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Re: Moral Discipline, by Elder Christofferson

October 10, 2009
Elder Christofferson

Elder Christofferson

Next in my LDS General Conference series, I would like to talk about Elder D. Todd Christofferson’s Sunday Afternoon talk “Moral Discipline.” Also popular around the blogs, so you can read about it (some people got too tired/frustrated of it all at about this point.) To get into the heart of what Elder Christofferson means by “moral discipline,” let’s go to a quotation.

By “moral discipline,” I mean self-discipline based on moral standards. Moral discipline is the consistent exercise of agency to choose the right because it is right, even when it is hard. It rejects the self-absorbed life in favor of developing character worthy of respect and true greatness through Christlike service (see Mark 10:42–45).

I don’t see much to disagree with. In fact, even though I don’t believe, I think that Christlike service can be a good “equivalent” for a worthwhile goal for anyone. The issue is what specifically does Jesus want us to do? The specific conclusion Elder Christofferson pushes is that the church represents Christ’s authority…and therefore, its code, what it says is “right,” is as good as from Christ. Your mileage may vary, but I think here, the general message is to find what one believes is right and then choose it — even when it is difficult.

I can’t just leave it there. After all, what I have just advised as the general message is relativistic, and Elder Christofferson specifically speaks out against that:

The societies in which many of us live have for more than a generation failed to foster moral discipline. They have taught that truth is relative and that everyone decides for himself or herself what is right. Concepts such as sin and wrong have been condemned as “value judgments.” As the Lord describes it, “Every man walketh in his own way, and after the image of his own god” (D&C 1:16).

The problem is…just because Christofferson decries this, he can’t truly establish that it is incorrect. Obviously, in his calling as General Authority, he has the ability to establish that he believes his values and his subjective judgements are objectively true…but really, he has no objective evidence to back up his assertion (even if it possibly is true). Anyone who agrees with him takes it on faith that he and the other GAs best understand and speak for objective truth.

Nevertheless, he must come against reality. Sin and wrong are value judgments. Everyone will decide for himself what is right and wrong. (That being said, because we have certain subjective experiences in common…we will certainly see some overlaps in what we find bad or good. Suffering doesn’t feel good. Joy and peace feel good.) And so, it is untrue that societies have for more than a generation have failed to foster moral discipline. Perhaps they have failed to discipline in the morality that Christofferson espouses, but we really should be asking if people are tr

agency to choose the right because it is right, even when it is hard. It rejects the self-absorbed life in favor of developing character worthy of respect and true greatness through Christlike service (see Mark 10:42–45).

I don’t see much to disagree with. In fact, even though I don’t believe, I think that Christlike service can be a good “equivalent” for a worthwhile goal for anyone. The issue is what specifically does Jesus want us to do? The specific conclusion Elder Christofferson pushes is that the church represents Christ’s authority…and therefore, its code, what it says is “right,” is as good as from Christ. Your mileage may vary, but I think here, the general message is to find what one believes is right and then choose it — even when it is difficult.

I can’t just leave it there. After all, what I have just advised as the general message is relativistic, and Elder Christofferson specifically speaks out against that:

The societies in which many of us live have for more than a generation failed to foster moral discipline. They have taught that truth is relative and that everyone decides for himself or herself what is right. Concepts such as sin and wrong have been condemned as “value judgments.” As the Lord describes it, “Every man walketh in his own way, and after the image of his own god” (D&C 1:16).

The problem is…just because Christofferson decries this, he can’t truly establish that it is incorrect. Obviously, in his calling as General Authority, he has the ability to establish that he believes his values and his subjective judgements are objectively true…but really, he has no objective evidence to back up his assertion (even if it possibly is true). Anyone who agrees with him takes it on faith that he and the other GAs best understand and speak for objective truth.

Nevertheless, he must come against reality. Sin and wrong are valu

ue and integrated to their moralities, not the church’s morality.

Continuing…

As a consequence, self-discipline has eroded and societies are left to try to maintain order and civility by compulsion. The lack of internal control by individuals breeds external control by governments. One columnist observed that “gentlemanly behavior [for example, once] protected women from coarse behavior. Today, we expect sexual harassment laws to restrain coarse behavior. . . .

“Policemen and laws can never replace customs, traditions and moral values as a means for regulating human behavior. At best, the police and criminal justice system are the last desperate line of defense for a civilized society. Our increased reliance on laws to regulate behavior is a measure of how uncivilized we’ve become.”2

This message has gotten a lot of flak by many…is it a libertarian sentiment? Is it anti-government? What does Christofferson mean?

Let me jump ship to accounting…and describe part of the audit process. (Dear auditors, if I mess this up, I apologize; I study tax.)

Auditors engage in their audits to express an opinion stating with reasonable assurance if they believe the financial statements are not materially mistated.

How do the auditors get that reasonable assurance? They need to gather evidence and test management assertions. They’d prefer if this testing involved less effort on their part. So what auditors do first is they evaluate the internal controls of the entity. Does the company view I/Cs seriously and do the employees know this “environment”? Are the employees competent enough to use any controls that are in place? Are controls even existent?

If internal controls are good (and the audit tests of internal controls finds them to be reliable), then the auditor can trust that the controls will detect and prevent more fraud and error, and that makes their job easier.

But if the controls are not good (if they fail, or if they don’t even exist), then the audit obviously cannot trust them. Instead, the auditor must do substantive testing. Counting inventory. Checking receipts. Those kinds of things. More testing, better testing, later testing.

So, if companies have good internal controls, then there is less need for an auditor to come later and count up inventory. Because they can trust that inventory counts in the system will be accurate, and that unauthorized transactions will not happen or will be caught and resolved before they get to the auditor. But since the public still wants fair financial statements, if the I/Cs are faulty, then the auditor must do more work from the outside. So I agree with Christofferson’s basic message — lack of internal control and moral discipline leads to external controls: laws, police, or auditors.

But hold on! Let’s remember something about history. Auditors didn’t even always test for internal controls…and until the big scandals, they didn’t even believe they had a responsibility to actively detect for fraud. Sometimes, the auditors still don’t.

What actually changed was that our moral standards and expectations dramatically increased. And as a result, companies that never had to worry about internal controls did. So, morality wasn’t and isn’t objective. It does change with time. Elder Christofferson talks about how in the past, “gentlemanly behavior” protected women from “coarse behavior,” but now we need external laws governing sexual harrassment.

But perhaps he doesn’t realize that moral standards have changed over time. In the past, when we had these gentlemanly standards, women couldn’t even do the same thing as men! So, where did “gentlemanly behavior” kick in when women couldn’t vote? Where was “moral discipline” when men subjugated women to lower statuses. When the very LDS church campaigned against the Equal Rights Amendment!

We needed laws to grant equality against cultural traditions and values that wouldn’t recognize these (and the same is true for other minority groups). EVEN TODAY, we still need laws and “auditors” to make sure that these laws are followed (because many still will try to discriminate). So, our increased laws perhaps do represent the failure of discipline…but only because we are aspiring to a discipline that is much greater than our natural selves. In the same way, does Christofferson argue that the existence of God’s commandments is sign of moral failure? No! God’s commendments are a way of aspiring to a discipline we do not yet have that we hope is greater than our natural self. The particulars may vary based on which laws or commandments we find are just, but laws are not bad.

I’m going to have to get into the second part of his talk in a second article, since he kinda shifts gears to his specific conclusion regarding the raising of a generation with moral discipline.

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4 Comments
  1. Liked the auditing analogy. As I read your post, I also had a thought on the significance of laws thing…

    Do we create laws because there is a widespread problem with them being broken?

    Or, do we create laws to identify the values we as society already embrace?

    Does the fact that our society creates laws protecting against sexual harrassment mean that we have a sexual harrassment problem (I don’t know, maybe it does?), or is it just a reflection of mainstream society’s view of acceptable behavior?

    What do you think. Seems to me he’s suggesting that laws are created in response to problems, but maybe it’s more of a chicken-and-the-egg situation.

  2. Simplysarah,

    I can say from the auditing perspective, Sarbanes-Oxley most certain was passed in response to problems (namely, huge frauds like Enron, Worldcom). BUT at the same time, Congress (and other accounting rule-making bodies) tried to capture what society already embraced. After all, society was SHOCKED that auditors weren’t already actively looking to detect and report fraud. Society was SHOCKED that auditors could do so many different things to clients (which was an independence problem.)

    Civil rights acts for all minorities have been passed in response to problems, and they represent aspirations of where we want behavior to be. But sometimes, laws passed do represent the majority opinion of values. It depends on case by case situation.

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