King Benjamin Killed God

Jesus set up an impossible paradox when he explained that the two great commandments are to love God and to love one’s neighbor (though he was not the first to summarize the Law in such a way). The problem is that one simply cannot do both, as Jesus himself elsewhere noted that one cannot serve two masters.

King Benjamin saw the impossible tension between these two contradictory commandments and attempted to resolve it by collapsing them into one single ethical imperative. He said: “when ye are the in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God” (Mos 2:17). The attempt to equate the love of God and the love of neighbor as simply one ethical imperative elides the problem of having two competing duties. The problem (or promise, depending on your perspective) with such a position is that the duty to love God cannot possibly come into conflict with the duty to love one’s neighbor.

Setting aside epistemological issues raised by Kant that result in Neitzsche’s proclamation that God is dead, there is another element here, namely, the teleological ethical imperative of modernity. For Kant, Hegel, and others, there was no possible justification for the suspension of the ethical. In this view, one’s God is one’s neighbor, and the ethical is the divine.

This is the problem that Kierkegaard tackles in Fear and Trembling. He suggests that Abraham discloses the tension between love of God and love of neighbor when God asks him to kill his son. Kant is very clear here that this is a violation of ethics and that Abraham was not justified in his obedience to God’s “supposed” command. Kierkegaard, in contrast, asserts that the duty to God is higher than the ethical duty, and if not, then God is simply an abstraction of ethics. (In a way, this remains the theoretical problem of the Social Gospel to articulate a basis for ethics that is not identical to a secular basis). He suggests that either Abraham is really the father of faith, or he is a murderer. If one holds the point of view that God is ethics, then the latter is the only option.

King Benjamin is not willing to concede this tension. Along with Kant and Hegel, he sees the ethical as the divine and categorically prohibits God’s command to contravene the commandment to love one’s neighbor. He must, therefore, reject Abraham’s faith, for if Abraham’s faith is correct, then so is that of the suicide bomber and the Laugherty brothers, both of who see God’s intervention in the world in such a way that supersedes the ethical. If by “God” one means something other than the commandment to love one’s neighbor, then this God can only ask that if you follow him, you must hate your father, mother, brothers, and sisters. King Benjamin killed this God before Kant did.

58 Replies to “King Benjamin Killed God”

  1. TT,

    I did not think that I could love King Benjamin (or Kant for that matter) anymore than I already do. I guess I was wrong. I have always seen a parallel between King Benjamin’s teaching that we should treat even the beggar with respect no matter what and Kant’s principle of always treating humans as an ends to themselves. The hard part about treating all humans with human dignity and love is that we have to include all people.

    Another great post.

  2. I do not have much time, but Nel Noddings notes that only a man would follow the immoral command to kill ones child. The willingness to put a commitment to abstract principles (nationalism or religion) above the good of other actually people is disturbing to a number of ethical perspectives.

  3. To add another point: I had a number of LDS students argue that the right to not be murdered could not be a universal human right. Their rationale: If it was okay for Nephi to kill Laban and therefore murder could not always be wrong. Right then I had a better understanding of how good kids could possibly evolve into suicide terrorists.

  4. This was an interesting post. My understanding on this topic is that Benjamin is saying that our covenant relationship is only with the Lord and that we only serve God and our acts of service are always directed towards Him, even if the outer result is to help someone else (v16, v17). So when other people are looked after, they know it comes from God and should thank Him instead of God’s servant (v19). One result that follows from King Benjamin’s way of prioritizing things is that we are freed from all pride, popularity, vanity, etc. (v15 -no boasting— clear conscience before God–) This gives us a chance to serve in a way that is pure and free from those sneaky temptations of self-aggrandizement or purchasing favor from others. This makes us able to truly enjoy serving God.

  5. If I serve my neighbor’s child is my neighbor not served? If my neighbor serves my child am I not served? Where has loved diminished in any of these relations because of service?

  6. In my opinion Abraham passed the test when he told “God” (religion of his day, the voices in his own head or even the very voice of God): “I refuse to kill my son” and/or “God, do you own damn killing.” At that point he passed the test and realized that virtue trumps authority or perceived authority. The same for Nephi in my opinion, for Nephi to have passed the test would be to NOT pick up the sword, murder an unarmed man and then say “God told me to do it.” Doing so he committed what Girard called the founding murder of all civilizations that isolates his people so they can not return. Doing so, he makes swords from that one sword as the pattern and that sword represents the very instrument that inexorably ends in their extinction—us against them and “god is on our side” or “god told me to do it” vain imaginations. The Book of Mormon is a comprehensive pattern to be learned from and not replicated. King Benjamin and those born again provide a way out which in then end the Nephites reject. That way is to embrace the way of Christ and not the made up nationalism and “God told me to do all kinds of evil” taking the Lord’s name in vain group found throughout OT and in parts of BOM.

  7. This was really interesting.

    Of course, sometimes it could be more loving to kill someone than not to kill them. (intense suffering, etc.) and of course there are other ways to interpret the Abraham story which are more favorable.

    But it definitely had me thinking all day.

  8. Thanks for the comments so far! I’m surprised at what closet atheists you all are!

    Chris, I think you raise the interesting case of Nephi. This is certainly an instructive parallel, but there is a key difference, I think, between Nephi and Abraham. For Nephi, we are told that God provides the ethical reasoning, a consequentialist ethics. Now, we may find this ethical principle problematic, but nevertheless it is an ethical principle. In this sense, God is still following an ethical norm, so there is no conflict between God’s commandment and ethics. Kierkegaard speaks of Artemis’s requirement that Agamemnon’s to kill his daughter to save the Trojan nation, which I think follows the same idea as Nephi’s slaying of Laban. Both kill for the greater good of the nation. In Abraham’s case, there is no reason given, no higher ethical principle to appeal to. There is only duty to God’s commandment, and God’s wish to kill.
    Inasmuch as you disagree with Abraham, and follow Kant/Benjamin, where is God? Is ethics all there is? Why do we need to associate God and ethics at all? Doesn’t this position lead to the death of God?

    I think that you provide an accurate reading of this chapter, and I take it that you agree with me that for Benjamin, the only way to serve God is to serve one’s neighbor. In this case, there can be no service to God which requires harm to one’s neighbor, as in the case of Abraham. This leads to the problem, however, that God is simply an abstraction of the ethical principle.

    I don’t dispute that there is overlap between the love of God and the love of neighbor. In fact, the overlap is precisely the problem since they become indistinguishable. It leaves love of neighbor as the only actual requirement, making God irrelevant.

    I’m not sure I follow. Where are you getting the idea that Abraham rejected God? As for the rest, I think that your position leads to the same problem as the others in that it makes God irrelevant. If all there is to loving God is loving one’s neighbor, how is this different from secular ethics?

    You’re right that killing may be loving in certain instances, but this is to reinsert ethics into the equation. It doesn’t really get around the problem, but just restates the idea that God and the ethical are identical. But there is no such ethical justification in the case of Abraham (if you have a suggestion on this, I’d love to hear it).

  9. TT,

    To kill an incapacitated drunk in order to save a nation/people which does not exist yet is a bit of a stretch as an ethical argument. While it might be a sort of consequentialist argument, I can think of any consequentialist theory that would make such a flimsy argument. Of course, I think most consequentialist arguments are flimsy. I will concede that it is a consequentialist argument, but I deny that it is a consequentialist ethical argument.

    Inasmuch as you disagree with Abraham, and follow Kant/Benjamin, where is God? Is ethics all there is? Why do we need to associate God and ethics at all? Doesn’t this position lead to the death of God?

    I am not sure if we need religion to have ethics. Overall, religion is more problematic than it is helpful when it comes to ethics. As for your actual question – Benjamin seems to argue in chapter 4 that we need to have faith in God in order to truly value our fellow men and cease to value ourselves about others. However, Kant’s humanist approach to the same questions works just as well for me.

  10. Thanks Chris, it is good to see you around! Yes, it does seem to be that in modernity if God is nothing other than the ethical, and the ethical doesn’t require God, there is no place for God. Would you agree that the Social Gospel is fundamentally atheistic?

  11. I think that it is more humanistic or agnostic than atheist per se. I guess I would say that there is not need, rather than no place, for God. Does this make me a Unitarian Mormon?

  12. TT & Chris:

    I see that my last post was confusing at best. I believe that God is only God because He is not just ethical but Virtuous as described in DC : “my virtue is my power.” For me the Son of God reveals who God IS and not who we believe Him and His voice to be: “it has been said of old” such and such but I am here to tell you that your fragmented or partial understandings of who I am is off base. God is relevant because He is virtuous without which He ceases to be God. I believe in the social gospel as seen by NT Wright, Yoder, Hauerwas, et. al. God is real, but our understanding of Him is only appreciated to extent that we are capable of comprehending him.
    I just believe that the story of Abraham can be read many ways and I believe that the religion of his day compelled Abraham to kill son (tradition of fathers which voice he thought he heard) but that the voice of the real God he heard when he threw down the knife. The God who was drawing incrementally his people out of human sacrifice, then animal, and then “no more shedding of blood.”

  13. Chris,
    Lol! No, I don’t think so. Actually, it makes you just like everyone else here who doesn’t want to admit that God might contravene ethics!

  14. Ron,

    Interesting, I like your account. Of course, we cannot know whether anything in the old testament account actually happened.

  15. Ron,
    Thanks for the clarification. In your comment, you emphasize that virtue and ethics are different, but it is not clear to me what the difference you see between them is.
    As for Abraham, it is an interesting reading, but the result is that Abraham is not the Father of Faith at all, as Paul suggested. Rather, there is nothing particularly virtuous about Abraham at all since his great act in your account was simply not killing his son. That’s a pretty low bar and not worthy of much respect since it is nearly universally met by everyone.

  16. one more comment re; Nephi and Laban. I am not convinced “God” told Nephi to kill Laban. I believe Nephi believed or later believed God told him. It is not that I reject the word of God or His relevance, rather I just do not have a testimony of everything Nephi or for that matter any mortal tells us. The book of Mormon is true in the sense it is authentic but not that everyone in the text is telling us the truth or getting it right…

  17. Ron,
    That certainly is a consistent view, but how would you answer the question of this post that such a view which sees God and ethics as indistinguishable results in the death of God?

  18. Abraham past the “test” because he knew enough about God to know that what God requires is right–and the reason he knew that is because he knew something of God’s perfect love. He knew that God loved Isaac more than he did himself. And God would ultimately prove his perfect love by virtue of the atonement for which the sacrifice of Isaac was a poor simile.

    And so, whether or not the question is an ethical one really has no meaningful application in the ultimate sense of keeping the great commandments. Because, ultimately, we keep them because we love someone–whether our neighbors or God–all of whom are individuals. Salvation is rooted in relations–in loving others and being moved to action on another’s behalf because of that love. Not in being moved to action because of what we ought to do–though that motivation is important if it’s the best we can do for now.

    And so Abraham did what he did out of love–God having loved both he and Isaac first. Indeed, one could argue that Nephi’s response to God’s request to kill Laban was ultimately an expression of Nephi’s love for God–as ironic as that may seem.

    PS. I think Adam Greenwood wrote an interesting post on this over at T&S a while ago–something about Abraham’s sacrifice being an ultimate expression of love.

  19. TT and Jack:

    I really appreciate this post started by TT.
    Through the readings of Rene Girard and then rereading our canons, I have come to believe that it was not God’s will that Christ be put to death, but that we demanded it—our sense of justice, our demand for blood and that in killing the first perfectly innocent man on this earth should be our revelation of the “things hidden from the foundation of the earth” that WE are the one that demand blood, we are the ones that stone, and we are the ones that place others on the altar rather than ourselves. I have rejected the “penal substitution” model and believe it is a foundational error.
    I personally see and judge all texts, scriptures, narratives through the prism created by Christ’s words and deeds. In the words of Nephi when He (Christ) comes He will tell us all things to do. He is the final and only revelation that I trust. Christ resists every good intentioned plan that involved any force and cost/benefit analysis whether from Zealots or the authorized priesthood of his day. I am less interested in His will than His nature, for the revelation of His nature is the revelation of His will for me personally (in other words, the revelation of His nature is to know His will whereas to suggest one knows His will without knowing his Nature can involve self deceit). My, yours, all of our intelligences are as eternal as God and the council of the Gods. He is our God because of His virtue and revelation of who he really is (“this is life eternal to know Him”). He came to demonstrate who He really was and is and the example to follow. Discipleship places NO ONE on the altar for us and the only acceptable offering is ourselves (present day temple altar). All other offerings either by Abraham or Nephi (who parrots the words of those who murdered Christ by saying “it is better that one perish” then all rest of us) is the very offering which Christ rejected and became the only acceptable and complete offering.
    I do not believe the offering of Abraham or Nephi were acts of love, but acts founded on a false and incomplete understanding/theology.

  20. TT – when you refer to the ‘social gospel,’ what – or who – in particular are you talking about? If you’re talking about Jim Wallis and the contemporary so-called ‘religious left,’ I’d agree with you; these groups have a difficult time enunciating a reason for their existence, because, after all, we already have a Red Cross and other groups that follow the ethic of Christ the teacher without requiring a religion of supernatural redemption and the cross.

    The social gospel is usually criticized in this way – for a sort of divine immanence that uncritically identifies God with the progress of human understanding – but this is, I think, a superficial reading of the first generation. I’d maintain that there’s a distinct strain of thought among the earliest social gospelers – Herron, Rauschenbusch, Josiah Strong – that had a powerful sense the need for salvation and sanctification and dismissed secular reform because it did not acknowledge that human beings required a spiritual rebirth before ethical behavior became truly possible. Josiah Strong said that the Socialist Party was hollow to the core, despite endorsing its aims, because it failed to acknowledge the reality of sin and the need for divine rehabilitation. The ethics of a fallen humanity are worthless absent that.

  21. I don’t dispute that there is overlap between the love of God and the love of neighbor. In fact, the overlap is precisely the problem since they become indistinguishable. It leaves love of neighbor as the only actual requirement, making God irrelevant.

    Not saying that I support this view, but I recently read the idea of God being a “divine chorus” of individuals serving one another. Benjamin doesn’t kill that God, does he?

  22. TT,

    you ask an interesting question and I think perhaps there is an answer in you concluding paragraph. Perhaps the god King Benjamin killed should be killed.

    I dont quite follow your logic that if god is something other than loving your neighbor than we must hate our brother. Rather, it seems god is relevant because he is the perfect image of what it means to love your neighbor. I have always felt that a large aspect of Jesus’ work, vocation, or whatever we should call it was to show us what it is to be a child of God. To love unjust and just, in short our neighbors both enemy and friend.

  23. I guess the question then comes: If we are followers of the 6od of Benjamin (also the God of the New Testament ) , why do we sound so much like followers of the “the god of Abraham”? In other words, why do I feel that I hear more Jerry Falwell than I do King Benjamin? In the revolt against modernity (which is really what what the backlash against “secularism” is) is religion now reclaiming the 6od of Abraham and rejecting the progress brought to us by Benjamin and Kant? Sounds likr that is the case. Of course, I say this as a Kantian (and now a Benjaminian…….or something like that).

  24. I’m coming late to the post. (It’s been a busy week for me)

    TT, can’t someone kill in love? That is if I am in a war shouldn’t I love the opposing forces and isn’t that compatible with my fighting them? It seems like your argument rests on love or ethical duty entailing specific classes of acts or their denial. I just am very skeptical of that.

    Frankly I’m very skeptical the two commandments are in conflict at all. I think what tends to be in conflict is our epistemological understanding of what love entails. The argument for his is straightforward. God loves others – his neighbors. So Gods’ love ends up being love our neighbors. Thus to love God entails loving our neighbors. I think the distinction is made simply because sometimes God asks what, from our perspective, seems difficult to accept. (Which is Benjamin’s point)

    Regarding Kant and Kierkegaard I think one can easily think both wrong. (I do, for instance) I also don’t see King Benjamin adopting a Kantian ethic. I just see no evidence for that. Nor do I read Benjamin as seeing a tension between the two. The passage you present to argue for this (Mos 2:17) seems much more easily read as saying love of neighbor is how we love God.

    Chris (#2) – I actually agree with the existential point of not turning ethics into abstractions rather than tied to actual individuals. (Existence precedes ethics) I’m not sure this entails no appeal to abstract principles, just a limit on how we understand the meaning of abstract principles. Put simply, we don’t see ethics as a set of simple propositions we ascribe to.

    Interestingly your move in (#3) seems to move the opposite way. Killing (not murder, since murder definitionally is unjustified killing) is wrong because not being killed is a universal human right. Isn’t that an abstract principle that trumps living existential beings? I’m confused here.

    Ron (#8), I think it becomes quite easy to simply say Nephi was wrong and that what our intuitions of what is right trump the text. I think the text becomes problematic precisely because it escapes easy answers. I’m more than open to the human element. But once again I wonder if you aren’t falling into the very trap Chris did. Letting some abstract principles trump all else. That is you make the Kantian move. (Which I think is wrong)

    Put clearly, I’m not taking a position on the correctness of the text (Nephi’s ascription of the command to God; Abraham doing the same) Rather I’m saying that the way we judge the text seems flawed.

    TT (#10), I think by phrasing it as “God and the ethical are identical” is the way to consider the problem. It’s basically the Euthyphro dilemma. I won’t say much on that beyond suggesting that Blake Ostler in his second volume The Problems With Theism and the The Love of God has the best treatment of this in an LDS context.

    Chris (#11). I think that the argument for Nephi to kill Laban is stronger than you suggest. Recall that he has already tried to kill Nephi and his family, has a rather ruthless reputation, robbed Nephi and his family and so forth.

    Further can’t one reject consequentialism as a meta-ethic while accept consequential arguments epistemologically? I’m also confused as to why you think it’s a weak argument without seriously just rejecting large swaths of the text as inaccurate.

  25. Clark,

    Despite the fact that we are both philosophical Mormon blogger-types, we have a very difficult time communicating. This largely has to do with rather stark differences in what we consider to be philosophy. I pretty sure that we have no philosophy books in common on our respective shelves.

    Anyhow, I was pointing out in #2 that Nel Noddings of other feminists who deal with the ethic of care make this point. I was not arguing it myself (though I am open to just about any argument that says the Abraham/Isaac story is down right creepy). My work actually deals with the feminist ethic of care and why it is consistent with the John Rawls’ theory of justice (a rather Kantian enterprise). I do not have a problem with abstract princinples, unless they are bad abstract principles. Divine command ethics fall under this problematic area because it always for anything and everything, as long as God commands it.

    I was not referring to existentialism. It is not worth referring to.

    There is not inconsistency, then, with my point in #4. Human rights was the topic of discussion in that class. It is not my only criteria. Most of my students are nationalist and realists. When it comes to international relations they rarely seem concerned about rights or ethics. I tend to hope that this group of students never holds power.

    Yes, Laban had tried to kill his family earlier in the day. But he was passed out on the ground. Come on, Mr. Practical you cannot toss out the facts here. I can see why Nephi might want to kill him. Revenge is a strong impulse. I am not saying there are not reasons for why it might be advantages to killed Laban. I just cannot see how any of them are moral. Of course, you do not care much for ethical theory, so this might not bother you.

    I have great respect for some consequentialists, particularly John Stuart Mill. But again, Utilitarians would demand a reasonable connection between the act and the consequences. Of course, Mill would most likely have gotten tripped up on the “I killed him so my grandchildren could read Isaiah” part.

    As for Kant, I am not sure if there is much for you and me to talk about. I think your rejection of him is based on a poor stereotype of his actual moral theory. I will get around to writing on him in the future. If the idea that we should treat all human with respect and dignity is too abstract for you, I wish you luck.

    My wife is now annoyed that I am writing this Valentines night. I better go.

  26. From a pragmatic point of view, God is necessary to a well ordered universe for the same reason government is necessary for a well ordered state. The “ethical” can serve no such function by itself.

    At some point there is always a contest of good vs. good. Resolving the contest of the greater good is not just an epistemological problem – in many cases the greater good may just be plain indeterminate.

    Thus the only way to end the war of good against good is for the good to unify under the same banner. The leader of this divine society is God. That is one solution to the Euthyphro dilemma at any rate.

    There are two other options – one impersonalizes a timeless God, and the other makes good an arbitrary function of his will. I think the D&C 121 theory makes a lot more sense.

  27. Divine command ethics fall under this problematic area because it always for anything and everything, as long as God commands it.

    That summary shortcuts a major debate about the nature of God, the relationship between his will and his intellect, the legitimacy of his authority, and so on.

    Supposing for purposes of argument that Nephi did receive an unambiguous divine command to kill Laban, he has two immediate defenses for his actions.

    The first is the governmental defense – namely that he was given a legitimate command by the ultimate governmental authority in the universe.

    The second is the moral authority defense – namely that he was given a legitimate command by the ultimate arbitrator of all moral questions.

    If Nephi did receive such a command, any legitimate indictment of Nephi is a more powerful indictment of God himself. So if God is God, either Nephi’s obedience was morally justified or God did not give him such a command.

  28. Mark D.,

    I obviously did not give much of a summary to divine command ethics. However, your well said account of it still concerns me. Ultimately, divine command ethics is a form of relativism because these is no (rational) basis for morality. Each individual gets to decide what is right because each individual gets to decide which command comes from God.

    Now there may be an actual will of God, but I am not sure if there is a reliable means by which humans can consistently determine that will.

    As for God being the ultimate governmental authority, the problem arises when nations actual think that God is behind (and authorizing) their immoral acts. This applies to the ancient Israelites butchering women, children, and animal and to President Bush defending the war in Iraq on the basis that he prayed about it.

    Divine Command ethics is often ad hoc (as Ron said above). There rarely is an actual voice from God. Instead after the fact: God told me to do it. Convenient.

  29. Chris H., I agree that the epistemological problems with divine command ethics are extremely serious, bordering on insurmountable as a practical matter, for all the reasons that you mention.

    However, as an abstract proposition, the propriety of following a divine command is intimately bound up with the merit of issuing such a command in the first place. A realistic version of the DCT does not justify any divine command, it simply moves the primary ethical questions up a level.

    Ultimately, if we want to evaluate whether it was even remotely probable that any purported divine command was in fact, divine, we have to consider whether there is any possible justification for such a command to be issued in the first place. Commands to kill your neighbor are so obviously unjustifiable that we can easily come to the conclusion that the perception of such a divine injunction is almost certainly illegitimate.

    In my experience, if some perceived fragment of inspiration does not pass the rational basis test, it is almost certainly false, destructive, and illusory.

  30. Chris, first my apologies for not responding for so long. It’s been a very busy week.

    You’re probably right that we don’t share a lot of common ground. Although I also suspect we do actually have a lot of similar books on our shelves along with a lot that are different.

    I think Mark is correct to separate out the ethical versus epistemological issues. If Nephi is told by God to kill Laban then I think it fairly easy to see that justified. The question of truth then rests on God. But if God has some sort of foreknowledge of modalities he knows the consequences of killing Laban. So it seems to me that a consequentialism that actually works is quite open to God and via God to Nephi.

    Now I’ll admit I’m fairly skeptical to most kinds of consequentialism although I suspect we’ll find out consequentialism is a significant part of what the good is for God.

    I’ll agree with you that the Abraham story is creepy and difficult in many ways. I actually like Nibley’s attempted take on it better than any others. (I hate Kierkegaard’s take) I just don’t think one should or can tie Nephi with Abraham here.

    Regarding Laban being drunk, I don’t see how that matter, although I can understand why the Kantian in you might see otherwise. It seems to me that he’s equally a threat whether awake or unconscious. The objection to his being drunk strikes me as akin to those silly Hollywood tendencies where the good guy can only kill the bad guy when he’s facing them regardless of what is going on. (The drive that made George Lucas CGI Han Solo shooting Greedo)

    But I suspect we’ll not agree. I wonder though if all this doesn’t invert things quite a bit. Don’t the scriptures form a stumbling block for Kantians? Can a Kantian explain God? (And not just the problematic OT)

  31. Regarding divine command. I think the problem Chris, is that you are assuming there was no command and that it is simply ad hoc. I confess I find that problematic. I’m not saying it might not be so. (I suspect that sort of thing goes on a lot in the scriptures) Just that it seems wrong to just take that level of skepticism to what Nephi says.

    The criticism of divine command basically entails that we should never trust God on anything of any weight. Which I find extremely problematic. Now I’ll be the first to admit that I’d want a lot of evidence from God to justify killing someone who appears innocent. I suspect were I in Nephi’s shoes I wouldn’t need nearly as much – which is of course your point. But that doesn’t mean any prompting isn’t real. (And we are talking about a guy who had some pretty remarkable things happening to him including angels and physical objects – so I don’t think we should discount his experiences)

  32. Clark,

    I guess I come at the Laban being drunk and passed out issue from a just war perspective which takes the immediate threat of the combatant to be relevant. Maybe it is just the Kantian in me. I am okay with that. Not sure how he could be a equally be a threat, let alone a threat at all, while passed out. I am not so worried about the scripture account as I am those living today who take moral justification out of the story, rather than viewing it as part of the founding narative of the Nephite peoples. Something like that. This also applies to your comment in #37.

    Thanks for the Star Wars reference. We can have that in common.

    Mark D. does make a good point, but I am primarily concerned about the ethical issue.

  33. I guess my view is that the immediate threat is irrelevant. To make a parallel to war, if I am at war with someone the fact I come upon their camp while they are asleep is irrelevant to whether it is just to kill them. Put an other way there are two senses of immediate threat here. By one measure – the larger one – Laban was an immediate threat since he was even then in the process of trying to kill them.

  34. BTW – regarding similarity of shelves. I actually have a reasonable amount of Kant on my shelves. Although I long ago reached the point where I only break him out when some other philosopher I’m reading is reacting to him.

  35. Clark, If you consider Nephi to be subject to criminal law, the lack of an immediate threat makes what he did an unjustified homicide. Jewish law might have been different in that respect, but I doubt it.

    If on the other hand, one considers what Nephi did to be an act of war, then again the local residents would have been justified in exercising lethal force in response, without so much as the dignity of a trial.

    The legitimacy of what Nephi did lies solely in the validity of his perception of a divine command, which if accurate may justify him in the heavens, but for practical reasons has little or no bearing in a secular context.

    As far as sneaking up and killing an ordinary soldier while he sleeps, that is certainly justified under the laws of war, but I suspect most would consider that not to be very “sportsmanlike”, even when pressed to do such things out of wartime necessity.

  36. Clark: at this point we might not be seeing the facts the same way. We will just have to disagree.

    I am sure that we have many of the same works of the cannon. I was more thinking of the secondary and contemporary literature which is more a reflection of our passions and interests.

    Mark D.: I am more interested in the morality of war than the laws of war, though I appreciate the following of either one.

    Nephi killing Laban would most likely fall within a discussion of assasination than one about sleeping soldiers.

  37. My concern about the Nephi/Laban account is on multiple levels

    On one level, anyone who killed a drunk in our modern society would be guilty of murder and rightly so. Im more of a non-violence advocate myself but even from a just war perspective I am a little wary of the immediate threat argument Clark seems to make. This is of course part of the reason why just war theory is problematic. All nations and groups tend to see themselves as acting in defense and are generally able to articulate an immediate threat rationale.

    On a theological level, the story is disturbing as well. In the first place, we know that Nephi recorded this event at a much later time in his life and it seems probable that in part he was trying to justify and explain the foundations of his kingdom. This is a foundational story in Nephite culture and there are obvious echoes to David and Goliath. What stand out to me is the way that a murder becomes a cultural foundational event much in the way Rene Girard predicts. The sword of Laban becomes a token or symbol of Nephite rule and this sword plays a prominent role in the continuation of violence that permeates the entire BoM. There is a strong sense that perhaps Nephi was dealing with some cognitive dissonance which would not be surprising given his sense of righteousness and events that occurred.

    I am also highly skeptical that god commanded nephi to do anything of the sort and if he did command him then there are serious questions about whether we should even trust a god that would ask such things. It is entirely inconsistent with the character of Jesus as we find him in the NT which I would argue is our best case of what god is actually like. I have a hard time thinking of a rationale reason why god would need to provide multiple promptings urging Nephi to kill a man just to get a book when there are other options which dont involve killing a man unnecessarily. If I understand consequentialism in this context correctly it seems that we arguing for a god who is willing to use morally compromised methods in order to achieve some greater good.

  38. Mark, I’m not sure modern criminal law is relevant since law and ethics are not the same thing. (A lot of laws allow the unethical to proceed and limit the ethical – typically because of some higher good for process) And yes ancient Jewish law was quite different. See, for example, Welch’s “Legal Perspectives on the Slaying of Laban”.

    As an aside since the typology was brought up, Nephi is probably partially reflecting Ex 2 in his narrative. The Exodus pattern is pretty important for Nephi.

    To say that the only legitimacy comes from divine command just seems false to me. Although I am saying that while simultaneously finding Kantian ethics hard to swallow. While I’m no utilitarian, as I said I suspect consequentialism is closer to the truth than Kant.

  39. What other options were there for Nephi? (Honest question)

    This has been a big question for me. Why was Laban the only place they sought the scriptures? Even acknowledging that texts were much rarer and precious in the ancient world, weren’t there many places to get the texts?

  40. clark, #45

    i think thats a highly relevant question. aside from the revelation route, ie nephi write a new set of plates, I am not sure but would assume there would have been more plates lying around. If Laban’s plates were unique since they had the genealogy that doesnt seem compelling enough to warrant having those exact plates at the cost of killing someone.

    Maybe someone out there has some historical data on the circulation of texts during this time period. Where did Jeremiah get his text? He came from a family line of priests, discredited at this time, no?

  41. If we assume that Nephi needed these precise plates, and that if left alive Laban would have pursued Nephi, following him back to his family and most likely killing them all, would that be justification enough for killing him as he did? In other words, I’m usually not a consequentialist but if the stakes are high enough, I think I’d bend. That said, this certainly isn’t the reason that Nephi gives. Furthermore, remember that he takes Laban’s clothes. I imagine this happens before he kills him otherwise the clothing would be covered in blood. So he must handle the drunken body for quite some time before he actually kills him.

  42. Why don’t you think Laban, acknowledging his actions, having the only available scriptures is sufficient? It seems to me that if we say there were other options that this then does affect how we judge Nephi’s actions. But you appear to be saying that even if there weren’t other options that it was still wrong. That seems difficult to accept. Is this a Kant vs. the consequentialists kind of argument again?

    If you Kantians are saying nothing could justify killing Laban that seems a solidly good reason to reject Kant if any.

  43. SmallAxe I think that is the justification that the Spirit gives Nephi.

    And the Spirit said unto me again: Behold the Lord hath delivered him into thy hands. Yea, and I also knew that he had sought to take away mine own life; yea, and he would not hearken unto the commandments of the Lord; and he also had taken away our property. And it came to pass that the Spirit said unto me again: Slay him, for the Lord hath delivered him into thy hands; 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. And now, when I, Nephi, had heard these words, I remembered the words of the Lord which he spake unto me in the wilderness, saying that: Inasmuch as thy seed shall keep my commandments, they shall prosper in the land of promise.

    So the justification is explicitly consequentialist and includes (1) Nephi and his family’s life is in danger (2) Laban stole Nephi’s property (3) he is wicked (4) the future nation of Nephi would dwindle in unbelief.

    Everyone focuses in on (4) but the justifications given are much more extensive.

  44. Sorry, if that came off harsher than I wrote it as. No nerve touched. More just the distant abstract notion of why one should pick one meta-ethical theory than an other. I’d honeslty be interested in a post on the relationship between ones meta-ethical theory and scriptural narrative. That is should there be an interplay between the two? I’m earnestly interested in how people reply.

    But please take anything I write to be written as me leaning back in my chair, rubbing my chin, thinking, and writing more dispassionately.

  45. Just giving you a hard time Clark. I tend to view my moral theory and my religious convictions as being related but not particularly consistent. In other words, LDS theology and Kantian Moral theory are in no way a perfect fit. I am okay with that. Kantian ethics does not claim to be a theology. LDS theology does not claim (in any serious way) to be analytical moral theory. Now they both mean a lot to me and not in any particular order of preferrence. What does that mean for my standing in the Church or my standing as a Kantian? Not sure if I care.

    I think we have taken this post far off from the original intent. I have quite a few things to think about and many future posts to contemplate. Peace.

  46. I also knew that he had sought to take away mine own life

    I’m not sure this implies “he will continue to seek to take my life and the life of my family”. The latter I see as claiming “I have a duty to protect my own life and the life of my family from unjust violence”, which in essence is a deontological justification. The former seems to be more of an “I’d better stop him before he gets another chance”, which I see as an attempt to generate a good outcome. I suppose I could be persuaded that the two in this case aren’t really all that different; but the line “Behold the Lord slayeth the wicked to bring forth his righteous purposes”, which I take as a general explanation seems to be overtly consequentialist.

  47. I don’t think duty implies deontological ethics. Certainly one can find the concept of duty in other conceptions.

    I also don’t think the idea that the Lord uses the wicked to bring about his purposes is consequentialist. It is a type (and rather common one) in the scriptures though. I don’t think it particularly fits either consequentialism nor deontological concepts of ethics. It’s more a comment about God being a tricky bugger.

    J. Madsen, that gets brought up quite a bit in Sunday School every time one of the passages is read. I tend to think that the saying is probably some common Jewish adage that Nephi knew.

  48. “I don’t think duty implies deontological ethics.”

    That is true. Within Utilitarianism, there is a duty/obligation to promote happiness and reduce suffering. See Peter Singers work on Famine.

    “I also don’t think the idea that the Lord uses the wicked to bring about his purposes is consequentialist.”

    Not sure if it is consequentialist or not. Also not sure if it is true.

  49. I also don’t think the idea that the Lord uses the wicked to bring about his purposes is consequentialist.

    I think much of this depends on how we want to dice it up, and may be extremely tangential at this point; but being concerned about agent neutral “good” outcomes seems to be a general characteristic of a consequentialist ethic. Also, he “slays” the wicked.

    “I don’t think duty implies deontological ethics.”

    That is true. Within Utilitarianism, there is a duty/obligation to promote happiness and reduce suffering. See Peter Singers work on Famine.

    Sure, but duty in the sense as I expressed it about can also be construed as an agent relative obligation that I have to my family, at least in this case. That duty, may in the end, conflict with a good state of affairs–Nephi ends up with blood on his hands (and on his conscience).

  50. I was not meaning to respond to your comment, smallaxe.. while many of these arguments are consequentalist, they are the type of consequentalist arguments that consequentalists, particularly utilitarianism (the closest thing to a decent consequentalist theory), are often trying to defend themselves against..

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