Agency and Freedom

Nathan Richardson

In a previous post, “What Makes Me a ‘Me’?” I described two conflicting assumptions about the nature of self in psychology. The first paradigm, Self-interest, assumes that selfhood requires separation from other selves; we are entirely separate and distinct individuals, not inextricably connected or related to each other in any inherent way. The second paradigm, Other-interest, assumes that the self’s existence is created by the existence of other selves, which the self distinguishes itself from. That is, I am intrinsically connected to others because their existence is what makes me distinct.

This belief or lack of belief in inherent connectedness has implications in the way we conceive of agency and freedom. (The following discussion relies heavily on a thesis by Renée Beckwith,1 and I am indebted to her for her insights.)

Self-interest

In the first paradigm, “where the self is seen as separate, autonomy begins with man as an isolated, rational chooser, his independent will being the first precondition.”1 He begins with an independent will, and maintaining this independence consists in part of resisting any interactions or connections that might confound or conflate it with other selves. Agency is seen as the “capacity of the individual to choose … independent of any other sources or influences.”1 Any other agents or objects beyond the individual are obstacles or hindrances to autonomy to the degree that they affect or influence the self. If a person is connected, he is not truly autonomous; instead of governing himself, he is governed by those connections and obligations. Thus, freedom is “independence from the other.”1

The first paradigm sees attachments and obligations as fetters. Pieces of rope that bind us to other people would prevent us from walking as far as we’d like, or in the direction we’d like. The way to preserve agency and increase freedom is to weaken or sever the bonds. For example, a husband might divorce his wife so that he can pursue other romantic interests. A woman might prevent herself from having children so that she is not obligated to limit her career choices in order to care for them. A child, now grown, might refrain from aiding her aging parents because it’s expensive and inconvenient to have them around the house.

Other-interest

In the second paradigm, because relatedness precedes and creates individual self or identity, “man is an agent, autonomous, precisely because of the other, not despite him.”1 The existence of others, rather than inhibiting choice, creates the possibilities from which we choose. Some have called these ties that make agency meaningful “bonds that make us free.”

The second paradigm sees attachments and obligations like kite strings. They connect us to people in such a way that we are held aloft and can move about freely. Without those connections, we cannot have meaningful experiences. Henry B. Eyring explains,

Men and women have falsely argued from the beginning of time, that to take counsel from the servants of God is to surrender God-given rights of independence. But the argument is false because it misrepresents reality. When we reject the counsel that comes from God, we do not choose to be independent of outside influence. We choose another influence. … We have moral agency as a gift of God. Rather than the right to choose to be free of influence, it is the inalienable right to submit ourselves to whichever of those powers we choose.2

Just as choice-making agents cannot make decisions free of influence, a kite cannot stay aloft from the ground without simultaneously being connected to the ground. That connection is what gives the kite the power to move about. If a kite is not able to move as far away or in the direction it might like, the answer is to get a different string, not to get rid of the string altogether. A stronger, longer string will increase the kite’s freedom. No string whatsoever will make it fall out of the sky, unable to move at all.

Discussion

Elder Eyring reminds us that we cannot go through life without external influences. For example, we are born into the world already indebted to our parents, and our obligations are not of a nature that we can “pay them off” given enough time. To be sure, there are wrong ways that people can influence us, but the presence of influence is not itself a problem; it is a necessity of agency and freedom. The way to freedom is not to sever ties, but to honor them in the right way. The husband fulfills his marital vows even though his wife has weaknesses, and he discovers the freedom of being loved in spite of his own weaknesses. The mother fulfills her parental obligations even though her children can be demanding, and she discovers the power of her newly-developed talents of patience and empathy. The child continues to honor her parents when she is grown even though they sometimes give unsolicited advice, and she discovers that she is more grateful for her parents than she ever realized growing up.

In Orson Scott Card’s book Ender’s Game, one fictional character tried to make a decision that did not involve in any way the suggestions, needs, or plans of his various relationships. He equated their influence with manipulation, and he began to despair of ever being able to choose without being “controlled.” His sister, in a tongue-in-cheek way, taught him an important truth: “Welcome to the human race. Nobody controls his own life. … The best you can do is choose to be controlled by good people, by people who love you.”3



Notes

1. Renée Beckwith, “Exploring Maternal Ambivalence: Comparing Findings with Two Opposing Paradigms of Intent,” master’s thesis (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University, 2003).
2. Henry B. Eyring, “Safety in Counsel,” Ensign, Jun. 2008, p. 4–9.

Russell M. Nelson also said, “Often, however, agency is misunderstood. While we are free to choose, once we have made those choices, we are tied to the consequences of those choices”; “Addiction or Freedom,” Ensign, Nov. 1988, p. 6.

3. Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game (Tor, 1985), ch. 14.