If Men Were Angels

Are people fundamentally good (cf. Gen. 1:27; Psalms 82:6; 2 Ne. 2:25) or fundamentally evil (cf. Mosiah 3:19; Alma 42:9-14; Ether 3:2; D&C 29:40-44), and what effect does the answer to this question have on the prospects of a Mormon jurisprudence?

Naturally, this might be a false dichotomy, an inquiry with little real value. Still, it seems that, if such characterizations are possible, the answer could affect views of agency, justice, and law.

Latter-day Saint doctrine certainly breaks from much of the bleakness of Protestantism, dark Calvinism, and any other form of debilitating pre-determinationalism. Is the LDS approach to human nature, however, more positive than these worn-out worldviews? If it is, can it offer alternative or better constitutive principles for the genesis of jurisprudence and laws than have the former determinative principles?

The political and legal system of the United States is the beneficiary of political and legal institutions of England. These were built into the new Constitution of the United States, a document that was the first of its kind and that has offered guidance to many. The Constitution, interestingly, arises from premises based in the dark view of human nature. Thus, explains Madison in Federalist 10,

The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society. A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good. So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts.

This is indeed a keen observation on Madison’s part, but is it too negative and untrusting of human nature? Is this a premise informed by centuries of dark Protestantism? Do belief in the evil nature of man and such resulting observations turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy? Madison famously notes further in Federalist 51:

It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.

This perspective is really disparaging on human nature. Still, proceeding from this negative view of human nature, the Founders created an ingenious way to channel such evil so as to check itself and to net it in a way, to harness it, that it works for the greater good. Reading the rest of Federalist 51 reveals some of this genius and reasoning. The question is merely whether the evil of human nature is really a necessary starting point for considerations of constitutional and common law. Does LDS doctrine offer an alternative?

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2 Responses to If Men Were Angels

  1. Stephen says:

    May 3, 2005

    Dear Clark Society Member:

    We write to solicit applications or nominations for candidates to assume the position of Director of the Howard W. Hunter Law Library at Brigham Young UniversityÆs J. Reuben Clark Law School. The appointment would preferably begin in the fall of 2005, but could begin later.

    The J. Reuben Clark Law School is located in Provo, Utah and is part of Brigham Young University. BYU, an equal opportunity employer, is sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and requires observance of Church standards. Preference is given to members in good standing of the sponsoring Church.

    Founded in 1972, the J. Reuben Clark Law School has graduated over 4500 lawyers since graduation of its charter class in 1976. It has a student body of about 450, forty three full-time faculty (professorial and professional combined), as well as a number of part-time and adjunct faculty. The Howard W. Hunter Law Library contains just under 500,000 volumes and volume equivalents. The library also houses 475 individual, private study carrels with full Internet and LAN computer connectivity. The Law School is a member of the Association of American Law Schools.

    The Director of the Law Library must have both a law degree and a graduate library degree. He or she will have overall responsibility for the administration of the law library, including collection development, faculty research support, long-range planning, budget, facility maintenance, technology development, and personnel management. In addition to these responsibilities, the Director will be expected to participate in professional law library organizations, to publish library-related scholarship, and to encourage and support other members of the law library faculty in these two areas.

    The position of Library Director is a professional faculty position with continuing faculty status (the terminology used by Brigham Young University to describe a permanent faculty position). The Director of the Law Library will report directly to the Dean of the Law School.

    Inquiries, applications or nominations should be addressed to:

    James R. Rasband
    Associate Dean and Professor of Law
    Chair, Library Director Search Committee
    J. Reuben Clark Law School
    540 JRCB
    Brigham Young University
    Provo, Utah 84602

    Applications must be submitted by June 10, 2005 and should include a letter of application, a curriculum vitae, and the names, addresses, and telephone numbers of at least three references.

    Thank you for your consideration. We look forward to hearing from you.

    Very truly yours,

    James R. Rasband
    Associate Dean and Professor of Law
    Chair, Search Committee

  2. [...] all know, we find a very famous verse (and much discussed in the bloggernacle–see for example here, here, here and here) which uses the same phrase “natural man,” Mosiah [...]

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