Moral agency is sometimes thought of as an inert, passive ability that lies dormant much of the time. It is thought of as something we only trott out to use occasionally when we have a big decision to make. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
I rarely remember the substance of my dreams. When I do, it is only for a little while, and I usually only have memorable dreams when I need to write an article. Recording what I have dreamt of has to be done quickly or it disappears forever. This morning I had a dream that I remember seemed to be an extensive story with a very pointed ending. That is unusual for me, but now I have the task of trying to find a way to convey the urgency of the point of the story in such a way that it makes as much sense to you as it did for me.
Moral agency and choice
I have written other articles about our agency and the laws that govern that agency in mortality. But the point that seemed to stand out about this dream of agency was that agency is an active principle, like faith. I have always thought of our agency, our ability to choose as just that, an ability. It is something that is stagnant, unmoving, inactive. It is present, but doesn’t interact with other things around it. It is like the ability to paint. Yes, you can paint if you pick up a brush and do something, but the ability itself doesn’t do anything unless you put action to it.
I have always thought of our moral agency in the same way. We all have the ability to make choices, but the agency itself lies dormant unless we actively make a moral choice. Think of it like the electricity flowing throughout your house. It is always there, ready for someone to use it, but it doesn’t actually do anything unless someone either flips on the light switch or plugs something into an outlet. In this scenario agency is passive, awaiting to be used by someone’s direct actions.
If you have ever had a child or a friend who likes to remain passive and does not like to make choices, you may have experienced what I am about to discuss. I had more than one child who didn’t want to grow up and leave the home. When asked what their decision was about college or job preferences I would get vague looks of confusion from my child with an answer of, “I don’t know.” That is when I would return their same blank stare.
It was difficult for me to understand how they couldn’t have an opinion on something as important as what they wanted to do with their life when they graduated from high school. Surely they had given it at least a little thought. My conversation with each child went something like this:
“Do you want to go to college?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you want to go get some training so you can learn a profession, like plumbing, electrical work, dental hygienist, anything?”
“I don’t know.”
“Are you planning on just sitting around the house and doing nothing?”
“Then what are you going to do?”
“I don’t know.”
And we wonder why parents go gray in their 40’s. My standard reply to the ending of this part of the conversation was always, “Well if you don’t make the decision someone else will make it for you. There are always plenty of people who would love to control your life by telling you what to do with it.” It wasn’t until this morning that I realized how close to the truth that statement really is.
Moral agency as a principle of action
Let me use a fictitious child for demonstration purposes. I’ll call her Vika. What happens to Vika when she doesn’t make a choice about something? First of all, is she really not making a choice? To not make a choice is to choose a course of action. It may be a course of inaction, but it is still a choice of action. So if Vika says, “I don’t know” to my question about schooling or work, what she is really choosing is to sit and do nothing. This demonstrates that even the act of supposedly avoiding having to make a decision, is in itself, a choice of action. All she has really said “No” to are the options I have given her.
Let’s suppose I gave Vika the option of going to Disneyland or to an all expense paid trip to Hawaii? She might have given a resounding “Yes” to one of those choices. But to the hard choices of how she is going to direct her life after high school she remains noncommittal. Her choice to stick to her “I don’t know” response is another way of saying that she hasn’t been presented with an option yet that attracts her enough to cause her to actively make a choice. So instead, she passively chooses to remain in her current situation. The unexpressed hope is that someone else will come along with an option that will appeal to her. But she is not prepared or desirous of finding another option herself.
Do you see that even in her state of lethargy, inaction, and avoidance, she is still making a choice. Our moral agency is always in play, even when we act like we aren’t making a choice. In reality we are always making a choice, even if it is to ignore our current situation, to put the responsibility for something on another person or even the situation we find ourself in, or some other agent of change. But the reality is that it is always our choice to choose what we will blame or credit for our choice. In every situation the choice still belongs to us.
The power of moral agency
This is what moral agency is. It is the ability to choose for ourselves every moment of every day how we will behave. Moral agency is the expression of our heart’s desire. I can’t imagine that being invited to a rave, a bar, a night club, an inappropriate venue of entertainment, or any one of a thousand other temptations, that the choice I make, the use I make of my moral agency isn’t satisfying my heart’s desire. Even if I make a sacrifice for another person, my moral agency allows me to satisfy a desire that outweighs the consequences of that sacrifice. I may choose to give a kidney to a loved one. I suffer a lot of physical pain and discomfort, but my action fulfills my heart’s desire, because my desire is the welfare of someone else. Here is Alma 29:4.
4 I ought not to harrow up in my desires the firm decree of a just God, for I know that he granteth unto men according to their , whether it be unto death or unto life; yea, I know that he allotteth unto men, yea, decreeth unto them decrees which are unalterable, according to their , whether they be unto salvation or unto destruction.
Think about this verse. It is our will that determines our actions or inactions. Our will is the expression of our desire, for if we do something unpleasant it is because we make a choice to do something unpleasant because it satisfies something that we desire more than the unpleasant choice. I may choose to take the punishment for someone else because I believe I am fulfilling a higher law of love, or loyalty, or dedication, etc. I don’t do something like that because I just love to be punished.
Our moral agency is constantly in play. It isn’t like the electricity in our house, passive and just waiting for someone to choose to use it. It is more like a house that is fully lit all the time. We go from room to room and choose where we turn off lights and where we add lights, but the whole house is fully charged and using electricity at all times.
When we sit at home at night and decide to watch television, what choices are we making that fulfill the desires of our heart? What other options do we have? We could be thinking about how to fulfill the calling we have in the ward or branch. We could be thinking about how we could be serving someone who has needs. We could be out ministering to other people. There are things we could be doing around the house, people to write letters to, scripture study, prayer, hobbies – all kinds of things we could be doing besides watching television. The point is, this is something we choose to do instead of those other things. The desire of our heart to be inactive and just be entertained is greater than our desire to serve others. So even watching television contributes to our final judgment.
Lest you think I am condemning all television or entertainment, let me clarify. We need diversions. Entertainment is a good thing. I am referring to those who are habitual couch potatoes because they don’t want to do anything that actually requires effort.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not condemning anyone for the choices they either make or don’t make. Everything I have said here points the finger of accusation back at me, but that doesn’t change the truth of the scriptures. While looking for scriptures about the nature of our moral agency and our wills, I ran into many verses just in Alma alone that talk about how connected our will is with our agency, and how their use affects our judgment. Here are some of those scriptures that talk about how our will demonstrates to us the desires of our heart, and how that affects the outcome of our eternal judgment.
31 Wherefore, he gave unto men, they having first transgressed the commandments as to things which were temporal, and becoming as gods, good from evil, placing themselves in a state to , or being placed in a state to act according to their wills and pleasures, whether to do evil or to do good—
32 Therefore God gave unto them commandments, after having made unto them the plan of redemption, that they should not do evil, the penalty thereof being a second , which was an everlasting as to things pertaining unto righteousness; for on such the plan of redemption could have no power, for the works of could not be destroyed, according to the supreme of God.
Alma 42:7, 26-27
7 And now, ye see by this that our first parents were both temporally and spiritually from the of the Lord; and thus we see they became subjects to follow after their own .
26 And thus God bringeth about his great and eternal , which were prepared the foundation of the world. And thus cometh about the salvation and the redemption of men, and also their destruction and misery.
27 Therefore, O my son, will come may come and partake of the waters of life freely; and whosoever will not come the same is not compelled to come; but in the last day it shall be unto him according to his .
44 Now, this restoration shall come to all, both old and young, both bond and free, both male and female, both the wicked and the righteous; and even there shall not so much as a hair of their heads be lost; but every thing shall be to its perfect frame, as it is now, or in the body, and shall be brought and be arraigned before the bar of Christ the Son, and God the , and the Holy Spirit, which is , to be according to their works, whether they be good or whether they be evil.
28 If he has desired to do , and has not repented in his days, behold, evil shall be done unto him, according to the restoration of God.
Here are the main points of these scriptures – and note that these are just a few that I found in the book of Alma – the Fall of man put us into a position to have moral agency to follow our own will, to choose evil or good, whatever we desire to choose. As part of the plan of salvation God has decreed that there will be a great restoration of all things. This means that not only will our bodies receive a resurrection and be raised to immortality, but our choices in this life will be restored to us as well, good for good and evil for evil.
This is why I say that no matter what choices we make we are actively fulfilling the desires of our heart, whether to accomplish good or evil. These are the choices that will determine what can be restored to us at the great and last day. This also means that there is no such thing as fence sitting. We are always either choosing our own destiny by active choice or we are giving away that right to choose by relinquishing our agency to Satan/someone else to choose for us. Relinquishing our choices to someone else never ends well. The more actively we choose to avoid doing good, which is a sin, the more we lose our own ability to choose for ourselves.
Our eternal happiness relies on our ability to recognize and use our moral agency to do good at all times. The final outcome of our judgment will be determined by how actively we participate in every moment of our mortal adventure.