Extreme Mormon Virtues

October 28, 2013    By: DavidF @ 10:21 am   Category: Ethics,Theology

Psychology Today’s latest issue discusses the double edged nature of virtues.  Sometimes a virtue, either taken to excess or cherished too dearly, warps into a vice.  The article gives several examples.

Fairness is a virtue.  But it’s easy to become obsessive about fairness, especially when it plays in our favor.  The article references a father who told his daughter he would miss her birthday because he had a business opportunity.  “When she dried her tears, she told him it was OK—as long as he missed her sister’s birthday, too.”  Of course, the daughter could have been thinking more selfishly than fairly, but even if the father had made this call himself, it’s hard to say he was acting virtuously.  In fact, I imagine with some thought, we could come up with some other reasons why fairness should be tempered (the justice/mercy problem springs to mind).

Another example from the article is agreeableness or niceness, which in more religious terms we could call meekness.  Being really nice is good, but when it overtakes being assertive, we can not only harm ourselves, but others as well.  As the article points out, people who are agreeable tend to have lower salaries and get fewer promotions, and in some cases can strain romantic relationships because they’re too dependent and clingy.

While the virtues listed in the article serve mainly in the corporate context, Mormonism prizes several virtues that didn’t make this list, such as obedience,  faith, and charity.  Perhaps these virtues can also morph into vices.  Can we become obsessively obedient?  Does an excessive reliance on faith corrupt it?  Can the compulsive pursuit of charity become a vice?


A lot of elders on my mission liked saying, “If you’re 99% obedient, you’re disobedient.”  Not only do I worry about the psychological ramifications of this statement (as, apparently, does Elder Holland), but I wonder if the statement excuses obsessive obedience.

The pharisees are the classic example of over-obedient followers.  Not only did they obey the law, but they hedged the law with non-divine rules just to be extra careful.  Ironically, as Jesus pointed out, their law hedging made them disobedient, because they became so focused on superfluous details that they lost sight of the actual law itself.  Furthermore, their obsessive obedience made them intensely judgmental.

The pharisees are easy to pick on, but obsessive obedience may affect us in other ways.  I’ve often noticed that many vocal ex-Mormons described themselves as formerly very obedient active Mormons.  Furthermore, their obedience language often ties to black and white thinking.  For example, many seem to take the statement, “Either the Church is true, or it is a fraud.” to mean the much more extreme: “Either the Church is totally spotless or it’s a pernicious lie.”  If an obsession with obedience promotes this kind of all-or-nothing thinking, it may convert obedience from virtue to vice.


How about excessive faith?  Paul tells us that the God ordained church leaders to keep us from being “carried about with every wind of doctrine” (Ephesians 4:14), so it makes sense to think that we can trust those leaders implicitly.  On the other hand, Elder Uchtdorf recently pointed out that sometimes our leaders make mistakes.  On the surface, it seems that Paul and Uchtdorf disagree.  Can we trust our leaders, or should we remain skeptical?  It could simply be that Paul instructs us to have faith, and Uchtdorf cautions us against excessive, or perhaps, blind faith.  Is blind faith simply unrestrained, or excessive faith?

Of course, it seems counterfactual to suggest that we can have too much faith.  After all, the scriptures are replete with miracles caused by great faith.  On the other hand, most miracles take something more than faith (e.g. need, prior work on our part, etc.).  Expecting that ample faith can solve our problems may be the grounds for relying too heavily on faith.  In the last presidential election, some members fasted and trusted in God that Mitt Romney would defeat Obama, expecting their faith to be rewarded.  Without getting too political (it’s just the first example that came to mind), perhaps these members trusted too much in their own faith.  I’m sure everyone has personal examples of falling into a similar trap.


Charity rounds out this grossly incomplete list.  Can charity become excessive?  How can we possibly be too obsessed with obtaining the pure love of Christ?  Or to put it in more practical terms, if charity means seeking others’ happiness, can we care too much about seeking others’ happiness?  The Christian scriptures don’t entertain the idea; however, Buddhism does discuss the possibility of caring too much for others.  One basic Buddhist principle is that we can’t help out others if we are in a state of mental or emotional chaos.  We have to seek balance in our own lives before we can, and should, help others.  In other words, if we neglect ourselves while caring for others, we commit a vice.  While the Christian scriptures hold self-sacrifice in high esteem, Buddhist philosophy encourages us to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of others without throwing ourselves on the sacrificial alter in the process.  Tangentially, I think this Buddhist doctrine is a prime example of what Joseph Smith meant by there being truth in other religions that we can, and should, add to our own, but that’s a discussion for another time.  In any case, it’s hard to imagine cherishing charity to the point of vice, but perhaps we can.

Do you agree that an obsession with a virtue can turn it into a vice?  Does that extend to obedience, faith, and charity?


  1. Sounds sound. I think to further the Buddhist wisdom in Mormonism, Buddhism seems to be all about balance, or “temperance” as Joseph Smith would say. It’s good to have balance in all aspects of the gospel.

    Comment by Ben — October 28, 2013 @ 11:16 am

  2. …many seem to take the statement, “Either the Church is true, or it is a fraud.” to mean the much more extreme…

    The problem with obedience is it requires fairly bright line binomial rules that must be extrapolated from analog gospel principals. So obedience at best is an approximation of gospel living without the greater understanding of the principals that beget the rules. Joesph understood it: “I teach them correct principles and they govern themselves.”

    Black and white thinking forces truncation and polarization of concepts. Two gray dots right next to one another at the middle of a gray scale possessing almost identical values are forced to be separated one to the white side the other to the black side to convert this richly nuanced information dense continuum into a dumbed down yes/no binomial! Obedience is a beginning gospel lesson, there is much more than child’s lesson of binomial obedience.

    Comment by Howard — October 28, 2013 @ 11:22 am

  3. I might have missed it, but where did Elder Uchtdorf counsel us to be skeptical or to restrain our faith in any way?

    Comment by Jeff G — October 28, 2013 @ 12:52 pm

  4. Can we trust our leaders, or should we remain skeptical?

    Brigham Young taught “the greatest fear I have is that the people of this Church will accept what we say as the will of the Lord without first praying about it and getting the witness within their own hearts that what we say is the word of the Lord.”

    Comment by Howard — October 28, 2013 @ 2:51 pm

  5. Obsession isn’t a virtue it’s a dysfunction. Obsession with anything can become a vice.

    Comment by Howard — October 28, 2013 @ 2:55 pm

  6. Jeff G.,

    He didn’t, but it’s a fair inference. He said, “There may have been things said or done that were not in harmony with our values, principles, or doctrine.” From this I infer that if leaders have said or done things not in harmony with our doctrine before, then it will likely happen again. The rest of his comments on the topic imply that we ought not to get caught up in those details (i.e. leaders’ mistakes), which I take to mean is that I ought not to bind myself in faith to those details. That’s a fair definition of skepticism. I don’t think I’m twisting his words or intention to make that inference.

    Comment by DavidF — October 28, 2013 @ 3:52 pm

  7. But it is an inference, and an unnecessary one at that. There is, therefore, no reason to believe that there aren’t other interpretations or inferences that could be made or that any inferences have to be made at all.

    My point is that there is an inference being made here which comes all too naturally to the intellectual but is rather foreign (I would argue) within other traditions. Maybe it is a fair inference, but that doesn’t change the fact that it is you and not the church leaders who have drawn it.

    Comment by Jeff G — October 28, 2013 @ 4:05 pm

  8. Jeff G, It is futile to reason that reasoning is wrong. How often has science been corrected by religion vs religion by science?

    Comment by Howard — October 28, 2013 @ 5:22 pm

  9. Where did my argument go wrong? Did I have a false premise or a fallacy of some kind?

    Comment by Jeff G — October 28, 2013 @ 5:28 pm

  10. The issue isn’t reasoning, it’s asking. God encourages us to reason; You must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right then ask him if our conclusions are right. Notice that no mortal LDS leader is required for this revealed process. Does he mind if we discuss our reasoning in the bloggernacle prior to asking? Well I asked and he doesn’t mind if I do it, why don’t you see if it’s okay for you.

    Comment by Howard — October 28, 2013 @ 5:40 pm

  11. I’m still waiting to hear what’s wrong with my argument (other than that you don’t like the conclusion).

    I find it deeply ironic that somebody who is so bent on defending human reasoning almost never produces any kind of structured argument for their positions. And for the record, simply throwing out the conclusion that you think should have been, a rhetorical question or some off-hand proof-text does not constitute good reasoning by anybody’s definition.

    Comment by Jeff G — October 28, 2013 @ 5:49 pm

  12. I find it deeply ironic that somebody who is so bent on discrediting human reasoning resorts to human reasoning in order to argue it!

    Off-hand proof-text? D&C9:8 is clear and concise. Counter it directly with other scripture without resorting to inference.

    Comment by Howard — October 28, 2013 @ 6:05 pm

  13. Still waiting to see where my reasoning went wrong. I could also provide a slew of proof texts supporting my position.

    Comment by Jeff G — October 28, 2013 @ 6:54 pm

  14. Anyways, back to the op, I think most would agree that there can be unhealthy extremes for most of these virtues. I also think that there will be some disagreement regarding where the ideal will lie on the continuum. I think, however, that the deeper, more interesting disagreements have to do with the standards by which we are to measure virtue on the continuum. To assume that there is only one such standard or that we largely agree on which standard to use just because we use the same words would be a mistake.

    Comment by Jeff G — October 28, 2013 @ 7:43 pm

  15. #12
    This scripture is cited often, yet this passage is clearly in reference to translations of sacred texts. The Lord is specifically talking about the method of translating the Book of Mormon. It also specifically in this context that the “stupor” of thought when you are wrong is only for an incorrect translation, as the Lord concludes that this is the reason that you “cannot write that which is sacred save it be given you from me”.
    It’s not technically valid to apply the formula prescribed to anything else, as sensible as it might be.

    Comment by Eso — October 28, 2013 @ 10:20 pm

  16. Eso, your narrowly construed conclusions and exclusions do not fit my experience with the Spirit.

    Comment by Howard — October 28, 2013 @ 10:49 pm

  17. Howard, your narrowly construed conclusions and exclusions regarding your experience with the Spirit do not fit the scriptures.

    Comment by Jeff G — October 28, 2013 @ 11:26 pm

  18. Jeff G, your #17 comment makes no sense but given your anti reason position no one should be surprised, should they?

    Comment by Howard — October 29, 2013 @ 5:21 am

  19. In 3 Nephi, Chap. 17, verses 1-3 it is made clear that the Lord wants us to ponder things — even before we pray. Ponder is the key word in this scripture. Seems clear to me the Lord wants us to take our heart and our brains down to the gym and give them a workout — then we pray and ask the father in His name. If we don’t try to reason things out in our own minds first, how do we grow?

    Comment by Aaron — October 29, 2013 @ 5:29 am

  20. Jesus’ problem with the Pharisees’ obedience doesn’t appear to have been an issue of obsessive excess, but more of contriving to get away with something, like not supporting parents in their old age by invoking a clever loophole. “For ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.” They weren’t condemned for what they did, but for what they found a way to not do.

    Worrying about being too obedient, too faithful, too charitable sounds like another variation on the same thing—picking the half of our duty that we hope will allow dodging the full thing.

    Comment by John Mansfield — October 29, 2013 @ 7:11 am

  21. I agree with #20.

    I would love nothing more than use the Pharisees as an excuse for a little more liberality with the commandments. But Jesus’ condemnation of them seems to be based more on their hypocrisy than their excessive obedience.
    I wish it were not so, because I have a really hard time with the self-righteousness and judgmentalism that passes for righteousness in some people I know.

    Comment by KMarkP — October 29, 2013 @ 7:23 am

  22. David F.- It seems to me that:

    1. In your position on obedience, the issue isn’t obedience per se’ but the issue is obedience to either incorrect or unessential principles for the sake of obedience alone. The rub that you ignore is that it is difficult in and of itself to determine which principles are incorrect and/or unessential. So I can agree with you in essence, but in practice, would rather err on tolerance to others who draw the line of obedience in a different position than I do.

    2. In your position on faith, I could say the same. Essentially, your position of leaders making mistakes or having faith to bring about a presidential outcome is to say they had faith in incorrect or untrue principles. This leaves me essentially in the same spot as the first.

    3. Here, I am not sure I have the same definition of charity as you do. For me, this is more about a state of being which I have essentially been reaching toward, but have been as yet unable to achieve. It is that perfect love expressed in a man and woman becoming one flesh or in the Father and Son being unified with each other, or Christ’s atonement for us. So I think by starting at a different definition, I essentially find your position a non-sequitor.

    Comment by Matt W. — October 29, 2013 @ 8:00 am

  23. John Mansfield (as well as KMarkP),

    I think you’ve nailed Jesus’ main criticism of the Pharisees, but he also criticized their obsession with the law. This comes up most obviously with the thematic tension between Jesus and the Pharisees on appropriate Sabbath day activities. It’s possible that the Pharisees limited Sabbath activities for ulterior motives that benefited mainly themselves, but Jesus seems to accuse them of hypocrisy in order to show them that they’ve become fixated on following minutiae, while missing the principles that they should have been paying attention to. For example, they criticize Jesus for healing a man on the Sabbath, but they have no problem with someone saving an ox from the mire. If they understood why the Sabbath existed, they wouldn’t have had a problem with either activity. How would you characterize their problem? To me it looks like they’ve become so obsessed with obeying the law, that they couldn’t recognize a good exception to their rule when it showed up. That’s how I read it, anyway.

    And for the record, I hope that no one will feel that this arguments in my post gives them permission to relax their obedience, faith, or charity. The point is, we can still miss the mark even though we think we’re doing the right thing. And that’s worth keeping in the back of our minds.

    Comment by DavidF — October 29, 2013 @ 8:18 am

  24. Matt W.

    Let me respond with your numbering.

    1. This is a great point. First, you’re right. I haven’t offered a good way of deciding what’s right and wrong. I think that’s ultimately up to the individual with the guidance of the Spirit, so I leave that alone. Second, right again. The problem isn’t obedience itself, but obeying the wrong thing. We can get to that point either by obeying the wrong thing, or, and this is the point I’m making here, by obsessing over obeying the right things. Then we run the risk of narrowing our gaze too much, or missing the forest for the trees, so to speak.

    2. Again, same kind of thing. Instead of having faith in God these people had faith in the power of their faith. I think it’s easy to get to that point (I’ve sure done it). The scriptures repeatedly tell us how powerful faith can be, and if we get fixated on that idea, we may miss that all the faith in the world does us no good without God’s interest in rewarding it.

    3. Charity has always been a hard term for me to nail down. But I think Moroni makes it clear that we can have charity (Moroni 7:46), so I’m not sure it’s a good idea to think of it as a state of being that we can’t achieve. I think it’s more like something that can wax and wane in us, much like faith. In other words, I think we have a tendency to over-define charity (and I think we sometimes do that with faith too. A perfect example of this is the first section in the chapter on faith in the Gospel Principles manual. I have no idea what faith means after reading that).

    Comment by DavidF — October 29, 2013 @ 8:34 am

  25. Oh, I forgot to add the point of my number 3. The point is, I can see where you disagree with my comments on charity, and I think that our disagreement highlights a big problem with the word charity. It’s not a very concrete term.

    Comment by DavidF — October 29, 2013 @ 8:38 am

  26. “I hope that no one will feel that this arguments in my post gives them permission to relax their obedience, faith, or charity.”

    I know that isn’t what your post says, but isn’t that precisely the point that many people will take from it? “Well, I don’t want to be too obedient, etc.”

    I think this follows the logic of Jesus’ criticism of the pharisees: He didn’t disagree with the things that they said, but the purposes to which those true things were being put. In other words, it’s not that I disagree with your post about being too obedient, etc., so much as I disagree with the purposes to which the post is well-suited.

    Comment by Jeff G — October 29, 2013 @ 11:16 am