On the Inseparability of Idealism and Pragmatism

Jesus at the house of the Pharisean, by Jacopo Tintoretto (Public Domain)

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey.

When I first started this blog, the tagline was: “doing the right thing for the wrong reason for the right reason.” I loved the tagline, but nobody else did, and so I got rid of it. But this talk—Elder O. Leslie Stone’s The Importance of Reputation—is a great example of what I was trying to shoot for with that tagline.

The desire for a good reputation has itself earned a bad reputation in our society, and there are good reasons for that. “Don’t judge a book by its cover” is an example of the sentiment that appearances—and reputation is a kind of appearance—are shallow ways to judge people that should be avoided. Concern for reputation and appearance is associated with hypocrisy, pride, and elitism.

But there is a kind of unrealistic utopianism behind all of this. As much as we say, “don’t judge a book by its cover,” the reality is that covers matter. They matter literally—the right or wrong cover has a huge influence on not only who buys a book, but also what they expect from the book—and they also  matter metaphorically. Humans are social animals. According to one theory1, human language and possibly even human intelligence itself evolved precisely because we  needed better ways of managing our reputations in dense, complex social environments.

Regardless of what you think about the evolutionary psychology arguments, the end result is that you can pretend that reputation doesn’t matter all day long, but in reality it does. So, what are we going to do about it?

You  might expect a talk to treat reputation as a kind of necessary evil: we can’t get along without it, but try to pay as little attention to it as possible. Try to ignore the reputations of others and give your own reputation only the barest possible attention.

But that’s exactly the opposite of where Elder Stone goes, and his willingness to dive right in and embrace the reality of reputation is the hallmark of my favorite aspect of Mormonism: the stubborn refusal to allow a glint of daylight between pragmatism and idealism. In Mormonism, we find our ideals in the mundane, and we’re unashamed of it.

And so Elder Stone freely admits that there are some nice benefits to having a good reputation—Elder Stone mentions how it has helped him in his business career—but he emphasizes the very real spiritual stakes of having a good reputation:

…as we live the gospel, our lives will reflect righteousness and virtue, and we will be a powerful influence for good in the lives of others. This is why it is not enough to be righteous for the sake of our own salvation. We must let our goodness radiate to others, that through our example and reputation they will lift their lives and have the desire to follow the Savior’s pattern of living.

This is close to what my old tagline meant. In the end, it’s more important to do the right thing than it is to have the perfect motives. If it’s possible to help someone privately—without drawing attention—then do so. But if you find yourself in a situation where someone is asking you publicly for help and you have to respond then and there, you’re not going to be able to separate the bad motives (you want to look good and impress people) from the good motives (you want to help someone in need). So what should you do? Well, the most important thing is that the person in need get help. So if you need to embrace less-than-perfect motives (impressing other people) as the kicker to do the right thing (lend a hand), but you wish you were doing it for the right reason: then go ahead and do it. Do the right thing (help people) for the wrong reason (it makes you look good) for the right reason (you’d rather help someone now and perfect your character later.)

You’ve heard the expression “the ends justify the means,” but this is the opposite. Instead of using good intention to justify bad behavior, I’m saying that—in certain situations—it’s OK to use bad intentions to motivate good behavior. We should all try to be saints on the inside, but if we acted like saints on the outside, that wouldn’t be such a bad start, would it?

This isn’t exactly what Elder Stone was talking about, by the way, and I realize that. It’s just adjacent to it. Now, back to what he was actually saying…

Because Elder Stone has decided to ignore the taboo against speaking openly about the positive aspects of reputation, he’s also able to grapple with what it means:

I prefer not to think of reputation as a superficial facade, attempting to indicate depth where there is only shallowness, honesty where there is deceit, or virtue where there is unrighteousness. Rather, I like to think of reputation as a window, clearly exhibiting the integrity of one’s soul. It is through this integrity of thought and integrity of conduct that we become pure and holy before the Lord. It is in this state that we can be most effective in serving our fellowmen.

And then, beating that drum of practical application of our ideals once more:

It is not enough for us to live the gospel inwardly; we need to be shining examples to all with whom we come in contact. In this sense, it’s not only what we are that’s important: what others think of us is also important. In order to be truly effective as missionaries, we need to be known for our good qualities, to have an unspotted reputation in all things.

It should go without saying that—no matter how we try—ultimately our reputation is not up to us to determine. Elder Stone acknowledges that, too:

We can’t always control what others think of us, or how others judge us, but we can control the kinds of messages we send out through our behavior.

There’s a new aspect to this that I think Elder Stone would have a lot to say about if he were to give this talk again today, and that is the fact that in 21st century America it is possible to get a bad reputation because of doing the right thing. That’s always been true to an extent, of course, but never more so then today, when there are so many who  “call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!”2

I don’t know exactly what he’d say, of course, but I’m pretty confident it would be something along the lines of: work hard to gain a good reputation to the extent that you don’t have to violate your principles. If possible, work even harder on those virtues the world still recognizes as virtues. But, when it becomes impossible to reconcile righteous principles with a sterling reputation, lay it on the altar with everything else we’ve been asked to sacrifice and thank God for the privilege.

Check out the other posts from the General Conference Odyssey this week and join our Facebook group to follow along!