Jeffrey Thayne

BYU honor code poster, spoof of Twilight
Does having an honor code at BYU remove the students’ agency? Dallin H. Oaks had something to say about that.

I read through entries from an internet discussion group a few weeks ago and found the post of an individual who argued that the Honor Code at Brigham Young University is wrong because it “restricts our agency.” I realized that the basis for his absurd and false argument is a doctrine commonly taught in church meetings: “In the pre-earth life, the devil’s plan was to force us to do good so that we could all be saved in the after life.” This doctrine is often supported with the scripture: “Satan … sought to destroy the agency of man” (Moses 4:3). It is commonly assumed that the Satan could only destroy our agency through force or coercion.

Ways to Remove Agency

However, Bruce R. McConkie made it clear that there are various ways that the adversary can take away agency. He explained that agency requires four conditions:

1. Laws ordained by an omnipotent power must exist, laws we can either obey or disobey.

2. There must be opposites—good and evil, right and wrong.

3. We must have knowledge of good and evil; we must know the difference between the opposites.

4. We must possess an unfettered power of choice.1

Taking away any of these four criterion would destroy our agency. We commonly assume that the Lord was speaking only of the fourth criterion in the book of Moses; that is, that the devil would jeopardize our unfettered power of choice by forcing us to do good. I believe, however, that we should not teach that the devil’s plan was to force us to do good because this idea is doctrinally problematic. First of all, the devil does not want to force us to do good. The scriptures clearly teach the opposite:

Whatsoever thing persuadeth men to do evil … ye may know with a perfect knowledge it is of the devil; for after this manner doth the devil work, for he persuadeth no man to do good, no, not one. (Moro. 7:17)

Leaders of the church have also clarified this doctrine. Bruce R. McConkie taught that the devil sought to save all men “without reference to their works. … He offered a mortal life … of evil and crime and murder, following which all men would be saved.”2

Governments

Also, it falsely colors the way we understand institutional or governmental authority. When we teach the doctrine as if Satan wanted to restrict our choices via coercive means, we unwittingly give credence to rebellious individual’s arguments against governmental or institutional authority. In a Sunday School lesson recently, I heard the teacher comment that teenage delinquents must have fought nobly against the devil in the pre-earth life, which is why they continue to dislike anything that restricts them here in this life. It almost sounded as if the teacher vindicated delinquent behavior by citing church doctrine. Also, I cringe when I occasionally hear people argue against dictatorial governments on the grounds that these institutions “restrict our agency, and are therefore an extension of the devil’s plan.” Although I believe that dictatorial governments are evil, and that they are authored by the devil, there are better arguments for this belief that are not based on a misperception of Church doctrine. Dallin Oaks explains:

During my nine years at BYU, I read many letters to the editor in The Daily Universe that protested various rules as infringements of free agency. …

The Lord has told us in modern revelation that he established the Constitution of the United States to assure “that every man may act … according to the moral agency which I have given unto him” (D&C 101:78). In other words, God established our Constitution to give us the vital political freedom necessary for us to act upon our personal choices in civil government. This revelation shows the distinction between agency (the power of choice), which is God-given, and freedom, the right to act upon our choice, which is protected by the Constitution and the laws of the land.

Freedom is obviously of great importance, but as these examples illustrate, freedom is always qualified in mortality. Consequently, when we oppose a loss of freedom, it would be better if we did not conduct our debate in terms of a loss of our free agency, which is impossible under our doctrine. We ought to focus on the legality or wisdom of the proposed restriction of our freedom.3

Freedom and Agency are Different

One reason why it is logically inconsistent to claim that the devil wants to take away our agency through coercion and force is that no matter how severe the penalties or consequences attached to our actions, we can still choose to do them. Our agency is intact. In fact, if the devil can force us to do an action such that we have no choice whatsoever, where was our agency in the first place? If our agency is so fragile that someone else can override our fundamental ability to choose, do we really have it? One of the unfortunate consequences of claiming that rules and restrictions take away our agency is that we inadvertently redefine agency as the “freedom to act without consequences.” On another occasion, Oaks continued this thought:

Of course, mortals must still resolve many questions concerning what restrictions or consequences should be placed upon choices. But those questions come under the heading of freedom, not agency. Many do not understand that important fact. We are responsible to use our agency in a world of choices. It will not do to pretend that our agency has been taken away when we are not free to exercise it without unwelcome consequences.4

Other Possibilities

An alternative way to teach the doctrine in Moses 4:3 is to say that the devil wanted to legitimize sin and therefore negate individual accountability. Agency is very closely related to accountability. If our actions had no eternal consequences, then our choices would be meaningless, and agency would be destroyed. In other words, in order to have agency we need to be accountable to law. We should teach that the devil was not cast out for wanting to use coercive methods to enforce moral law, but for rebellion against moral law. Thus, the devil would destroy our agency by removing the first criterion from McConkie’s list. This matches the devil’s character more closely, and also avoids the logical impossibility of coercive restrictions taking away our agency. If we teach the doctrine this way, we will be able to relate the concept of agency with the principle of obedience. Our gospel teaching will also be more consistent with ancient and modern revelation, and we will be in a better position to defend the moral standards of the university and the Church.



Notes

1. Bruce R. McConkie, The Millennial Messiah (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1982), p. .
2. McConkie, The Millennial Messiah, p. .
3. Dallin H. Oaks, Free Agency and Freedom.
4. Dallin H. Oaks, “Weightier Matters,” Ensign, Jan 2001, p. 13.