Guilt By Association

The Free Association Thought Experiment

What are the implications of free association and how do they impact who we are and what we present to the world? A simple answer is that when we choose to associate with someone it does not imply a complete, nor even a partial, endorsement of that person’s beliefs, practices or standards. It simply means that we find a net benefit to association versus disassociation.

Taking this thought experiment further, what if our association is non-voluntary as in that of the association between child and parent? Well surely it logically follows that if we are not culpable for judgment in the case of voluntary association we cannot possibly be so in the case of involuntary association.

Many of you reading this will realize that I am alluding to the recent revelation that the LDS Church will not allow the children of same sex couples to be baptized until they are 18 and permission has been given from the highest office in the church. As a member of the LDS church this gives me a significant amount of heartache and as an amateur philosopher it gives me several interesting things to think about.

I think the simple argument I put forth above regarding the illogic of guilt by association stands on its own and I don’t wish to muddy the waters further by delving into it any more deeply. To restate though, guilt by association is an immoral principle and I find it sad that an institution that seeks to put forth morality as its foremost concern would embrace such a practice.

Two Wrongs != Right

In the last day I’ve seen the argument put forth that this is nothing new and that those raised by polygamous families often face the same treatment. In the media we recently saw an example of this play out with one of the children of the Brown family, subjects of TLC’s realty series ‘Sister Wives’.

Let me take you back to your childhood, your name and the names of your childhood companions have been changed to protect the innocent. We all remember a scenario playing out like this:

Mom: Why did you hit Brian?

You: *Through sobs* Brian hit me first!

Mom: Two wrongs don’t make a right, now apologize to Brian.

You: *Grudgingly, with an insincere scowl* Sorry Brian.

Brian: *At behest of his mom and also through an insincere scowl* Sorry Andre.

All right so maybe you’re not Brian and didn’t have friends called Andre as a child but you get the point I hope. To point at another form of injustice and say it justifies further injustice is not only logically fallacious but it violates the principle behind one of the earliest lessons we learn, a principle so divinely simple that the partially formed reasoning centers of very small children’s brains can comprehend it. Two wrongs do not equal a right. Justifying a decision based upon the bad actions of another or our own prior bad actions does not make our action right, it simply demonstrates that we are not willing or possibly able to hold ourselves to the consistent set of standards we have previously espoused.

Not being perfectly logically consistent in the application of our ethics is, this may surprise you, absolutely fine. In fact, it’s what makes us human. We aren’t perfect rational beings and we are inconsistent in our thoughts, actions and behaviors. What does pose a problem is willful rejection of ethical inconsistencies in the face of clear evidence of their existence.

A counter argument I have also seen is the point that children of non-members face far less restriction from baptism as do those of single parents. Given their minor status, permission is all they need in order to become members. The logical question then follows: Why are these two groups (the children of polygamists and gay people) treated differently? That’s where the willful rejection of consistency seems to come into play and the answer becomes something like “those are the rules” or “who am I to question?”. I have an answer for that second one.

Who Are You To Question?

You are a beautiful, self owning, independent human being. That’s who you are to question. You possess, be it by divine gift or innate natural quality, the ability to perceive, discern and analyze extremely complex and nuanced intellectual concepts. You also possess free will and moral agency. The very foundation of our existence on Earth, from an LDS perspective, is predicated on your ability to choose for yourself and make moral judgments on what you accept to be good or not. The argument that we should uncritically accept an argument, position or policy simply because of its source violates and cheapens our moral agency. We should, I think, think critically and as consistently as we can about moral issues regardless of their source. I think most of us remember the time in our lives when we realized our parents were just humans trying to do their best and not superheroes of perfection to be followed and emulated at all cost. I think of this as an early example of our comprehension of the “appeal to authority” logical fallacy. Here’s a brief definition thanks to the folks at logicalfallacies.info (emphasis added):

An appeal to authority is an argument from the fact that a person judged to be an authority affirms a proposition to the claim that the proposition is true.

Appeals to authority are always deductively fallacious; even a legitimate authority speaking on his area of expertise may affirm a falsehood, so no testimony of any authority is guaranteed to be true.”

To apply this practically and in the current context, just because this policy originates from General Authorities it does not guarantee its truth nor moral correctness. We must analyze the value of this policy for ourselves using the faculties we possess and the guide posts of good and morality we hold dear, and come to our own conclusion.

There Is No “Right” Reaction

We have the ability and right to accept this decision “on faith” with the hope we might understand it later on.  To those who choose to do this please do so in a humble manner and realize that not everyone can.

There are many people, I place myself in this camp, who have relatives and friends who could be adversely effected by this policy even if not directly then certainly emotionally. Someone’s complex feelings on this do not mean that they are unfaithful or apostate or any of the ugly slurs I’m seeing in social media directed toward those who are consciously struggling with this issue.

It is true that there are some who have existing beefs with the church or religion as a whole who will use this as another weapon in their armory. Here’s the real truth though NOT EVERYONE FALLS IN TO ONE CAMP OR THE OTHER. This issue is far from black and white. It is complex, nuanced and difficult to process. It could be deeply faith shaking for some and a non issue for others but I expect that for the large majority of people it is deeply confusing and creates a high degree of cognitive dissonance. Be kind to those who are conflicted about this issue, don’t assume that your experience and/or reaction to this is the only valid position, right nor the same as that of everyone else.  To assume that because someone is either active or not active within the church will have the same reaction or feelings on this issue is, well, to assume guilt by association.