At Faith Promoting Rumor TT has a legthy response to my last post on how Mormonism changes. It’s worth a read and you should go over a take a look. I actually agree with a lot of what he says, but I’d like to push back on a couple of things.
First, he writes:
“Unity” of the church is selective, not a neutral category, one that excludes some in order to manufacture unity. That is, even the choice to “preserve” unity comes with costs measured in exclusion.
There are a couple of ways of understanding this. It could just be saying that maintaining unity has costs, it is not an absolute good, and that those costs are not evenly borne. Delaying the abandonment of the priesthood ban had costs for Black Latter-day Saints and for potential converts and members pushed away by the ban. If this is what he is saying, then I completely agree. Maintaining unity has costs. (More on this anon.)
He might be saying something else, however, something a little more radical. He might be suggesting that the idea of communal or institutional unity is itself an illusion, an epiphenomenon created through a discourse of exclusion, a mere nothing that gratuitously harms the Other upon whom its construction depends. This, I think, is mistaken. I think that it makes sense to talk about the cohesion of communities. I think it makes sense to talk about institutions being better or worse at coordinating collective activity. To be sure, unity depends upon a contingent choice about who is in and who is out, but that is precisely my point. How one makes that contingent choice has real consequences for things like the longevity of a movement, its ability to marshal resources, and the effectiveness of collective action.
In my post I assume that maintaining some level of unity – homogeneity of conviction and practice – as well as some level of institutional cohesion is valuable. I likewise assume that maintaining some level of unity of conviction and practice within the hierarchy of the church is valuable. In his post, TT suggests that I am somehow fetishizing unity or apologizing for the perpetuation of power for power’s sake. This, I think, is an unfair reading of what I am saying. It certainly doesn’t describe my beliefs. Rather, I believe that cohesion, unity, and an effective hierarchy are valuable because they DO things. They allow for more effective collective activity than would exist in their absence, collective activity that can be – and is – directed toward righteous ends. I also think that the kind of unity, cohesion, and institutional effectiveness I assume to be valuable are important because they allow for systems of meaning that are not otherwise possible, systems of meaning that are part of what makes Mormonism valuable and worthwhile. And so on. So no, my argument is not premised on the idea that we should preserve the power of white guys for the sake of preserving the power of white guys.
Even if TT was to offer a more charitable reading of my post, however, I suspect that we would have disagreements about the value of institutions in general and of the church in particular. This isn’t that surprising. Assessing the value of complex social entities and practices is really hard. This is not a discussion of I have the energy for here, but I would offer one observation. Many commenters on my post suggested or implied that my identity – a white, conservative Utah Mormon (although I’ve lived my entire adult life outside of Utah) – dictated my sense of the value of retaining the kind of unity I discussed. Fair enough. I am sure that given different life experiences, I would make different judgments on any number of things. In the spirit of linking identity to value judgment, however, let me suggest that those whose expertise lies in the analysis and production of texts tend, in my opinion, to systematically under value institutions and the goods that they are capable of delivering.
All of that said, I don’t think that the goods delivered by institutions, unity and cohesion are infinitely valuable. I don’t think that unity is a master value. It is a good that is to be weighed against other goods. It is a good that often – indeed always – has costs. Sometimes those costs are tragic. Sometimes they are unconscionably high and we ought to tolerate schism, acrimony, and apostasy. I think, however, TT and I have fundamentally different ways of approaching how to deal with the fact that the same decision can have good consequences and bad consequences. The dominant strain of contemporary liberal philosophy going back to John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice deals with this problem by creating lexical orderings of values and of people. Hence, one might create a list of basic rights in order of importance and then make one’s decisions by respecting the rights according to their lexical ordering. Alternatively, one might lexically order different people. Rawls famously argued for a maxmin principle, whereby inequalities were to be tolerated only to the extent that they were to the benefit of the least well off. (They could not, for example, be tolerated if they simply made everyone better off or increased total aggregate welfare.) I suspect that part of what lies behind TT’s ethical critique of my argument is some lexical ordering. A good candidate here is a maxmin principle. He presents liberals, Black Mormons, and others harmed by institutional inertia as “the least among us” and then suggests that toleration of harms to these folks is immoral or unethical. I could be wrong about the structure of his ethical critique, but I think this is it. Regardless, I think that some kind of implicit assumption that lexical ordering coupled to some maxmin principle is the proper mode of moral reasoning lurks behind much of progressive thought these days.
To borrow a rhetorical trope from TT, however, there is nothing natural or self-evident about this particular structure for moral reasoning. The obvious counter example is some kind of welfarism or utilitarianism. Everyone is counted but only counted once. We make trade offs between persons using some metric of welfare or utility. There are formidable conceptual problems with such an approach. How does one make trade offs between individuals? How does one observe the metric of welfare? And so on. On the other hand, the lexical ordering favored by philosophical liberalism these days is not without its own embarrassments. How does one construct the index of rights? How does one determine their relative order? What metric of welfare is used for the maxmin principle? Are we really unable to make <i>any</i> tradeoffs in aggregate wellbeing against hardships to the least well off? I don’t have an argument to present here as to why one should adopt lexical ordering over something more like cost-benefit analysis or vice versa. The implicit assumption of my argument, however, is that we are living in something like a cost-benefit world where we must make trade offs between goods rather than a lexically ordered world. I may be wrong about this, but it is not, I think, an unethical or amoral position to take.
TT says a bunch of other interesting stuff, especially about possible alternative historical counterfactuals and the way in which tension with society is used to generate legitimacy within Mormonism. However, I am getting tired and I am sure that you are getting bored, so let me finish up with one or two other observation. TT rightly points out that the leadership is not simply the passive reactor to the membership’s opinions but shapes those opinions. Furthermore, the leadership itself is a product of the experience of that membership. He suggests then that the relative conservatism of Mormonism may not be explained by the dynamic that I trace but by some more complicated feedback mechanism between membership and leadership. Fair enough. My model isn’t meant to make sense of everything, only to highlight one of the ways in which the power of the hierarchy within the church is limited. It is thus deliberately simplified in order to isolate a particular social mechanism. The deliberate simplification opens me to the charge that I am ignoring much that is important, suppressing stuff, and pursuing other nefarious or misguided agendas. At bottom, however, I think that my preference for such simplicity is methodological rather than rhetorical. So I would issue a challenge to TT. Rather than descending into a fog of multivariate nuance, come up with a concrete story or mechanism that explains the cross-causal feedback you intuit between leadership and membership. I suspect that you are right and would love to see something I can get my head around.