Guest Post: A Mormon Moral Paradox-Gettier Style

February 6, 2013    By: Administrator @ 11:04 pm   Category: Ethics

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 Before this directive, bishops could assign women to give the prayer, and eventually, headquarters rescinded the directive.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?


  1. Yes they are. Knowledge is both power and accountability.

    Comment by Aerk — February 7, 2013 @ 6:28 am

  2. I agree with Aerk. I think sin has more to do with our choices and less to do with the act itself.

    Comment by Skyler J. Collins — February 7, 2013 @ 8:29 am

  3. The couple is sinning, but not for the reasons specified – they have not sought and gained the counsel of God.

    The bishop is sinning, but not for the reasons specified – he has not sought and gained the counsel of God.

    Comment by log — February 7, 2013 @ 8:39 am

  4. Seems to me that “sin” might be the wrong word with these scenarios. Both of those examples you used were general guidelines from SLC. Even if the people in your examples knowingly chose to ignore the policies, does that rise to the title of being “sin”?

    What if they were following the spirit when they acted contrary to the policy? Seems to me doing that would have been an actual sin.

    Comment by Geoff J — February 7, 2013 @ 9:00 am

  5. Aerk and Skyler – The scriptures mention multiple times that we are accountable for our thoughts, words, and deeds (acts). From what I see, the couple is thinking wrong, but acting right. Doesn’t that count for something?

    log – suppose both the couple and the bishop followed the instruction they thought was still effective (even thought it wasn’t) without seeking the counsel of God. Would this be alright?

    Geoff J – Maybe sinning is too strong a term. Perhaps a better question is whether they are doing the wrong thing?

    Comment by DavidF — February 7, 2013 @ 9:43 am

  6. Sin is not determined by others looking at outward actions. Sin is determined by the Savior and communicated through the Holy Ghost to (s)he who needs to repent. Our Savior knows not only our actions but our motivations. He is the Perfect One who solved the paradox of Justice v. Mercy, all other paradoxes disappear to Him who can see the end from the beginning.

    Comment by Kristina — February 7, 2013 @ 9:46 am

  7. log – suppose both the couple and the bishop followed the instruction they thought was still effective (even thought it wasn’t) without seeking the counsel of God. Would this be alright?

    The default is to follow the last known general direction from the duly constituted authorities. If you follow these things scrupulously, without seeking to make yourself an exception, when the time comes to act outside of the general counsel, you will be told directly. Nephi killing Laban would be an example of this principle.

    Comment by log — February 7, 2013 @ 11:22 am

  8. What if they were following the spirit when they acted contrary to the policy? Seems to me doing that would have been an actual sin.

    D&C 45:57 For they that are wise and have received the truth, and have taken the Holy Spirit for their guide, and have not been deceived—verily I say unto you, they shall not be hewn down and cast into the fire, but shall abide the day.

    But moreover, with respect to the bishop:

    D&C 46:2 But notwithstanding those things which are written, it always has been given to the elders of my church from the beginning, and ever shall be, to conduct all meetings as they are directed and guided by the Holy Spirit.

    And with respect to the couple:

    Genesis 1:28 Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth

    Psalms 127:3 Lo, children are an heritage of the Lord: and the fruit of the womb is his reward.

    Moroni 10:8 Deny not the gifts of God….

    D&C 88:33 For what doth it profit a man if a gift is bestowed upon him, and he receive not the gift? Behold, he rejoices not in that which is given unto him, neither rejoices in him who is the giver of the gift.

    Comment by log — February 7, 2013 @ 11:34 am

  9. It just occurred to me that Geoff J meant “Seems to me doing that [following the old direction] would have been an actual sin.”, as opposed to how I read it. So we probably agree, actually – follow the Spirit in all things, and when the Spirit is silent, follow the last known direction.

    Comment by log — February 7, 2013 @ 11:41 am

  10. Yep, that is what I meant, log.

    Comment by Geoff J — February 7, 2013 @ 11:46 am

  11. I think the comments here are fascinating. If I am understanding what people have mostly said so far correctly, it is that we should obey authority over reason. And even if our reason would otherwise be correct (matching current authority), we shouldn’t follow it until we know the authority has shifted in that direction as well. And this holds true both in terms of following specific directives (the bishop situation) as well as areas in which we make personal decisions (the birth control situation).

    Comment by DavidF — February 7, 2013 @ 12:16 pm

  12. DavidF: If I am understanding what people have mostly said so far correctly, it is that we should obey authority over reason

    Ha! I highly doubt anyone is saying that. I have no idea where you are coming up with that conclusion.

    When people choose to follow the counsel of an ecclesiastical leader that is not abandoning reason. Although there is often an element of faith that following such counsel will be for the best in the long run.

    Comment by Geoff J — February 7, 2013 @ 1:45 pm

  13. This reminds me of something I stumbled across 35 years ago.

    We had a man return to our Ward after serving some time in prison for income tax evasion. He gave a really good talk in Sacrament Meeting. Somewhat perplexed, I decided to go and talk to him at his house. He was glad to talk to me. The gist of the conversation went something like this.

    He told me about some members of the Church in Germany during the war that did not support their leadership at the time and was excommunicated because of that lack of support. Later, after the war, they were given their membership back. And then he showed me a personal letter he received from the Brethren. Basically it said, keep up the good work.

    Then he said that the Celestial Kingdom would not be full of people that had to be commanded in all things and that if one is unable to make personal decisions on their own, guided by the HG, then they should not expect to be a part of the CK. I have never forgotten that meeting and the impact it had on me.

    Comment by CEF — February 7, 2013 @ 1:53 pm

  14. Geoff J wrote:
    “When people choose to follow the counsel of an ecclesiastical leader that is not abandoning reason.”

    No, but it can be. Take the bishop in the example. Did he disobey the directive because he felt like it? Well, the scenario is theoretical, but presumably he felt that he was justified in disobeying the directive (an appeal to reason, if it is a poor appeal) because he valued that decision over obedience to an authority figure (who, presumably he thought lacked justification, which is a reasoned conclusion). He puts the merits of his argument over the unexplained directive of an authority figure. That is a reason v. authority issue. Or perhaps more precisely, reason v. trust in authority.

    Thus far, most of the commenters believe that the bishop is in error. Looking at their reasons why, the consensus seems to be that the bishop is wrong because he is choosing to disobey the authority he thinks is in place.

    The point is, the bishop put his own ideas over the church, and I’m not sure how a person would get to that point without reasoning his way to it. I may have jumped the gun on representing others ideas, but I don’t think the conclusions I drew are entirely unwarranted. Of course, I am willing to be corrected.

    Comment by DavidF — February 7, 2013 @ 2:18 pm

  15. DavidF: Take the bishop in the example. Did he disobey the directive because he felt like it?

    That really is a crucial question that the thought experiment leaves unanswered. Why he chose to go against perceived protocol matters.

    I feel certain that the complicated set of factors that go into any such decision can’t be fruitfully reduced to “using reason vs abandoning reason”.

    Comment by Geoff J — February 7, 2013 @ 3:31 pm

  16. Geoff J,

    Well, perhaps I’ve oversimplified the argument, and the scenario in general. I’ll have to ponder that one.

    Comment by DavidF — February 7, 2013 @ 6:26 pm

  17. This post didn’t go over very well, but I think it is related:

    Comment by Jacob J — February 10, 2013 @ 10:34 am

  18. To say a little bit more, I think the epistemology version is much more difficult than this moral analog to the Gettier paradox. If “sin” is already fundamentally tied to the knowledge/intentions of the person at the time of their choice then there really is no paradox.

    Comment by Jacob J — February 10, 2013 @ 10:40 am

  19. Yes, on both counts. But less so than if they were actually breaking a commandment.

    I see sin as having an internal, subjective component and an external subjective component. So these folks are sinning in their heart, which is sin, but only in their heart.

    Comment by Adam G. — February 11, 2013 @ 8:10 am

  20. Although related to #19 by Adam G., I have a largely different perspective.

    First start with my premise that “sin” (defined as some act or thought defined as wrong/bad, by whomever does this defining) does not actually exist. It is a useful concept for justifiably (for their own good) manipulating people into trying to behave well, but since there is no actual “judgment,” where our sins are evaluated and we are assigned our just “reward,” there need be no record kept of our “sins” (the book of life).

    We are “agents unto” ourselves, due to our inherent (not gifted) Agency. It is, simply put, the intent of our hearts that makes our actions and thoughts righteous or unrighteous. It is the intent of our hearts that effects incremental change in our character (the state of our righteousness at any point). We are solely responsible and accountable for that intent (though, obviously our intent is affected by external influences). So, “sin” is a useful/effective? concept but actually not a true one.

    If the bishop in question has the intent of helping and benefiting others he is acting righteously (regardless of what he has been ordered to do). If his intent is prideful, spiteful, or the like, he is acting unrighteously and needs to change that in himself (in his character). We have another concept for that: Repentance–an overly programmatic precept based on the actual process of willing ourselves (Agency) to change for the better.

    Comment by fbisti — February 11, 2013 @ 9:35 am

  21. I do not believe that this is really a Gettier dilemma due to the fact that it involves moral assessments as well as issues of knowledge.

    It seems to me that there is a kind of goodness that abides in attempting one’s best to ascertain what is correct to do and intending to do it. In this case the Bishop apparently intended to do what, by his lights, was right. There is a kind of goodness in that.

    What the Bishop did was in actuality not a breach of any directive. So objectively it is not an issue for discipline or censure.

    However, if the bishop told me that he accidentally did nothing wrong but intended to breach the directives he agreed to abide by when he accepted the calling of Bishop, I would trust him less to keep his word. I would trust him to do what he believes is right by his lights, but I would trust him less with his forthrightness.

    If the Bishop kept his mouth shut, he would simply know that he was willing to not abide by the agreement he made when he accepted the calling of Bishop to fulfill the calling. It is not his position to define for the Church as he wishes.

    So I suggest changing the hypothetical to bring some consequences and pragmatic meat to the issue. Say that the Bishop is against what he thinks the directive is to not call women to say prayers. He believes it is wrong for a number of reasons. So he asks to be released. When asked why by the Stake President, he explains his objection to the directive. Should the Stake President grant his request? Would you trust him less?

    Comment by Blake — February 12, 2013 @ 9:20 am

  22. I was once that Bishop. A few years ago our Stake President advised the Bishops in the Stake that he had received instructions at his last training meeting with either Area Authorities or General Authorities (I don’t recall which), that women should not offer opening prayers in Sacrament Meeting. I thought about it, and decided that I did not believe that was appropriate so I ignored the directive, including at Ward Conference with the Stake President in attendance. (I decided that if I was going to ignore the directive, I should not try to hide that fact.) He never said a word to me about it and I am quite sure he also disagreed with the policy.

    I believed then and I still believe that I did the right thing. I also believed that whoever had given our Stake President that direction was mistaken, because there was nothing in the Handbook on the point and there seemed to be no basis for such an instruction. I suppose I might have felt differently if I knew that the direction had come directly from the First Presidency, but this had all the earmarks of a personal opinion being expressed by a leader who was exceeding the limits of his own jurisdiction.

    I don’t claim that my conclusion was the result of revelation although I suppose it might have been. It was the result of me thinking about it and making a considered decision about what I thought was right. I am not sure how far I would be willing to take that kind of approach, but I don’t think it is always wrong to ignore directives given by higher authorities when they conflict with my own beliefs. (Nor do I believe that it is always right to do so.)

    Comment by Gary — February 12, 2013 @ 12:26 pm

  23. I think the 2 examples are too politically loaded.
    A better example is if two members of the Church are out to eat, they both order specialty drinks, one orders with alcohol, the other orders it without. The server switches the order accidentally and they both consume. Who has kept and who has broke the Word of Wisdom?

    Comment by jpv — February 13, 2013 @ 4:44 pm

  24. Amazing that today is Copernicus’ birthday.. 540th to be exact. If the religious of his day had their way, we would still believe that the earth was the center of the entire universe… And those who believed different would be drawn and quartered while the “believers” had some entertainment.

    people make religion, it requires language, human language, thus people to make it. If the religions of Copernicus’ time knew that the earth was the center of the universe, why did they change their minds…??? Maybe the truth has something to do with it…

    Comment by Robert — February 18, 2013 @ 10:54 pm

  25. “I see sin as having an internal, subjective component and an external subjective component. ”

    Uh, that should be “an external objective component.”

    Comment by Adam G. — February 19, 2013 @ 1:13 pm

  26. First let me preface my answer, so you know where I’m coming from: Expressing the churches grand goal – helping members achieve eternal life doesn’t speak to me as much as helping them achieve oneness with God AND our fellow man. To know God is eternal life–so I believe “being one” and “eternal life” are the same thing. “Being one” just provides an avenue for a lot more insight into what eternal life is.

    So here’s my question to the question posed by David F:

    Can we sin against man but not against God?

    For both examples above, here are what I think are the possible answers to David F’s question: Did they…
    1) Sin against man? “yes” Sin against God? “no”
    2) Sin against man? “yes” Sin against God? “yes”

    I have purposely left out the other two combinations because I believe that no matter what there was a sin against man. In both cases a decision was made that risked damaging the oneness with a priesthood authority. (I believe this is the reason that decisions between the 12 have to be unanimous.) The proper communication before making a decision in both cases could have eliminated this risk.

    Now look at the question I posed again: Can we sin against man but not against God?

    In my scenario 1)answer there was not a direct sin against God, as there may have been an honest effort and struggle to appeal to that relationship and the spirit. But there was, even in scenario 1) an indirect sin against God because an appeal to the relationship with the priesthood leader was not made. So the scenario 1) answer is only good for instructive purposes, and scenario 2) is left as the best answer.

    I haven’t pondered this enough to conclude this is an absolute rule. My personality would like 100s of anecdotes (not just the two above)before being convinced it qualifies for such status. But the general rule is: our relationships with others, particularly with those in authority, should mirror what we understand to be the relationship that Christ has with the Father.

    Please know that my thoughts are given with the same non-judgmental spirit that I believe everybody else made their comments.

    Some scriptural support:

    1 Peter:
    17 Honour all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the king.

    18 Servants, be subject to your masters with all fear; not only to the good and gentle, but also to the froward (crooked, wicked).

    John 17:
    21 That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.

    22 And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one:

    And Harold B. Lee’s following talk:

    Comment by John — February 22, 2013 @ 10:14 am

  27. correction: the Harold B. Lee link above isn’t to a talk, but an Ensign article. In other words it wasn’t shared in General Conference, which may matter to some. Just wanted to make that clear.

    Comment by John — February 22, 2013 @ 10:44 am

  28. Joseph of Egypt’s story is another anecdote:

    He was fully submissive to his masters in slavery and in prison which supports what “the rule”, BUT one of his Master’s–Potiphar’s wife–went over the line. In this case Joseph had to “sin against man.” I think this example is the exception rather than the rule. If a church leader is asking us to damage our relationship with GOD we can definitely question them. Luckily there is a space of time where reasonable communication can be had. But if the leader is asking us to damage our relationship with God AND using physical force as Potiphar’s wife was doing–then avoiding that relationship (damaging if necessary) is probably advisable.

    As I mentioned earlier, avoiding the risk of contention or discord or any action that would lead away from “oneness” is the guiding principle. there is still plenty of room to reason and disagree. In fact these should be encouraged.

    It should also be made clear that it takes two to tango. So if a church leader responds to your disagreement with contention, then follow the spirit. My bet is that the spirit will almost always ask us to submit, rather than being justly and clearly right. Submission could end up being very temporary – and in the end you may win a greater friend and see your way (the right way) implemented anyway.

    Can anybody think of another anecdote that is exception to the rule, but not as extreme as the one with Joseph & Potiphar’s wife?

    Comment by John — February 23, 2013 @ 9:58 am

  29. Not to distract from the discussion of sin, because it is important, but what I see as the real significance of Gettier’s work is that it raises the valid question of how we can say we “know” anything when we aren’t even sure of the definition of the word “know”. As in, “I know the church is true.” I have no desire to argue this point. I just think it’s something important to think about. I assume that most people are using the definition of knowledge in the dictionary that is essentially that they have such a strong belief that they have no doubts. But it would be nice if we said clearly what we meant, so we could possibly dispel some of the confusion.

    Comment by Bill B — March 15, 2013 @ 6:06 am

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