Sunday, February 21, 2010

Moral Discipline and Public Policy

The sacrament meeting remarks in my ward today were based on an excellent conference talk from Elder Christofferson called, "Moral Discipline." As I came home and reviewed that talk, I found significant commentary on current policy decisions. Rather than paraphrase poorly, I think it would be worthwhile to simply include an excerpt of that talk. After defining moral agency as the right to make choices and the obligation to account for those choices; and after defining moral discipline as the consistent exercise of agency to choose the right because it is right; Elder Christofferson says this:

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).

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.”

In most of the world, we have been experiencing an extended and devastating economic recession. It was brought on by multiple causes, but one of the major causes was widespread dishonest and unethical conduct, particularly in the U.S. housing and financial markets. Reactions have focused on enacting more and stronger regulation. Perhaps that may dissuade some from unprincipled conduct, but others will simply get more creative in their circumvention. There could never be enough rules so finely crafted as to anticipate and cover every situation, and even if there were, enforcement would be impossibly expensive and burdensome. This approach leads to diminished freedom for everyone. In the memorable phrase of Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, “We would not accept the yoke of Christ; so now we must tremble at the yoke of Caesar.”

In the end, it is only an internal moral compass in each individual that can effectively deal with the root causes as well as the symptoms of societal decay. Societies will struggle in vain to establish the common good until sin is denounced as sin and moral discipline takes its place in the pantheon of civic virtues.

The policy implications here are many, but I am especially intrigued by the question of the role of government in the development of the moral fabric of society. It seems an especially frustrating question for the current political schools of thought: the right can no more ignore their way into a satisfactory laissez faire solution than the left can regulate their way into a socialist one; nor can either claim innocence in this failure of society that we are taught has spanned periods of heavy influence for both sides over more than a generation.

From Elder Christofferson's talk, it seems the role of government and society in developing the moral discipline required for the common good is twofold: 1) fostering home atmospheres where moral discipline may be taught and 2) denouncing sin. These solutions require active doing; as a society we should protect and promote traditional marriage, reject obscenities and sexual content in our entertainment and be family friendly in our legislation. There is much that can be done. There is much that must be done.

Elder Christofferson warns: We cannot presume that the future will resemble the past—that things and patterns we have relied upon economically, politically, socially will remain as they have been. Perhaps our moral discipline, if we will cultivate it, will have an influence for good and inspire others to pursue the same course. We may thereby have an impact on future trends and events. At a minimum, moral discipline will be of immense help to us as we deal with whatever stresses and challenges may come in a disintegrating society.

Ultimately, the improvement or continued decay of moral discipline in our societies rests with us. If all of us were to be more morally disciplined in our personal lives, that would soon be reflected in our government and in our society. Whether enough of us are morally disciplined to turn the tides of decay or not, this principle will help each of us in our personal lives. On that, we have a prophet's promise.


  1. I enjoyed your thoughts on this, Dallin. I did not interpret Elder Christopherson's message as a call for goverments to act, but rather for indivuals to tune their "internal moral compass".

    I continue to believe that there is a difference between legislating morality and teaching morality.

    I am particularly intrigued by the warning in Elder Christopherson's talk. It is not clear to me, for instance, whether things will not be same because of the lack of moral discipine, or if moral discipline is the remedy that will allow us to cope with the inevitable changes.

  2. I think he was certainly talking to individuals rather than governments or even societies. There were still some hard words for governments; words like "failed", "eroded" or "decay". I have to wonder what, if anything, could be done to reverse those. I'd prefer to have my country described by the prophets with positive words like "success", "developed", "civil" or "growth". Of course they will not say it unless it is true, so what could be done?

    I agree that there is a difference between legislating morality and teaching morality. So I guess that means the answer is for individuals to develop moral discipline and teach that to their children. While the government cannot effectively teach, isn't there something the government could do to foster or encourage healthy homes where discipline could be taught?

  3. very true-- but sometimes laws (or judges) have an enormous effect on public morality and values.

    For example.. Roe v Wade killed the institution of the 'shotgun marriage'. Immediately after Roe was decided, the rate of unwed births skyrocketed.. see

    Roe v. Wade overturned democratically established laws in 48 states, imposing exactly the same kind of judicial tyranny as in the Dred Scott ruling, which Lincoln vowed to see overturned.

  4. How could Roe v Wade, which legalized the termination of pregnancy, result in higher unwed mothers? Not sure the causality is clear (the article at your link does not seem to link it to legalized abortion alone, but also availability of contraceptives and acceptablility of their use).

    It seems more likely to me that the same morality shift that allowed for legal abortion also fostered higher out of wedlock births (which also seems supported by the article at your link, vis-a-vis men's decision to abandon responsibility for children born in such circumstances), not that one caused the other.

  5. christians has to lead the highest moral life.