Mormonism, Liberalism, and Social Epistemology

In the most recent issue of Philosophy & Public Affairs, Allen Buchanan, a philosopher at Duke, has a very interesting article entitled “Liberalism and Social Epistemology.” He starts his argument with the observation that our knowledge of the world is inescapably dependent on social institutions. It is social institutions that allow for specialization, which in turn carried great advantages in terms of knowing the world. These advantages, however, come at a price. We must cede a certain amount of epistemic independence to authorities. This, he argues, creates great dangers. Certain authorities can be badly – horribly – wrong. He points to the examples of teachers and scientists in the Third Reich who lent authority to Nazi ideology, leading many people to accept its truth. His other example is teachers, parents, and ministers in the segregated South, who inculcated ideas of racial superiority etc. The danger, according to Buchannan, is two fold. First, there is the moral danger that we will do something evil – like lynch a black man or gas a Jew – as a result of false beliefs. Second, there is a practical danger. Millions and millions of Germans died and suffered as a result of their false beliefs about Nazism. What make’s Buchanan’s argument interesting is that he rejects what he calls the Cartesian solution, namely the vain ambition to completely separate our knowledge from its social sources and ground it entirely in some asocial, objective foundation. Specialization and authority are good. They allow us to know more about the world than we would otherwise know. What we want, he argues, is a set of institutions that mitigates against the epistemic dangers of say a Nazi Germany or the segregated South. This is where I see some interesting connections with Mormonism.

According to Buchanan liberal institutions – especially freedom of thought, expression, association, conscience, and meritocractic rather than hereditary or racial criteria for authority – are justified because they are likely to mitigate against dangerous false beliefs. What is interesting is that Buchanan’s argument for liberalism does not rest on the value of freedom per se, some Kantian respect for rights, or a social contract. For example, he argues that one could reject individual autonomy as the highest value and still desire liberal institutions as a way of mitigating epistemic risk. Even non-liberal communities, he argues, are benefitted by their proximity to liberal institutions.

There are two points about Mormonism that you could take from this article. One is boring and one is interesting. The boring point is that Mormonism is a non-liberal community. We believe in divine authority, prophecy, hierarchy, obedience, faith etc. Buchanan’s argument, however, suggests that we should nevertheless support liberal institutions because they are a good safety mechanism against our own possible mistakes. We can all agree (especially those of us who find it important not to be “Utah Mormons”) that Utah Valley is a better place because of the epistemic safety devices of free speech, etc., and we can all agree that we ought to defend such things when overzealous fellow Saints threaten them. Furthermore, we can do this without necessarily adopting some perfectionist notion of autonomy.

The more interesting point is that Mormonism itself offers an argument for liberal institutions based on social epistemology. This is the well worn Mormon teaching that the United States was prepared for the Restoration of the Gospel and that without the institutions of freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of association the Restoration would not have been possible. In other words, the liberal institutions of the United States are justified because they provide the social preconditions for a certain kind of knowledge, the knowledge of God and the plan of salvation. What I find interesting is the extent to which this Mormon argument for liberalism has any deeper connection to Buchanan’s argument. I am facinated by the question of how I should understand the relationship between Mormonism and philosophical liberalism. Elsewhere, I have argued (despite the fact that it makes Russell break out in hives) that Mormonism shares with liberalism a certain kind of autonomous individualism. I have also argued that there is a parallel between a certain kind of Mormon theodicy and social contract theory. The argument from social epistemology presents another possibility.

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20 comments for “Mormonism, Liberalism, and Social Epistemology

  1. May 20, 2004 at 2:03 pm

    In Mosiah 29 (, King Mosiah makes the argument that if it were possible to always have just men for kings, it would be good to have kings. But since kings may be unjust, it makes sense to have a more liberal institution (the judges) that is responsive to the voice of the people.

  2. D. Fletcher
    May 20, 2004 at 2:13 pm

    Yes, benevolent dictator is traditionally seen as the best government. Hence, Christ, and the Prophet, dictating our Theocracy.

  3. Jeremiah J.
    May 20, 2004 at 2:45 pm

    Nate: What I would like to see is this social insight about Mormonism and liberal institutions made theological. It’s not entirely necessary, religiously or otherwise–one can take satisfaction from an argument from social theory which tells us that the arrangement under which we live provides positive conditions for the kingdom of God, and leave it at that. And yet even though we have doctrinal or cultural Mormon teachings about American institutions, these don’t seem to be fully integrated, made intelligible as part of the gospel of Christ. In other words, can we discover in Christ’s teaching any indication that knowledge or knowledge-claims about God require these social-epistemological saftey valves, if you will? The Book of Mormon does offer a defense of moderate social institutions some of which liberalism promotes, but is this simply a worldly peice of wisdom stapled to the gospel, or is it a celestial truth? I’m open to either alternative, but the question interests me.

    Let me try to sketch out one more comment, admittedly in rough manner:
    There is a similar liberal alternative to the Mormon liberalism which sees the highest human good in a “non-liberal” ethical life which exists within liberalism, but yet draws certain preconditions from liberal institutions. That alternative would be the liberalism of Hegel. While Hegel’s conception of ethical life is not based on divine authority (in the Mormon sense) and revelation, it is an ethical life which is necessary and “substantial”, meaning not contractual, and its duties are not founded purely on the ethical requirements of individual rights. It also asserts the existence of ethical communities (family, civil society, the state) which have truth and dignity independent of any particular individuals’ participation in them. In the case of Hegel and perhaps in the case of a Mormon liberalism, ethical life is able to offer liberalism a true ethical core, while liberalism is able to give these forms of ethical life their truest, most moderate and most humane expression.

  4. May 20, 2004 at 2:54 pm

    Eric: It is far from obvious to me that the Judges in the Book of Mormon are particularlly liberal. Furthermore, it is important not to get the idea of liberalism confused with the idea of democracy. There is no reason that democracies need to be liberal, and historically democracies have not done a good job of maintaining liberal institutions. Whether or not liberalism necessarily requires democracy is another question…

    Jeremy: I am affraid without more to sketch out your Hegelian version of liberalism, I am not sure where you are going with it. To a certain extent it sounds Toquevillian (may I use such a word), but I am sure that I am missing something here. I confess that I have little knowledge of German political theory, although this is largely stylistic. I simply find it easier to wade through Rawlsian jargon than Hegelian jargon.

    The question of whether there are more explicitly “theological” roots to the social epistemology argument is very interesting. I am not sure. It seems to a certain extent the story of the fall is a story about the cosmic, celestial, etc. need for a particular epistemic context. The question, I suppose, is whether you can link that epistemic story up to the liberal one that Buchanan is telling.

  5. May 20, 2004 at 5:21 pm

    Moderately social liberal Mormons, like myself, embrace this perspective. I have thought for a long time (well, at least since I returned from my mission) that our religion thrives best under conditions provided by liberal institutions. As great as the temptations are to use our majority voice (as Christians) to pass laws that institutionalize a certain kind of moralist view on society, I believe we, as religious people, are better off if we let the state be the guarantor of individual freedom and autonomy.

  6. May 20, 2004 at 5:35 pm

    Brayden: This are wonderful sentiments, but they are not strictly speaking in line with Buchanan’s argument. What makes his position interesting is that he argues that one should be in favor of liberal institutions even if you are indifferent to or even hostile to individual freedom and autonomy. He claims that so long as you are in favor of avoiding grevious moral wrongs (e.g. becoming an agent of genocide) and serious practical difficulties (e.g. state created famines or carpet bombing by the U.S. Army Air Force), then you ought to favor liberal institutions.

    BTW, for any reading this: I am not using “liberal” here to talk about liberal as in liberal Democrat. Rather, I am talking about “liberal” in the philosophical sense as in “liberal democracy.” My concern is with the basic paradigm of individual rights, limited government, the rule of law, etc.

  7. May 20, 2004 at 5:52 pm

    Nate – I’m very aware of the definition of liberalism used by Buchanan (unfortunately my library’s online subscription of the journal is only current through 2003 so I can’t read it for myself). My comment was meant to suggest that excessively moralist lawmaking tends to destroy the liberality of the state because it imposes restrictions on individual freedom and autonomy. Of course ther are justifications for limiting freedom, but that’s a topic of a different post.

  8. May 20, 2004 at 6:10 pm

    Brayden: My comment wasn’t directed at you. Given the partisan pyrotechnics on the “New Blog” and “Media” thread, I just wanted to be clear that this was about something else.

  9. May 20, 2004 at 7:55 pm


    > According to Buchanan liberal institutions –
    > especially freedom of thought, expression,
    > association, conscience,

    Alma 30:7 (during the reign of the judges): Now there was no law against a man’s belief; for it was strictly contrary to the commands of God that there should be a law which should bring men on to unequal grounds.

    > [continued from the above quote] and
    > meritocractic rather than hereditary or racial
    > criteria for authority

    Although the chief judges certainly seemed to have been drawn from certain family lines, the system of judges seems to have been a step away from actual hereditary or racial criteria.

    > [continued from the above quote] – are
    > justified because they are likely to
    > mitigate against dangerous false beliefs.

    What was the justification for changing to the reign of the judges, with the judges being selected by the voice of the people? Mosiah 29:26: “Now it is not common that the voice of the people desireth anything contrary to that which is right; but it is common for the lesser part of the people to desire that which is not right; therefore this shall ye observe and make it your law—to do your business by the voice of the people.”

  10. May 21, 2004 at 12:00 pm

    Eric: My point is that we often take the “voice of the people” passages as being some sort of full throated version of contemporary democracy. The problem is that elections of one sort or another have been ubiquitous phenomena in political history and they frequently have nothing to do with what we would recognize as democracy. For example, the King of Poland was elected, as were Germanic tribal chieftans. Indeed, the idea of elected kingship is quite ancient.

  11. May 21, 2004 at 12:35 pm

    My point is not that the reign of the judges was some sort of ideal deomocracy, full-throated, contemporary, or otherwise. Frankly, I think the reign of the judges was a failed experiment: it was not very long before it become corrupt, and did not last long after that.

    My point is that the philosophical idea of using (relatively) liberal institutions to guard against dangerous false beliefs that would lead to tyranny is an idea found in the Book of Mormon.

  12. May 21, 2004 at 1:02 pm

    It’s hard to figure out what the Nephites were up to exactly with their system of judges — people clearly had a voice or were able to cast a vote, but the candidates often seemed to be the sons of the previous chief judge. So it appears that the system for developing candidates was problematic …

    Also, it appears that chief judges were in place for life, until they died naturally or were assassinated. Nor is their an example of a judge being impeached or voted out of power if the people became dissatisfied with the judge’s performance.

    Maybe these are some of the reasons that the system was a “failed “experiment.”

  13. Jeremiah J.
    May 21, 2004 at 2:03 pm

    Nate is right to point out that there is a clear difference between liberalism and democracy (though the two have tended to go together pretty tightly in the last 100 years), and between modern democracy and ancient forms of constitutionalism or popular consent.

    It should also be pointed out more specifically these ancient institutions may have had something in common with modern liberalism, but that doesn’t mean that they could be referred to as primitive or partial liberalism. This is because ancient political ideas may have some few things in common with modern liberalism, but came from different sources and aimed at different things. Ancient republicanism, for example, has an idea of the rule of law and a certain respect for a kind of constitutionalism, but the specific content of these principles are different in ancient republicanism, and their purpose is different from that of liberalism. I think that the same can be said of the principles expressed in the Book of Mormon. Preventing tyranny is important for liberals, but also for those in any decent social arrangement, from Native American tribes to 18th century monarchies.

  14. Ben Huff
    May 21, 2004 at 10:00 pm

    Jeremy, I want to say, Yes! There is a theological parallel here, supportable within Mormon theology, and having to do with Jacob’s “O be wise; what can I say more?” (Jacob 6:12). We know more, and more reliably, as a people, because we all have independent access to the Spirit, as well as the mortal experience we are all supposed to be learning from. When I started trying to say how it works, though, I realized it was starting to seem like the start of a book, not a blog post.

    I will say, though, one might see some evidence for this idea in our practice of having everyone pitch in to run the Church, give talks, teach lessons, etc. One might say that the Church structure just fundamentally relies on the idea that we all have access to the Spirit. A skeptic might say, “But all those people are given lesson manuals, and the home teachers are supposed to present the First Presidency message.” A lot of people would probably want to say the great thing about this church is how everyone is following one centrally-mandated plan, and that’s what shows how true it is! But I think if you believe that we are only supposed to teach by the Spirit, and if we don’t receive the Spirit, not teach (as the D&C says), then you can read this structure in the Church as implying/presupposing/embodying the assumption that we all, as independent spiritual knowers, contribute to the knowledge of the community.

    Do you have something along those lines you’ve been working out?

  15. May 22, 2004 at 2:36 pm

    I have to put in my two cents here. This is a big issue with me.

    As I see it, we are part of a religion that argues for minimizing the difference between incomplete individual perceptions and the most accurate and complete understanding of the truth.

    In principle, I see not the slightest conflict between the Mormon position and that of those who argue for liberalism.

    If one seriously expects to operate one day with the scope of a being with god-like knowledge and powers, then one must ultimately reduce to zero any differences between potentially flawed perceptions and actual “ground” truth, however complex that truth may prove to be. The only way to do that is to continually be open to every hint at what the real truth might be, eventually dealing with every apparent inconsistency between perception and reality. This is the power of “liberal” openness.

    Yes, it is helpful to be launched in the right direction by the accumulated knowledge, experience, and wisdom of many others in a society organized for that very purpose. However, if an individual never gets himself or herself out of that gravity well of transmitted and approved knowledge to “know for one’s self,” then they are in some sense a failure. They will be unable to reliably add to and update or correct the body of received knowledge, and could eventually be a danger to those less informed beings who may depend on them in some way.

    Perhaps the whole bloggers universe is part of this process of raising oneself out of the realm of received and unverified “old wives tales” and into the realm of reliable, verifiable knowledge.

  16. Jeremiah J.
    May 22, 2004 at 11:09 pm

    Huffs: Your comments are interesting in this discussion. I’m not sure whether you intend them to be in agreement with the Buchanan argument applied by Nate to Mormonism, or in opposition to it. Each of your comments seem to me to be alternatives to or even critiques of Nate’s justification for a Mormon liberalism. Nate’ argument seems to be that Mormonism offers an account of human knowledge which is based, yes on personal spiritual witness, but also on priesthood authority, faith, and humble obedience. In short, for Mormonism the humble disciple of Christ is not the morally autonomous actor of a comprehensive philosophical liberalism. And yet we accept liberal institutions because: a) through hard experience we learn that these institutions reduce some of the moral and practical danger associated with the foundations of the kind of spiritual knowledge which we have. and b) because liberal institutions seem to have provided the social preconditions for the Restoration of the Gospel.

    Ben, your point seems different from the above argument because you are emphasizing the personal individual aspect of spiritual knowing in Mormonism. I basically agree with your account, though it should be understood as only part of the story about “Mormon epistemology” if you will. The other part of the story is that personal spiritual manifestations are most frequently understood as confirmations of the spiritual and epistemic authority of the Church, priesthood, scriptures, etc. Beyond that, I don’t know that an individual, personal aspect of spiritual knowledge necessarily liberalizes Mormonism. It may democratize or diffuse authority, making everyone with the testimony of Jesus a kind of prophet, but it also could intensify the effect of hierarchical spiritual authority–in this environment heirarchical authority makes the multitude into its agents. But to clarify, Nate’s worry (and mine) doesn’t seem to be about the dangers of prophetic authority or unrighteous dominion in the priesthood, though the scriptures contain warnings about these to some extent. Rather the worry is about overzealous saints–exactly those people who are receiving their own revelations and witnesses.

    Kent: The idea that we should “minimizing the difference between incomplete individual perceptions and the most accurate and complete understanding of the truth.” does not seem to be an idea which is exclusive to Mormonism. Indeed all major religious traditions seem both to seek after greater light and truth *and* admit that some aspects of the divine are difficult or impossible for mortals to attain.

    As for openness to truth, I also don’t know if, for the proponents of hierarchical spiritual authority, obedience to that authority and faith in its teachings are necessarily opposed to the idea of openness to alterations to and corrections of one’s understanding–and it surely seems as equally opposed to “old wives’ tales” as liberalism is. Indeed, this perspective goes along with the idea that as mortal, natural beings we are prone to error. But when correction comes, it will come from priesthood leaders, scripture, and the voice of the spirit rather than from a liberal marketplace of ideas in which each person’s view is judged by the normal operation of free and equal individuals in communication. Mormonism embraces openness to correction, but it seems to be an openness that is not very liberal. This is why I call liberalism in Nate’s argument a “saftey-valve”–it isn’t the way we gain knowledge but the way we make knowledge-seeking less dangerous.

    You seem to suggest that each disciple of Christ must get out from under the weight of recieved doctrine and spiritual dependence. Though I don’t suspect that you mean any critique of priesthood authority in this comment, I’m not sure what you do mean. If you mean that each saint should be vigilantly striving to free herself of error, I agree with you but would point out that an illiberal account of spiritual knowledge could say the same thing.

    On the other hand, perhaps you could be saying that those of use who beleive in an illiberal, heirarchical foundation of spiritual authority could learn a thing or two about knowledge from liberalism. I’m intrigued by this idea–philosopically many aspects of liberalism appeal to me very much. But spiritually I don’t know. I know plenty of true disciples of Christ who don’t engage in anything like the Bloggernacle, and yet have a great amount of profound knowledge of the Kingdom of God (without the wives’s tales). They might actually be very poor participants in the Bloggernacle if they did join in. And yet their knowledge does not seem any less true.

    And conversely, at least in my own case I’ve found that “finding the truth for oneself” in the liberal sense often turns out to be fool’s gold. You don’t find out, until you’ve cast off the old received notions, that the truth is very hard or impossible to establish individually and from scratch. But at that point it may be too late to turn back. The irony of this kind of epistemological wasteland, if you will, is that some people who live in midst of the marketplace of ideas hold just as dogmatically (or more so) to some ideas as do the so-called parochials.

  17. May 23, 2004 at 3:03 am

    I’ve not read most of the comments, but isn’t the main divide between traditional liberalism and the history and perhaps theology of Mormonism the place of public openness? We may have an openness to the truth but that doesn’t always appear to encompass communicating the truth openly. Alma 14 is one example of this, but there are many others. Even sacred experiences are to be kept private. Contrast this with the basic assumption of humanism and liberalism that information should be transparent and open to all. That seems a rather big difference.

  18. Ben Huff
    May 23, 2004 at 4:09 pm

    Phew! When one tries to draw careful distinctions here, there’s so much to say it makes me tired to think about it.

    I didn’t mean to be opposing Buchanan in what I said. I think there is a lot of truth to his point (though liberal institutions can also destroy knowledge sometimes). I guess the main difference I see between what I said and what he said is that he was talking about liberal institutions serving as a corrective for horribly wrong ideas that authorities may serve us, whereas within a faithful perspective the idea of Church authorities serving us horribly wrong ideas is not one we would like to entertain. So I was emphasizing that our liberal institutional structure allows us as a community to overcome the limits of what knowledge can be transmitted through human authorities, even when those human authorities are called by God and act under his direction — our liberalism allows us to know more than we can know through the teaching of the First Presidency.

    Jeremy, your point about fool’s gold is totally right, of course. Good thing we have the infinite atonement, else all mankind would be lost in the effort to gain knowledge by our own experience! This is the down side of a liberal approach to knowledge, that the truth may be neglected or entirely lost because it is not obvious enough to most people that it is the truth. The ability of non-authorities to discount and/or discredit the statements of authorities, when exercised, is good if the authorities are wrong but bad if the authorities are right. In the true church the authorities are going to be right in ways that are not entirely obvious a lot more often than they are wrong in ways that non-authorities can correct. So perhaps we have to say that to the extent that the LDS Church is liberal, it is primarily not for the sake of freedom as an end in itself, nor exactly for Buchanan’s reason, but for other reasons, perhaps having to do with the nature of spiritual truth (flesh and blood hath not, etc.), and with the goal of being unified (comment consent, etc.)

    Nate, in what sense is the LDS Church illiberal rather than liberal? Isn’t it just some of both? I mean, by a liberal society you don’t mean one in which there are no authorities, do you? Because I can’t imagine such a society.

    Clark, of course you’re right about openness. But I think that humanistic ideal of transparency is separable from more interesting strands of liberalism. Not easily, mind you! It pulls several strands with it when it goes. Still, the ideal of transparency I think can easily be shown to be fantastic in a world where people are born and die, if there are more than about two of them.

  19. Jeremiah J.
    May 23, 2004 at 5:43 pm

    Ben: As I understand Buchanan’s point he is not implying that liberal instutions do not destroy knowledge. Indeed he asserts that we need specialization and authority to achieve a high degree of knowledge about the world. Rather liberal institutions (as a supplement to, not a replacement for heirarchy and authority) help mitigate the dangers associated with specialization and authority. The point about liberal insititutions has to do with the *effects* of the preconditions for a high level of knowledge, not with the preconditions or the knowledge itself. So Nate could not be arguing that liberal institutions entail a complete absence of authority, since he explicitly said the opposite–indeed the foundational point of Buchanan’s essay is that this isn’t the case.

    I also made it clear that my worry was not about priesthood leadership leading us astray.

    In one sense the church *is* liberal–we readily accept liberal institutions, indeed we see them as preparatory conditions for the restoration of the gospel. Moreover, we also imagine that something like liberal institutions would appropriate even in the Millenium. And yet a thoroughgoing philosophical liberalism (distinguished from merely liberal institutions) would certainly balk at the idea that there are certain universal moral and spiritual truths, true authorities with respect to knowledge of these truths, and that freedom of thought, association, etc. are primarily the conditions underwhich humans can have their faith and obedience to these authorities tested (and not the reverse–that the marketplace of ideas is where we test our authorities). I wholeheartedly affirm that a Catholic or Mormon can be a “good liberal” in the institutions they support and affirm. But I don’t think they can be “comprehensive liberals”, as Rawls might put it. They cannot affirm liberalism as a comprehsive truth.

    Clark: Your point fascinates me. On the one hand I could imagine that some liberals might indeed find it odd to say that there are spiritual truths which must be kept secret–as if some people are capable of these insights but others no. On the other hand, Rawls, Ackerman and other liberals do affirm that there are parts of our conception of the good which should remain in the private realm–those private reasons for actions which do not pass the test of public reason. So liberals do have some grounds for telling us, in some circumstances, to keep our truths to ourselves. This doesn’t entail any restriction of free speech, rather what constitutes public reasons.
    It seems to me that the priviledging of the private in liberalism allows for exactly the kind of secrecy you are talking about, only for different reasons.

  20. Jettboy
    May 27, 2004 at 3:43 am

    So, if I understand correctly, the concept of Mormon Liberalism turns the classic concept of Liberalism on its head.

    Liberalism isn’t truth in Mormonism, but a way to better find the truth. Liberalism doesn’t protect us against authority, but allows us to be more informed and better followers of authority. Privacy isn’t about protecting us from others, but protecting others from themselves because of us.

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