Sources of Stewardship

September 14, 2015    By: Jeff G @ 6:54 pm   Category: Ethics,orthodox,Truth

I haven’t been posting much, and I plan on keeping this one short too.

In previous posts I have developed a four-fold taxonomy of moral discourse and I would like to basically apply this same taxonomy to the sources of our stewardships.  From what source do we derive our shared ideas regarding the boundaries of our responsibilities and freedoms?  Here are four non-exhaustive and non-exclusive options:

1.We inherit our stewardships from the past.

This one is generally associated with a Burkean kind of conservativism.  This idea correlates to the inheritance of property, nobility, even parenthood.  This source is alive and well within the church today as can be seen in our attempts to situate ourselves within a patriarchal priesthood by means of genealogical research.  The parallels between this and the feudal inheritance of nobility should be pretty obvious.  In this case, my authority is legitimized in terms of a rich traditions, ancestors and covenants of the past.  Indeed, many people in the early church rejected Joseph Smith’s right to radically alter the traditions that they had inherited form the past, including those found within the Bible.

2. Our stewardships are dictated to us by authority figures.

This one is generally more associated with a continental royalism that eventually found expression in the form of Fascism, but also has many contemporary expressions as well.  These freedoms and responsibilities are legitimized in terms of the person who assigned them.  Assigning chores, hiring employees, choosing jurors, choosing successors, the power of attorney, and receiving callings within the church are all examples of this.  It is tempting to think that this form involves an infinite regress, but this is not the case; “because X said so!” stops the regress in practice.  In such cases, my stewardship is legitimized by the claim that I represent that higher authority, it being a form of delegation.

3. Our stewardships flow from our individual experience and competencies.

This one has a pretty interesting (and short) history.  It flows from the idea of maker’s knowledge in that through the very act of mixing one’s labor with materials one comes to have both knowledge of and sovereignty over the product of my labor.  This is famously found within Locke’s philosophy but Marx’s idea of exploitation relies upon it as well.  Bentham and Paley’s utilitarianism definitely traces this conceptual thread as well.  This source of stewardship is somewhat ambiguous within the Mormon tradition.  On the one hand, we are completely free to live our lives how we see fit and we are also promised that the Lord will not command us in all things.  On the other hand, we often see many of the more educated trying to exercise stewardship along the lines of their own competencies in the name of “rationality”, “efficiency” or some other modern value.  Indeed, it seems almost axiomatic to our modern sensibilities that if we “do not know what we are talking about” then we ought to have no voice on the matter at all.  Ultimately, this form of legitimation is an appeal to “nature” since it is through experience and expertise (the two words are VERY related) that I come to know and control that part of nature and its laws within my stewardship.

4. We have stewardship to the extent that it effects us.

This one is most associated with participatory democracy as found in Rousseau, Kant and collectivist thinking in the self-legislation of the group plays a major role.  This is the idea that if it affects me, regardless of whether I’m qualified or not, I should have a say it.  Many revolutionaries appeal to this in their claims to represent “the people” which is basically a more inclusive version of the second form.  A bridge between this source of stewardship and the third can be found in John Stuart Mill’s modification of Bentham’s utilitarianism when the former claimed that we are free not just over that which we have personal knowledge or property, but to the extent that our actions effect others (each man were convinced that their own version would lead to the best consequences).  The principle of common consent  within the church definitely seems to be a rather limited expression of this form of legitimation.  Other times, however, this right to withhold consent is expanded in the form of social activism whereby pressure is democratically brought against the current leadership and policies of the church.

Obviously these sources are mixed and matched within pretty much any culture worthy of the name.  There is also the possibility that I may have missed some other source of stewardship.


  1. Good discussion if we treat them as separate.

    I think we have to distinguish between stewardship given by authority and then acts we do out of inspiration or consecration but for which we don’t have a formal stewardship.

    To avoid the connotations of intellectual correction consider Blake Ostler’s great example of being prompted to tell the person he was sitting next to not to commit suicide. He didn’t know the person but just felt the prompting. It’s a story that always brings a bit of a tear to my eye but gets that the distinction between service to others and stewardship.

    The reason I’d go farther than that and question the point itself is that

    You get at the incompetence aspect of stewardship. Often I’m given stewardship when I am not competent but learn competence as I attempt to fulfill the stewardship. So I think the Lockean or Marxian views miss this. While Marx and Locke would say my involvement gives me a kind of authority due to my participation I think that alien to the Mormon conception.

    Comment by Clark — September 14, 2015 @ 8:53 pm

  2. I agree about Locke and Marx…. this is a point that I often try to leverage against many right-wing members of the church in that while it definitely values individual freedom, I think both the continuities and differences between stewardship and private property are often swept under the rug.

    With regards to Blake’s example, I’m not quite so sure what to think. Was he acting within his stewardship? I think so in a kind of being his brothers keeper kind of way. On the other hand, I do not think that he was in any way authorized to represent the Lord as an authoritative representative in that instance. I think there is some distinction that is orthogonal to those I have drawn and I’m simply unable to track it at this time.

    Comment by Jeff G — September 15, 2015 @ 9:59 am

  3. A couples further thoughts on the way I have presented things.

    I’ve set things up such that pre-modern thought can be seen as the exaltation of (1) and (2) whereas Enlightenment thought (roughly along the Kantian lines of informed self-legislation) can be seen in both (3) and (4). While it is tempting to construe the difference between (3) and (4) primarily in terms of individualism/collectivism… but I think this is a little incomplete. I think a more interesting divide would be between the voluntaristic ((2) and (4)) and impersonal ((1) and (3)) sources of legitimate stewardship. I think this distinction roughly tracks the major differences between Protestant rejections of living authorities and Catholicism and is very suggestive of differing trends between Anglo and Continental thought.

    Comment by Jeff G — September 15, 2015 @ 11:17 am

  4. Another interesting illustration would be Hume’s attack on induction as a total rejection of (1). He insisted that the only way that the past was relevant in any way at all, is because it always had worked pretty well for us… which begs the question. In other words, to fully reject (1), one must reject all past experience in favor of a temporal solipsism.

    Again, this appeal to the past is tightly connected with the inductive tradition of empiricism native to England.

    Comment by Jeff G — September 15, 2015 @ 5:19 pm

  5. It’s been quite a while since I last read Hume, but isn’t his point about the past a little more sophisticated than that?

    Comment by Clark — September 15, 2015 @ 6:34 pm

  6. Well, yes, but I was trying to frame it in terms of (1).

    Hume’s point was that we have zero reason whatsoever to believe in induction which he defined as allowing the past to serve as a guide of any kind for the future. The only reason why we believe that the past can serve as a guide is because is has always worked for us in the past, which completely begs the question. And that, Hume insisted, was the only reason that we could give in favor of induction!

    What I bring to it is pointing out that the British preference for tradition rather than living authority dovetails nicely with the British preference for inductive reasoning over the continental preference for deduction.

    Comment by Jeff G — September 16, 2015 @ 9:57 am

  7. A few questions.

    1. What is the scope of what you are using for stewardship? The stewardship concept grew out of the provisioning of resources for a household and even today is more commonly used for control over non-human resources than over people. Are you using it as a global term for the scope of one’s moral responsibility?

    2. Why do you think the term “responsible” bears so much weight in our culture in moral discussion? What are the differences between stewardship and responsibility?

    3. What is your view of what are voluntary stewardships and responsibilities versus those that are binding without one’s consent?

    Comment by Martin James — September 21, 2015 @ 11:36 am