. If we yield to the temptation, we have committed sinful behavior."  Later Elder Oaks notes how directly within agentic control behavior lies; feelings seem controllable as well (i.e. by volition/will you can change your feelings), but feelings seem less completely and directly controllable than behavior.  "Whether it is nature or nurture really begs the important question, and a preoccupation with nature or nurture can, it seems to me, lead someone astray from the principles that Elder Oaks has been describing here. Why somebody has a same-gender attraction… who can say? But what matters is the fact that we know we can control how we behave, and it is behavior which is important."  It doesn't seem like behavior is all that much more important or vital than disposition/desire/nature etc. which ultimately we must convert from their natural state into a godlike condition.  And we cannot do so independently it seems- or at least, in all scripture instances that immediately come to mind, the Spirit was the causative agent of dispositional change, e.g. Mosiah 5:2 "the Spirit of the Lord Omnipotent, which has wrought a mighty achange in us, or in our hearts, that we have no more disposition to do bevil, but to do good continually."

Physical attributes, such as being diabetic or short or having two arms, seem to be outside the scope of agentic control (which of you by taking thought can add one cubit to his stature? [see my post for a tongue-in-cheek response]).  In between these brackets seem to be some partially controllable realities - e.g. the selfish, intemperate, impatient, appetite-driven natural man, which man must choose to "put off;" homosexual feelings, which Elder Oaks says are controllable (though, seemingly ironically, he later suggests that homosexually oriented folks can't control their "challenge" and ought not to marry heterosexually: "Persons who have this kind of challenge that they cannot control could not enter marriage in good faith" emphasis added); a disposition to anger or gossip, which dispositions are not present in a fully Christlike individual; one's way of being/orientation toward a person or act (such as viewing a person as a person or as an object when disciplining him or her, see Leadership and Self Deception by the Arbinger Institute; or the giver who chooses to give grudgingly out of an evil nature, resulting in his gift being accounted to him as though he hadn't given it " For behold, if a man being aevil giveth a gift, he doeth it bgrudgingly; wherefore it is counted unto him the same as if he had retained the gift; wherefore he is counted evil before God;" the Pharisees, who looked beyond the mark, despite their high level of seeming compliance with the law of the Moses were nevertheless judged as hypocrites and deep sinners).  It seems clear, then, that the Lord requires more of us than just behavior (i.e. attitude, disposition, motivation, intention, desire, orientation, etc.)- yet the primary criteria of judgment seem to be fully and solely volitional (Mosiah 4:30 thoughts, words, acts, and frequent scriptures indicating that we'll be judged according to our deeds).

An inclination to commit grave sin seems to be either be a part of your nature or not, unlucky you I suppose if it is: "no one need suppose me guilty of any great or malignant sins. A disposition to commit such was never in my nature." JSH 1:28

Charity, as an example "is not an act but a condition or state of being. Charity is attained through a succession of acts that result in a conversion. Charity is something one becomes." - Elder Oaks, The Challenge to Become.  Also from that talk: "many of his hearers cried out that the Spirit of the Lord 'has wrought a mighty change in us, or in our hearts, that we have no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually' (Mosiah 5:2). If we are losing our desire to do evil, we are progressing toward our heavenly goal. The Apostle Paul said that persons who have received the Spirit of God "have the mind of Christ" (1 Cor. 2:16). I understand this to mean that persons who are proceeding toward the needed conversion are beginning to see things as our Heavenly Father and His Son, Jesus Christ, see them."  And, "the Master's reward in the Final Judgment will not be based on how long we have labored in the vineyard. We do not obtain our heavenly reward by punching a time clock. What is essential is that our labors in the workplace of the Lord have caused us to become something. For some of us, this requires a longer time than for others. What is important in the end is what we have become by our labors."  I haven't figured all this out- but it's a key concept to tease out since agency plays such an important role in the plan of salvation.

Okay, my point. Let's say Jiminy has been keeping some righteousness goals lately, but he is still often distressed and angry (because of the frustration of not engaging his familiar behavior) and guilty about other errors. His evil nature hasn't dissipated appreciably.  That state isn't too different from the distressed and angry and guilty state of not making/keeping the righteousness goals. So what's the net gain from keeping the righteousness goals? It seems to make more sense to carve out a little, but not a lot, of room for the sin in order to still keep net righteousness high but mitigate the angry and distressedness that results from crossing oneself. However, on the other hand, Elder Oaks teaches, "Don’t accommodate any degree of temptation. Prevent sin and avoid having to deal with its inevitable destruction. So, turn it off! Look away! Avoid it at all costs."  We should be glad that Adam didn't look away and avoid the temptation of the fruit at all costs. Commonly for wo/man, one cost of making no provision for sin or temptation is almost constant anger and frustration and distress.   That's a poor way to live when a slightly less stressed, frustrated, and angry lifestyle is so accessible. This places him in a position of choosing between a rock and a hard spot, the frying pan or the fire- if there is a difference, the margin doesn't seem to matter much when you get fully cooked either way. Since any degree of uncleanness will keep you out the kingdom, and since it's very easy to by intentional acts lose the Spirit but hard to by intentional acts gain it, it seems like an uphill battle with little value to consciously and intentionally seek righteous conduct. To do so is hypocritical anyway since your inner nature is an enemy to God, and Christ so conclusively denounced hypocricy: "Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess. “Thou blind Pharisee, cleanse first that which is within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also” (Matt. 23:25–26; see also Alma 60:23). “Ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness. “Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.”

The most available examples of this conundrum I would posit are babies and sex. A woman has a significant natural (and not sinful) craving for her own baby; however, the gospel dictates that she deny herself that boon unless it is accompanied by marriage. Yet, desire for a baby alone is not a sufficient reason to get married. Similarly, a man has a significant natural (and not sinful) craving for sex; however, the gospel dictates that he deny himself that boon unless it is accompanied by marriage. Yet, desire for sex alone is not a sufficient reason to get married. The lack of the baby for the girl and sex for the boy results in distress and frustration for both, despite the rectitude of self-denial.  Yet the only alternative would be the disastrous (and presumably worse) spiritual consequences of fornication.  This seems at odds with the promise of peace for living the gospel: "But learn that he who doeth the works of arighteousness shall receive his breward, even cpeace in this world, and deternal life in the world to come."  (note the emphasis on doing works rather than becoming)

"He quoted men seeking to justify their viewing choices by comparisons such as “not as bad as” or “only one bad scene.” But the test of what is evil is not its degree but its effect." - Oaks. That is a teleological rather than deontological distinction, and is a measuring cap which doesn't fit well on the many heads of bright line, deontological evils church members are obligated to avoid, such as not paying a 10% tithe, wearing more than one set of earrings, drinking coffee, not attending church each week, and wearing flip flops to church. Rather than asserting that one has a duty to abstain from pornography, period, cadit quaestio (the matter admits of no further argument), the standard is whatever offends the Spirit is evil. That does seem a superior moral standard- but because conduct is much more measurable than the degree of presence or absence of the Spirit, deontological standards are more workable and useful to those with the onus of third party judgment.

The "spirit of the law" argument is teleological- the ends the rule was designed for. Example: ending a meeting on time. Purposes are to provide time for other worthwhile activities and provide a reliable expectation for decision makers as they plan. If the value of the extra five minutes exceeds the aggregated loss towards the two objectives for which the rule was made, then you should break the rule. "Letter of the law" is a deontological one- you have a duty to comply with the rule irrespective of net consequences.

Take a thirty minute window. A man seeks out and views pornography for sexual stimulation. Elder Oaks taught that "Patrons of pornography also lose the companionship of the Spirit." Twenty minutes later he's in a home teaching visit and to support the teaching of his companion he testifies of the verity of God's visit to Joseph Smith the prophet. Does this man have the companionship of the Spirit or does he not? (I acknowledge the argument here that the Spirit is a continuous, rather than discrete, reality). Is the Spirit more easy to offend than he is to invite? And why does the Spirit leave when "the going gets tough"? When people are involved in sin that's when they most need the Spirit to help them know they're sinning and how to repent! Knowledge that one is sinning and knowledge of how to repent are gifts of the Spirit and cannot be gained in the Holy Ghost's absence. That's a catch 22 for someone ensnared in Spirit-offending sin.

More on the knowing one is sinning idea. Let's say the Spirit helps you realize your duty to perform temple and family history work. It's not that the Spirit just imposed a duty on you to do FH work; that duty existed before ("The greatest responsibility in this world that God has laid upon us is to seek after our dead" - Joseph Smith). Instead, you realize that you should've been doing the work all along. An apt legal comparison is when a supreme court announces a new constitutional rule of law that become retroactively applicable. Example: a court decides that the right to counsel attaches to a sentencing hearing. It's not that all of the sudden a new constitutional right was created by the court (since the constitutional right implicated was in the constitutional text a century or so before), but rather that the court finally recognized a right that was there all along. Therefore, the court was wrong to fail to recognize that right in the previous century or so, which is a strong argument for making the newly discovered right retroactively applicable. Similarly, the Spirit's reminder doesn't create a duty, but instead highlights your preceding and current error in neglecting so great and conspicuous an obligation.

"Her husband had also served in important Church callings for many years while addicted to pornography." How could he do this if "The immediate spiritual consequences of such hypocrisy are devastating. Those who seek out and use pornography forfeit the power of their priesthood. The Lord declares: “When we undertake to cover our sins, … behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man” (D&C 121:37)." Can one serve in important church callings without the priesthood and/or the Spirit? It would seem so. What does that man's service count for towards his account? Is that service worthless? "8 For behold, if a man being aevil giveth a gift, he doeth it bgrudgingly; wherefore it is counted unto him the same as if he had retained the gift; wherefore he is counted evil before God." " the Final Judgment is not just an evaluation of a sum total of good and evil acts--what we have done... It is not enough for anyone just to go through the motions. The commandments, ordinances, and covenants of the gospel are not a list of deposits required to be made in some heavenly account" -Elder Oaks. If so, it supports the Satanic conclusion that if you've messed up a little, you might as well sin a ton (e.g. by neglecting church and family duties).

Again, there seems to be an incentive here to not think too deeply about the implications of gospel principles. Those who are less aware of the teachings of the Brethren and the obligations imposed by the gospel are less culpable for failing to cause their conduct to comport with those obligations than those of lesser acumen, whose judgments on their own sinfulness will necessarily be more blunt. Maybe shallower thinking isn't bad, or maybe the deeper thinking I implicate is flawed.

Related blog on righteous conduct vs. spirituality vs. religiosity.

My blog about "it pays to be stupid/ignorant/naive"

The Devilishly Difficult Definitional Determination of Death

"What is a superior set of criteria for death?" I asked. For a moment, the room of 17 jabbering college students went silent. Some of the students looked at each other, asking with their eyes, "who's gonna answer that one?" It's a tough question.

The definition of death is just the flipside of the definition of personhood (see my post on this subject) in my view- essentially one defines when mortal life begins and the second defines when it ends. It seems a little funny/strange to me that a reality so common and fundamental as the span of a mortal life should be so hard to pin down.

Why is the definition of death important? Well, because the resolution of that question is dispositive in so many situations (e.g. organ procurement for transplant, when to bury a person, whether to continue persistent vegetative states, who gets to make these decisions, what medical treatment to give [e.g. give treatment A or B where A) has a 40% likelihood of restoring life and consciousness but has a 60% likelihood of resulting in whole body death and B) has a 90% chance of resulting in an irreversible vegetative state], etc.).

Now back to my story. Up to the point I asked for a superior criteria set for defining death, my bioethics discussion section had vigorously criticized existing candidate definitions. I transitioned to the question by noting that criticizing and constructing are often two separate endeavors. Now I summarize the issue they had debated up to that point.

Most developed countries accept some iteration of brain death as equivalent to death. A Bioethics (the journal) article from last month (ARE RECENT DEFENCES OF THE BRAIN DEATH CONCEPT ADEQUATE) nicely summarizes three popular criteria for death, as well as some rationales and problems associated with each. The three criteria:

1) Whole brain death: irreversible loss of all critical functions of the entire brain.
2) Higher brain death: irreversible loss of the function of the cerebrum.
3) Brainstem death: irreversible loss of the capacity for consciousness and the ability to breathe.

In addition to these criteria, there are several different conceptions of/rationales for death. I'll name three prominent ones:

1) Capacity for consciousness
2) Loss of integrative unity of the organism
3) Loss of the ability to breathe

What criteria and rationale would you choose? I at first wanted to choose whether the organism is a body or a soul (meaning the spirit is inside), but I don't know how to discern whether and when a human spirit is in possession of a body, especially in situations of a coma or a persistent vegetative state. Is the spirit inside, on a temporary vacation, or permanently gone? Is possession of a body by a human spirit a discrete or a continuous reality? How reversible is possession of a body by a human spirit? Because of these difficulties, possession by a spirit offspring of God proves as yet an unworkable criterion. Therefore, because as showed above it is important to establish a definition of death, one should enter the fray and develop a superior, workable definition as I asked the students to do.

Personally, I don't find a lot of merit in the ability to breathe/breath of life rationale because I don't find the need for a ventilator or CPR equivalent to death. However, the substantively irreversible loss of capacity for consciousness rationale does seem useful, though it is only moderately amenable to a binary (rather than gradated) verdict. (e.g. if loss of capacity for consciousness is death, is its presence life? If so, at what point does life begin- sperm, zygote, morula, fetus, infant, and all the other questions raised in my personhood post, etc.). However, a rationale isn't a criterion, and a workable definition needs measurable criteria.

Consequently, my position is mostly in harmony with the students'- namely, that I don't know a superior criteria set to define death. My knee jerk solution is substantive failure of 80% plus of primary organ systems (circulation, brain/CNS function, respiration, digestion, PNS function, etc.), which is more of a whole-body failure and is broader than all three brain death conceptions.

Some of the flaws of brain death= death concepts the author (Joffe) identified:

– many with prolonged survival shows that integrative unity is not lost.8
– many integrative functions continue, showing that the brain is a modulator and
not the central regulator of integrative unity.9
– high cervical spine injury patients lack the same degree of integrative unity as
the brain dead patient.10
– prognosis of death or unacceptable quality of life is not death itself. Prognosis
of death is not a diagnosis of death
– this does not explain why this loss of function is death. This confuses a criterion
of death (loss of brain function) with a concept of death.
– this does not explain why this loss of structure is death. This confuses a
criterion of death (loss of brain structure) with a concept of death.
– this implies person essentialism; that we are essentially persons, and were never
a fetus or newborn.11
– this means that a patient in a permanent vegetative state, with movement, wake
cycles, and breathing, can be buried or cremated in that state.12
– this does not explain why the loss of these functions is death. This confuses a
criterion of death (loss of consciousness and breathing) with a concept of death.
– the capacity for consciousness may not be lost. The cerebral hemispheres may
be relatively spared, leaving the substrate required for the capacity for
consciousness still present.13
– loss of the ‘conscious soul’ suggests Cartesian dualism, implies we can know
when this soul departs the body, and that the soul departs when the ability to
demonstrate consciousness is lost.
– loss of the ‘breath of life’ suggests that the patient with a cervical spinal cord
injury and no ability to breathe is dead while alert and ventilated.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Edenic Ethics and the Triumph of Teleology

Stories from the lives of Thomas More, Nephi, and Adam all suggest a specific ethical approach: deontology as a first line of defense, then shift to teleology when one's deontology is challenged.

Deontology ("Do your duty, that is best- leave unto the Lord the rest)
Teleology (rightness of a choice is measured by its consequences)

I cite three stories to illustrate.

First: Nephi was exceptionally deontological (specifically, he adhered to the species of deontology known as "divine command theory" e.g. 1 Nephi 3:7 I will go and do, returned to get the plates, built the boat, kept the record without knowing why [1 N 9:5], etc.). However, when God commanded him to slay Laban, instead of performing his deontological duty, he hesitated. Only the angel's teleological argument persuaded him (see my post on this topic).

Second: Okay, I'm going to cheat and cite two Adamic stories here which support the same characterization of Adam's behavior as fitting the ethical approach I identify. Adam, like Nephi behaved in accordance with divine command theory. He offered sacrifices- why? "I know not save the Lord commanded me." Did he condition his behavior on consequences while in the Garden? You may remember he said yes to Eve's question about whether he intended to obey all of the Father's commandments (so the answer is no). However, when his adherence to divine command theory was challenged by Eve's offering of the fruit he, like Nephi, capitulated on teleological/consequentialist grounds (he agreed to partake that man may be).

Third: Thomas More acted in Kantian (deontological) ways as evidenced by his refusals to endorse the King's divorce, accept a bribe, and engage in secretive counsels (see my essay below for More elaboration). However, at one point, his ethical position was challenged by Chancellor Wolsey: "when Wolsey’s initial persuasions fail, he turns to consequentialist persuasion: if an heir is not produced, bloody dynastic wars will result... Wolsey argues that a regrettable (duty breaching) means should be employed to avert the more horrific fate that will result if an heir is not produced." Like Nephi and Adam, when challenged, More devolved to teleology, choosing to maintain his position on the grounds that violating private conscience would have ill effects in excess of maintaining private conscience: "when statesmen forsake their own private conscience for the sake of their public duties they lead their country by a short route to chaos."

All three figures used deonotology as a first line of guidance in ethical decision making, but relied on teleology when the chips were down.

-Does the ethical approach of these three heroic figures suggest that deontology is merely a practical basis for the ethical behavior of cognitively limited mortals, but that the value of duties rests on consequentialist likelihoods? Can a duty bereft of this foundation be a moral basis for behavior? If duties are founded in teleological justifications, does that mean that an ethical person must develop the discernment to know when to question the duty and instead/additionally analyze the likely consequences of an act (else she would sometimes act unethically, such as by refusing the fruit in the garden)? Is a purely teleological or purely deontological approach more susceptible to confounding pluralism? If so, would the less-susceptible theory be a better basis for decision making?

- It seems difficult to conclusively valorize or vilify Eve's choice to partake of the fruit. I recall hearing it both ways (some say Eve's choice was wicked and brought net negative consequences; others say Eve should be honored for her choice). The gospel principles book says some people believe Adam and Eve committed a serious sin, but that latter-day scripture helps us understand that their Fall was a necessary step in the plan and a great blessing to us all. This implies one of two things: 1) that actions which are necessary and bring great blessings to others are never sins or 2) the Fall was both necessary and a sin. The first implication doesn't allow for vilification; the second prohibits valorization. When morally evaluating Eve's choice should one look at her culpable mind or only the effects of her action? How about both? It seems that a deontological evaluation and a teleological one will come out differently when applied to Eve's choice to partake. As has been shown, heroic figures employ both approaches: therefore, the difficulty in conclusively denigrating or extolling Eve's choice.

Dr Peck's Tips for Improving Personal Ethical Decision Making:

- Use all the information you can.  Ask for evidence, gather information, seek to reduce emotional interference
- Question/examine assumptions
- Use ethical theories to provide a framework
- Try to understand others' perspectives
- Do not be afraid to change your mind
- Remember ultimately that only you are responsible for your ethical response and choices

Is it possible that we'll be resurrected as we were for most of our lives; the body we are most familiar with--shortly before judgment?  And then, only later (and perhaps gradually) are our bodies glorified and resurrected?  It seems like a big transition to go through (having a perfected body after being disembodied preceded by mortally embodied), and the Alma scripture says: "both limb and joint shall be restored to its proper frame, even as we now are at this time; and we shall be brought to stand before God, knowing even as we know now."  Perhaps our recollections are heightened, but the full capacities of a celestial or terrestrial bodies aren't yet realized?  I'm just struggling to think of the magnitude and suddenness of the change.

Law and Literature Winter 2010-

A Man for All Seasons: The spectrum of moral reasoning

If you could just see facts flat on without that horrible moral squint
With a little common sense,you could have made a statesman.. –Wolsey
When this semester began, I was so excited. I had just finished the MPA program’s ethics class, and I was enrolled in three ethics classes at the law school: law and literature, professional responsibility, and biomedical ethics. Additionally, I lead a couple discussion sections of the bioethics class for undergraduates each week. Therefore, I knew this would be THE semester for me for ethics! I determined to increase my ethical sophistication and behavior. Bolt’s A Man for all Seasons auspiciously brings into relief the contrasting virtues and vices of some of the key currents in ethical theory. Below I show how the motifs of deontology, teleology, and morality as a discrete rather than continuous concept are highlighted in the play.

Kant and the categorical imperative

"Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law." – Immanuel Kant
Though I would like to research Kant’s ideas in greater depth, I will limit the analysis in this section to my rudimentary understanding of Kantism because of the direction to avoid extensive external research for the purposes of this paper. Kantism is a species of deontological thought and is one of the few ethical theories which is bold enough to propose black and white recommendations for behavior in certain situations because of the universalizability of its maxims. I will now show that More is a paragon of Kantism by illustrating several instances in the play of More’s compliance with certain categorical imperatives.
The first instance takes place when More and Cardinal Wolsey have their famous “private” meeting. Wolsey assures More that they are alone, implying that More should be more candid. To Wolsey’s claim that no one was there, More replies: “I didn't suppose there was, Your Grace.” An appropriate maxim for this instance would be that an individual when speaking with an authority or peer on a formal/business matter should manifest a lack of duplicity. Stated affirmatively, an individual in that category of circumstance should speak the same whether or not an audience of greater than the two interlocutors is listening. If that maxim holds, then More’s conduct complied with the maxim, and his conduct was therefore right. I might also mention that More’s behavior in this circumstance would also be valorized by a “public disclosure” ethical analysis, which asks whether people would approve of conduct in a situation if the conduct and its context were objectively portrayed on the 5 o’clock news (or, to use a scriptural phrase, “revealed upon the house-tops:” Mormon 5:8). In this instance, a hypothetical reading or watching audience would almost certainly approve of More’s refusal to change his behavior in a secret or private setting.
A second instance takes place in More’s home when Richard enters and pleas for More to employ him. Richard: “Employ me.” More: “No.” R: “Employ me!” M: “No.” R: “I would be faithful.” M: “You couldn't answer for yourself even so far as tonight.” There are two germane maxims with which More complies in this instance. The first is that, absent a persuasive reason to the contrary, an individual should be consistent in his or her decisions. Here, More denied the first request; mere repetition of the request, though it applied social pressure, did not add a persuasive reason upon which basis an individual in that situation should reverse his or her first denial. More maintained his position. The second apposite maxim is that, when making decisions, one should give greater credence to the relevant past behavior of the individual than to that individual’s attestations. Here, Richard promises to be faithful. His past conduct, however, indicates a propensity towards infidelity. Thus, assuming no other dispositive factors, More made the decision most consistent with the conclusion suggest by the maxim, namely that he should deny Richard’s request.
The third instance, again, occurs during the private dialog between More and Wolsey. During their conversation, Wolsey emphasizes the problem of the barrenness of the king’s wife. Wolsey challenges More: “The king wants a son. What are you going to do about it?” Somewhat surprisingly, More replies that he prays for a miracle, citing biblical precedent for the reversal of barrenness. The maxim here would be to place faith in God and prayer, especially in circumstances where a miracle seems requisite.
The fourth and last instance I will highlight comes from More’s trial, when More says that “The world must construe according to its wits.” The maxim here is to ensure that responsibility is distributed justly. For More to assume responsibility for the world’s judgment would be unethical because a judge alone is responsible for his own acts of judgment. I could detail a fifth instance of when More refuses to voice his approval of the king’s infidelity while in prison, but I stop here. In sum, all these four instances paint a picture of a man with a deontological conscience.

Utilitarian motifs

"The consequences of a particular action form the basis for any valid moral judgment about that action." –
When Nephi breached his deontological duty of following God by hesitating to obey His commandment to slay Laban, the Lord tried the alternative tactic of applying a utilitarian argument: “better that one man should perish than that a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief” (1 Nephi 4:13). Similarly, when Wolsey’s initial persuasions fail, he turns to consequentialist persuasion: if an heir is not produced, bloody dynastic wars will result. In a Machiavellian form of common sense (remember the very first quote on page 1 above), Wolsey argues that a regrettable (duty breaching) means should be employed to avert the more horrific fate that will result if an heir is not produced. Here’s a significant test: will More stick to his deontological guns or will he instead compete on teleological turf? More does indeed take Wolsey’s assertion to task, arguing the deleterious consequence of chaos: “when statesmen forsake their own private conscience for the sake of their public duties they lead their country by a short route to chaos.”
This example points to the conclusion that More’s conscience is about half teleological and half deontological. One more piece of evidence bolsters this deduction: the contrast provided by the “common man” characters in the play. From the servant to the boatman to the jailor to the jury foreman, each common/base man acts with an eye only to those consequences that will affect self-interest while ignoring consequences that accrue to other stakeholders. They perform their duties with moral blinders on and therefore look increasingly guilty and morally inferior compared with More, who seeks to do the right thing irrespective of personal consequence (up to and including losing his life). Additionally, even in his more Kantian moments, it could be argued that his conduct will result in a net positive in the long-term if his views of God and eternal reward/punishment bear out, making his deontological conduct susceptible to re-categorization as utilitarian.

The Spectrum of Morality

Having illustrated the two main bases of More’s ethics, I will now evaluate whether More’s conscience and conduct engender a discrete rather than a continuous conception of morality. Like the martyr valorized by both Maimonides and Maimonides’s object of criticism, the offending rabbi, More took a stand on an issue of personal conscience at the expense of his life. This taking a stand seems to make morality discrete: i.e. to not take a martyr’s stand as More did would be immoral, while reacting as More did in the situation would be moral. By way of comparison, In Maimonides’s Letter, Jews had to decide whether to speak the Mohammedan oath; in More’s situation, he also had to choose to swear a false oath or die. If More had chosen to take the oath in order to seek other ends, such as fulfilling his wife’s preference that he live, his capitulation would seem to suggest the existence of a moral gradient (the contours of which would be defined by the net consequence bundle of competing alternatives). By choosing to live, he could bring about many positive consequences he would be otherwise incapable of. This is similar to Maimonides’s arguments to make ethically acceptable efforts to minimize/ameliorate apostate speech and behavior in lieu of martyrdom. The relatively extreme costs More was willing to pay in order to maintain his fidelity to principle expose a more black and white attitude opposed to strategic compromises with evil.


More’s conscience reflects a high level of ethical development containing about equal parts Kantism and consequentialism. His conduct suggests a binary rather than an incremental morality. More also demonstrated a maxim worthy of emulation: remain true to yourself and your beliefs “under all circumstances and at all times, despite external pressure or influence.”

Expect people to keep their word

Position 1: One cannot expect people to fulfill self-made commitments while simultaneously accepting the fact that people are mortal and imperfect.

Position 2: One can expect people to fulfill self-made commitments while simultaneously accepting the fact that people are mortal and imperfect.

I adhere to position 2.

I also think that position 2 is a virtuous position because maintaining a high expectation of person A in a context where most others reinforce a low level of expectation of person A allows him or her to rise to the higher level of expectation. But for that high level of expectation person A is likely to perform at the level reinforced by others' expectations.

Most people expect Brian Johnson to keep commitments he makes 50% of the time (that's about the social norm). Brian enters the mission field, and his mission president expects Elder Johnson to keep his word 95% of the time. This expectation is expressed in number of ways, including manifesting disappointment when Elder Johnson fails to follow through. After a year, Elder Johnson's commitments kept/commitments made ratio rises from 50% to 90%.

Law School/Formal Education

"Thus, in proportion as men become more alike and the principle of equality is more peaceably and deeply infused into the institutions and manners of the country, the rules for advancement become more inflexible, advancement itself slower, the difficulty of arriving quickly at a certain height far greater. From hatred of privilege and from the embarrassment of choosing, all men are at last forced, whatever may be their standard, to pass the same ordeal; all are indiscriminately subjected to a multitude of petty preliminary exercises, in which their youth is wasted and their imagination quenched, so that they despair of ever fully attaining what is held out to them; and when at length they are in a condition to perform any extraordinary acts, the taste for such things has forsaken them."
Alexis de Toqueville, Democracy in America - Chapter "Ambition in the US"

I've noticed that there is a propensity for those exiting college or graduate school to manifest far less idealism than when they entered it. Inasmuch as college quashes impulses to improve the world which would otherwise succeed (as opposed to merely tempering idealism with needed practicality and training), this trend appears net negative. It would be better for aspiring youth to enter the public, non-profit, or private sector right off and begin trying to change the world before the obstacle of college. It would also be better to detach the requirement of a degree from many positions and instead rely solely on occupational qualifications and skill sets. A better system might be to have education and training as you go, or midway through a career, rather than all scrunched up at the beginning when you're pining to make an impact.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

"Believe what you want to believe. Truth schmuth."

"People endorse whichever position
reinforces their connection to others with
whom they share important commitments."

Is it true that people are generally unwilling to change their minds, even in light of weighty evidence against a stance they've taken? Do peoples' beliefs really color their perceptions, shattering any semblance of a claim for objectivity ( Do normal folks systematically reject evidence that disagrees with their opinions? Umm- yes.

As Dan Hakan points out in (NATURE|Vol 463|21 January 2010 "Fixing the Communications Failure"), "public debate about science is strikingly polarized. The same groups who disagree on
‘cultural issues’ — abortion, same-sex marriage and school prayer — also disagree on whether
climate change is real and on whether underground disposal of nuclear waste is safe." This seems to demonstrate an attitude of, "if a study's conclusions, data, or scientific consensus varies with my opinion, simply discredit the offending evidence." This strategy is effective at maintaining an opinion; it is not effective at forming a correct one.

Why do people who subscribe to different moral views about environmental risk, public health, and crime control react differently to scientific data? Probably because it's offensive to accept some of the implications of scientific evidence. Say hypothetically that climate change research suggests that carbon emissions should be reduced (hang with me, I know this is a fantastic scenario- just use your imagination). Well, imagine further that some primary emitters of the pollution in question are commerce/industry corporations. If you believe that business activity is a good thing and regulation of commerce is a bad thing, then you have an incentive to discredit the evidence. (*see excerpt below) Also, "Cultural cognition also causes people to interpret new evidence in a biased way that reinforces their predispositions. As a result, groups with opposing values often become more polarized, not less, when exposed to scientifically sound information."

Case example. The Center for Disease Control four years ago recommended vaccinating schoolgirls against the human-papillomavirus. Arguments for and against the mandatory vaccination were matched to fictional experts who appearances were intentionally varied (e.g. denim shirt + beard or suit + grey hair). When the individualistic-looking experts advocated opposition to the mandatory vaccinations, individualistic people became even more opposed. When the communitarian/egalitarian looking fellow touted the safeness of the vaccine, egalitarian folks became even more supportive. Then the roles were switched (individualistic-looking expert supported the vaccines and the communitarian-looking expert opposed). Rather than maintaining their opinions, people shifted their positions to match the position of the expert they identified with. "The experts whom laypersons see as credible, we have found, are ones whom they perceive to share their values." It seems "people deal with evidence selectively to promote their emotional interest in their group."

This selective perception of evidence is troubling because it leads groups of people (say, e.g., those who buy into the conspiracy theory about climate change vs. those who buy into the scientific consensus on the matter) who have the same desired outcomes of health, safety, and economic well-being to advocate contrasting remedies, not all of which are equally likely to bring about the desired outcomes. Lex non novit patrem, nec matrem; solam veritatem "the law does not know neither father nor mother, only the truth."

Conclusion? Science needs better marketing, the object of which should be to create an environment for the public's open-minded consideration of the best science, rather than certain stances. Also, folks would more likely achieve a correct position on issues by consciously acting against the tendency to "resist scientific evidence that could lead to restrictions on activities valued by their group" by remaining open-minded.  Topple that tower of preconceived notions, leaving in its wake an open mind- sublato fundamento, cadit opus!  ("the foundation being removed, the structure falls")

*excerpt below:
"People with individualistic values, who
prize personal initiative, and those with hierarchical
values, who respect authority, tend to dismiss
evidence of environmental risks, because
the widespread acceptance of such evidence
would lead to restrictions on commerce and
industry, activities they admire. By contrast,
people who subscribe to more egalitarian and
communitarian values are suspicious of commerce
and industry, which they see as sources
of unjust disparity. They are thus more inclined
to believe that such activities pose unacceptable
risks and should be restricted. Such differences,
we have found, explain disagreements in environmental-
risk perceptions more completely
than differences in gender, race, income, education
level, political ideology, personality type
or any other individual characteristic" (Kahan, D. M., Braman, D., Gastil, J., Slovic, P. & Mertz, C. K. J. Empir. Legal Stud. 4, 465–505 (2007).

Also relevant:

Some research indicating “Humans are not only prone to make biased predictions,” he wrote, “we’re also damnably overconfident about our predictions and slow to change them in the face of new evidence.”

Thursday, February 4, 2010

(INSUFFICIENT DATA) does not =(support the counterclaim)

A logical fallacy I often observe is to witness people support the converse of an unsupported claim. Two examples:

First: embellished story- *Sara was in the car with me and some friends. One person said something like "girls are almost always late." She vigorously challenged this conclusion, asking for the evidence to support it. An example was provided. She pointed out that an anectdote is one data point and is therefore insufficient to evince a trend. She gave a counterexample of a girl being on time and said that without a statistically significant study and her approval of the study's setup, her view that girls are on time as much as men would not be upset. She manifested the typical scientist's critical questions: What are the data? How were the data obtained? What are the limits of the implications of the data?

She was right in her criticism of the claim's validity- but she was wrong to be convinced that the claim was incorrect! She should have concluded that there is insufficient evidence to say that the claim was wrong and that there was insufficient evidence to say that the claim was right. The lack of sufficient evidence should result in being undecided: not accepting the counterclaim. The evidentiary expectation of her suggestio falsi (suggestion of a falsehood) counterclaim is just as high as that of the original claim.  An affirmation of falsehood must be proven; an affirmation of uncertainty need merely criticize- ei incumbit probatio qui dicit, non qui negat - the burden of the proof lies upon him who affirms, not he who denies.  Affirmations of falsehood are very difficult to substantiate: compare to when Napoleon ridicules Uncle Rico's video as the worst ever. Kip replies, "Napoleon, how could anyone even know that?"  Proving claims false is similarly difficult.

Second- in bioethics today we watched a star trek episode where one crew member claimed that introducing religion would inevitably lead to holy wars and inquisitions and chaos. One student challenged the claim, arguing that there wasn't enough evidence to show the inevitability of that scenario. She, non sequitur ("an inconsistent statement, it does not follow") claimed that the scenario wouldn't come to pass. Once again, showing the verity of a counterclaim is a sufficient way to debunk a claim (if an accused is innocent he or she is also definitely not guilty); but without evidence to support the counterclaim, her conclusion should have been that the dystopia might or might not occur, non constat- "it is not certain."  By way of analogy to criminal proceedings, lack of evidence to convict AS WELL AS evidence of innocence both result in acquittal; only evidence of guilt, however, results in conviction. In these two scenarios, the "judge" should have concluded "not guilty" rather than either "guilty" OR the converse, "innocent." 
Allegans contraria non est audiendus - "one making contradictory statements is not to be heard."

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Two Wrongs Don’t Make a Right: a post on the Atonement

“Two wrongs don’t make a right.” Where had I heard that phrase before? I don’t remember, but I was thinking hard about it yesterday. A week earlier I had asked a friend of mine, Jeff, a question about justice when I ran into him over by the Jamba Juice on BYU campus, perplexed about a problem I couldn’t get quite straight in my mind- I problem I will introduce you to in a minute.

First, let’s see if we’re on the same page about what justice is. Robert comes up to a stranger on the street, Trevor, and punches him hard in the arm, after which he runs off in the crowd. What does justice require in this case? Most friends I ask this question to respond that Robert should get punched in the arm too. If Robert gets punched in the arm, then justice is served.

Now let’s think about that punch in a mathematical way. I’ll use the French word, “tort,” meaning a twist or injury. We could say that Trevor, who started out with 0 “tort units,” then had a violation of his rights: an injury, or tort. We’ll arbitrarily say that Trevor, after the punch, now has a balance of -10: the punch imposed a -10 tort on Trevor. Justice is satisfied if Robert also has a punch imposed on him in the same relative amount: Robert and Trevor are the same age, size, etc. so a -10 punch to Robert makes them equal.

Here’s the problem I posed to my friend Jeff. A certain first grade teacher, Mr. Hopkins, pulls aside six-year-old Jenny for a private talk. “Jenny, I’ve been teaching you all this year,” Mr. Hopkins says. “I just don’t think you’re very smart. You’ll probably never learn to read, school will always be very difficult for you, and you’ll always be a slow learner.” As Jenny’s self-esteem plummets, few would contend that an injury has not been done to Jenny. Let’s say Jenny went from 0 to -20 tort units. Let’s also say that somehow a comparable tort is done against Mr. Hopkins such that his self-esteem is similarly abused- he’s now at -20 tort units. I asked my friend Jeff if justice has been done in this case. The answer is that yes, our concept of justice may be satisfied, but all is not yet right. Consider Jenny. The inflicting of a tort on Mr. Hopkins does nothing to restore her to her initial condition- her self-esteem is still much lower than it was. I think that the human spirit will not consider this situation “right” until Jenny is restored to the level of self-esteem she enjoyed before the abuse. Enter Robert and Trevor again.

Earlier we concluded that justice had been satisfied when Robert was punched in the arm after he slugged Trevor. Here we consider the phrase again: “two wrongs don’t make a right,” or, as we might say, “two equivalent torts don’t make the situation right.” Here we can also see that Trevor is still punched and has a bruise, even though justice has been served. Considering the universe as a whole, adding up Robert and Trevor now equals a net tort account of -20 (-10 + -10), not zero. Part of the human spirit’s conception of “rightness” demands that Robert be “unpunched,” or somehow returned to his original condition. Unpunching someone, though, is about as easy as unrearing a child or unchewing a banana. What can we call this “restoring to initial condition,” the unpunching of Trevor, or the confidence boost to Jenny?

I propose for the moment we call that healing or restoring to initial condition “mercy.” I define mercy as the opposite of a tort: an “uninjury” if we can imagine it. In Jenny’s case 20 “uninjury” units are required to restore her to her initial condition. I can now also conclude a narrow definition of justice, using the terms of the phrase we’ve already altered in part: “two equivalent torts don’t make a right” now becomes “two equivalent torts do make a justice.” (This is why we consider justice served if an assailant languishes for a while in jail. Sure, the assailant’s jail time doesn’t undo the wounds he inflicted on his victim, but if he’s injured in the same relative amount as he injured his victim, we consider that justice is served, even without the victim’s healing.) I have now separated a concept of rightness from dual constructions of mercy and justice. If we accept these two narrow definitions of justice and mercy, then we can make a third conjecture: the satisfying of both justice and mercy in any situation constitutes “rightness” in the tort category of human action. In the Jenny example, if Mr. Hopkins receives a -20 tort equivalent to that he imposed on Jenny (justice) and Jenny’s confidence is restored (say, her parents and other teachers praise her reading and talk about how smart she is and what a quick learner she’s turned out to be) 20 units (mercy), we would say that the situation is “right.”

So, how does this construction relate to the Atonement? “And now, the plan of mercy could not be brought about except an Atonement should be made; therefore God himself atoneth for the sins of the world, to bring about the plan of mercy, to appease the demands of justice, that God might be a perfect, just God, and a merciful God also” (Alma 42: 15). We commonly think that Christ “paid the price” for our sins. Let’s return to Mr. Hopkins and Jenny. Mr. Hopkins can be spared the 20 tort units that justice requires be imposed on him if Mr. Hopkins repents. In Mr. Hopkin’s case, not having 20 tort units imposed on him means he goes from an account balance of 0 to 0: Christ paid the 20 torts, and Mr. Hopkins gains a net 20 untorts (mercy). What about Jenny? Satisfying justice so that Mr. Hopkins can receive mercy has no effect on Jenny: her account is an entirely different matter.

Speaking of a sexually abused girl, Elder Richard G. Scott said: “She no longer suffered from the consequences of abuse, because she had adequate understanding of His Atonement, sufficient faith, and was obedient to His law. As you conscientiously study the Atonement and exercise your faith that Jesus Christ has the power to heal, you can receive the same blessed relief” (Richard G. Scott, “To Heal the Shattering Consequences of Abuse,” Ensign, May 2008, 40–43). He notes that even Satan “understands that the power of healing is inherent in the Atonement of Jesus Christ.” How is this so?

In physics class, students learn that there is an opposite and equal reaction to every action. Setting a book upon a table exerts a downward force of, say, 15 Newtons. The table exerts an equal and opposite force upward on the book of 15 Newtons- were it not so, the book would continue downward through the table. Similarly, justice requires an equivalent punishment whenever a tort is committed. For that punishment Christ, somehow, suffered in our stead. But what about the “power of healing” inherent in the Atonement? How does Christ “finance,” if you will, the restoring to initial condition of those injured, or as we termed it, the “uninjury” units that constitute the application of mercy? To answer, let’s consider another Book of Mormon scripture, Alma 7: 11-12: “And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people… and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities.” In this sense, then, perhaps the magnitude of the Atonement is about twice what we usually think: the 15 Newtons downward + the 15 Newtons upward = 30 Newtons total. Second example: not only did Christ suffer justice’s demanded 10 torts for Robert, who slugged Trevor: He also suffered the initial 10 tort punch: 10 + 10 = 20. This way, He can extend mercy to Robert, but he can also heal Trevor because he “financed” the uninjury units by “taking upon himself” the initial tort or affliction. At the risk of moving ahead too quickly, we can also observe that the Atonement is greater still because Christ took upon himself all injuries done to us, including those not inflicted by other people (example: a bacterial sickness, a genetic predisposition for heart disease or blindness, or infertility). Consequently, He can “succor his people,” or restore them to their initial/innocent condition: from our earlier illustration, literally unchew the banana. What an incredible power to heal and bestow mercy! What a skilled restorer! Where are the universities that teach this trade? How can I learn “the healer’s art?” The aggregate suffering of mankind is immense- yet God has the capacity, somehow, to restore self-esteem, undo offenses, and heal every injury. This, to me, is a substantial realization."

(composed September 2008)

From 0 to Exaltation: The Enabling Power of the Atonement

In the category of torts, we have shown how it might be that Christ can and does offer to us mercy: to the transgressor and the transgressed against, because of what He suffered and took upon himself. The application of mercy can restore us to our initial state- one of neutrality, with neither injuries scarring our souls nor sin staining them. However, a merely innocent condition (like that of Adam and Eve in the garden, or of each of us individually when we are born on this earth), is quite different from a condition of exaltation. Does the atonement help us bridge the gap?

We came to this earth with a primary purpose: to progress toward exaltation. The two-fold means of this progress can be generally categorized by learning through experience and choice-making away from God’s presence on the one hand, and gaining a body on the other. In that choice-making prong we all sin and fall, as did Adam: yet the Atonement can restore us, as we’ve shown, to a guiltless and uninjured condition. However, there is a gargantuan gap between exaltation (a life like God lives), which includes possession of attributes such as virtue, patience, charity, humility, knowledge, and power, each in their fullness, and the mere condition of being both whole and guiltless. God’s mercy bridges the gap between our sinful, injured state to a guiltless and whole state; God’s grace bridges the gap between a merely guiltless and whole state to an exalted state.

Although the scriptures do seem to connect grace with sanctification, forgiveness of sins, and other “tort-level” functions, it does more, as may be concluded from the Savior’s parable of the vine and branches found in John 15:1-11, which speaks of bearing fruit in addition to being clean. Ephesians 2: 5-10, which speaks of our salvation by grace, connects grace with the “good works, which God hath… ordained that we should walk,” supporting this construct of advancing the ball from 0 to exaltation through grace. We also observe several passages which distinguish mercy from grace, such as “O the wisdom of God, his mercy and his grace” (2 Nephi 9:8) or “because of grace and mercy… seed shall not be destroyed” (2 Nephi 9: 53). Progress along the pathway to exaltation (that state of doing and being very good), is substantiated further by John, quoted in D & C 93, who notes that he “received not of the fulness at first, but continued from grace to grace, until he received a fulness.” Moroni teaches of the connection between perfection and grace: “then is his grace sufficient for you, that by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ” (10: 32). That most famous grace verse, “by grace we are saved, after all we can do,” (2 Nephi 25:23) also joins this set of canonical passages in connecting grace with either our best efforts, perfection, or fullness. Why is this an important association?

If this connection is a strong one, we may deduce that these efforts or “pressing forward” consist of good works and endeavors to be and do like God, beyond merely repenting of sin. Nephi seems to describe this concept in 2 Nephi 31, using the imagery of an initial gate followed by a strait and narrow path: “the gate by which ye should enter is repentance and baptism by water; and then cometh a remission of your sins by fire and by the Holy Ghost.” Only after this remission of sins “are ye in the strait and narrow path which leads to eternal life.” Nephi notes that to attain exaltation we must “press forward” and “endure” by “following the example of the Son of the living God,” who was clearly full of good works and substantive divine attributes.

How do we bridge this gap from mere innocence to become individuals of power, knowledge, wisdom, and benevolence, like unto God? Can we make this progress on our own? Elder David A. Bednar taught that grace connotes “a strengthening or enabling power: the main idea of the word is divine means of help or strength, given through the bounteous mercy and love of Jesus Christ” (Ibid.). Further, “the enabling and strengthening aspect of the Atonement helps us to see and to do and to become good in ways that we could never recognize or accomplish with our limited mortal capacity.” It seems that divine grace is the specific means constituting the “enabling power of the atonement,” specifically enabling of us to do and become good, far beyond what we could do and be without that grace.

Thus, it is indeed only through the grace of Christ afforded by the Atonement that we can “do and endure and overcome all things,” that crowning description of the exalted condition. The atonement does more that enable a full measure of mercy to each of us, for that would simply restore us to zero: rather, it “allows men and women to lay hold on eternal life and exaltation” (David Bednar, In the Strength of the Lord, Ensign, Nov. 2004, 76-78).

This post composed in September 2008

Endnote: I haven’t figured out the mechanism behind the application of grace, nor how the Atonement supplies the “infinite grace” (Moroni 8:3) that was “made possible by his atoning sacrifice (Bible Dictionary). I’d also like to learn how to “tap into” this grace more. Please send me any insight into these three matters.

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