The following guest post was submitted to us by DavidF:
Suppose you are sitting at home reading a book. You glance at your watch. It reads 5:23. So you go back to reading now knowing the time. But unbeknownst to you, the battery in your watch died yesterday. By sheer coincidence it stopped at 5:23. It turns out your belief that it’s 5:23 is correct, but only by accident.
This is a Gettier problem. Gettier invented problems like this one to challenge the foundational claims of epistemology, that knowledge is justified true belief. In this scenario, the watch-reader would have a true belief and think it is justified. In reality, the justification is wrong, but the belief is still true. Gettier came up with the first problems in 1963; they vex epistomologists to this day. Gettier’s paradoxes are interesting in their own right. But what happens when you turn an epistemological paradox into a moral one? And what happens when you make it a specifically Mormon one? Let’s see.
Quick disclaimer: these problems don’t quite conform to the criteria for Gettier problems, but since they are Gettier-inspired and come close, I’m justifying the connection.
The Birth Control Problem:
President Kimball had a hard line stance on birth control, similar to that of the Roman Catholics. These days, the church has backed away from Kimball’s stance. So long as couples have plans to have children, preferably sooner rather than later, couples can decide whether they want to use birth control.
Suppose a young couple is just about to get sealed in the temple. They’ve been a little isolated, so they don’t know the current church teachings on birth control. But they know what Kimball said on birth control. The couple decides that they will disobey Kimball’s teachings and use birth control.
To put it simply, the couple thinks they are disobeying current church teaching, but they are accidentally following current church teachings.
Is the couple sinning?
The Policy Problem:
Years ago, church headquarters directed bishops to only have a Melchezidec priesthood holders give the opening prayer in sacrament meeting. Before this directive, bishops could assign women to give the prayer, and eventually, headquarters rescinded the directive. Suppose your ward gets a new bishop. He thinks that he is supposed to follow the directive. But he chooses not to obey the directive he thinks is still in place, and has the relief society president give the opening prayer.
In essence, the bishop thinks he is disobeying a church policy that really once was a church policy, but he is accidentally obeying current church policy.
Is he sinning?