Flee moral cowardice. It does you no good. If something is immoral, a blight before God, do not confuse the masses, your fellow man, by telling them that it is fine to pursue a little sin. If self-government has any merits, it comes in the full equality of moral law; no king can exempt himself in his adultery; no lord can steal from his subjects; no baron can bribe his courts. We make a mockery of ourselves, our religion, and our conscience when we hide behind constructions of consent when we know good from evil.
There is no doctrine more abused in church culture than agency: Charity is seldom understood properly, but its proper sentiments are easily maintained. The premortal life is misunderstood but only ever with the caveat of speculation. Covenants are often equivocated with promises, and not much harm ever arises from such conflation. Faith is fundamentally understood if its extensions are murky. But with agency, the boundaries have been gerrymandered beyond initial recognition; the territory underneath bears little resemblance to common conception.
When we speak of agency, the common member of the Church immediately associates it with free will. I say common, but know it is not a marker of vulgarity; ill-educated students, professors, bishops, and elders alike equate the two without distinction. Grant me this observation, and because you surely will—for you yourself see no issue in this equivocation—I must explain to you what great consternation this awful confusion brings me.
In the ethical-political world, we seek to understand right and wrong on the individual and societal level. Classical theories of politics simply raise the scale of the ethical, likening the city to the man; as the good man is, so too is the state. Of course, the good of man is in his purpose, so whatever raises man to the fulfillment of his purpose is his good, and against his good is his evil. The definition of this good is often inherited from the cultural understanding of the philosopher; Aristotle held pagan ethics, and Aquinas held Christian ethics. These theories fell out of fashion with the rise of nominalism—the belief that because language is referential to human experience, nothing can be said of divinity—and skeptical epistemology—confirmation exclusive to doubt. These twin philosophies birthed modernity.
Modern theories of politics suppose by means of abstraction that there is no common ethic but rationality; the social contract is a product of collective rationality and the desire to survive. Modern theories of the ethical either deny moral facts or plagiarize Christianity, leaving the whole practice as a mere footnote of the political. If there is one fact of ethical modernity, it is free will. Whatever a man is, he must be free to choose between option A and option B. Developments on this theory suppose that such freedom is the good of man; coercion to either option is oppressive evil. From this ethic arises the limited nature of the Lockean social contract: we empower a state to punish aggression and little else.
When saints discuss agency, they speak of it in this same sense of free will. They speak of the Council in Heaven, where God’s plan allows for agency and Satan’s does not, and they say—never detecting a hint of irony—that a third of the hosts of Heaven chose not to be able to choose. They say of our laws that they must be extremely limited to not harm the sacred agency of one man or another. Most blasphemously, they may say that murder is wrong, not because man is created in the image of God nor that God commanded against it, but that it is wrong because it would permanently interrupt the other man’s agency.
This conception of agency stifles the political realm of human action and shuts dumb any mouth which would speak of right and wrong. Where is that church which delights in doing righteousness (Isaiah 58:2)? Surely such a church is not here, for they cannot call one thing righteous or another sinful (Isaiah 5:20), much less delight in either. The body of Christ denies the wisdom of its head with unbridled vigor and compassion, lacking any eyes for clarity or mind for reason.
If not as mere free will, how then should we conceive agency? Where did it come from? What are its features? What is its purpose?
Let me begin by saying that we are not far off by relating agency and the will; they are integral to one another. The will exists for agency, and agency exists by reason of the will. But agency does not come from will alone. In the Book of Mormon, Lehi guides us through justice and mercy, and in justice, he identifies what we call agency:
“… And because that they are redeemed from the fall they have become free forever, knowing good from evil; to act for themselves and not to be acted upon, save it be by the punishment of the law at the great and last day, according to the commandments which God hath given… And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life… or to choose captivity and death… (2 Nephi 2:26-27).”
I. Because They are Redeemed from the Fall
Lehi explains man comes by reason of the Fall and that freedom comes by reason of redemption. This freedom is not the freedom of “free will” but freedom from captivity. By reason of the fall, we are all prisoners on a fallen world, for by the flesh is no man justified before the law (2 Nephi 2:5). The atonement of Christ is sufficient to redeem all, and thereby all men that come to him might receive his mercy. This mercy is the object of our choice, for we either receive liberty or captivity, eternal life or death.
II. Knowing Good from Evil
Ironically, by that same fall which caused us to need redemption, man came to know good from evil. After having partaken of the forbidden fruit, “man is become as one of us, to know good and evil” (Genesis 3:22). To all who believe that agency is merely identical with free will, tell me, how could man become like God by transgression in knowing good from evil, and yet, agency is a product of that knowledge? Adam and Eve retained free will in that Garden, for by what other means could they have transgressed? It is by knowledge that they became moral agents; to become like God is to know good from evil and live eternally, always choosing that better part of which you have a sure knowledge. Agency requires that we know good from evil, while free will requires that we act.
III. To Act and Not To Be Acted Upon
The key to understanding what Lehi means here is what it means to act. If by flesh, no man is justified (2 Nephi 2:5), of what worth can any action be saved if it be repentance? For the fruits of repentance are salvation and eternal life, and the fruits of all other actions are for nothing at that judgment day. “No flesh is justified,” not even the exceptionally righteous flesh. The act for which agency is relevant is repentance; we know good from evil, and knowing good from evil, we know that we must repent or be damned. This is the end of agency: that man might choose the Lord for himself.
What does this imply for us in the ethical-political sphere? If all action is irrelevant to salvation save repentance, is there anything we can say on that which is ethical? No, why else would Christ himself teach what is good and blessed? Sin remains a blight (Romans 6:2), and vice an impediment to repentance. Vice, that habit which inclines a man to sin, is the enemy of the penitent soul; in his penitence, man seeks to receive a new heart that discards that sin for righteousness. Should he be enslaved to vice, he finds himself inclined to sin yet again. In our ethical life, then, because we understand that vice may prevent us from repenting, we pursue virtue, those habits of righteousness and high-mindedness. And because we know that there is an ethical, we know that the political must reflect it.
The ambiguity and skepticism that characterizes the social contract are wholly inadequate for a society of agents; they know right from wrong and must associate in order to build virtue. It is in human society that we learn to love, and it is learning indeed. By means of our knowledge of good and evil, we can come to know in the city of man how to live in the city of God. For this reason, we institute laws that reflect the laws of God; we do not murder, we do not steal, we honor our parents, we testify in honesty, we remain loyal to our spouses, and all this we do because we know it to be right. Agency plays no part in determining what is moral about these actions but is dependent on the fact that we know they are moral.
Opponents of moral legislation within the Church will often oppose on the grounds that we should “respect one another’s agency.” On the contrary, we legislate according to morality to avoid any hazard that could confuse the moral clarity upon which agency relies. The law is a teacher, and if the teacher repeats to you that “whatsoever a man doeth in the privacy of his own home is no crime,” in every aspect of your social existence, you will not believe otherwise. You may pay lip service to the moral edicts which govern the soul, but you seldom come to their defense. This is the insidious crime of pluralism: in respecting sin as equal to righteousness, you destroy your understanding of both, for they are defined in their polemic relationship to one another. “If you shall say there is no sin, you shall say there is no righteousness.”
Truly, the martyr has more agency than the pluralist.
A martyr sees the consequences of his choice clearly; when Peter was to be crucified in the image of our Savior, he was under no illusion that there was some third way to stay true to God and keep his life. “Whosoever shall seek to save his life shall lose it; and whosoever shall lose his life shall preserve it” (Luke 17:33). The pluralist, enlightened by skepticism and the broader perspectives of the world, sees myriad roads to hell but tells us all that it is presumptive to judge their ends. Should he come to venture on any one of the roads, he only journeys with his eyes on the paths apart from his own; he finds greater pleasure the further the path is from the one he walks. Rather than apologize on behalf of the merits of his own path, he criticizes those who are bold enough to witness the greatness they see: “Don’t you realize that others don’t see it this way? This way of life is not fit for everyone!” The pluralist never had a life to lose; he lacks the sincerity necessary to life. The pluralist cannot hold to faith because faith cannot waver; he does not “see through a glass, darkly,” for he refuses to look ahead.
Finally, it is time to treat the problem of the Council in Heaven: what was the true difference between Satan’s plan and the one that we live? Often, those who suppose that agency is equal to free will suppose that earth would be full of people simply living perfect lives, never fighting each other, and worshiping Lucifer in perfect harmony because they cannot choose otherwise. Such an idyllic picture is very attractive to people that love peace; in fact, it sounds a lot like a protestant or Catholic view of heaven. Habituation would certainly win over anybody unconvinced. Those who oppose this Satan’s plan love choice more than they love righteousness, and ironically, they ignore that everyone who chose Satan’s plan chose it just as much as we chose this current life. This concept of agency supposes that God did not hate evil actions, that wickedness is happiness.
In opposition, knowing that agency is dependent upon moral clarity and that free will is immutable, we understand that Satan’s plan was not idyllic, heavenly, or anything of the sort. The way to disrupt agency is to destroy the distinction between good and evil; Satan sought to save all regardless of their inclination to good or evil; the evil would choose evil and receive the fruits of the good. As Korihor, we would understand that there is no blessing in righteousness, that “whatsoever a man doeth is no crime”, and that man strives by his cunning and strength (Alma 30:17). Satan’s plan was truly hellish, not desirable in the least, for wickedness never was happiness. No consent or will can change that.
Flee moral cowardice. It does you no good. If something is immoral, a blight before God, do not confuse the masses, your fellow man, by telling them that it is fine to pursue a little sin. If self-government has any merits, it comes in the full equality of moral law; no king can exempt himself in his adultery; no lord can steal from his subjects; no baron can bribe his courts. We make a mockery of ourselves, our religion, and our conscience when we hide behind constructions of consent when we know good from evil. Even still, if we are to assume that our self-government fails, and we are enthralled by pernicious lies, all the clearer is our agency. I, with all the martyrs, gladly take harsh and false laws that allow us to choose faith. And if we do not trust ourselves to know good from evil, we might as well give up on salvation; for there too, this clear distinction is necessary to make any choice.
Written by: Jake Andersen
Guest Contributor at the Cougar Chronicle
The opinions in this article are those of the author.
The Cougar Chronicle is an independent student-run newspaper and is not affiliated with Brigham Young University or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.