Transgression, Strict Liability, and the Atonement

December 2, 2003 | one comment

As a good Burkean, I see no irony in finding truths in the law, especially the common law, that illuminate the gospel. Gordon’s post below does just that. As James says, “every good gift . . . cometh down from the Father of lights.”

I bring this up because my reading of Moroni 8 keeps reminding me of the tort law debate between strict liability and negligence.

Here’s a quick distinction between negligence and strict liability.

Strict liability means that you’re responsible for all the consequences of your actions. It doesn’t matter if you’re acting responsibly and morally, or even if you could have known about the consequences. In a strict liability world, its my fault if my brakes go out and I crash, even if I check my brakes regularly, was obeying the speed limit, reacted properly once I discovered my brakes were out, etc.

Negligence means you’re only responsible for the consequences of your irresponsible or unreasonable actions. If my brakes go out and I crash, it’s only my fault if I never have my brakes checked, or was speeding, or panicked.

Now, as everyone will be quick to point out, It’s More Complicated Than That, but never mind, we have enough for our purposes. Suffice it to say that the debate between negligence and strict liability never ends. We just can’t admit that its fair to make people suffer when they did no wrong, but we also can’t shake the idea of responsibility for one’s acts, regardless of one’s mental state.

Which brings me to Moroni 8. In rather forceful terms, Mormon denies that infants need baptism because they are incapable of repentance. In fact, Mormon exempts a rather large category of people from the need for repentance: “all children . . . and all they that are without the law.” Children and the untaught have done no wrong. In tort law terms, these people are not negligent, never having acted differently than they should.

Curiously these same people are still in need of redemption. What? Yes. Even though they haven’t sinned, this large group of people still needs to be redeemed. In fact, Mormon’s whole argument, and his whole basis for confidence in the eventual fate of children and the ignorant, is the “pure mercies of God” and the “mercies of Christ . . .” and the “atonement of Him and the power of his redemption.” Apparently, children and the untaught cannot sin but still need to be saved.

And this, my friends, is where strict liability and negligence come in. Sin, I suggest, is like negligence. It occurs when we deliberately choose wrong and are somehow morally to blame. We have to repent–we have to make a choice to accept Christ and the Atonement–because we have deliberately chosen to reject Him in some way.

Strict liability, on the other hand, is equivalent to transgression. These are acts that are wrong but without awareness of the wrong. Unlike with sin, the will isn’t entangled with the wrongness, either because we were ignorant that the act was wrongful (as is the case when we don’t know the law), or because we are ignorant of wrongness (as is the case with children and Adam and Eve). Since we haven’t deliberately rejected Christ in our act, he can and does reach out to take all the consequences of those wrong acts on himself. We need do nothing but admire the Man who will himself meet the demands of the most scrupulous justice.

I wonder if the utter misery of the Sons of Perdition is a result of their prideful choice to reject even this help, and all others, in the end.

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One Response to Transgression, Strict Liability, and the Atonement

  1. Aaron Shafovaloff on January 7, 2004 at 12:24 pm

    I recommend Romans 5:12-21 for a New Testament perspective on the effects of Adam’s sin and the benefits of Christ’s righteousness for those “who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift.” (v. 17)

    Take care,



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