The Pride of Virtue versus Virtue: Elder Holland's Talk


I recently finished reading The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt, which I highly recommend, by the way. One of his most interesting theses is that morality is not about the truth, but about social acceptability. It is a way of signalling that we are a full-fledged member of a particular tribe, and thus should be treated well by that tribe. I am not doing justice to his book here, but that's primarily because I'd like to talk about a related point, which was recently made by Ed West in an article for UnHerd.

The article is called "Life is One Big Status Game." West is, in his turn, reviewing a book by Will Storr called The Status Game. West explains, "Storr identifies three methods by which we reach the top: dominance, competence and virtue (although most people use a combination of two or all three). It is the last of these which is the most interesting, and sometimes the most dangerous, inspiring immense cruelty."

Of course, that gave me pause. As a member of the CoJC, I don't readily associate the word "virtue" with the word "status." In my life, virtue is an unrelenting and very personal quest that has little to do with my social life, but rather consistently makes me feel inadequate as I measure myself against the divine standard I read about in the scriptures. And that understanding of virtue has a lot to do with truth, and hardly anything to do with other people.

At the same time, I have witnessed "purity spirals" in online groups, where people are excluded--even kicked out--for voicing views that were not seen as "pure enough." Try mentioning in a mainstream feminist group that you don't feel right about third trimester abortion and see how fast they kick you out! But again, it's not about purity-as-purity, but about purity-as-fitting-in. More from West:

"Status is extremely important to wellbeing, so much so that it can have a profound effect on our health. People more successful in their careers tend to live longer, even taking into account confounders like smoking. The demoralising feeling of lower social status can send our bodies into a sort of crisis mode which in the long term puts us at higher risk of neurodegenerative disease, heart disease and cancer.

"Being a loser can be fatal, and people who feel low status are also more likely to become ungenerous towards others and pick up destructive personal habits such as eating more sugary food — unsurprisingly, being overweight is an obvious status signal in rich countries. They are also more likely to kill themselves, with loss of job or divorce being the biggest risk factors for male suicide in middle age, for men who find themselves no longer provider or patriarch. Some people find the status game so stressful they simply drop out, most notoriously in Japan where more than half a million hikikomori have “social withdrawal syndrome”, locked in their bedroom doing God-knows-what.

"Such is the beneficial effect of high status that most workers would choose a fancier title over a pay rise; in comparison having more power does not equal a happier life, heavy being the head that wears the crown. Our lust for status, in contrast, is insatiable.

"When a high-status individual does something, Storr writes, “our subconscious copy-flatter-conform programming is triggered and we allow them to alter our beliefs and behaviour… We mimic not just their behaviour but their beliefs. The better we believe, the higher we rise. And so faith, not truth, is incentivised. People will believe almost anything if high-status people – whether priests, generals, actors, musicians, TikTokkers – suggest them.” Indeed they will profess to believe quite obviously untrue things.

"Unsurprisingly, therefore, a huge amount of effort goes into signalling and detecting. . . . In fact our voice tone and even the frequency of our voice – the hum – changes to match the higher-status people. I’ve known workplaces where people come to imitate the laugh of the boss; you could hear them howling together, vocally members of the same tribe.

"People will adopt positions not just out of sincerity, partisan loyalty or conformity, but because they signal social status. Crime and immigration are the most obvious examples, because liberal positions are associated with higher education levels.

"[H]umans will repeat untruths if they feel it helps their position, and Storr cites various social science experiments showing that participants will make statements which they know to be false if other, high-status “participants” (actually actors) say it first. Worse still, “those asked publicly not only endorsed the false majority view, they punished the sole teller of truth by down-grading them.” If you’re ever mobbed on social media for a bad opinion, it might be of some comfort to know that a lot of the people throwing stones will secretly agree with you. Or perhaps it won’t. To some extent all societal debates are in part a status competition, especially with regards the modern quest for moral status. Although dominance games are behind a great deal of violence across the animal kingdom, humans have evolved to live in far larger groups than other great apes and have therefore become much less violent. Instead, we have learned to use virtue to raise our status, a quality which shows commitment to the wider community.

"[V]irtue games inspir[e] some of the most appalling cruelty in history, ranging from the witch hunts of the 17th century to the ritual child abuse panics of the 1980s. Those responsible for these atrocities played a virtue game, creating the narrative that they were fighting some all-powerful, evil enemy, with the “maintenance of conformity, correct beliefs and behaviours being of heightened importance.”

"The same process is clearly at work behind social media-led bullying, These are always framed in terms of protecting the weak, the urge to care and protect from harm; the more people imagine themselves aiding the vulnerable, the more horrendous their behaviour, giving them free rein to commit what Jonathan Sacks called “altruistic evil”. People do terrible things more out of love than out of hate. But it is also a status game, the aim being to “seek the maximal removal” of their opponent’s status: “ideally, reputational death.”

“When their mob grows into a status goldrush, a massive blast of vindictive energy gets directed at the victim. Attracted by the prizes, more and more ambitious players pile in and the game becomes an animal of attack, glorying in the ecstasy of dominance . . . [D]esire for status is the one thing that can never be overcome, because it is not enough that I succeed — others must fail.”

Wow. Strong stuff. Virtue as a cudgel to hit others with . . . Chilling. And yet I guess that is where Caiaphas was coming from, wasn't he? It really wasn't about the truth about Jesus for Caiaphas--it was about status. And status not only confers well-being, it also confers power. Specifically, the power to hurt others.

But when I go deeper than this, it is also true that there is no virtue without a concomitant implication of distinction. That is, for there to be virtue, there must be non-virtue. And there must be the possibility of making the distinction between the two. Indeed, there must be the possibility of placing a "gulf"--"[There is] an awful gulf, which separate[s] the wicked from the tree of life, and also from the saints of God" (1 Ne. 15:28).

So, on another level, there can be no virtue without (at least) eventual exclusion of non-virtue. In that particular verse from Nephi, it is not something abstract at all. This "gulf" means the exclusion of certain individuals from certain other individuals. Virtue/righteousness will be the foundation for division among the family of Adam and Eve in the end.

Indeed, division is also part and parcel of righteous judgment. Some members of the Church are found worthy to enter the temple; others are not found worthy. So the division is not confined to the eternities; we see at least an echo here on earth in Church practices. And such practices are justified (though we cannot speak about implementation in all cases): we are told by Father Lehi that if there is no division between righteousness and unrighteousness, then everything is lost--God, happiness, good, freedom, love. Everything that makes life worthwhile will cease to exist.

What is the difference, then, between exclusionary practices West discusses and those we find in the scriptures and the Church? I think this is a very important question for members of the Church, and one about which there can be emotional confusion. The most recent example is Elder Holland's talk at the BYU Conference in August 2021. In it, he said--apparently controversially--the following:

"[I]t will assist everyone in providing such help if things can be kept in some proportion and balance in the process. For example, we have to be careful that love and empathy do not get interpreted as condoning and advocacy, or that orthodoxy and loyalty to principle not be interpreted as unkindness or disloyalty to people. As near as I can tell, Christ never once withheld His love from anyone, but He also never once said to anyone, “Because I love you, you are exempt from keeping my commandments.” We are tasked with trying to strike that same sensitive, demanding balance in our lives.

"Musket fire? Yes, we will always need defenders of the faith, but “friendly fire” is a tragedy — and from time to time the Church, its leaders and some of our colleagues within the university community have taken such fire on this campus. And sometimes it isn’t friendly — wounding students and the parents of students who are confused about what so much recent flag-waving and parade-holding on this issue means. Beloved friends, this kind of confusion and conflict ought not to be. There are better ways to move toward crucially important goals in these very difficult matters [i.e., same-sex attraction] — ways that show empathy and understanding for everyone while maintaining loyalty to prophetic leadership and devotion to revealed doctrine. My Brethren have made the case for the metaphor of musket fire, which I have endorsed yet again today. There will continue to be those who oppose our teachings and with that will continue the need to define, document, and defend the faith. But we do all look forward to the day when we can “beat our swords into plowshares, and [our] spears into pruning hooks,” and at least on this subject, “learn war [no] more.” And while I have focused on this same-sex topic this morning more than I would have liked, I pray you will see it as emblematic of a lot of issues our students and community face in this complex, contemporary world of ours."

Frankly, I struggle to see why this is controversial, unless positing that we should be following the commandments is controversial. Perhaps some see Holland as using virtue as a cudgel? But clearly his motives are not tied into a desire to hurt others, or a desire to dominate others, or a desire for power. His calling is to keep the line between righteousness and unrighteousness bright, so people can decide for themselves which side of that line they would like to be on.

But others see only a cudgel: “Standing apart, being unique and peculiar, something many in and of the church have championed through the years, should never be used as a weapon, a musket, a hammer, a whatever, in wielding it as a means to separate the flock in righteousness from others. What good does that do? It concurrently sharpens a double-edged sword, making your own, the supposedly devout, feel better, perhaps, and others, the supposedly wayward, feel worse, making them feel not just unworthy, but unwanted. … Spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ, which is exactly what the LDS Church wants to do, begins and ends with love. According to the Bible, the two most important Christian commandments are: ‘Love thy God and love thy neighbor.’ It’s not, ‘Defend the truth with a musket. . . . It was unnecessary and damaging. It not only widened the gap between those groups inside and outside of the school, as he called for more unity, but also served to distance the university from other universities, the ones that promote both academic pursuits and academic freedom. . . . For a church that sees itself in large measure, or that should, as a hospital for sinners rather than a sanctuary for saints, stressing fellowshipping and missionary efforts to bring folks toward deity, defending truth is less important, less effective than loving people in and into the fold. . . . there are many more at BYU who are pained by the lack of love they’re shown by those not just holding onto the iron rod, but swinging it with gusto. . . . Truth is, the LDS Church, and BYU by extension, finds itself in a deep conundrum. It wants to love all of God’s children, but it wants to uphold its rules as they are laid down, as they’ve always been laid down, by the powers that be, at least the way those earthly powers interpret them. It disfavors and denounces same-sex relations, saying they are against God’s way, but it’s also commanded by that God to love and embrace and accept everyone.’" (Columnist Gordon Monson in The Tribune)

Wow. Strong stuff. But loving God is about loving His commandments and obeying them. So Monson is wrong--we are supposed to love everyone and ALSO uphold the commandments of God. Elder Holland is, I think, an excellent example of how one can do both. Christ himself is the perfect example of how to do this. He loves us, and asks us to come to Him, but He also tells us we must change, and that we must love God enough to obey His commandments.

So at the end of a long, but hopefully coherent piece, may I just conclude by saying while the modern day has indeed seen virtue used as a cudgel by social media mobs, the Church's mandate to its members to love God and our fellow man is not that. It is the way of Christ, when undertaken with love in our hearts. No doubt some in the Church will attempt to twist Christ's way into a cudgel; count on it, someone will. They would be wrong to do that. But Christ's way is not wrong. It is The Way, and there is no other way.