Liberty? Agency? You tell me

Logan asked me, in response to some offhand comments on T&S, to talk more about “laws not getting in the way of agency.” I responded (maybe a little too quickly) that “we can distinguish between the capacity to make choices (agency) and the extent to which laws punish our choices (liberty). I’d agree with you that laws can limit our liberty, but I probably wouldn’t say the same for agency.”

I wish I’d spoken a little more carefully, because the distinction here is important. Many LDS people speak of government intervention in various domains as “infringing on our free agency” or worse, as if it’s similar to what Satan’s plan would have been like. I wonder if this tendency could stem from an inability to distinguish between agency and liberty. Clearly, if we identify regulation or legislation with something that affects the subject matter of the War in Heaven, that would lead us to bristle at the thought of it. But God legislates and regulates our lives all the time — commandments and laws are all over the place, including divine taxation, and yet we say we have our agency. So anyway, I think it’s careless to interchange liberty and agency. Could the commingling of the concepts be a source of LDS predispositions for/against certain political parties?


  1. Aaron,

    We agree! I knew it had to happen sooner or later. The difficulty in distinguishing between arbritrary/harmful and mutual/beneficial restrictions extends to liberals as well as conservatives. Most people agree that paying taxes for national defense or public highways is a beneficial imposition of taxes. Social programs like Social Security or food stamps, on the other hand, can be disputed by good arguments on both sides of the question.

  2. Aaron, you’re right that a fundamental difference between liberal/non-liberal mormons (at least politically) is where they draw that beneficial/non-beneficial line.

    I guess what I am also interested in the pre-drawn conclusions of many LDS, based on mingling LDS doctrines of agency into the political arena. In my mind, the applicability of agency doctrines is limited when it comes to legislation, largely because of the definitions I’m using. Am I alone in my usage, do you think? Can you be politically conservative and still maintain a separate idea of agency vs. liberty?

  3. Agency vs. liberty is a tricky, tricky issue. I agree that “agency” is used much too often in defense of political positions. However, without extending the scope of my thinking to include politics directly, I think there is something to be said for the way liberty affects agency.

    In my mind, agency is a necessary condition for growth: if you only have one option to choose, I’m not sure that we can learn from the decision. Even when we have many choices, when we are faced with the threat of coercion, our choice is altered. Instead of deciding whether or not to perform a certain action, our choice is now whether we will comply with or rebel against the rule. In many cases, this distorted choice can get in the way of our growth.

    An example: A young woman gets pregnant, and her lover is considering marrying her (for the sake of my analogy, suppose that marrying her is the “right thing to do”). He considers whether he wants to take responsibility for his actions or run away (the “wrong” choice here). The young woman’s father then says to the young man, “marry my daughter or I’ll blow your head off with my shotgun.” His decision is no longer ‘do the right thing even though it’s hard’ or ‘do the easy thing even though it’s wrong’, but ‘live’ or ‘die’.

    He might now be more assured of making the right choice, but I don’t think it does much for his spiritual progression.

    Anyway, my point is that agency has a purpose, and coercion can get in the way of that purpose to varying degrees. That’s as strong a statement as I feel comfortable making at this point though. The whole issue si very complex, especially when generalized to political principles. I think it can be a (huge) stretch to use agency as a direct political argument, but I think it’s not very easily completely divorced from the question of liberty, either.

  4. Ay Carumba is right, Steve. Don’t worry though — everything turned out all right.

    I’m just glad I had my shotgun.


  5. Can agency ever be properly invoked in a political context? My gut instinct is to say no. But I am more wary than some about mixing politics and religion.

    I like how liberty and agency are shown to be linked in your examples, but I’m not sure where that linkage takes us. After all, we never have total liberty — are we all going to cry about how our agency could never really be exercised? Clearly, at some point we can say that some restrictions on liberty are permissible (see Aaron’s post above). Abinadi is a horrible example, of course, but I’ll use him anyways: a situation where good choices were made, and agency properly exercised, even in the absence of liberty.

    In a sense, we can grow more spiritually by exercising agency in the face of restricted liberty than when we have total liberty. Those saints who choose the right, and suffer for it — wouldn’t we say that they are more blessed or have grown more spiritually, than the saints who choose the right when doing so is relatively easy? So I don’t really see how having a lot of liberty is spiritually essential. (of course I can see how it is desirable, from a comfort and happiness perspective).

  6. Dave said:
    “I think some of the stereotypical Mormon griping about the role of government stems from difficulty in distinguishing between arbitrary/harmful and mutual/beneficial restrictions on liberty.”

    I suspect many “stereotypical Mormons” think they see the differences between harmful and beneficial restrictions on liberty quite clearly. The real issue is whether what liberals believe to be “beneficial restrictions” really are beneficial.

    Aaron B

  7. Dave,

    I agree–and that’s why I think it’s dangerous (or at least unecessarily contentious) for anyone to invoke the War in Heaven model in political discussions about agency/liberty. Not only does it apply an exaggerated sense of polarity, but also puts the invoker in the somewhat presumptuous position of comparison with Deity. I’m automatically suspicious of anyone assuming such status…


  8. Enough of you people agreeing with each other, it’s defeating the purpose of this board.

    I guess this thread is akin to ideas being bounced around as to the appropriateness of introducing religious ideas in the political arena (during the recent immigration unpleasantness in UT). Surprising that we’re all agreeing here.

  9. Good questions Nate. My take on it was that, in Satan’s plan, there would have been no fall, no knowledge of right/wrong or sin. That is, the very possibility of choice would be taken away. So really, I guess my view is neither Lyle’s, nor the second view you leave, which is “saving us in our sins”.

    That’s why Satan’s plan was so contrary to God’s plan — not because it set extreme limits on what we could do (God’s plan, if followed, does that), but because our very ability to discern and choose would be affected.

    Just one dude’s view. Like you said, Moses leaves interpretations wide open.

  10. How come you’re sometimes “Lyle” and sometimes “L’ile”?

    Aaron B

  11. I guess that was a real conversation stopper. But I have some more thoughts.

    Steve mentioned that he’s not sure about the link between agency and liberty. In my mind, there is a somewhat abstract link that is hard for me to put into words, but here’s another example:

    A very bright young woman feels like her mom is always on her case about how she dresses, who she dates, how late she comes home, etc. So much so that the young woman develops a sort of knee-jerk rebellious attitude to anything that she feels her mom “makes” her do, no matter what it is. When the time comes for the young woman to apply for college, the mom starts saying (in the same tone of voice as she would if the daughter were wearing three pairs of earrings) “Why haven’t applied yet? You’re never going to go to college if you don’t sent in that application.” The bright young woman — who wants to go to college — feels her knee-jerk reaction to her mom’s nagging and puts it off until it’s too late, thus hurting her development at the expense of her interaction with her mom. In economics speak, the transaction between the mother and daughter involves independence and liberty, but there is an negative external effect on the girl’s growth.

    The young woman still had the agency to apply or not to apply to college, but that choice was overshadowed by her refusal to do what her mom “made” her do.

    I guess it could be contended that this example isn’t very representative of how things work, but I think it holds true in many respects, if largely subconsciously. I may be alone here, but whenever someone tells me I can’t do something, I get a gut reaction that urges me to that very thing. Just check out my wife beater experience for an example of my proving a point even though the way it was done was probably childish and selfish.

    Again, I don’t know how generalizable this sort of thing is, but I feel that there is a real phenomenon at work here. Having restrictions (real or perceived) placed on our liberty can in some cases make us act in ways that are at cross purposes to what we would do if we didn’t have those restrictions, even when the restrictions aren’t directly related to what it affects. Also again, I don’t what conclusions we can necessarily draw for our politics from this example, mostly because I don’t think that government’s primary responsibility is necessarily the spiritual or developmental growth of its citizens.

    Basically, what I’m saying is that I have no idea how important any of this is, but there seems to be something to the link between agency and liberty. If I could only put my finger on it . . .

  12. I think you actually got it right in your first response. Agency is choice looked at from the perspective of the individual. Liberty is choice as viewed from above by government or “society” at large.

    Some restrictions on our liberty may be arbitrary, unwanted, or harmful to us. Other restrictions may be beneficial, part of the social contract whereby we give up certain liberties but receive valuable benefits in return. I think some of the stereotypical Mormon griping about the role of government stems from difficulty in distinguishing between arbitrary/harmful and mutual/beneficial restrictions on liberty.

  13. is it short for ‘little ile”? Like Prince Edward Island or something?

    Interesting that you agree with me, l’ile/lyle/ligh-el, because your other posts where you draw in parallels to the War In Heaven are in direct contradiction. The war in heaven was about agency, so far as I interpret it. There is, then, no earthly parallel to it.

  14. Logan (or others), how often do you hear agency being invoked in political discussions? I hear it all the time! Virtually every thread in the bloggernacle on politics eventually has somebody who brings it up. I question the appropriateness of the reference.

    I find your shotgun wedding example difficult, though — clearly, restricted choices can get in the way of our spiritual development. Should we refer to those situations as “our agency is restricted”? I don’t think that’s a correct usage, and it’s a mingling of spiritual terms, IMHO. Not sure where that leaves us.

  15. Logan, are those anecdotes from personal experience?? Ay Carumba!!

  16. Logan, great comment. Don’t be afraid to inject politics into the discussion — I don’t do it, but others are certainly welcome.

    re: “how come the Church doesn’t advocate slave plantations for its members”…. well, didn’t it, once? Ah, I’m just kidding (mostly). But I guess the Church recognizes that self-imposed restrictions on liberty don’t work. Oppression only counts, in other words, if it comes from external sources beyond our control. (But then, there are scriptural examples of God demanding things of his children as ‘tests’ — artificial restrictions on liberty — like Abraham, polygamy, etc., so who knows??)

    I’ve been thinking about this too — and wondering whether liberty is beneficial or not to spiritual development. Certainly the boldest examples in the scriptures or LDS history are from those who made good choices and rose up in the face of oppression. How can we ever hope to compete with that caliber of spirituality, when we grow up in an age of riches and comfort like no other? Those that say in response to these stories, “well, we have challenges too” are taking a cop-out, IMHO.

    In other words, if we want ourselves or this church to grow and get stronger, we/it needs adversity and challenges. Self-imposed crises and political problems like SSM won’t cut it, I don’t think.

  17. Lyle, I don’t think you’re right about “to have agency, there must be “real” choices.” Look at your history: would we say that early Christians didn’t have agency because they could be put to death for their beliefs? Or that Abinadi didn’t have or exercise free agency because he wasn’t free to preach against Noah?

    I’m saying that we all have agency, no matter what. We *don’t* all have liberty. Your post shows the very confusion I’m talking about.

  18. Lyle, you’re right to a limited extent: there is no agency where there is no choice. But harshly punishing certain choices doesn’t negate their presence, it simply makes them increasingly undesirable. I’m arguing for a definition of agency that is inherent to the human condition, and that can’t be taken away.

    As for the 5 things you list, those are issues where we have total agency to choose with, but not necessarily total liberty as to the consequences of our choices. My definition certainly works with all of those.

    Dave’s summary is a little different than what I was thinking, but not by much.

  19. no (wo)man knows how to spell my name…nor I. [lyle is american bastardization of french l’ile = the island]

    anyway…steve, please point out the contradictions…so i can acknowledge them. i dont’ claim consistency…and i think contradictions are great…points for where you can learn why.

    no…i wouldn’t characterize the war in heaven as being about agency. We already had agency as spirit children…otherwise, you couldn’t have learned and chosen sides up there. it was about liberty…whether a central ruler (Lucifer) would make the decisions…so that the greatest efficient result would happen (100% salvation) or whether each individual agent would be responsible for their own choices…with Christ making up the difference via the atonement.

    However…it wasn’t a true “choice” in the sense that Lucifer’s plan wasn’t really about 100% salvation; it was about 100% power & control & domination…as his making all the choices wouldn’t have allowed each individual spirit child to grow and become like God.

  20. p.s. I’ve received word that the side menus don’t work so well in some browsers — while we work on fixing it, you should know this site works best in I.E.

  21. Pardon the interjection — this comment is regarding Lyle’s interpretation of the war in heaven. I have always found the “do the right thing by force” interpretation of Lucifer’s plan somewhat confusing. Lyle is correct in pointing out that the situation would be about liberty. However, under that scenario, Lucifer could not guarantee 100% salvation because there would still be a choice to rebel, coercion or not. Moses 4 never really maps out a method for enacting Lucifer’s plan, which leads me to believe that alternate visions of it may be equally valid. Also, in Moses 4:3, it states that Satan “sought to destroy the agency of man” (which I think directly refers to his plan).

    So how would one tamper with agency? We are given a pretty good definition in 2 Nephi 2 (spread throughout vv. 11, 13, 18, & 27). The prerequisites for agency seem to be consequence, law, knowledge, and ability to make a choice. Could it be possible that Satan’s plan that would destroy agency was to nullify consequence, saving us in our sins rather than from our sins? This is an alternate theory that I have heard, and I think it has merit. Any thoughts?

  22. Sorry, Steve, I didn’t notice your last comment. So responding to that one,

    You’re absolutely right that agency is way overused in political discussions. I agree that it seems inappropriate.

    My shotgun example doesn’t mean to show a direct link, either. At the very, very most, I think liberty can affect agency in a secondary way, but even that is hard to pin down. I wouldn’t say that in the shotgun our agency is “restricted”, but perhaps it is distorted somehow. Also, this is an extreme example. Most restrictions may well have a negligible affect.

    If your main point is that agency is invoked innapropriately in political discussions, I agree wholeheartedly. I guess I’m thinking philosophically and psychologically about it in an attempt to help me understand people and God better.

  23. Steve, I’m not sure where the linkage takes us, either, and I’ve tried to make that clear. As to bringing up agency in a political setting, if you want to say that it can never be brought up, I don’t want to dispute that, but I don’t know if I’m absolutely certain that it’s outside the realm of possibility.

    You’re right that “Clearly, at some point we can say that some restrictions on liberty are permissible.” I certainly don’t mean to imply the opposite. I’m just trying to point out some of the complexities.

    There may also be something to be said for restricitions on liberty enabling a greater degree of spiritual growth. But if this life is to grow spiritually, how come the Church doesn’t advocate slave plantations for its members, or maybe we could burn everyone at the stake like Abinadi?

    I think that under extreme cases of losing liberty, we can grow in the sense of learning patience and relying on the Lord in ways that we can’t in a comfortable setting. But if we are realitively freer and wealthier, perhaps we can learn things from our circumstances that oppressed slaves can’t learn. It often seems harder for people who have much to give when left to their own will, for example. Perhaps being able to learn that degree of charity requires actually being in the situation.

    Before I get too close to politics (which is not my intention), I’ll say that I guess my point here is that I’m wary of saying which sorts of spiritual growth are more valuable than others. But I cetainly respect the courage of those who make the right decisions under adverse conditions.

    People who are oppressed can grow by rebelling against that oppression, but perhaps not in other ways that require being “anxiously engaged”. Can a slave learn to be a good teacher of the gospel if never given the opportunity? I think different liberties available to people lead to different opportunities for growth.

    I don’t know; I’m already talking about things that I don’t know much about. To repeat, I’m not sure where the link between liberty and agency takes us either, but I suspect that it could take us somewhere if we understood it better. I know I think about it a lot, and I’ll let you know if I feel further enlightened.

  24. Steve:

    Agreed…agency is inherent in the human soul and can’t be hampered directly.

    (my theory is that agency is either what an intelligence is…or a core component of what an intelligence is).

    However…if there are serious serious consequences…then that tends to influence the condition of the possibility of effectively exercising that agency.

    Take ‘free speech’ for example…or even speeding. If you speed, then if caught, you have to pay a fine. There is a restriction on your liberty…but the driver still has the moral agency to make the choice between obeying the speed law and breaking it + facing the risk of a speeding fine. With Free speech…the speaker has the moral agency to say whatever they want…but then there are libel/slander laws, the fighting words doctrine, etc…none of which “restrict” the liberty of speech…but do influence the choice.

    What about drug addiction? Would you say that the drug addict still has complete use of their agency? liberty?

    I’m glad Jeremy is suspicious of me…because I’m suspicious of anyone that supports programs that depend upon coercision/force, etc.

  25. Steve:

    I think you make an excellent distinction between moral agency (a gift from God not to be infringed) and liberty. Your question is probably a part of why some folks go for 1 party or another. However, it might also have something to do with our relative demands for Democracy (majority rules) v. Theocracy (God rules) in the LDS Church/Kingdom of God.

    However, to the extent that Liberty is so heavily incentivized and/or punished by government regulation/law…this interferes with the capacity to make choices. To have agency, there must be “real” choices: i.e. the philosophical dilemma re: if I turn right, I get shot…and ditto if I turn left…is not a “real” choice [unless standing still & not turning is an adequate option ;)].

    Maybe it is simplistic, but Government is not God…and while many folks are ok with God legislating [but not all, as many seem to want to argue with him re: many commandments, Church policy, etc] but not with Government.

  26. Steve:

    maybe…maybe not. I’m emphasizing that an agent can’t make a choice without two different viable options. Where we differ is over whether the consequences of an action are so constraining/negative as to negate the 2nd choice as a “choice.”

    If you want to be an advocate of “strong” agency; try applying it across the board to the political topics conservatives, libertarians & liberals disagree on. 1. affirmative action. 2. welfare. 3. military spending. 4. gay marriage. 5. taxation

    Does your definition work and lead to decisions you always agree with?

  27. That’s an excellent point about overcoming obstacles being a large part of growth. How does that factor into liberty vs. agency? I think instead of finding answers I’m starting to have a lot more questions. But I suppose it’s kind of fun that way.

    Anyway, thanks for the discussion.

  28. Yep, it’s fun — sorry that it’s just us two chickens!

    Here’s my take on it — agency is necessary for our spiritual progression, but liberty isn’t. I could be convinced that certain minima of liberty are required in order to make our existence worthwhile, but I don’t think history necessarily supports that view.

    Which is partially why I get frustrated at political arguments that try and taxation or welfare or other forms of enforced social benefits into concepts of agency, or that pretend like we’re negating agency. I just don’t think that’s what’s going on. Inserting religious argument like that into a public policy or political discussion is like adding onions to the soup — they’re cheap, have lots of pep, and everybody seems to warm up to it. But like the onions, the religious tone leaves a bad taste in my mouth.