Nephi and the Categorical Imperative

Philosophical theories of ethics are typically divided into two great categories: consequentialism and deontologicalism/categoricalism. Consequentialist argue that an action is moral or immoral based on the consequences of that action. So a certain action, such as murder, may be moral or immoral depending on whether that action produces more good or bad consequences. On the other hand, a categorical/deontological approach would say that certain actions are inherently good or bad regardless of situation or consequence.

The bible appeals to both sides of this ethical divide. On the one hand, God sets strict and rigid commandments with very stark consequences for disobedience. On the other hand, in certain cases God appears to encourage gross deviations from those norms.

I believe that the scriptures of the restoration can teach us much about resolving this philosophical tension. 

One of the places that is most often pointed to as an example of consequentialism is the Lord’s instruction to Nephi to kill Laban. The spirit famously tells Nephi, “Behold the Lord slayeth the wicked to bring forth his righteous purposes. It is better that one man should perish than that a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief.” This is at first blush highly consequentialist thinking. Killing can be justified if the utility is high enough.

Yet, it would be a mistake to take away such a simplistic message from the story. I believe that Nephi’s struggle and process for reaching his decision is illustrative. Nephi when first told by the spirit to commit this killing recoils in horror. He declares that he and never killed a man and has no intention of doing so. It is only after repeated and unmistakeable instruction from the spirit that he listens and kills Laban. It was his certainty that God spoke to him which led Nephi to act.

Compare this story with a scriptural counter example–this one found in the Doctrine and Covenants. Joseph Smith has given the 116 pages to Martin Harris who subsequently loses them. The Lord reveals in D&C 10 that wicked men have acquired the plates and seek to alter them. What is truly fascinating is why these men have decided to do so.

Verse 13 notes that these individuals were strongly convinced that the Book of Mormon was not of God, and so they decided to lie in order to say that they had caught Joseph Smith in a lie. They had come to believe that the virtue of stopping Joseph’s deception justified egregious conduct in their part. The Lord’s declaration about these men is stark and decisive:

23 And thus he has laid a cunning plan, thinking to destroy the work of God; but I will require this at their hands, and it shall turn to their shame and condemnation in the day of judgment.

24 Yea, he stirreth up their hearts to anger against this work.
25 Yea, he saith unto them: Deceive and lie in wait to catch, that ye may destroy; behold, this is no harm. And thus he flattereth them, and telleth them that it is no sin to lie that they may catch a man in a lie, that they may destroy him.
26 And thus he flattereth them, and leadeth them along until he draggeth their souls down to hell; and thus he causeth them to catch themselves in their own snare.
Even though they have come to believe that their conduct is justified in order to prevent what they believe is an evil, they are deceived. And it is Satan who leads them and plants in them the false idea that they are justified in sin. But God will make it clear in the last day that they were not justified.

The message that I believe we can take from these two stories is this: 1) When we truly understand the eternal consequences of our conduct, it is true that the ends can justify a violation of a commandment, but 2) We as human beings are really really bad at truly understanding the eternal consequences of our conduct. It is easy to come to call good evil and evil good. It is easy to fall into an ends justify the means mindset to rationalize away sin. This is especially true since there is an adversary that seeks to destroy us and deceive us.

So, 3) Commandments provide guidelines that keep us safe from falling into the consequentialist trap, and 4) unless we clearly and unmistakenably are directed to break a commandment, we should keep it. Finally, 5) as Nephi did, when we are told to break a commandment we should be very careful to verify that it is truly from God and not from the adversary.

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