During the nineteenth century, courts within the United States began to move towards a system of liability based on “negligence.” Rather than being liable for all damaging actions that people caused to their victims, people would now often be liable only for damage or injury that they caused while not behaving in a way that was sufficiently careful and appropriate for the activity in question. Some historians attempting to explain why this shift to negligence liability solidified during the nineteenth century have pointed to the needs of the dawning industrial world: industry and modernization would be impeded if people were liable for all the injuries their dangerous new machines, factories, and pursuits would foreseeably inflict in this busy new world. So in order not to impede the development of these new activities, we would now often just be liable for the harm that we negligently caused, accepting as a price of modernity that some of our actions would result in harm that society would choose to not hold us responsible for at the expense of those we hurt. Whether or not this thesis is accurate, its core idea that people would be liable for the consequences of some of their actions and not for others should be interesting to Mormons who put “agency” at the center of our theology.
Mormonism, with its 19th century roots, takes as its main story the idea that an individual through the exercise of his agency has the ability to become like God. We make good and bad choices for which we can be held accountable. Without a belief that people are accountable moral agents, Mormonism is basically unthinkable.
But the question is, is our sense of who we are and who we have the potential to be, predicated not only on our ability to choose to be responsible for some actions, but also on the fact that we have opted not to see ourselves as responsible for or connected to all the consequences of our actions? For example, we might eat meat, buy clothes produced in factories that are bad for workers and for the environment, or have caused by our voting a war, but we have opted (at least until recently) not to morally hold ourselves personally responsible for the death of animals, poor treatment of workers, or war. In other words, does a modern belief in the individual require both that we believe in our agency and disassociate from some of the extended consequences of our agency? And, more Mormonly, do religions like Mormonism acknowledge that we must disassociate ourselves sometimes from the consequences our actions produce through mechanisms like praying for God’s intervention or forgiveness?