As I mentioned in a previous post, our ward has a nascent blog for Gospel Doctrine. Once in a while I may cross-post between the sites. Here’s the latest.
Our discussion yesterday dealt with Samuel’s exhortation for the Nephites to repent, and in particular the notions of freedom to choose and moral agency (see Helaman 14:30 for an example). Some asked about the differences between “freedom,” “free agency,” “moral agency” and “liberty.”
First, I don’t see any significant difference between free agency and moral agency. “Free Agency” is predominantly used by LDS members only, and the term has fallen a bit into disfavor in recent years. Perhaps this is because “moral agency” is much more clear in terms of how personal responsibility is part of agency — but I’d argue that anyone who ever discussed the definition of “free agency” would not be able to separate out the notions of personal responsibility. This address by D. Todd Christoferson addresses this issue the most directly I’ve seen. “Moral Agency” is a term also used outside the Church, but its use is a bit different than LDS use (see below).
In any event, “freedom” in a secular sense refers primarily to political freedom, or the right to engage in behavior without the interference of the State. When we LDS talk about freedom, sometimes this is the type of freedom we mean, but usually only in political discussions and even then we are primarily concerned with one specific subset, namely freedom of religion or freedom of association. Americans can largely thank Thomas Jefferson for both of these.
But more frequently, when Mormons talk about being “free to choose,” we are not talking about political freedom at all, but rather a type of spiritual freedom, which is ultimately set against the backdrop of the War in Heaven. As you may recall, both Lucifer and Jehovah (Jesus Christ) presented plans for humanity; Lucifer’s plan would have ensured the salvation of all, at the expense of our freedom and all for the personal glorification of Satan. Jesus’ plan, on the other hand, was to follow Elohim (God the Father)’s intent, namely that we would come to Earth, make mistakes, but repent and obtain forgiveness through the Atonement, to be performed by a savior. So, when Mormons talk about “freedom,” very often we are speaking to the very capacity to make choices at all, which state all mortals enjoy by virtue of having chosen to come to Earth under Jesus’ plan.
The result of all this is that we often are very confused-sounding and ambiguous when we talk about freedom; we use the notions interchangeably and accordingly we say funny things sometimes. Add to this the word “liberty,” and you get a real mess (regarding this latter word, let me just say that I don’t see any difference between liberty and freedom, I view them as completely synonymous and most political philosophers — with a few U.S. political philosophers — view them as interchangeable terms. Indeed in most foreign languages there is only a single word).
This brings us to the notions of free agency and moral agency. One of the key scriptures with regards to both of these is D&C 104:17, which says:
For the earth is full, and there is enough and to spare; yea, I prepared all things, and have given unto the children of men to be agents unto themselves.
Free Agency, or moral agency, is tied to the notion of being an agent; an actor (i.e., one who takes action), a steward, one who is responsible for decision-making. When we speak of agency, we are talking about freedom — both political and spiritual — but we are also including this notion of personal responsibility and accountability. It is the principle upon which our souls are to grow and develop to become more like our Father. As we make righteous choices, new paths of righteousness are opened up to us and our ability to spiritually develop increases. Conversely, sin closes paths before us, damning us until we repent and have Christ open the way anew. It is through the LDS concept of moral agency that life becomes more about growing and developing in every aspect and possibility of existence, and less about simplistic immediate decision-making. As Elder Christofferson notes:
Exercising agency in a setting that sometimes includes opposition and hardship is what makes life more than a simple multiple-choice test. God is interested in what you are becoming as a result of your choices. He is not satisfied if your exercise of moral agency is simply a robotic effort at keeping some rules. Your Savior wants you to become something, not just do some things.
Moral agency, in a non-LDS context, refers generally to the capacity of human beings to make choices that are based in moral judgments. That is, that we decide to do things not purely out of immediate gratification but also (at least occasionally) out of concern for the community as well as out of a moral code. Accordingly, punishment for bad acts and rewards for good acts should follow our use of this capacity to be moral agents. Mormon concepts of moral agency are not necessarily inconsistent with secular moral agency, but we have an entire worldview formed around agency that others do not, including notions of the pre-existence as well as post-mortal life.
Now you can see why we didn’t really get into these questions in class!