The Mormon Spinozist has an interesting post lamenting (sort of) the lack of a clear doctrinal answer on the question of when life does or does not begin. What are we to make of the fact that we seem to have important questions about which the scriptures provide cryptic guidance at best? Here is my stab at a conclusion: Neither God nor his prophets seem to be ethicists.
By ethics, I mean the reasoned elaboration of moral theories meant to guide our behavior in difficult or ambiguous situations. The moral quandaries surrounding the end of life issues faced by those in a persistent vegetative state seem to me to be a classic example of an ethical problem. Other examples might include philosophical hypotheticals about cannibalism in lifeboats, or the use of stem cells in medical research. It seems to me that these are not issues on which God or the prophets have provided clear guidance.
For some, I suspect that this is a profound disappointment. The disappointment exists on two levels. First, there is the frustration of not knowing the right answer to the dilemma. Second, there is the feeling of let down. If prophets and public revelation are no useful for answering these sorts of problems, why do we have them? Why doesn’t God tell us what the right answer is?
It seems to me that if you read the scriptures, they are notable for their absence of ethical subtlety. Jeremiah, Jacob, or Christ condemn sin and call for righteousness. They don’t provide especially powerful ethical theories. By powerful, I don’t mean motivating or important. Rather, I mean that their theories are simply not fine grained enough to answer difficult ethical issues. Rather, they seem to be focused entirely on core issues of moral or ethical conduct: Worship God not idols. Do not grind the faces of the poor. Forsake whoredoms. Serve and love one another. They paint in broad brush strokes with little emphasis or apparent interest in fine detail.
My interpretation of this central fact is that for God, the primary worry is not that we will make ethical or moral missteps. The great danger is not that we will have the wrong opinion about stem cell research. Rather, the great danger is forgetfulness. The problem is generally speaking not an intellectual defect in our ethical theory, but rather a basic failure to remember the core of what constitutes a decent and righteous life.
I am not ready to say that the scriptures and the teachings of the prophets have nothing to say about ethics. I think that there is value in trying to tease out the ethical implications of various doctrines. I am in favor of casuistically trying to reason from core cases to peripheral ones. It seems to me that recourse back to the scriptures and the teachings of the prophets is valuable and important precisely because it means that our ethical discussions take place in God’s presence. Such discussions remember God, which I take to be the primary call of the prophets. I do not, however, expect God or his prophets to function as super ethicists-in-chief. They certainly never seem to have functioned that way in the past.