Mormon doctrine strongly emphasizes the importance of personal agency. In what Mormons call the “Preexistence”, we were all in heaven existing in a non-physical, pre-mortal state. God presented us, his children, with the knowledge that in order to become Godlike ourselves, we must become mortal, endure the trials of having a physical body, and put our faith to the test to prove our worthiness. There were two divergent beliefs, one held by Satan, and the other by Jesus. Satan was of the opinion that God should compel us all to behave whilst down on Earth so that we could all be saved and become like Him. Jesus believed that we should get to choose for ourselves whether we wanted to follow God. God went with Jesus, and Satan got so angry that he revolted, got a third of the pre-mortal population to follow him, and was kicked down to hell. The rest of us (this means you) decided to choose the right and follow God’s plan, effectively putting our agency to use for the first time.
Once you get past the kooky nature of a pre-mortal existence where God permanently disavowed 33.33333∞% of his children for making a bad choice (which, really, if you get into the ethics of it isn’t all that bad), you’re left a very skewed kind of agency. Sure, you get to decide what you want to do. But if you decide wrong, you’re screwed. Sorry. So you really don’t get to decide.
Mormons will say that every action has its consequences. You drive drunk, you kill someone, well, that was your choice and now you will deal with it. You drink coffee and screw someone before marriage, well, damn you to hell. You made your choice and now you’ve got it comin’ to ya.
But if our everyday decisions unilaterally and unequivocally affect our potential for happiness in eternity, do we really have agency? A one-size-fits-all approach to lifestyle, particularly one that finds personal edification in the denial of virtually all physical pleasure, is not only tough to achieve but oddly sadistic. (I think it’s part of the reason that Mormons tend to be so unbelievably fat. Denied virtually ever other pleasure — smoking, coffee, wine, sexual freedom — they often turn to the one unrestricted vice: food. You’ll see morbidly obese people shuffling around Mormon temples, but they’ll be damn proud they have never even so much as sniffed a chai tea latte.)
Perhaps because this was the doctrine that helped shape my early understanding of the world, the idea of agency has always been very compelling for me. We know that one of the factors that most affects employees’ happiness in the workplace is a sense of ownership over their behavior. People are much happier when they feel like they have a choice in what they do. And yet it can also backfire; having too many options can cause us to second-guess or regret our decisions more than if we only had option A versus option B.
So where does an atheist such as myself sit on the topic of agency? Generally speaking, I try to approach my decision making in a fashion that positively affects me only to the extent that it could personally impact someone else negatively. If I wanted a candy bar that you had, I wouldn’t take it. But I would take no ethical issue with stealing that same candy bar from a Wal Mart. It doesn’t mean I would, but that’s the line of thinking. Obviously, it gets more nuanced, but there it is.
But the more I really think about it, I wonder. Do we truly have agency? And I don’t mean it in the “If you really had agency, you could kill someone and have no consequences” type of way. I mean it in a more existential “How much control do we really have over the reasons we make the decisions we do?” I’ll recount the first time I considered this question and began to move towards where I am now.
I’ve always been in great admiration of my brother Mike. Right after me in the kid chain, Mike is about to graduate from the Air Force ROTC with a degree in some complex kind of engineering that I can never remember. He received a coveted pilot slot and has achieved top marks in both grades and physical fitness. Mike’s work ethic is incredible. He’s very bright, and whatever he might lack in intelligence, he makes up for in perseverance and dedication. Mike is also an incorrigible pessimist. It’s not that he has no hope for the future; it’s just that he tends to analyze everything so critically that the negative possibilities perpetually worry him. (Maybe he’ll deny this and I’m about to really piss him off. Tee hee.)
In many ways I’m like Mike, and in many ways I’m not. I have neither his intelligence nor the hyper-rationality that often comes along with big smarts. Having a laid-back, cheery attitude is just easier for me than for him, although Mike’s cynical sarcasm is so much funnier than I could ever hope to be. And it’s not like any of this is a good or a bad thing; it just is. But I remember one night after a lengthy conversation with Mike in which he was sharing some aspects of his life that were very much stressing him out, I thought to myself, I would not be stressed about that. Those things would not bother me in the least. And then I thought about the idea, perpetuated by sickly sweet memes all over the internet. that one has only to choose a positive outlook on life to make everything better. Okay, maybe, but what if, like Mike, simply making that choice doesn’t come naturally? What if some people naturally worry more than others, and that’s not a bad thing, but it just is?
And then I considered whether or not, if he really wanted to, Mike could choose to be perpetually sunny about tough things, assuming that it was useful for him to do so. Knowing Mike fairly well, I would say that no, he probably could not. And that is through no fault of his own. A combination of truly difficult childhood experiences that Mike has valiantly toughed his way through, and a genetic predisposition to worry excessively that very much runs in the family, has made Mike who he is today. I think Mike is great. You’d have to ask him, of course, but he’s happy and successful and I admire him greatly.
But the approach that Mike and I would take to a very similar situation might be very different. We’d each “choose” our reaction, but… would we? Having gone through different childhood experiences, which are totally out of our control, and having a different tossup of genetics, which is also totally out of our control, could Mike and I really choose our reaction to any given circumstance? Sure. But that choice wouldn’t really be our choice. We make decisions because of who we are, and who we are is shaped by the two factors that we cannot control: the ever-battling Nature and Nurture.
Of course, this makes so much of what we believe, especially in America, obsolete. It totally takes away from the “self-made” man (which I believe is a myth anyway, and you can read a great piece about exactly that in Slate by John Swansburg). It strips the pride from the wealthy, the ego from the successful, the shame from the homeless. It shoots down the idea that the only difference between you and me is our strident efforts at bettering ourselves.
It also has tough implications for criminals that I’m still trying to work through. If someone has an impulsive desire to steal – or, to be heavy-handed here, to kill – are they morally culpable for their decision to do so? Could they really decide not to? If so, knowing the consequences for their actions, why wouldn’t they?
Anyway, that’s what I have thus far. More to come.