How should we evaluate and adjudicate doctrinal and practical matters? As LDS we look to scripture, authoritative statements by leaders, and to the history of LDS practice and thought. Appeals to these sources of authority, however, not only fail to yield definitive answers, but also obscure the authority with which they are invested. The authority by which these sources are invested is never itself investigated. The reinscription of the authority of these sources and the results they produce requires another level of scrutiny, particularly ethical scrutiny. Too often, authoritative sources become a cover for not having to deal with the ethical implications of doctrinal or practical matters.
The use of ethical evaluation as an interpretive lens for LDS doctrine and practice suggests that the appeal to authority does not in itself constitute a sufficient justification. Rather, human beings must be responsible for the ethical implications of their choices, even if such a choice is thought to conform to the will of God.
Ethical evaluation in itself is no easy task, and is certainly open to disputation and disagreement. Yet, such disputation is not a drawback, but an asset. By adding an extra dimension of analysis into the evaluation of authoritative sources, we may also gain clarification for how to weigh competing claims.
Ethics, especially theological ethics, as it has developed in the 20th and 21st centuries has become particularly sensitive to the culturally, economically, socially, physically, and geographically disadvantaged. As is well known, Mormon claims to authority in the late 20th and early 21st century have often appealed to tradition in a way that has not been sensitive to these issues. Consider blacks and the priesthood, women and the priesthood, homosexuality, the status of women in the afterlife, or any number of different issues which have faced ethical critique. Unfortunately, I do not believe that Latter-day Saints have yet fairly weighed these ethical issues, instead appealing to authority as a way to avoid them.
One of the many reasons Glenn Beck is wrong about liberation theology is that he pretends that he has no lens in his neutral evaluation of scripture, and that liberation theology is incorrect to apply a lens to scripture at all. The problem with such a view is that failure to critically investigate one’s own lens dooms any interpretation from the outset. It is a truism to say that the assumptions that one begins with determine where one ends up. Without using ethics as a lens for thinking about our doctrines and practices, I worry that we will continue to lack them.