Many Latter-day Saints assume that agency is synonymous with freedom. There are at least four slight different (but often overlapping) versions of the view that agency is synonymous with freedom:  (1) Agency is about the number of options we have:  the more options, the more agency, (2) Agency is freedom from coercion (e.g., physical threats or government sanction), (3) Agency is freedom from social or institutional incentives (e.g., honor codes, social pressure, community expectations). An alternative view is that agency is less about the number of choices we have, and more about the moral valence or significance of our options. What makes us agents is our capacity for moral accountability.

The hidden worldview: Agency as freedom

Agency depends on the number of options we have to choose from, and is restricted when we encounter legal or institutional norms that impose consequences on our choices.

This understanding of agency has many different renditions, each slightly different from the others, but all of which hinge on the assumption that agency is essentially synonymous with freedom. Let’s explore four of them:

Agency = options. Under one common understanding of agency, the more choices and options we have, the more agency we have. If I can choose between four different brands of candy bar, I have more agency than if I have only two or three options to choose from. This implies that a customer at an all-you-can-eat buffet has more agency (at least, as regards food) than a customer in a high class restaurant that has only a very limited menu. From this view, anything that reduces the number of choices available to us is the enemy — and opposite — of agency.

Agency = no coercion. We sometimes think of agency as synonymous with political freedom. Governments can effectively reduce our options by making it prohibitively expensive (due to fines or threat of imprisonment) to pursue our desired choices. Many Latter-day Saint libertarians and conservatives argue that any government actions beyond the protection of basic rights (such as life, liberty, and property, narrowly defined) should be opposed on the grounds that they violate the sacred gift of agency.

Agency = no social pressure. Closely related, some think of agency as freedom from social pressure or institutional incentives. This view sees social mores as stifling our agency because they can add social costs to our choices. For example, we frequently read news articles or online comments in which someone claims that the Honor Code at Brigham Young University is wrong because it “restricts our agency” by disciplining students who violate its provisions. In another example, when the Church takes a position on some political issue of moral significance, it is not unusual to hear some people complain that the Church should stay out of the political arena and allow us our agency (freedom) instead.

The doctrinal basis for many of these views of agency is a teaching commonly found cited in Church lessons: in the pre-earth life, the devil’s plan was to force us to be good so that we could all be saved in the afterlife. This doctrine is often supported with the scripture, “Satan … sought to destroy the agency of man” (Pearl of Great Price, Moses 4:3). In this view, the devil would destroy our agency by reducing our available options to zero (or nearly so), and so any earthly institution that uses coercion or imposes pressure on our behavior is enacting the adversary’s plan. True agency is thought to flourish only in an environment where an individual can pursue their preferences without fear of legal repercussions or social reprisals.

An alternative: Agency as moral accountability

Agency is the capacity for moral accountability, regardless of the number of options available.

We often hear members of the Church refer to “free agency,” even though that isn’t a term found in scripture. However, the scriptures do speak of moral agency (D&C 101:78). An alternative view is that agency is less about the number of options we have, and more about our moral accountability for the choices we make. To have moral accountability, our choices must have intrinsic moral significance, or what we might call “moral valence.” This means that our choices can either bring us closer to God or alienate us from Him; they have a degree of “goodness” or “badness” to them, and can thus be classified across a moral dimension.

Many choices cannot be classified across a moral dimension, because they have no moral valence. For example, most of the time, choosing to wear a blue shirt or a green shirt is entirely a matter of aesthetic or personal preference — neither choice is morally good or bad. However, this choice can take on a moral valence if you know your spouse has an opinion about the blue shirt and you wear it to either please or irritate them. Moral agency is about making choices with moral valence, and our accountability for those choices.

In this view, free will is not the same thing as moral agency; at best, having the capacity to act, rather than be acted upon, is a precondition of agency. It is an important aspect of agency, but by itself is insufficient. What makes us moral agents is being placed in a context where we face choices of moral significance. This view of agency presents a clear alternative to each of the “agency is freedom” views described above. Let’s explore how:

First, agency only requires two morally significant options — and we always have two options. Consider the premortal life: our choice was to either follow Christ and come to earth, or damn ourselves with Lucifer. There were no other options, no other plans to choose from. This doesn’t mean that our agency was limited; to be full moral agents, all we need is a choice between good and evil, and to be held morally accountable for that choice. As Elder Boyd K. Packer taught, “Agency is defined in the scriptures as ‘moral agency,’ which means that we choose between good and evil.”[1] Interestingly, moral agency is usually intact even if it seems like there only one option available. For example, some of Adam and Eve’s children might have had only one option for a potential spouse, and yet they were still moral agents — they could still choose to remain single or to marry (a choice with eternal and moral significance).

If we believe that more options gives us more agency, we might conclude that our covenants reduce our agency by reducing our options. However, making covenants does not eliminate agency, it expands our agency by giving otherwise mundane choices moral significance. Flirting with a colleague might have no moral valence prior to marriage, but afterwards, it has moral significance. Drinking a cup of coffee prior to being baptized into the Church might be an entirely neutral choice and a matter of personal taste, but after baptism, it is no longer neutral at all. Our involvement with a covenant community may reduce our options (in the sense of placing social and moral consequences on our choices), but it expands our agency by placing us in more positions of accountability and responsibility — and, thus, provides us with greater opportunity to grow closer to the Lord and learn more clearly how to be like Christ, to live as He lives and desire the things He desires.

Agency is intact even when we are coerced. A man unjustly imprisoned in the dungeons of a tyrant is as much a moral agent as you and I are. He may have fewer choices available to him, and be unable to enact any of his personal preferences, but he still faces choices of moral importance. He can resent his captors or forgive them. He can pray to God in his heart, or curse Him instead. He can soften his heart, or he can harden it. Psychologist Viktor Frankl, a survivor of Auschwitz, wrote that it was in the midst of the horrors of the death camps of the Holocaust that he came to appreciate that he was always a moral agent. Despite all that the Nazi soldiers took from him, they could never take from him “the last of human freedoms,” the power to “choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.”[2]

Agency is the capacity to choose between right and wrong in whatever situation we find ourselves — no matter how limited our options or severe the consequences of our choices. Elder Dallin H. Oaks taught:

Interferences with our freedom do not deprive us of our free agency. When Pharaoh put Joseph in prison, he restricted Joseph’s freedom, but he did not take away his free agency. When Jesus drove the money changers out of the temple, he interfered with their freedom to engage in a particular activity at a particular time in a particular place, but he did not take away their free agency. [W]hen we oppose a government-imposed loss of freedom, it would be better if we did not conduct our debate in terms of a loss of our free agency, which is impossible under our doctrine.[3]

Political freedom is a vitally important human good, but it has very little to do with “agency” as talked about in scripture. Excessive coercion is wrong, not because it violates agency, but because it invites us to see others as means to our own ends rather than souls to be treated with compassion, dignity, and respect. Those who empower massive state bureaucracies act foolishly not because they deprive others of their moral agency, but because they enable mechanisms of institutionalized violence against individuals and families. We do not need to invoke the concept of agency to explain why this is wrong.

In short, moral agency has less to do with political freedom, and more to do with our capacity to demonstrate our loyalty to God — which is something we can do under even the most tyrannical regimes. Even the threat of death does not deprive us of this ability. Those facing death at the hands of their enemies are sometimes even better able to demonstrate their loyalties to God, as the great martyrs have shown us. The steeper the mortal consequences of our moral choices — especially the right choices — the clearer our loyalties can be revealed. This doesn’t mean tyrants give us moral agency; but they most certainly do not take it away.

Further, agency exists even when we experience social or institutional pressures. When Church leaders, parents, or friends urge us to choose one option over another, we might feel that the social consequences of choosing otherwise are steep. But we are still moral agents, because we are still be morally accountable for what we choose. There may be ministerial wisdom in providing space to youth in the Church who aren’t yet sure if they want to serve a mission, rather than incessantly pressuring them to make the right choice. But social pressure doesn’t deprive anyone of their agency.

And so what of the doctrine that the devil wanted to force us to be good, and that this would destroy our agency? Does not this indicate that agency is at least partly about the number of options available to us? First, this interpretation doesn’t make sense to us. In no recorded instance of scripture has the devil ever invited someone to do what was right, much less force them to. The scriptures clearly teach the opposite: “Whatsoever thing persuadeth men to do evil. .. ye may know with a perfect knowledge it is of the devil; for after this manner doth the devil work, for he persuadeth no man to do good, no, not one” (Moroni 7:17).

Second, when we teach the doctrine this way, we may unwittingly legitimize attitudes of rebellion against valid moral authority. In a Sunday School lesson recently, a teacher commented that teenage delinquents must have fought nobly against the devil in the pre-earth life, which is why they continue to dislike anything that restricts them here in this life (including their parents). It sounded as if the teacher was vindicating teenage rebellion by citing church doctrine — those who are rebellious against family and Church were the valiant ones!

An alternative approach is to teach that the devil wanted to eliminate moral accountability by legitimizing sin. By removing the “moral valence” from our choices, Lucifer would turn all choices into matters of preference and taste. We would have no moral accountability precisely because there would be no such thing as sin to begin with. If our actions have no eternal consequences for our souls, then our choices are meaningless, and agency is destroyed. If nothing we do can affect our personal salvation (one way or another), none of our choices have moral significance.

Leaders of the church have also clarified this doctrine. Elder Bruce R. McConkie taught that the devil sought to save all men “without reference to their works … He offered a mortal life … of evil and crime and murder, following which all men would be saved.”[4] In other words, in order to have moral agency, we need to be accountable to moral law; our choices need moral valence. The devil was not cast out for wanting to use coercive methods to enforce moral law, but for rebellion against the of moral law altogether. If we teach the doctrine this way, we will be able to connect the concept of agency with the principle of obedience and submission to God.

References   [ + ]

1. Boyd K. Packer, “These Things I Know,” Ensign, May 2013, 8.
2. Frankl, Viktor E. Man’s search for meaning. Simon and Schuster, 1985.
3. Dallin H. Oaks, “Free Agency and Freedom,” BYU Conference, Oct. 11, 1987. Note, President Oaks’ use of the term “free agency” — while unscriptural, as clarified by others — does not contradict our arguments, since his use the term closely matches what we refer to as moral agency.
4. McConkie, Bruce R. The Millennial Messiah: The Second Coming of the Son of Man. Deseret Book Company, 1982.