Do traffic signs make us safer? A couple of months ago in The Atlantic, John Staddon argued that, on the whole, they may not:
I began to think that the American system of traffic control, with its many signs and stops, and with its specific rules tailored to every bend in the road, has had the unintended consequence of causing more accidents than it prevents. Paradoxically, almost every new sign put up in the U.S. probably makes drivers a little safer on the stretch of road it guards. But collectively, the forests of signs along American roadways, and the multitude of rules to look out for, are quite deadly.
. . . [W]hat is the limited resource . . . in the case of driving? It’s attention. Attending to a sign competes with attending to the road. The more you look for signs, for police, and at your speedometer, the less attentive you will be to traffic conditions. The limits on attention are much more severe than most people imagine.
This problem–where well-intended safety measures multiply and ultimately make us less safe–reminds me of a similar issue that I think sometimes arises in the Church. The problem occurs when we receive commandments that are arbitrary and detailed.
Most of the commandments we live by as Mormons are typically stated in quite general terms. For example, we’re commanded to love our neighbors, take care of our families, keep the sabbath day holy, be honest, and tithe. Although these commandments are usually taught with examples, the commandments themselves are not given in lots of detail. Church leaders don’t tell us, for example, that taking care of our families means that a husband and wife should work no more than 60 hours a week for pay between them. Or, a much argued point, they don’t tell us in much detail how to define our income for tithing purposes.
Some big commandments have lots of detail around the edges. The Law of Chastity is like this. It’s pretty easy to state in broad terms–don’t have sex with anyone but your spouse–but the application can require more detail. This can be seen in more explicit counsel aimed particularly at teenagers saying no you may not do this or that either, but kissing is probably okay, but don’t get carried away with it, etc., etc. The Word of Wisdom also falls in this category. We might say in general that it tells us not to ingest addictive or intoxicating things. But some such substances aren’t forbidden and even the forbidden ones can be okay if a doctor prescribes them, but even then they’re not okay if we abuse them. Perhaps the Word of Wisdom is a special case that is mostly detail.
But then there are commandments that seem to be nothing but detail, and arbitrary detail at that. I’m thinking here of counsel like the following:
- Women shouldn’t wear more than one pair of earrings.
- We should address God using the words thee, thou, thy, and thine.
- Men should wear white shirts when performing priesthood ordinances.
- We shouldn’t watch R-rated movies.
- Men shouldn’t have facial hair if they’re serving in leadership positions.
While you could make connections between these and larger commandments–the earrings point might be tied to modesty and the prayer point tied to love for God, for example–these seem to me to be tenuous connections and arbitrary extensions of the more general commandments.
I wonder if perhaps these arbitrary detailed commandments might not suffer from the same problem as excessive traffic signs. While any one might make us better off, the set of them as a whole might be bad.
How could such commandments make us worse off?
1. They distract us from bigger commandments. For road signs, our important limitation is one of attention. For commandments, perhaps our important limitations are of memory and willpower. I don’t know that Mormonism has enough commandments that remembering them all is an excessive burden, at least not yet. Willpower, though, is a scarce resource that is relevant. If we have limited willpower to resist temptation, we’re better off giving in to the lesser evils than greater ones. But if arbitrary detailed commandments are given too much attention, we might focus our willpower on resisting a trivial sin rather than a large one because the trivial one is the one we’ve heard more about.
2. They obscure differences in seriousness among sins. I know that ranking sins in terms of seriousness can be problematic. At the very least, it suggests that the same ranking holds for all instances for all people. All I’m saying here is that to the degree that generally some sinful behaviors are more difficult to repent of and have more negative consequences than others, preaching about arbitrary detailed commandments can obscure which the truly serious ones are. Ideally, we would hear about sins in proportion to their general seriousness, which would I think mean that we would never hear about arbitrary detailed commandments, since they’re trivial compared with stuff like honesty and the Law of Chastity.
Along the same lines, in Amanda Ripley’s The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes–and Why, she laments that getting people to think seriously about disaster preparedness is difficult because of the distraction of trivial warnings:
Every line of legalese breeds distrust. We start to confuse real safety warnings with legalistic nonsense. We lump fire drills and airline safety briefings together with the sticker on our new toaster warning against using it in the bathtub [p. 212].
3. The more detailed commandments we have, the more we expect. Here’s Staddon again, on stop signs:
the overabundance of stop signs teaches drivers to be less observant of cross traffic and to exercise less judgment when driving—instead, they look for signs and drive according to what the signs tell them to do.
If Church leaders give direction at a very fine level of detail in one area of life, we can come to expect it in all areas. Can I be a vegetarian? What does the Church say? Can I subscribe to Dialog? (Can I read it while watching Conference?) Should I let my kids play in the backyard on Sunday? How about inside with toys? With video games? Can they read non-Church books? Can I? Can I consider myself honest if I keep a quarter I find on the ground? How about a $20 bill? Should I tithe on it? Can I eat food that was cooked with wine? Can I work for a company that makes wine?
It would be hugely impractical for Church leaders to issue counsel at this level of detail for every aspect of our lives. But I think that by giving arbitrary detailed commandments in a few areas, Church leaders lead us to expect it in many areas. Then when they’re (understandably) silent about lots of detailed questions, we may misunderstand this as tacit approval of things. Should I get involved in this multilevel marketing scheme? Well, everyone else is a Church member and Church leaders haven’t said I shouldn’t, so . . .
4. The more commandments that are given, the more likely it is that they will collide with one another. Simply by random chance, the more commandments we have, the more likely they are to come into conflict. For example, we’re currently commanded to tithe but also to stay out of debt. Although more faithful people than me doubtless disagree, I think these commandments each make the other more difficult to live. Now say Church leaders decide that we should live the Biblical injunction against usury. Such a commandment would collide further with the first two, making it even more difficult to pay tithing and stay out of debt. Then say that Church leaders tell us that to be honest, we can’t keep change that we find on the ground (a significant source of income for me 🙂 ). Now it’s even more difficult to live all these commandments together.
On the bright side, running counter to Church leaders’ sometime desire to give arbitrary detailed counsel, and our desire to get it, there is a line of thinking that says commandments should be kept general. There is Jesus’s statement that “all the law and the prophets” can be hung on two great commandments. There is Joseph Smith’s oft-quoted statement that he would “teach [people] correct principles, and they govern themselves.” And of course there’s the Lord in the Doctrine and Covenants reminded us that “it is not meet that I should command in all things” and that we should be “anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of [our] own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness.”And of course there are areas where Church leaders have resisted giving detailed counsel, probably precisely because they’re concerned about problems like the ones I’ve described. For example:
- Tithing is left very open-ended in terms of income defintion. Church leaders don’t tell us how to handle different tax rates in different countries, and how that might affect the practicality of paying on gross vs. net income.
- Family size has increasingly been left up to individual couples to figure out.
- Scripture study counsel seems to have gotten less specific. I think it was President Benson who talked a lot about reading the Book of Mormon 30 minutes a day, but since he died, I have heard less of that specific length of time and more that sounds like “figure out what works for you.”
In general, I think this is a better approach. As I mentioned above, there are some commandments like the Law of Chastity that do require detailed articulation. But many cases of detailed counsel seem to me to be arbitrary and not well connected to the higher level commandments they’re ostensibly based on.