Responsibility of Agency

Posted by

Jeffrey Thayne

2. Pain that Results from Sin

In the first post of this series, I discussed how the existence of moral agency necessarily entails the possibility of sin. Few Latter-day Saints try to pin responsibility on God for malice and hatred in the world—we generally recognize these to be the result of man’s exercise of agency, and a necessary possibility in a world with moral agents. However, what people generally want to know, as C. S. Lewis says, is “the reason for the enormous permission to torture their fellows which God gives to the worst of men.”

An Appeal to Agency does Not Work

Nazi concentration camp. Even when all temporal freedoms have been removed, we still have choices we are free to make in the silence of our souls.

Occasionally a person will answer this question by saying, “God cannot physically prevent someone from hurting people because that would interfere with his agency.” I have never believed that an appeal to human agency completely answers this question, because it does not stand to reason that preventing a person from maliciously killing another denies that person his agency. I have always believed that even if a person is kept in a straitjacket in a jail cell in order to prevent him or her from inflicting harm on others, his or her agency is still intact—that is, his or her desire to inflict harm is still a choice within his or her reach. No mortal restrictions will remove all of our choices. As Viktor Frankl said,

We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.

In other words, despite our mortal circumstances, our agency is always intact; the choice to turn our hearts with malice towards others or to face others in love and forgiveness is a choice that can never be denied us. I have always supposed that every other choice we make is an extension of this fundamental choice in our way of being (to be for-the-other or to be against-the-other, for lack of better terminology). This fundamental choice colors and gives meaning to all of our other actions. We always have this choice, regardless of whatever physical constraints are placed upon us. Thus, even God could never fully take away our agency, except, I believe, by separating us completely from other moral agents (including Himself), thus removing us from an opportunity to either be for the other or be against the other.

The scriptures teach that just the desire to sin is enough to condemn us in the final judgment, whether we commit the sin in action or not. Why, then, does God permit us to do wrong to others, to inflict pain upon others, when He has power to prevent it without interrupting our agency (or at least without interrupting the fundamental choice that matters)? Certainly God could have clipped the wings of the airplane before it collapsed the twin towers, and the mortal test of those flying the airplane would not have been seriously thwarted, for they had already filled their hearts with malice and attempted the heinous crime.

In fact, this question becomes even more poignant when we consider that God has intervened many times to prevent some men from inflicting pain upon others. Consider numerous scriptural examples, such as when God killed a Lamanite who threatened Ammon’s life while he was unconscious. Consider that every time we petition God to protect us from those who would otherwise hurt us, we are asking Him to intervene in human affairs in a way that prevents others from acting upon their desires and choices. Why would He intervene in some instances, but not others? If God’s interference takes away our agency, and if agency is sacrosanct, then why do we have recorded instances of divine intervention? Why would we engage in petitionary prayer?

Also, I have a hard time accepting the position that God’s interference in human affairs takes away agency because that puts God in an awkward position: the more God is involved in the world, the less agency His children have. Also, this puts a strange twist on agency, and, in a way, defines agency as “the absence of divine involvement or interference.” I do not wish to see agency that way, because it makes petitionary prayer very problematic. Also, if God’s involvement takes away agency, so would human involvement; every time I restrain someone in order prevent him from maliciously harming another person, would I not be taking away his agency? This cannot be an adequate description of human agency, and I think it is rooted in a faulty description of agency. It assumes that agency is somehow related to our freedom of movement and freedom from restraint; instead, as I explained earlier in this post, I believe agency has to do with our way-of-being towards others.

Thus, simply saying that God allows us to hurt each other because He does not wish to take away our agency does not sufficiently answer the question, because our agency resides in our way-of-being, in our heart. God could prevent us from acting upon our desires to hurt others, and we would still have agency. Also, this rhetoric makes agency antithetical not only to divine involvement or interference in the world, but also human interaction with others when we, to any extent, prevent someone else from obtaining their desires.

An Interesting Insight

While I cannot possibly know why God allows each and every moral atrocity to occur, and while I believe no solution will fully resolve the issue to those who experience deep pain at the hands of others, I recently stumbled upon a point of view I appreciate. Robert Millet, in a lecture he presented at Education Week in 2003, quoted a Catholic theologian and apologist named Richard Swinburne, who said:

A world in which agents can benefit each other but not do each other harm is one where they have only very limited responsibility for each other. If my responsibility for you is limited to whether or not to give you a camcorder, but I cannot cause you pain, stunt your growth, or limit your education, then I do not have a great deal of responsibility for you. … A good God, like a good father, will delegate responsibility. In order to allow creatures a share in creation, he will allow them the choice of hurting and maiming, of frustrating the divine plan.

I am fortunate if the natural possibility of my suffering if you choose to hurt me is the vehicle which makes your choice really matter. My vulnerability, my openness to suffering (which necessarily involves my actually suffering if you make the wrong choice), means that you are not just like a pilot in a simulator, where it does not matter if mistakes are made. That our choices matter tremendously, that we can make great differences to things for good or ill, is one of the greatest gifts a creator can give us. And if my suffering is the means by which he can give you that choice, I too am in this respect fortunate.2

In other words, while our agency is intact regardless of divine interference in human affairs, God may allow us to harm others because He wants to preserve the tremendous responsibility we have been given here on earth. This position does not make the suffering that results from sin any less tragic; in fact, it makes it even more tragic. And notice that he uses a rhetoric of responsibility, not agency. If we relate the word agency with responsibility, rather than merely with choice, then we are on the road to a fresh point of view.

Beyond this insight, however, I do not wish to offer justifications for pain inflicted by others. It is not our place to explain why people suffer at the hands of other people—we can only formulate a response to it. In fact, as I will explain in the fourth post of this series, inventing a compelling reason why people hurt people can, if we are not careful, serve to justify sin. In the last post of this series, Nathan will explain how pain received at the hands of others can have a redemptive effect through the Atonement of Jesus Christ.


1. Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (1985), 86.
2. Richard Swinburne, Is There a God? (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 98–103.

One comment

  1. Occasionally a person will [say], “God cannot physically prevent someone from hurting people because that would interfere with his agency.”

    That explanation has always left me unsatisfied, because it leads to the conclusion you bring up:

    If God’s involvement takes away agency, so would human involvement; every time I restrain someone in order prevent him from maliciously harming another person, would I not be taking away his agency?

    I’ve also heard people come to a similar conclusion about laws and government. “You can’t outlaw pornography because that limits people’s agency.” The logical result could be to never outlaw anything.

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