Monday, July 19, 2010

On agency

I've been engaged in a discussion of agency on another blog, Eric Nielsen's Small and Simple. Thanks, Eric for the discussion and for getting my thoughts churning.

Eric's blog looks at the terms "free agency" and "moral agency." The phrase "moral agency" showed up in three talks in the November 1990 General Conference (President Faust, Elder Packer and Elder Nelson), and in 2006, Elder Christopherson spoke to the term "moral agency" at a BYU devotional (and was subsequently quoted in the Ensign last year):

“In years past we generally used the term free agency. That is not incorrect. More recently we have taken note that free agency does not appear in the scriptures. They talk of our being 'free to choose' and 'free to act' for ourselves (2 Nephi 2:27; 10:23; see also Helaman 14:30) and of our obligation to do many things of our own 'free will' (D&C 58:27). But the word agency appears either by itself or with the modifier moral: 'That every man may act in doctrine and principle … according to the moral agency which I have given unto him, that every man may be accountable for his own sins in the day of judgment' (D&C 101:78; emphasis added). When we use the term moral agency, we are appropriately emphasizing the accountability that is an essential part of the divine gift of agency. We are moral beings and agents unto ourselves, free to choose but also responsible for our choices” (“Moral Agency,” ENSIGN, June 2009, pp. 45-53, from a BYU devotional delivered January 2006).

I'm a simple guy, and I prefer the simpler term agency, as defined at

"Agency is the ability and privilege God gives us to choose and to act for ourselves. Agency is essential in the plan of salvation. Without it, we would not be able to learn or progress or follow the Savior. With it, we are 'free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil' (2 Nephi 2:27)."

Agency relates to the description of Adam and Eve after they had partaken of the fruit of the tree of knowledge: “And it is given unto them to know good from evil; wherefore they are agents unto themselves, and I have given unto you another law and commandment” (Moses 6:56).

As such, it seems there are some things agency is and some things it isn't. Agency describes our present state, where we as humans can and do make choices about how we live and what we do. We choose to keep the commandments or not. We choose to obey the law of the land or not. We choose to marry or not. Those choices are made possible because we are agents unto ourselves, because we have agency.

Agency (Free, Moral, or just plain Agency) does not suggest that I should be free to do whatever I want without consequence. It does not suggest that less government is better. It does not suggest that more government is better. It does not mean that teenagers do not need to listen to their parents. Nor does it mean that I can justify ignoring the commandments of God.

In fact, because I have agency, I am accountable for the choices I make. When I choose to act in one way or another, I also choose the consequences of that action. My agency does not free me from the consequence. And the imposition of a consequence does not limit my agency in any way. In fact, I would argue that the imposition of a consequence increases my agency, because it gives weight and meaning to my choices.

When Adam chose to partake of the fruit, he did so knowing the consequences of his choice, good and bad, and then chose. And we can do the same.


  1. Amen.

    You said that "Agency relates to the description of Adam and Eve after they had partaken of the fruit of the tree of knowledge." I think most LDS people would say that Adam and Eve had agency before they partook of the fruit as well. Would you agree with this or not?

  2. Matthew, thanks for your comment (and you, too Eric!).

    I think your question is interesting. Agency, as I understand it, can only exist where there is a choice to make. Until they were tempted to partake of the fruit they had no choice.

    The verse I quote from Moses comes after they had eaten of the fruit and gained knowledge of good and evil.

    Certainly they had agency to choose whether they could eat the fruit. And in the pre-mortal exisitence they had a choice about whether to follow God's plan or Satan's.

    But the verse in Moses also implies a certain amount of knowledge and its contribution to agency.

  3. The verse from Moses you referred to (Moses 6:56) isn't really about Adam and Eve; it's about their children (see verse 55). It certainly does seem to me that there is a definite connection between gaining a knowledge of good and evil, and becoming, "agents unto themselves." So whether it's Adam and Eve, or any of their descendants, I think the results are the same. The key to gaining agency in the way the scriptures use the word is the knowledge of good and evil.

    So if Adam gained his agency after partaking of the fruit of knowledge of good and evil, would you say that little children gain their agency (in the way the scriptures use the term) after they gain a knowledge of good and evil? I would. What are your thoughts?

  4. Matthew,

    Sorry I never responded to your second question. This must have come in while I was traveling this summer and lost track! (Ooops.)

    It is an interesting question about children and agency. Of course children make choices all the time as they grow and mature. Some parents allow children to choose what clothes to wear, what books to read at bedtime, which food to eat at dinner (and whether to feed the peas to the dog...).

    If agency is related to accountability, then it seems that children don't have agency until they have accountability (which we teach is at age eight).

    My MIL says that you cannot force a child to sleep or to go to the bathroom. As a parent I learned there are lots of things you can't force a child to do, so I they are exercising choice at a very early age.

    I suppose in those pre-accountability years they are agents in training, since consequences they feel are likely to be natural (for touching that hot stove despite repeated warnings to the countrary) or imposed (by parents who don't want peas fed to the dog).