Jeff Spector wrote a post on Agency a few months ago which I enjoyed alot. The discussion led me down a slightly different path and I wanted to write a supplement to his ideas in light of some of my own thoughts on agency and how they relate to accountability. My major contention is that the notion of individual accountability is a fallacy, or, perhaps more accurately, it is not the whole story.
The story of Adam and Eve is the primary narrative when discussions of agency and accountability arise. How we interpret the events of the Garden has a big impact on the way we frame this debate. A standard statement is the second Article of Faith: ‘We believe that [individuals] will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam’s transgression’. Notions of Individual accountability are often rooted in this declaration because it apparently denounces ‘Original Sin’.
However I feel that this is actually contrary to what is being stated. What the second Article of Faith acknowledges is that Adam and Eve’s action in the Garden has influenced the choices that are currently available to us now. We are taught that people are conceived in sin and that we begin to desire sin in our earliest years, even before we are aware of it (see Mos 6:55). We are born into a world where sin pre-dominates and this will inevitably impact the choices that we will make . Therefore my capacity to choose is influenced by the choice of another. This article of faith teaches that I will not be punished for Adam and Eve’s transgression, but my sins are a direct consequence of the world they created. So is this really saying to us that there is a reduced accountability for what we do wrong in this life. Certainly, at the very least, the choices I make now are impacted by what Adam and Eve did.
To put it another way, Lehi, when speaking to the Children of Laman and Lemuel, promsies them that they will not be held accountable for not believing and following the gospel if their parents continue to rebel. In other words, Lehi suggests that the patterns of belief and action are set early in life and may be difficult to change, but these children will have a ‘reduced’ accountability because of the reduced likelihood that they will accept the gospel because of the actions of their parents. From a different perspective, Boyd K. Packer has said that children are influenced by their environment and that the degree to which the society accepts a set of morals which are mis-directed is an important factor on the values we have. Elder Packer therefore believes that the extent of such cultural ‘wickedness’ will be factored into our Final Judgment.
All this suggests that accountability and agency are actually a matter of being inter-dependent. Our actions are invariably linked to a multitude of other people. We are tied to this multitude, by the ripples of influence that reverberate out from every action. If we fall, others will fall with us; but if we are lifted up to God, others will come with us as well.
Thinking this way helps me understanding a little the more the statement that ‘we without them cannot be made perfect; neither can they without us be made perfect’ (D&C 128:18). I see this as not only applying to the salvation of the dead but also to each of those people who are around us; those who are tied to us by love or even by association.
I am not suggesting that we are merely puppets who are controlled by those around us. We can choose to return evil for good, or good for evil. However, we cannot make these choices, develop our values or live our lives separate from others. It seems to me that our very nature indicates that we are social beings, that we are not alone in making choices and are therefore not wholly alone when speaking of our accountability. Our choices and our accountability are reciprocal.
1. Robert L. Millet, The Regeneration of Fallen Man in Selected Writings of Robert L. Millet: Gospel Scholars Series [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 2000], 172.
2. Boyd K. Packer, Our Moral Environment in Ensign, May 1992.