Law and Moral Agency

Posted by

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


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.


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.


  1. The University has every right to set high standards. It is a shame though, that they choose the “Let’s make them be moral students.” attitude over the “Let’s inspire them to be moral students.” philosophy.

  2. I can probably agree; my main point is that arguing against the Honor Code takes a little more than saying “it restricts my agency,” since it doesn’t do that at all. It merely places consequences on our choices. I think it can be easily argued that the consequences to our choices are what makes our choices meaningful.

    Thanks for the thought!

  3. I like the funny posters that the Honor Society puts out, like “Goldilocks and the three bares.” I feel like that’s the “Let’s inspire them” approach. Constant reminders to not let the standards slip, but with a sense of humor.

    Seth, do you think that if there were no consequences to not following the Honor Code, things would be better? I can’t help but think that without at least some ability to enforce rules, it would quickly become irrelevant.

  4. I love the idea of an inspirational or positive sort of Honor Code rather than the discouraging, negative kind we all know and tolerate. I think you’re right, Nathan, when you mention the Goldilocks campaign as an example of the inspirational kind.

    One thing that troubles me in the discussion of this, though, is what seems to me to be the conflation of two distinct ideas: consequences, and punishments.

    There are consequences to not abiding by the Honor Code (and the Dress and Grooming Code), with or without punishments. If I don’t shave after saying I would, there will be a number of consequences: I’ll stay warmer in January; my wife will find me more attractive; people on campus will usually think me unsavory and shy away from me, while those that must do business with me will likely do so less agreeably; many people will conclude that I do not value my word and will be less inclined to trust it as a result; and I will lose self-respect for doing something I said I would not do. All those are consequences of my actions. Some of those are positive consequences. Some are negative. None is a punishment.

    If, however, I am systematically refused service I would otherwise be entitled to, if I am harassed by the ever-tedious Holy Office of the Honor Code, if I am expelled from the University, those are punishments. They don’t follow naturally from my action the way the consequences do.

    Overall, my self-respect and trustworthiness are worth more to me than the positive consequences of beardedness, and I’d be inclined to follow the Grooming Code on that without any punishment involved. I don’t think the punishments are needed for me, even though if I weren’t at BYU, I would definitely wear a beard. The consequences alone are sufficient, at least for assuring my compliance with the Code.

    Whenever you hear someone saying things like “[the Honor Code] places consequences on our choices,” it’s usually a clear sign that the word consequences is being confused with the word punishment. I remember hearing grownups do that a lot when I was a kid. My own parents taught me that consequences are the natural effects of an event (or as the OED puts it, “A thing or circumstance which follows as an effect or result from something preceding”). But other grownups would say, “If you do [x bad thing], there’s going to be consequences.” It would confuse me until I saw my friends doing those bad things and getting punished for it. Then I realized that the parents were using the word consequence as a euphemism for punishment. For some reason, pointing out their error to them right at the moment never seemed to please them, though! 🙂

    We cannot place consequences on any action. The consequences are the effects of natural law. That’s the natural law that Lucifer was trying to blind us to in the beginning, thus destroying our agency, as Jeffrey points out in the post. But whether we’re blind to it or not, every action has consequences. We reap what we sow. Those consequences cannot be avoided. In fact, usually we don’t want to avoid the consequences of our actions — I eat to allay hunger; I drink to quench thirst; I sleep to recover vitality; the consequences of those actions are what I seek when I do them. That’s exactly why “the consequences to our choices are what makes our choices meaningful.”

    But just as I cannot avoid the consequences of my actions, so I cannot append to, augment, or alter them. They are bound by natural law, unavoidable and unadjustable. So to think of setting, establishing, or placing consequences is not quite right. We can set punishments, but not consequences.

    Punishments don’t make our choices meaningful. Punishments, being reactive choices of men rather than the function of eternal law, are inherently more arbitrary than consequences. And when the aftermath of choices is arbitrary, choices become less meaningful. Meaning exists where there exists a reliable causal relationship. Punishments, being arbitrary, undermine the reliability of the causal relationship and thus confuse the meaning behind the choices. The consequences of our choices are reliable and predictable, forever. Without the arbitrariness of punishments to confuse the matter, consequences give our choices clear meaning.

    One of the most arbitrary things about punishments, and therefore one of the things that most leads people into sin, is that you only get punished if you happen to get caught. If you are uncaught, you go unpunished. Consequences, on the other hand, can absolutely never be avoided. Many people make very poor choices because they think they will not be caught. If they were not worried about whether they might be caught, they’d have more time and energy to worry about the actual consequences of their choices and maybe choose well, and for the right reasons at that.

  5. (I am commenting now, quite late on this blog, by invitation from Jeffrey here)

    Thanks for pointing this article out.

    Again I find myself reconsidering what I had considered at least partially settled in my mind. I am one of those who, having studied somewhat of the teachings of the prophets and others, had settled on the “coercion was how Satan sought to destroy our agency” interpretation. This interpretation has in large part informed my political opinions. So, now, with just a few references to Elders Oaks and McConkie, you have managed to show me the crack in my foundations. But, I’m not sure the edifice, the construction of which has taken into account the experiences of my lifetime, is to be abandoned; I know that many or most of my deeply-held political positions remain consistent with the teachings of prophets, and so if I have misapplied a particular doctrine in trying to understand their teachings, it does not make the teachings false, nor does it make the conclusions that I have taken from those teachings incorrect.

    I think that I pretty strongly agree with commentator Wesley. There are scriptures and prophets that teach me that the “laws ordained by an omnipotent power” (quoting McConkie) are not the _source_ of eternal consequences, but merely an expression of them. If it is possible, as scripture assures us, for God to “cease to be God,” it implies to me that there are consequences aside from the punishments that attend disobedience to divine commandments. These commandments surely are an expression of truth, but originate not within the Father; rather, it is His understanding of and choice to work within the bounds of such truth, that makes the Father who He is, and what will enable us to become as He is.

    It is my belief that the doctrines of persuasion and longsuffering are not corollary to the Father’s plan for us, but central to it, and that these are the means by which He organizes intelligences into ever greater unitary intelligences – not through coercion, though commandments may seem to be coercive by some of us sometimes.

    It is for these reasons, even if I’ve articulated them poorly, that I believe that governments instituted by men must be bounded to use force only as a means of preventing an individual’s natural rights being trampled by other individuals. It is my opinion that every other purpose for which men turn to government (and the use of force) should instead be accomplished according to a pattern of persuasion and common consent. This is what I believe to be the constitutional law spoken of by the Lord in D&C 98 and elsewhere. The U.S. Constitution created a voluntary union of States, delegating specific powers to the Union, establishing means by which member States agreed to protect one another from within and from without. It is emphatically not the government we see practiced today in Washington.

    My opinions are my own, and in no event should they be used to justify rebellion or violence (as an ever increasing minority seem to advocate these days). I hope by sharing them, only to reveal to others what truth I have learned, as well as my ignorance – that thereby I may have the flaws noticed by others, and get corrective advice from them – that thereby we both may become wiser.

  6. Capt. Moroni,

    Thanks for your comment! In all honesty, I suspect we perfectly agree as to what constitutes good government. You are right that the edifice does not need to be challenged; rather, we just need to find a stronger foundation for it.

    I’ll send you to another series I wrote for that very purpose:

    As far as Wesley’s remarks on consequences, Wesley and I discuss the issue much more deeply (but, quite honestly, unproductively) in the series I linked to.

  7. I, too, favor the idea that Satan was proposing to destroy our accountability rather than force obedience, but I’m not sure he could have convinced a third that he could do it by altering the law. (Quite frankly, I’m not sure God Himself could destroy eternal law without being destroyed Himself.)

    The above says that Elder 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.” If there were no law, how could McConkie refer to “evil” and “crime”?

    I personally think that Satan may have been looking to remove the third requirement of Agency — the knowledge of good and evil. (At least he might have a better chance convincing others that he could actually do it.) It seems to me that Law, Opposites, and Choice are always present in our telestial sphere, but the Knowledge of good and evil is not so universal.

    Consider this: The key to becoming accountable in the scriptures always seems to be the gaining of a, “knowledge of good and evil,” whether it’s Adam and Eve, or little children. If Satan could convince us that he could withhold that knowledge from us and we could remain unaccountable (like innocent little children), then we could do whatever we chose including, “evil and crime and murder,” and still receive some type of universal redemption “without reference to [our] works.”

  8. Interesting suggestion—I think it’s an equally plausible scenario. If we equate “knowledge of good and evil” with “light” (which makes sense, since the light of Christ is what allows us to discern good and evil), then the following verse takes on added meaning:

    That wicked one cometh and taketh away light and truth, through disobedience, from the children of men, and because of the tradition of their fathers. (D&C 93:39)

    Seems to be saying that Satan has at least two tactics for removing knowledge of good and evil: personal sin and false traditions.

  9. It’s an interesting idea, but it is at odds with the likes of Howard W. Hunter, Gordon B. Hinckley, and others in authority, who specifically taught that Satan’s plan was one of coercion or compulsion.

    Let’s not get so lost in semantics that we lose sight of some simple truths. Let our conclusions be built on those truths and greater understanding will follow.

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