I was inspired by Matt’s remarks as he spoke to our ward before departing on his Mormon mission to Tonga. He explained that in his recent philosophy class at Brigham Young University he studied pragmatism. Pragmatism is most closely associated with C. S. Peirce and William James (1842-1910). James is often labeled the “Father of American psychology,” and one of the most influential philosophers in the United States.
The philosophical tradition of pragmatism, in everyman’s language, is best described as a philosophy of practical living for a happier, more successful life that involves a sensible, commonsensical approach to problems and situations.
Matt bore his testimony that the gospel of Jesus Christ is first and foremost true, and that every individual can know this through prayer, careful study and the witness of the Holy Ghost. Yet, he also explained that the principles and doctrines of the gospel of Jesus Christ are eminently pragmatic and, if for no other reason, membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and abiding by its teachings benefits individuals, communities and humankind.
With this in mind, we recently engaged in an interesting experiment in my religion class that perfectly illustrates the truth of Matt’s claim. The context for our discussion was the importance of teaching children gospel truths in our homes as societal standards have departed from and continue to distance themselves from the teachings of the Savior.
Asked to consider culturally mandated behaviors and practices in American society today, my students compiled the following random list of socially encouraged behaviors, including:
1. Specifically college students, the encouragement to “party” while attending university — to drink copious amounts of alcohol and have sexual encounters with numerous partners.
2. Cohabitating before they marry, if they marry at all.
3. Marriage as something to try, and if it doesn’t work out, to divorce and move on.
4. Showing little concern for others, being callous and indifferent to other’s needs and ignoring those that are suffering and in pain.
5. Being violent and brutal toward others, that harming and hurting others is an appropriate, almost required response whenever someone challenges us in some way.
6. Being selfish and thinking only of one’s self; seeking instant gratification, with little consideration for duty or putting others needs before our own.
Obviously, some of these overlap, and other practices could be added such as making money, power or fame or gods.
From a pragmatic standpoint, none of these behaviors qualify as pragmatic. Yet they are incessantly encouraged in contemporary movies, TV, literature, magazines, music, advertizing and by a variety of social voices — be it pundits, intellectual elites or social snobs. And while there are many good, moral advocates encouraging us to act honorably and nobly, they are often drowned out by discordant voices encouraging us with harmful behaviors and practices. Consider the “practical” and “realistic” consequences of:
1. “Partying”: Hangovers, poor health, money uselessly spent, loss of clear thinking and self-control, STDs, sexual assaults, and the demise of real, personal self-respect are often the result of partying.
2. Cohabitation: The very nature of marriage requires, although at varying levels, a degree of commitment. Beyond that, contrary to popular opinion, when one is bound by law, conditions are set that provide limits and protections to individuals who marry. One simple example: If a man cohabitates and decides to leave the woman and child(ren), it is difficult, without the force of law, to compel the man to provide for those children, often leaving the woman and children in seriously compromised economic conditions.
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