Against an LDS Theology of Conscience

I’ve never seen the Disney version of “Pinocchio,â€? but I’ve absorbed by cultural osmosis the image of Jiminy Cricket cheerfully chirping, “Always let your conscience be your guide.â€? Our banal present-day version of conscience—and our uncritical acceptance of the concept as a stable psycho-spiritual category–belies the treacherous history of the idea. By the middle of the seventeenth century, several variants of conscience had emerged onto the contested cultural topography of an uncertainly-reformed and unstably-governed England. Two competing versions of the concept dominated religio-political discourse. The older variant was an inhibitory faculty that discouraged unauthorized action, an internalized arm of state and ecclesiastical power that infiltrated the very thought of the subject: this conscience was a backward-looking entity that generated guilt for past sin and urged compliance with an accepted (and external) canon of behavior. Paul refers to this kind of inhibitory action in his most famous passage on conscience, Romans 13: 1, 5: “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers… not only for wrath but also for conscience sake.â€? The newer variant, the private conscience, was a legitimizing agency that endorsed conscientious dissent from the externalized claims of state and ecclesiastical authority: this conscience was a forward-looking and self-legitimizing center of individual moral authority. The private conscience evolved as a theological survival mechanism for marginalized religious sects during the tumultuous course of English reformation: first Protestant, then Catholic, and then radical Protestant ecclesiastical leaders needed to explain to their flocks how and why they should place personal conviction above external constraint, even when the personal costs for that choice were very high, and the private conscience provided the vocabulary for those discussions.

LDS theology does not support a robust notion of conscience. The Book of Mormon contains only five instances of the word, uttered by only two speakers: King Benjamin uses the word three times in his important speech, and Alma the Younger uses the word twice, in two separate sermons. The Doctrine and Covenants produces the word on only four occasions, closely clustered in two consecutive sections. An informal search of produces only one Ensign article with the word “conscience� in its title (although passing references to conscience occur in many pieces, predictably). The Encyclopedia of Mormonism doesn’t even contain an entry on “conscience,� although it does have an entry for “conscientious objection.�

The reasons for the absence of a vigorous category of conscience in LDS theology are not difficult to divine: other concepts perform the ideological and spiritual work of the two major variants of conscience described above, rendering conscience all but unnecessary. The Light of Christ, for example, effectively subsumes the work of the inhibitory conscience: as an internalized faculty that draws its legitimacy from the (external) agency of Christ himself, the Light of Christ provides every human with a basic knowledge of good and evil sufficient to generate guilt for past sin and inhibit present sinful behavior. And the related concepts of the Holy Ghost and personal revelation displace the private conscience: as a forward-looking mechanism of legitimacy, personal revelation authorizes action and conviction, even against constraining external factors. With the Light of Christ, the Holy Ghost, and personal revelation, who needs conscience, anyway?

In fact, conscience does play one crucial—if not fundamental—role in LDS theology. Conscience is the central category in the 11th article of faith: “We claim the privilege of worshipping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.� Just like the beleaguered Protestant and Catholic ecclesiasts of the sixteenth-century, Joseph Smith, himself the leader of a beleaguered fledgling church, recognized the need for a category to negotiate the competing claims of state and religious authority, an organizing agency for public and private claims of legitimacy. (This is the precise context in which the word “conscience� appears in the 134th and 135th sections of the D&C.) Conscience thus provides a way to understand the role of personal conviction in a plural religio-political field, the situation of the believer in Babylon. In this sense, conscience is a useful category only as long as the potential for conflict between public/state and private/religious initiatives exist—a scenario which does not describe the LDS view of Zion. Conscience, then, is a useful but fundamentally pragmatic and temporal tenet of LDS theology.

Of course, concepts like personal revelation still pose some of the sociological and institutional challenges that conscience does, even if conscience is not an overt part of the calculus: how do we negotiate “personal revelation� when it contradicts general revelation? how do we reconcile personal revelation with our emphasis on restored priesthood authority? what are the limits of the legitimacy of personal revelation? Overall, though, I think that the LDS doctrine that replaces conscience better handles the disruption to the crucial conditions of transparency and consensus threatened by the radical individualism of conscience. In this corner of theology, as in others, Mormonism privileges a collective and social morality over the individual and agonistic morality of conscience.

24 comments for “Against an LDS Theology of Conscience

  1. My wife said in a talk once, that she believed we were all born with a Jiminy Cricket on our shoulders, but that I had killed mine by rolling over him in my sleep.

  2. With the Light of Christ, the Holy Ghost, and personal revelation, who needs conscience, anyway?

    Throw in “obey your leaders” there as well. Before going on a mission all I ever heard for advice was “obey your leaders.” Well that advice was about as terrible as the leaders in my mission. The “leaders” on my mission (notably not the mission president) were constantly abusing their position of authority and asking missionaries to act against their own conscience.

    My advice to those going on missions: follow the spirit, question your leaders, and if your leaders and that little white bible conflict do what is right and get ready for a rough two years.

  3. Kneight, ARJ, thanks for the comments.

    Note that I did not intend this post to be a critique or complaint (perhaps I titled it poorly); indeed, I take some satisfaction in the fact that a concept so clearly time-bound and mired in political expedience is not naturalized in our theology.

  4. Rosalynde, has anyone ever mentioned that you’re overqualified as a housewife?
    (This smartalecky comment to allow poster to buy time to consider the arguments.)

  5. How does the traditional concept of conscience lead to “radical” individualism?

    Why are consensus and transparency crucial conditions, and crucial for what?

    Doesn’t the 2nd article of faith set the responsibility with the individual and not the collective?

  6. Great questions, Bill.

    The concept of private conscience can lead to radical individualism by locating the source of moral legitimacy within the individual herself, over and above any external claims to authority like those of the state, the church, the community, etc.

    In my mind, conditions of consensus and transparency (both broadly construed) are necessary for successful collective endeavors: the symbolism (if not the reality) of consensus is important in our organizational church rituals (sustaining, etc), and the presumption of consensus–that we all basically share a conviction of the gospel’s truth–seems the basis of church organization.

    To argue that LDS theology does not locate moral authority solely in the individual is not to suggest that the individual does not have moral *agency*: clearly, individual moral agency is one of the great messages of the Book of Mormon, and one of the most central tenets of Mormonism. But the ability to choose right or wrong is not the same as the ability to determine what is right and what is wrong.

  7. Thank you for the quick and thoughtful response.

    It’s true that “free to choose” is not the same as “able to judge”, but this latter ability is given to all. Although the way to judge is supposed to be as plain as the day is from the dark night, we sometimes see disagreements. It would seem to me that an individual has at least as much chance to judge aright as does a group. The consensus can, after all, be badly mistaken.

  8. If I’m not mistaken, church leaders also tend to throw the word “conscience� around a lot around election time. I recall being advised to vote “according to the dictates of your own conscience� several times these past few months.

  9. Speaking of “conscience,� there is something weighing heavily on mine currently, and that’s the fact that I have to teach Relief Society for the first time in about a zillion years this Sunday. The topic is the Word of Wisdom. Would it be inappropriate for me to ask Rosalynde to consider making her next post about something related to the Word of Wisdom so I can get some good ideas for my lesson? I think my conscience is already whispering in my ear that I shouldn’t post this message. . .

  10. Shannon,

    There’s a handy-dandy little “search” box that you can use to search topics. If you run a search on “word of wisdom” (or for that matter, “wisdom”) you’ll note that we’ve had some fun discussions. E.g.,
    (see also this one, which is pretty fun: )
    and (I thought this one was fun)


  11. Rosalynde: It seems to me that personal revelation has many of the same anarchic possibilities of conscience. We get around this in our theology by circumstribing revelation with institutions, ie prophets and leaders with authority to tell you that you cannot get revelation for others and they have gotten revelation for you, etc. It seems to me, however, that American solved the anarchic problem of conscience in essentially the same way. The English colonies were a pot pourri of various conscience-riddled groups from 17th century England (eg seperatists, puritans, quakers, catholics, etc.). Almost without exception these guys institutionalized the concept of conscience in constitutional and legal protections for conscience. (See Michael McConnell’s article on the “Accomodation of Religion” about ten years back in the Harv. L. Rev. where he collects and discusses all of the pre-First Amendment protections for conscience in America).

  12. It seems though Nate that Rosalynde brings up a very important point. Mormons devalue internalist views of justification in favor of externalist views. This enables a danger not found in mere conscience, since by its external nature it raises a very different issue of responsibility. How I am responsible for my own conscience is because it is uniquely mine and presumably primarily a result of my reasoning. How I am responsible for external kinds of conscience is radically different. At best the limit is a hermeneutic one: I have to interpret. But there seems a very easy path to uncritical acceptance because the responsibility issues can be cast on the other. Thus the danger of the kinds of things that Krakauer critiqued us for.

  13. Does personal revelation really have the same tendency for radical individualism? Personal revelation does not–scripturally at least–seem to apply to any “doctrinal” issues. One does not seek personal revelation as to whether his or her systematic and attenuating interpretation of a few scriptures “corresponds” to the way things are or not. (I don’t know, Nate, whether this is what you had in mind or not. I hope I am not taken as assuming too much about your position. Perhaps I just add this comment by way of clarification for others.) Personal revelation, in the end, seems to me to be the universal opportunity that all have to entertain heavenly beings (revelation or apocalypse meaning little more than “a taking off of a cover” or “a pulling back of the veil”). Personal revelation does not call for a radical individualism if understood that way. Perhaps it is better understood as summoning every individual into a much more unified collective waiting on the other side of the veil…

  14. Joe, there are, as I see two differences between revelation and conscience with respect to individualism. The first I mentioned to Nate is the issue of responsibility. With conscience the responsibility is uniquely mine, which thus is a thrust to individuality. With revelation the responsibility is a responsibility to the other. It is thus a kind of ethic to this other, leading us away from individuality and into relationalism. i.e. it establishes personal authority on the basis of a relationship rather than on the basis of a kind of existential development of the self.

    The second issue is that because of its external nature, it forces one to consider this responsibility and authority in terms of hermeneutics: that is in terms of correct interpretation. Certainly interpretation is present in conscience, but not in the same way, and certainly not to the same degree. Conscience ends up tied to personal values and feelings. Revelation is not. (Which is why, coincidentally, why I tend to find critics labeling Mormon ways of knowing as an appeal to feeling so missing of the point. I see Mormonism very anti-humanist in that regard, even if many consider it the other way around) This hermeneutics means that authority and responsibility must be understood in terms of what I am not. That is, the external world. Thus it forces a kind of involvement in the world that I think conscience does not.

    Once again the weakness is that while it forces an involvement with the world, it is easy to do this in an uncritical way. Further, the notion of transcendence enables people to simply pretend it doesn’t involve the world around us but rather a purely “other world.” (i.e. revelation as unmediated by our place in the world, but as a pure and unmistakable message)

  15. I too liked Clark’s comment.

    Speaking of interpretation, I think there can be difficulties in discerning between conscience and revelation. It seems that in some instances conscience can be a product of revelation because one who has been informed by revelation as to what is right or wrong in a given situation will almost certainly at some point in the future be left on their own to grapple with what they already know to be true. It is therefore not only a responsibility that one feels toward God that impels the individual to act truthfully, but also the responsibilitiy that the individual ought to feel toward him/herself to act with integrity.

  16. Clark,

    I thoroughly enjoyed your response. I certainly agree, and in fact, I believe that I was trying to get at the same thing, but by a very different route. I was calling into question the notion of revelation as pure ontology, rather than as a communication of some ontology as combined with some more basic ontic content. The “pure and unmistakable message” you disavow seems to me to be the pure ontology I intended to throw off.

    What interests me further about your comment is this statement:

    “With revelation the responsibility is a responsibility to the other. It is thus a kind of ethic to this other, leading us away from individuality and into relationalism”

    I wonder what more might be learned about this responsibility, this “ethic.” I doubt it is as simple as it at first appears. The two ways we use the word “responsibility” might be instructive. Sometimes it is used to mean that one has a duty; sometimes it is used to point out culpability. Is it that we have a responsibility, a sort of call (or even call-with, parakletos), that summons us to the greater collective I placed on the other side of the veil? Or is it that our very autonomy (inasmuch as we are individual) cuts us off as delinquent from that greater collective? In which manner are we led away from individuality and into relationalism? (Perhaps this is only a question about the benevolent or malevolent character of the Fall?)

    Further, how does this question bear on the hermeneutic that must be performed? How does my view of my own automony change my obedience to the ethic that now defines my moral action? I think you are right in both your points: we have a responsibility to the other because of personal revelation and we are thereby thrust into a hermeneutic position. But what does this mean for our situation? Is it all the more existential because of the hermeneutic difficulty posed by the ambiguities of our autonomy?

  17. Rosalynde,

    Is Mormon’s instruction regarding discerning good and evil consistent with or contrary to your argument?

    While it makes reference to concepts of good and evil, it does so via a rather reflexive definition — one that could be understood in the context of a community with communitarian decision-making, or one that could be understood in the context of the individual with individual decision-making. When I first read those verses, I was troubled at how empty they are of content: anything good is of Christ, anything evil is of Satan — but that seems to me definitional. I can still only guess about what is “good” and what is “evil,” and, as I do so, I’m formulating those standards myself, even if I do so by reference to authoritarian instruction.

    Am I not getting something here?

  18. Interesting post Rosalynde. Upon reading your comments I started thinking about seventeenth century authors and I remembered the following passage from Milton’s Paradise Lost:

    To prayer, repentance, and obedience due,
    Though but endevord with sincere intent,
    Mine eare shall not be slow, mine eye not shut.
    And I will place within them as a guide
    My Umpire Conscience, whom if they will hear,
    Light after light well us’d they shall attain,
    And to the end persisting, safe arrive.
    This my long sufferance and my day of grace
    They who neglect and scorn, shall never taste;
    But hard be hard’nd, blind be blinded more,
    That they may stumble on, and deeper fall;
    And none but such from mercy I exclude.

    – lines 191-202

    Compare Milton’s use of the term to the Bible Dictionary:

    The concept is that we are born with a natural capacity to distinguish between right and wrong, due to the light of Christ that is given to every person, D&C 84: 44-53. We have a faculty by means of which we can pass judgment on our own conduct, either approving or condemning it, so anticipating the divine judgment on it. This faculty is called conscience. The possession of it at once makes us responsible beings. Like other faculties it needs to be trained, and may be deadened through misuse.

    To say that we don’t need conscience because we have the Light of Christ seems a little odd and contradictory to me. If not synonymous, the Light of Christ is at least the operational power behind Conscience.

    The Old Conscience/New Conscience variation model seems too reductive. In the passage above, Milton seems to express both “variations” conscience in one. It is an “Umpire” and at the same time, if we listen to it, we will attain “Light after light”. It makes more sense to me that he attributed multiple functions to a single thing that he called “Conscience”–similar to the multiple functions of the Liahona that acted as both a pointer and revelatory device, than it is to look for separate consciences.

    Another scripture that came to mind upon reading your post was Romans 2 (which I was pleased to find cited in the BD entry as well). Rather than Romans 13, I would look to it as the definitive scripture on conscience:

    Romans 2:14 For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do
    by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the
    law, are a law unto themselves:

    Romans 2:15 Which shew the work of the law written in their
    hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts
    the mean while accusing or else excusing one another;

    This concept of conscience seems closer to the “Law of Nature and Nature’s God” cited in the Declaration of Independence–a kind of universal rule of measuring the “mean” of right and wrong.

  19. Rosalynde: The concept of private conscience can lead to radical individualism by locating the source of moral legitimacy within the individual herself, over and above any external claims to authority like those of the state, the church, the community, etc.

    I think that the modern (i.e., post-Cartesian) outlook precludes any type of conscience other than a private conscience. Specifically, the individual must recognize (tacitly or expressly) the legitimacy of any authority advancing moral precepts before they become actionable. Thus, the individual’s assent is always anterior to the moral precepts advanced by the state, church, the community, etc. The individual becomes a free moral agent.

    Our church seems to recognize (in some sense) that an individual’s assent is anterior to the authority of its moral precepts over them. This is why investigators must pray for their own testimony and take upon themselves the name of Christ. It is also why we don’t expect non-members to (say) pay tithing or do temple work.

    This is the view of conscience that Clark mentions when he talks about the internal. But when Clark talks about revelation as the external counterpart to conscience, I don’t think it really works. First, the individual assent to the revelation remains anterior to the content of the revelation itself (irrespective of the possibility of interpretation). Second, I think that the notion of an external moral authority is more complicated than that.

    The collective, inhibitory conscience that you (Rosalynde) mention strikes me as a different kind of conscience altogether. This type of conscience is a holdover from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics where the political community is the keeper of virtue rather than the individual. There’s quite a lot written about this nowadays (Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue is probably the best example of an attempt to render Aristotle’s ethics into post-Cartesian, post-Nietzschian terms), but it’s doubtful to me that any of it is really tenable. Try as they might, philosophers just can’t get individuals to think of themselves as fundamentally incomplete outside of the fellowship of their community. Thus, the collective notion seems to have fallen by the wayside, and does not appear to be ripe for revival.

    This, in turns, leads to the diminishing power of institutions and increasing moral eclecticism (if you will), a spurning of the notion of guilt (which is essential to the community but just so much baggage to the individual), and thus the kind of anarchic possibilities referred to by Nate Oman.

    Rosalynde: LDS theology does not support a robust notion of conscience.

    My gut tells me that is an overstatement. I tend to think that much of the discussion of conscience in Mormonism occurs under the auspices of free agency and accountability. We have our own special words for these things.

  20. Thanks for the provocative comments, everyone. Sorry I haven’t been able to respond, but I have been following with great interest. I’ll respond to a few of the most recent comments now (because those commenters might be more likely to come back to the thread), and hope to respond to the others later. (Not that I could adequately respond to Clark’s, anyway!)

    Greenfrog: “Is Mormon’s instruction regarding discerning good and evil consistent with or contrary to your argument?” I think it’s consistent with my argument that Mormon theology maintains a relatively weak concept of conscience. Mormon says that “it is give unto you to judge, that ye may know good from evil” (Moroni 7:15), but in the next verse he specifies what *precisely* is given to us: “For behold, the Spirit of Christ is given to every man, that he may know good from evil”. The Light of Christ (or Spirit of Christ, in Mormon’s terms), then, performs the primary evaluative arbitration of good and evil; the human capacity to judge seems to consist in housing and processing those evaluations. By contrast, a robust concept of private conscience assigns the primary evaluative arbitration to the individual him or herself, without recourse to a separate (even if internalized) agency like the Light of Christ.

    Ebenzer: Great Milton follow-up, thanks. And you’re right, of course, that my schema is reductive: in any anatomizing analysis it’s necessary to separate concepts that, in an organic culture, circulate together and often overlap. Most treatments of conscience invoked both of the sorts I describe in my post (and others, as well), depending on the rhetorical aims of the passage.

    The BD passage is also relevant; thanks for adding it to the discussion. As I read the passage, it seems to support my argument–though I must admit that I didn’t consult it in composing the post: it refers the conscience to the primary agency (by this I don’t mean moral agency, but merely the capacity to operate) of the Light of Christ. The human conscience, then, seems to be the faculty that apprehends and interprets the dictates of the Light of Christ; while this kind of conscience may perform a necessary psycho-spiritual function, it doesn’t seem to represent the kind of strenuous moral individuation that the private conscience does.

    As for your final point about natural law, I must admit partial ignorance of the way the concept is used both by Paul and by the Fathers (though I would surmise that there is significant difference in the usages), and would merely add the concept of nature itself is deeply conflicted and morally uneven in Mormon theology.

    DKL: “I tend to think that much of the discussion of conscience in Mormonism occurs under the auspices of free agency and accountability. We have our own special words for these things.” I agree; indeed, this was the structuring observation of the post. But I would suggest that in changing the vocabulary from conscience to personal revelation, moral agency and accountability, we’re also changing the fundamental discourse.

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