Ostler opens chapter 3 of The Problems of Theism and the Love of God by referring to several different individuals’ claim that the ontological commitments of Mormon theology foreclose the possibility of its embracing a defensible moral theory. Ostler then takes as his task in this chapter not only to identify what he takes to be Mormonism’s moral theory but also to argue for the possibility of such a moral theory to be fully robust despite its rootedness in a non-traditional theism. Much of the chapter is tied up in the details of an ongoing exchange between himself and Francis Beckwith on this question, but the conclusions to which Ostler comes in the end are relatively straightforwardly stated:
(1) Every moral theory fails except for the Kantian one.
(2) Even the Kantian moral theory fails in certain regards (i.e., it needs revision).
(3) A revised Kantian moral theory, fully defensible, is the Mormon moral theory.
What does that revised Kantian moral theory look like? Ostler rejects one formulation of Kant’s categorical imperative, according to which one should act only on maxims whose normativity can be universalized without paradox or contradiction. In its place, Ostler accepts the other major formulation of Kant’s categorical imperative, according to which one should treat whatever is of absolute value as an end and not as a means to an end. Ostler revises Kant’s own inflection of this formulation in an important way: it isn’t the presence of rationality (as the essence of what is human) in something that marks its absolute value but its unicity or particularity. I am morally obligated to love whatever is particular.
I’ve already expressed in another post some concerns about this idea, so I won’t rehearse them here. What interests me is the move Ostler makes when he turns from attack (against other moral theories) and defense (of his own revised Kantianism) to articulation (of what he takes to be the “LDS agape theory of ethics in alignment with the gospel of Christ”). Here he begins from individual uncreatedness—an idea that, in my opinion, deserves a good deal more philosophical attention before it can be taken as a justification for embracing a Kantian moral theory oriented to apparently uncontestable particularity—by moves quickly to what he calls “the law of love.” If Mormonism’s Kantian moral commitments mark its claim that human beings experience a moral obligation to assist in the growth and progress of particular intelligences toward participation in the divine nature, then the whole of the moral law can be summarized in the golden rule: “To the extent that it can be defined,” Ostler says, “this law can be formulated simply as the practical law of the harvest: What we give, we receive; what we sow, we reap; what we send out, returns to us. Therefore, do unto others as you would have them do unto you, for as we judge others we shall be judged. This is the eternal law decreed by God before the world was and by which we shall be judged” (pp. 113-114).
So far, so consistent. But then, along the pathway of this discussion, Ostler says the following: “Both personal growth and interpersonal growth are also intrinsically valuable as ends in themselves. However, there is a byproduct of love that also makes love worth pursuing for its own sake—happiness” (p. 111). What’s this? Here, and just in passing (though he says another thing or two about it as he goes on), Ostler suggests that there’s another justification of the law of love, another reason to love—something besides particularity: happiness. This is crucial. Happiness isn’t something God, from outside of the situation of love, bestows on those who love; happiness is something internal to love itself. It’s, in Ostler’s appropriate word, a byproduct of love.
I couldn’t agree more about all this. My question, then, is simply: Why not begin and end here? Why bother with Kant? I suspect that Ostler’s reason is that byproducts aren’t enough to ground moral obligation. How can one claim to have a moral obligation to love if one’s simply after love’s associated affects? (As a byproduct and not simply a product, it might be said that happiness can’t be called love’s teleology, and so obligation doesn’t return in the form of a consequentialist ethics here.) And I think Ostler would be right to point out this problem, were he—as I suspect he would—to do so. But then my question would become: What’s so important about moral obligation? Is it so necessary for Mormonism to have a theory of moral obligation? Why can’t we say simply that God reveals to us the happy way to live? Why do we need to say that God reveals to us the happy way to live toward which we have an obligation?
All of this is to ask, in the end, why we can’t simply agree with the several individuals Ostler refers to at the beginning of the chapter. Why not just confess that Mormonism can’t, given its ontological commitments, produce a satisfactory theory of moral obligation? Why not argue that that incapability is one of Mormonism’s strengths? Why not agree with the so-called critics that Mormonism is more like training in the good life than exposition of universal moral obligation? It’s that that baffles me here, particularly because it seems to me that it’s the desire to produce a theory of moral obligation as such that drives Ostler to embrace a philosophically problematic conception of particularity—a conception from which I think it’s just as difficult to derive obligation.
Mormonism doesn’t have a morality; it has an ethics?