Another thought based on the latest issue of Sunstone. Boyd Peterson wrote,
The ways this paradox has influenced individual mormons have recently found their way into the news. In July 2007, Vanity Fair published an article that disclosed the fact that the two authors of the new torture techniques being practiced by CIA interrogators are both mormon psychologists: James Elmer Mitchell and Bruce Jessen – who, because of their shared religion, were referred to by colleagues as the “Mormon mafia.” In addition to devising or adapting the new information extraction techniques, Mitchell and Jessen also were put in charge of training interrogators in these new techniques – including “water boarding” – at CIA “black sites” throughout the world… Kleinman (an Air Force Reserve colonel and expert in military intelligence) feels that Mitchell and Jessen “have caused more harm to American national security than they’ll ever understand.”
Is there something about Mormonism that makes these actions more understandable?
Also, can you imagine confessing this to your bishop…
James Elmer Mitchell sits down in his bishop’s office, “Bishop Anderson, I need to confess that I am indirectly responsible for the declining status of the US and probably the deaths of dozens, if not hundreds of people around the world. What’s more, I have indirectly caused irreparable harm to thousands of people who have, literally, been tortured.”
Bishop Anderson responds, “Well, James, I don’t see anywhere in Mormon doctrine or the Handbook where it says torturing people or developing torture techniques is a crime. So, no reason to feel guilty. Remember, we live by the letter of the law, not the spirit of the law.”
Mitchell, relieved, replies, “Good to know, bishop. Now, about my temple recommend…”
Is there something about Mormonism that makes these actions more understandable?
I can’t immediately see one. It’s probably just an odd coincidence that both are Mormon. We’ll probably have to look outside of Mormonism to explain why they and others like John Yoo enabled American torture.
Unless this is how the old guys in church leadership fulfill their temple oath to exact vengeance on the United States for Joseph Smith’s death: place Mormon agents in government to subtly undermine it. Sounds like an interesting novel. Anyone know how to contact Dan Brown?
Of course to be fair, the oath of vengeance was that the person swore to pray that God would avenge Joseph Smith’s death, and I doubt that most recent leadership is old enough to have sworn that oath.
But a lot of people on the bloggernacle were highly embarrassed by the fact that these guys were Mormons (including me). That was one or two years ago when we all hadn’t burnt out on even trying to debate about the Bush administration. Now he just makes us all extremely tired, and we can’t muster the energy to wade in – yet again.
“Declining status of the US and *probably* yada yada yada”…
Sounds subjective as hell to me. Sell that to the rubes.
I’d rather be waterboarded by a Morman than beheaded by a Muslim.
Totally in line with the over-the-top Legalistic nature of tCoJCoLDS.
They always think they are doing things for the greater good so it is ok.
Tom, was your false dichotomy meant to be hyperbole? I choose the 3rd option: humane treatment of prisoners (by the secular UN and the rules of the Geneva Convention).
Generally, could this be just an example of ingroup/outgroup favoritism (not necessarily with Mormonism but Americans)? These two Mormon psychologists (their shared Mormonism is a coincidence) assume that, since the people who will suffer the torture are not Americans, and definitely not Mormons, it’s okay. They would never want this for their own, the members of their ingroup, but because they are “just” Muslims (or at least suspected Muslims) or “just” terrorists (one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter), it’s justifiable. Thoughts?
Finally, Mormonism may not have spurred the behavior, but where was the internal moral conflict that should have stopped this because their religion says it’s wrong? This appears to be a failing of Mormonism. If Mormonism is truly a moral religion, then there should have been too much inner-conflict for this to be the result. Granted, the easy way out of this is to simply say that these two are not good Mormons, but that seems just a bit weaselly – they consider themselves good Mormons and probably are both still temple worthy. Ergo, the logical conclusion from outside the religion is that Mormonism is morally bankrupt.
“Ergo, the logical conclusion from outside the religion is that Mormonism is morally bankrupt.”
Uh huh. Yeah sure… Whatever profxm.
“Whatever.” That’s the best you can do, Seth?
Yes it is.
Then I can assume that is a concession of my assertion that: Mormonism is morally bankrupt per the fact that two Mormons in good standing encouraged torture.
Nifty. That was the shortest debate I’ve ever had with you, Seth. All our debates should be this easy. 🙂
Finally, Mormonism may not have spurred the behavior, but where was the internal moral conflict that should have stopped this because their religion says itâ€™s wrong?
We can take this further and wonder how much religion truly affects behavior aside from shibboleths. Every good Mormon abstains from smoking because that is an outward sign of their Mormon-ness. No Orthodox Jew would touch bacon. No good born-again Christian would have premarital sex. (I generalize.)
Aside from these outward signs of group membership, how effective is religion at changing behavior in other situations? Is Mormonism good at promoting ethical business practices? Does Judaism actually promote better empathy than average for the stranger? Do evangelicals torture prisoners less often?
Those questions are probably unanswerable here, but I wonder about that. Since there’s no specific understanding in the LDS culture that “Mormons don’t torture people” and it’s not on the temple recommend interview (I’m not suggesting that it should be), I suspect that Mormon behavior isn’t much better than average in this specific case.
You’re taunting me.
Jonathan… I think I generally agree with your point. The one thing I’d say is, you’d never find a Quaker “in good standing” advocating torture. Certainly they are more the exception than the rule, so you’re right to say Mormons are probably about average here. But isn’t that, in itself, indicative of a failing of Mormonism? If Mormonism is “true,” shouldn’t Mormons be “better than average”?
Oh, and Seth, yes, I’m taunting you. 😉
I don’t want to push this too far and make it sound like a general rule, but belief in nonviolence is part of what defines a Quaker.
I think it’s a failing of most religion, not just Mormonism. Part of religion’s promise is to make us better people. My question is whether it actually delivers. My personal impression is that what religion a person belongs to says very little about how ethical they are. (And I wouldn’t say that the irreligious are any more ethical.)
I think, again, that you are generally correct, Jonathan, that the religion someone belongs to generally says very little about how ethical they are – Quakers being an exception.
As for the “irreligious,” that is probably generally true, too. However, if you look at a subset of the irreligious – atheists – there is some meager evidence for more ethical behavior and some philosophical arguments for such.
The meager evidence: atheists are substantially under-represented in prison populations. Also, violent crime rates are substantially lower in countries that are more atheistic. Finally, atheists are more humble than the religious. I’m not 100% convinced by these arguments, but they are kind of interesting.
As for the philosophical argument, I know many atheists who will make this point: Which is more ethical: (1) Doing the “right” thing because it is “right”? Or (2) Doing the “right” thing to avoid punishment from a deity? Whether atheists do the right thing more or not is, as illustrated above, only meagerly supported. But if there is any support for it, it would seem to be illustrative of the second point: atheists are more likely to be moral when no one is watching.
“The meager evidence: atheists are substantially under-represented in prison populations.”
I don’t see that this says anything at all. Other than that atheism tends to cater exclusively to the upper class of society.
Big bragging point, I’m sure.
Of course, you did say the evidence was “meager.” So noted.
I wouldn’t say “caters to” since it’s not exactly a service. But perhaps it appeals to people who are successful. We actually talked about this on MSP here: Atheist pride?
I read another interesting view just the other day here arguing that atheism thrives in places where people “enjoy long, safe, comfortable, middle class lives that they can be confident will not be lost due to factors beyond their control.” Whereas Americans are more religious than people in other western-style democracies:
Just the same Chanson, the atheist ideology comes off extremely bleak and antiseptic to me. Like an obsessive 1980s housewife applying anti-bacterial cleaners to every square inch of surface in the house and screaming bloody murder the moment her kid puts a handful of sand in his mouth.
I don’t care to live like that. It’s essentially a denial of life.
My knee-jerk reaction is to say that Mormonism does not encourage this behavior any more or less than any other religion, philosophy, or system of ethics.
Also, I wonder if it is merely a case of leaving their church ethics in their Sunday clothes. Or the culture of their workplace insulates them from having to think about the “spiritual” ramifications of what they are doing.
Isn’t this the way our culture deals with religion anyway? They could have been Liberal Catholics.
To me it seems obvious that their behavior is unethical; what is not obvious is whether they struggled with their decisions. That is something we cannot see. Just like the member of your ward who has to go outside for a cigarette break. It is easy to make the leap to assuming that they have only a shallow “spiritual” life.
I once heard someone accuse atheists of being “obsessed with reality” which is perhaps a funnier and more accurate way of saying what you seem to be getting at here. 😉
(BTW, what you’ve described is pretty much the opposite of my parenting style, if that helps 😉 )
Wow, how did a discussion of Mormons torturing people turn into accusing atheism of being the denial of life? To me, atheism encourages a celebration of life and of loving life for what it really is. You seem to be stuck in this type of reasoning:
Prof, do you have a link to the Sunstone article by any chance?
Hellmut, unfortunately it’s not available on Sunstone. If you’d like I can scan it send it to you.