Service Chilling Effect

Jesus wasn’t too hung up on Kant’s Categorical Imperative, as he made clear when he said, Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven (Matt. 5:16, 3 Ne. 12:16). Based on this type of reasoning, we often hear injunctions in Church that we should serve others coupled with self-serving statements that it will make the Church look good or make the people served think highly of the Church.

Jesus’s command quoted here justifies this mindset and precludes moral culpability for those who embrace it, at least if one is willing to rank Jesus above Kant as a judge of what is morally acceptable. It is pragmatic almost to the point of wondering whether Jesus was British or perhaps even American.

But for those who find Kant’s moral philosophy persuasive, this view of service can create some difficulty. When I sit in Church meetings where service is discussed in conjunction with PR-related issues, I cringe. It is as if the benefit of PR that results from our Christian service sullies the moral value of the service itself, as if we are serving for the purpose of getting this benefit for ourselves and the Church rather than for the naked reason of our duty alone, devoid of any considerations of inclination/benefit to ourselves flowing from the service. For me, it has a service chilling effect, making me not want to serve because I don’t want it to seem like I am serving for any reason other than my duty, as part of the human family, to serve other people, and not to make the Church look good. Since I know that the latter is bound to seem the case, I sometimes find myself reluctant to serve.

Salt Lake City is an interesting case study for this. The mentality of the Church, entirely consistent with Jesus’s injunction in Matthew 5:16, to let others see us serve and to calculate our service to reap good PR, has had a discernable effect, in my opinion, in some of the older neighborhoods of the city. I feel that subconsciously, even if they have never heard of the categorical imperative, many members of the Church in these areas are affected by the feeling that if they serve their non-LDS neighbors in these areas, then the neighbors will think that they are only doing so in an effort to convert them to the Church and will reject or be suspicious of the service being rendered. This causes a service chilling effect, with concientious members of the Church not wanting their good non-LDS neighbors to take this view, and so therefore opting not to serve them in the first place, but rather to leave their relationships with these non-LDS neighbors on a friendly, say-hello-in-the-driveway level.

I wonder if we should stop worrying about whether anyone converts based on our service and just serve them because it is our duty to serve. That would feel more comfortable for me personally. Still, I realize it is possible to go too far with Kant and to dismiss any action that is done for selfish reasons (such as the "good feeling" one gets inside when performing a good deed or an act of service) as not a truly moral act (because not done merely out of the necessity for respect of the law, i.e. duty alone). This is where my Schiller comes in and reminds me that we should not only do our duty, as Kant observes, but we should be allowed to love doing it (i.e. derive this type of personal benefit from it or even, gasp, do it for the primary purpose of deriving the benefit rather than simply because it is our duty). Even allowing for Schiller’s gloss on Kant, however, I feel that the service chilling effect could be reduced or avoided if we would serve without making the reason for our service to bring the Church good PR.

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11 Responses to Service Chilling Effect

  1. NFlanders says:

    I think you are neglecting something else Jesus said, namely Matthew 6:1-4.

    I think that when we make people performing service put on a “Mormon Helping Hands” t-shirt, we may be forfeiting some of the reward.

  2. NFlanders says:

    Whoops, I totally misread your post. I think we are on the same page on this.

  3. J. Stapley says:

    I also take Moroni’s injunction that gifts don’t “count” unless you want to give them to mean that you want to give them for the right reasons.

  4. john f. says:

    Ned, you are making a very good point, and we are in agreement on this, it seems. But my point actually goes deeper: if we are serving with an eye to our own reward, whether temporally in benefitting the Church’s PR (or even giving us warm fuzzies), or spiritually in getting an eternal reward, we are still violating the categorical imperative. To comply with the categorical imperative, we need to serve simply because it is our duty as we understand the law of God and the universe, and not because we hope to gain a reward.

    One argument might be that the categorical imperative restates the old law and is unsuited to the higher law that Jesus gave us in the New Testament. The more I think about it, the more the categorical imperative fits with the Old Testament law. It might be that this is necessary in a pluralistic society, where not everyone subscribes to Christ’s teachings. Then the question becomes how one can know the demands of the moral law in order to obey the categorical imperative. That is well and fine, but the result of it is that it leads to condemnation of things like polygamy, which we believe can be commanded by God, even if in a Godless world they would violate an objective moral law (although that would also be relative in the Godless world, so only certain people would claim that the objective moral law proscribes something like polygamy).

  5. This post has helpfully pointed out one of the major contradictions in the New Testament account of Christ’s teachings: do good deeds publicly, but don’t dare to do good deeds publicly. It’s especially tricky because each text, taken on its own, seems attractive. But they can’t both be true all of the time.

    One helpful point is that the accepted motive for doing good deeds in public is so that other people will glorify God. To the extent that our public acts tend to make people glorify anything else — perhaps even including the church — we might be off base.

  6. john f. says:

    I’m not so concerned with whether to do good deeds publicly or not–that is perhaps a different debate. The question here is motivation.

    This also has a friendship chilling effect, by the way. Sensitive members of the Church realize that the non-LDS neighbors think that the only reason they are making friendly overtures is to try to set them up for conversion. In order to avoid giving this perception, members of the Church don’t make many or any friendly overtures to their neighbors. Then the neighbors accuse the Church of being cliqueish and exclusive and unfriendly. And it all started with members of the Church being considerate of the sensibilities of non-LDS neighbors. If, however, we can get rid of this mentality and just be friends with our neighbors in the same way that other neighbors are friends with each other, regardless of religion, then that could promote neighborhoods with healthier and stronger friendships among those of different faiths.

  7. Clark Goble says:

    Always been more of a consequentialist myself…

  8. Matt Evans says:

    Nice post and interesting issues, John. I’m curious though as why you consider the desire to make the church look good to be “selfish.” It seems to me that Christ’s disciples have a moral duty to represent him well (make he and his church look good) just as we have a moral duty to help people in need. When people invoke the PR-angle I think they are simply pointing out that not only will our service show love towards our neighbor, it will show love towards God, too, as he’s commanded us to make him look good. It seems your argument rests on either pitting those two loves against each other (are we motivated by our love for our neighbor or God?) or pitting God against his church (are we trying to help God or his church?).

  9. john f. says:

    Thanks for the comment Matt. Actually, I point out that the PR motivation is fully justified by Jesus’ injunction. For me personally, however, it feels uncomfortable, mainly because I would hope that those served could easily see that they are being served out of true concern for their well-being by someone who is fulfilling a basic and fundamental human duty. It worries me to know that others, particularly here in Salt Lake City, think that Latter-day Saints only serve them or want to be their friends for the single reason of getting them to join the Church. Although it would certainly bring any Latter-day Saint much joy to see a person they have served or a neighbor join the Church, it seems that most Latter-day Saints would love to be friends to their non-LDS neighbors regardless of the prospects of “conversion.” But, and here is where the Kantian angle comes in, the Latter-day Saints in certain areas of this city who do not speak to their non-LDS neighbors or perform service for them despite their geographical proximity do so out of a subconscious reaction to the perception that they realize their neighbors have that they are only being friends out of the hope to baptize. If this is true, then the end result can look exactly like what non-LDS people in SLC claim is happening (LDS are refusing to be friends to their non-LDS neighbors), even if that is not the case at all. Rather, LDS are treading very lightly, subconsciously hoping to avoid making their non-LDS neighbors think that they are only being friendly in order to get them to come to Church. Of course, this is very much not the reaction that Jesus Christ would want. But we all fall short.

  10. john f. says:

    That is, most of us fall short. There are still some LDS who are openly social in these stilted East Bench neighborhoods of which I speak.

  11. I think it comes down to the intent and will of those making decisions to participate in acts of service. If we would not otherwise participate if it weren’t for the opportunity to aid in the church’s PR efforts, then the blessings received for such acts of service would be greatly hindered. However, if we willfully would participate even if there was no added PR bonus, then we would gain those blessings anyway regardless of the gained publicity.

    Recently our community invited my branch along with other churches in our area to participate in a village cleanup project. We’ve decided to make it a branch service project. Now we are discussing whether to wear the Mormon Helping Hands t-shirts or not. I’m all for the idea. I don’t think that those who see us as they drive by will immediately assume that we are only out there helping the community solely to gain such publicity. If we had any hint that that is what people would think, then we wouldn’t consider wearing the t-shirts at all. When we’ve helped with these sorts of projects in the branch even without the t-shirts we’ve benefitted on our own just from the opportunity of social interaction with our fellow members. We all enjoyed it, and I think we’ll greatly enjoy this. The added bonus is if we help to break down some of the stigma of misconceptions others in our community have been led to believe about our church. If it aids in missionary efforts this is just one more form of blessing received as a result of our opportunity to serve.

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