Mormon Vigilance & the Ring of GygesBy: hawkgrrrl
Imagine you have a magical ring that renders you invisible and even imperceptible to potential victims. Nobody would ever know you had done it. You would benefit from your actions but have no social or personal repercussions. You would never be held accountable. If you are really being totally honest with yourself, what things would you rationalize doing that you would never do if people knew it? Would you take revenge? Eavesdrop? Have sex with someone? Steal? Cheat?
The story of Gyges’s ring was a well-known myth before Plato used it in his book. It told of a man named Gyges who lived in Lydia, an area in modern Turkey. He was a shepherd for the king of that land. One day, there was an earthquake while Gyges was out in the fields, and he noticed that a new cave had opened up in a rock face. When he went in to see what was there, he noticed a gold ring on the finger of a former king who had been buried in the cave. He took the ring away with him and soon discovered that it allowed the wearer to become invisible. The next time he went to the palace to give the king a report about his sheep, he put the ring on, seduced the queen, killed the king, and took control of the palace.
Plato used the story as a metaphor for the corruption caused by power. . . Glaucon argues that men are inherently unjust, and are only restrained from unjust behavior by the fetters of law and society. In Glaucon’s view, unlimited power blurs the difference between just and unjust men. “Suppose there were two such magic rings,” he tells Socrates, “and the just [man] put on one of them and the unjust the other; no man can be imagined to be of such an iron nature that he would stand fast in justice. No man would keep his hands off what was not his own when he could safely what he liked out of the market or go into houses and lie with anyone at his pleasure, or kill or release from prison whom he would, and in all respects be like a god among men. Then the actions of the just would be as the actions of the unjust; they would both come at last to the same point.”
Our Families Can See Us
Families are also great enforcers of socially desirable behaviour. People generally seek approval from their parents and have a hard time doing something that they know their parents would disapprove unless they know their parents will not know about it. As I think back on my own life, the first big lie I remember telling was to my parents when I was 13 years old, and I wanted to go to a concert with my best friend (also age 13) and some people I didn’t really know who were going to drive us. I was pretty sure my parents would never agree to this scheme, so I told them I was going roller skating (a much more age-appropriate acceptable activity for a 13 year old). Actually, that is a story my parents still don’t know, come to think of it. Familial pressure can be very influential on our behaviour.
Add to that in the Mormon church that families are forever, and we believe that our deceased (and possibly even future) family members are watching our actions (some of whom made great sacrifices related to the church), and the pressure to behave increases considerably. In a famous general conference address, we are told the importance of keeping the name of our ancestors honourable (a trait common in Chinese culture as well where ancestors are revered and worshipped).
Other Mormons Can See Us
Religious communities are also great at enforcing desirable behaviours. Within Mormonism, as within all communities, social vigilance provides a strong incentive to comply with cultural norms. Some women have talked about the “pants police,” people within the church who enforce the unwritten dress code for women that includes wearing a skirt or dress rather than pants to church. That is an example of social vigilance. Another example is teens within the church using social pressure to encourage their peers to live standards like chastity and not drinking. Those who do not follow these norms may lose social capital among their peers or within the community.
How would you behave if you knew your bishop or stake president was watching? Well, since they can’t be everywhere, instead we have all members account to them for several key behaviours every two years in a personal interview! What if your fellow Mormons were watching? If you are unable to hold a calling or say a prayer, they may be aware of your standing. It’s another reason Mormon missionaries wear a name badge. Not only are they identified as representatives of the church, but their behaviour becomes instantly more visible. This reminds me of a joke I heard. What is the difference between a Mormon and a Southern Baptist? The Southern Baptist will wave at you when they see you in the liquor store.
God Is Watching
New Atheists have argued that people will behave in moral ways without a belief in the supernatural. To some extent, they are right. After all, people are still being watched by their families, their neighbours, and their broader communities. Yet, from a Glauconian standpoint, God is the ultimate fail safe against bad behaviour because unlike human monitors who have physical limitations, God can see all and mete out justice, either in this life or in the life to come. We teach our Primary children to sing “If the Saviour stood beside me” for a reason. They will curb their behaviour more often if they believe they are being watched.
Just how far will people go when they believe there are no consequences?
Many psychologists have studied the effects of having “plausible deniability.” In one such study, subjects performed a task and were then given a slip of paper and a verbal confirmation of how much they were to be paid. But when they took the slip to another room to get their money, the cashier misread one digit and handed them too much money. Only 20 percent spoke up and corrected the mistake.24 But the story changed when the cashier asked them if the payment was correct. In that case, 60 percent said no and returned the extra money. Being asked directly removes plausible deniability; it would take a direct lie to keep the money. As a result, people are three times more likely to be honest. You can’t predict who will return the money based on how people rate their own honesty, or how well they are able to give the high-minded answer on a moral dilemma.
Belief in Ourselves
Another psychological experiment was described in the book Predictably Irrational. Dan Ariely gave participants the ability to earn more money if they claimed to have solved more math problems than they really did.
When given the opportunity, many honest people will cheat. In fact, rather than finding that a few bad apples weighted the averages, we discovered that the majority of people cheated, and that they cheated just a little bit. People didn’t try to get away with as much as they could. Rather, when Ariely gave them anything like the invisibility of the ring of Gyges, they cheated only up to the point where they themselves could no longer find a justification that would preserve their belief in their own honesty.
When we stop believing in ourselves or at least when we stop feeling our actions are justified, we undermine our ability to be successful until we begin to believe in our own inherent goodness again. We can achieve that by either changing our actions or changing our beliefs about our actions. If we have wronged someone we can apologize and change our behaviour, or we can give ourselves plausible reasons why our actions were justified or why they deserved it.
Our belief in our own goodness is the final safety against the corruption of power. But thanks to human nature and our impressive ability to rationalize our choices, it’s a pretty flimsy safety net.
In conclusion, how do you feel about our social vigilance in the church?
- Does belonging to the church keep you out of trouble or place unnecessary restrictions on your behaviour?
- Do you alter your behaviour based on how you think family, other Mormons and God will perceive your actions? Is that a good thing or does it create scrupulosity and excessive guilt for you? Which of these factors is the strongest motivation for you?
- When have you felt your actions were unjustifiable and changed your behaviour accordingly? How does your belief in your own rightness affect your success in life? Has self-recrimination held you back?
- What would you do if you would never be held accountable? How far would you go if your power was completely unchecked? Do you value or resent the checks on your power?