Thursday, June 22, 2006

Popular misconceptions regarding agency

From a General Conference address.  (May 1992 Ensign,  Our Moral Environment, President Boyd K. Packer)
While we pass laws to reduce pollution of the earth, any proposal to protect the moral and spiritual environment is shouted down and marched against as infringing upon liberty, agency, freedom, the right to choose.

Interesting how one virtue, when given exaggerated or fanatical emphasis, can be used to batter down another, with freedom, a virtue, invoked to protect vice. Those determined to transgress see any regulation of their life-style as interfering with their agency and seek to have their actions condoned by making them legal.

People who are otherwise sensible say, "I do not intend to indulge, but I vote for freedom of choice for those who do."

Regardless of how lofty and moral the "pro-choice" argument sounds, it is badly flawed. With that same logic one could argue that all traffic signs and barriers which keep the careless from danger should be pulled down on the theory that each individual must be free to choose how close to the edge he will go.

The phrase "free agency" does not appear in scripture. The only agency spoken of there is moral agency, "which," the Lord said, "I have given unto him, that every man may be accountable for his own sins in the day of judgement." (Doctrine and Covenants 101:78.)

One of the mistaken ideas we often hear associated with the "free agency" term is that it implies some ideal state of borderline anarchy. I'm pretty sure this idea has been sorely abused since Joseph Smith spoke the words, "I teach them correct principles, and they govern themselves."

Joseph never taught that it was wrong for those who know and follow the correct principles to "impose" their ideas of righteousness on others. Support for government and respect for the law are explicit principles in church doctrine. The most common associated complaint we hear from those of liberal persuasion is that we cannot exist with true freedom unless people of faith keep their mouths shut about their beliefs. We shouldn't be forcing our religion on others. We cannot legislate morality. Blah blah blah.

Apparently they believe God expects everyone to make up our minds and commit to good or evil in a sort of moral vacuum. Heaven forbid that we should ever pass laws that actually reflect the true values we understand based upon commandments of God. Unthinkable -- that would be depriving others of their "free agency"!

It seems almost a cliche among those who favor this thinking that implementing laws which impose moral values epitomizes "Satan's Plan". Thus the ultimate evil consists of telling someone else how to follow the laws of righteousness. If there ever was a more backward approach, it is difficult to imagine what it would be.

One of the most important teachings I know on this issue is found in 2 Nephi  chapter 2. The idea of opposition is very well understood, but another important principle stands out:

Wherefore, the Lord God gave unto man that he should act for himself. Wherefore, man could not act for himself save it should be that he was enticed by the one or the other. (2 Nephi 2:16)

Clearly an important implication here is that "enticement" is an essential element in our exercise of agency. This rather contradicts the notion that true agency requires us to operate from an exclusively intrinsic base, with no external forces influencing our choices. Most of us with experience at the primary level of church education understand very well that we must be guided in our choices by the Holy Ghost -- "Choose the Right" is our motto. We choose the right by inspiration. This is our "enticement" to good. And of course there are also always evil enticements drawing us the other way.

This is the cost which enables our agency. There is no principle in the gospel that can be construed to dictate that the environment in which we are required to practice our agency must be free from rules and laws that guide our thinking and acts. Indeed, a clear view of church history with regard to civil government would seem to indicate just the opposite. The church has always promoted strong government and the passage of laws based in principles of righteousness.

In fact, under the common misapplication of the term, "free agency" actually exists nowhere. Many of us live in bondage of various forms that constrain our ability to freely make choices. I believe we must ultimately be judged for our actions based on the options available to us, and the enticements we were subject to at the time.

Elder Packer's point is a legitimate one. Moral agency is never "free" in any way. It always comes at a cost, and it is always compromised by the enticements of the world.


Anonymous said...

Interesting points. The Book of Mormon talks about a time when adultery was unlawful. If you were King of your town, what spiritual commandments would you mandate by law?

Jim Cobabe said...

I don't know. What is a "spiritual commandment"?