This is the fourth in our five-part series titled “Mormonism, Agency, and Politics.” In the first post we discussed the importance of agency in Mormon doctrine. In the second we addressed Satan’s strategy of limiting our agency. In the third, we addressed the view that agency can be restricted simply by restricting freedom. In this post, we examine the idea that agency can be restricted by removing differences between good and evil and explore its political implications.
Like we’ve said before, we don’t believe that force in any way restricts agency. As one person put it,
The way I understand agency, you could put me in a dungeon in a straightjacket and blindfold/gag me, and I’d still have agency. I wouldn’t have a lot of freedom, but I would still be able to choose between good and evil.
So, if force doesn’t limit or restrict our agency, how was Satan going to go about limiting our agency while here on earth? His plan was to remove agency by erasing the difference between good and evil: if we don’t have moral alternatives, we don’t have agency. There are certainly many ways to do this, but we’ll just look at two possibilities:
1) remove law
2) remove distinctions under the law.
In order to flesh out these two agency-destroying possibilities, we’ll look at two examples of currently-existing laws. For each law we’ll explore how the distinction between good and evil could be removed, thus removing our agency on that law.
Case study: Tithing
One oft-repeated argument is about financial donations and agency: “it’s not charity if you’re forced to give it.” This same argument can be leveled at two separate institutions: the LDS Church and the US Government. I argue it is still charity in both situations– people understand that part of the deal is tithing. Just because my good standing as a member of the Church hinges on whether or not I pay tithing doesn’t make my 10% any less charitable. Likewise, the fact that my good standing as a citizen of the United States hinges on whether or not I pay taxes doesn’t make my contribution any less charitable.
There are, however, ways that Satan could have removed our agency in relation to tithing. He could have removed the law of tithing. If there is no law requiring that members give 10% of their increase annually to the Lord, then you and I really wouldn’t have a choice in the matter: we’d all be living in accordance to “tithing” even if we never gave anything. Or, he could have diluted the definition of tithing, destroying the distinction between it and everything else. In this case, there would still be a law of tithing, but anything we did would count as paying tithing. Give 10% of your interest annually? You’re a full tithe-payer. Give 2%, once every three months? You’re a full tithe-payer. Give a fish? Full tithe-payer. Take a fish? Full tithe-payer.
Whether you remove the law, or remove the distinctions under the law, our agency in relation to tithing would be destroyed.
Case study: Murder
There’s no doubt that murder is a big deal in Mormon doctrine. The taking of life is something not to be trifled with, and is incredibly more complicated than it looks at face value: killing in self defense is okay (but what constitutes self defense?); killing in a just war is okay (but who gets to decide whether war is just?); killing in the Old Testament was a justified punishment (but is it now?). Despite all its moral complexity, its really quite simple to remove our agency on the matter. The devil could have removed the prohibition on murder. We could kill anyone and everyone we wanted, without violating the law. In other words, we wouldn’t have a choice whether to obey. Or, he could have changed the distinction between murder and non-murder. Kill your neighbor because she’s attacking you? Not murder. Kill your neighbor because you don’t like her hair? Not murder. Kill your friend when he beats you at chess? No problemo. Whatever you do, it’s not murder. You don’t even have the moral freedom to commit murder.
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Overall, this series is working to distinguish between freedom/liberty and agency. Limiting the one does not necessarily limit the other: you can take away my freedom and I’ll still have my agency, and you can take away my agency and I’ll still have my freedom. In fact, if you take away my agency I might actually have more freedom. In the next post, we’ll conclude this series with a larger discussion of agency and freedom/liberty.
Part 1: The Importance of Agency
Part 2: Restricting Agency
Part 5: Freedom vs. Agency