Freedom, Agency, and Liberty

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.

(emphasis added)

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!


  1. PS – I realize that the definition of freedom I use above is highly simplistic. I didn’t want to get too much into Mill, etc. for immediate purposes. But suffice it to say that the distinction between freedom to choose and freedom from state coercion is fairly significant, but confused and ignored by most of us.

  2. I tend to see Nephite usage as parasitic on political usage. That is the basic stance is a group responsibility and freedom. The individual sense is much more arising metaphorically out of the national sense. (You can see that especially in Nephi and Jacob’s)

  3. Clark, can we fairly distinguish between Nephite usage and LDS usage?

  4. Thanks Steve.

    You know, most members that I meet seem pretty comfortable with the term “free agency”. Maybe too comfortable.

    I wish more time was spent discussing the “boundary cases”. For example, recognizing that God’s will may be involved with any particular intention or act — whether through you or through others.

    When you pair this with an understanding that we are, by design, in

    a setting that sometimes includes opposition and hardship

    it suddenly becomes more difficult to be so judgmental about right and wrong or good and bad. I tend to think that this might even be a first step toward true humility.

  5. Tony, for the record I have no problem with “free agency,” we’ve used it for decades and it has served us well. It was a particularly Mormon term and I miss its distinctiveness. I agree with you about the boundary cases.

  6. #4 Tony & Steve – so I’m trying to understand this better, are you suggesting that even if we or others use our frree agency/moral agency to make choices that are against the gospel principles that God’s will may be involved and it’s to make us become what God intended (E. Christofferson’s quote)

  7. Steve Evans says:

    Abby, no — at least that’s not what I was trying to say. I think Elder Christofferson’s point is that there is more to our agency than simply checking the right box whenever we are faced with a decision. There is the whole task of creating opportunities for ourselves, seeking out new ways to improve, and being creative that go beyond mere obedience and correct answers.

  8. Eric Russell says:

    Good post, Steve. If I were ever to have blogged a blog post, this is the blog post I would have blogged.

    It’s strange, because it doesn’t seem that complex, but I think the issue of freedom vs. agency is still one of the most misunderstood topics in the church – even among the educated. I noticed that Givens confused the two quite a bit in the first chapter of People of Paradox.

  9. I agree with that idea. But it seems to be a little difficult to grasp, especially when our decisions (when morally questionable) are a way to create new opportunities for ourselves.

  10. Eric Russell says:

    For example, recognizing that God’s will may be involved with any particular intention or act — whether through you or through others.

    Tony, I disagree that this constitutes a “boundary case.” Even if God works through us – and I think that he does at times – this doesn’t conflict with our agency. As long as you have the ability to will otherwise that what you’re willing, you have agency. It’s not an issue of boundaries or degrees.

  11. Steve, so, taking off where you left off – if it’s more than a “correct answer”, does this mean it can be a series of “wrong answers/decisions” in order to get to the correct answer?

  12. I’m hoping for more cross posts. Thanks for sharing.

    Love this quote:

    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.

    This is something that I have felt the Lord really helping me understand more the past few years. It can be so easy to reduce the gospel and my personal progress to a checklist, but I’m learning to embrace my agency more and not be so afraid of not being perfect.

    It sounds so basic on one hand, and yet I think our human nature wants to ‘do some things’ rather than really seek to become.

  13. #10 Eric:

    Even if God works through us – and I think that he does at times – this doesn’t conflict with our agency.

    I think that just depends on how you define agency. Do you consider unconsciously doing the work of God to be agency? And what about an occasion where that unconscious work is setting up a situation involving “hardship”?

  14. Your Savior wants you to become something
    Indeed, he set the ultimate example by using his agency to lay down his will in favor of the Father’s; not my will, but thine, be done. This is the highest use of agency.

    Great topic Steve.

  15. Token Average Member says:

    Perhaps God works through us only if we use our agency to make the choices that are congruent with his goals. If we make choices that lead us down other paths (not necessarily wrong paths, just different ones) he uses someone else to accomplish his original intent, but may us us for something else.

  16. Eric Russell says:

    Tony, I think you still have agency even when you’re unconsciously doing the work of God, and I think the burden of proof lies on anyone trying to claim otherwise. I’m not following what “hardship” has to do with any of this.

  17. Steve Evans says:

    Eric, hardship was injected into this by Elder Christofferson, but I agree with what you’re saying re: agency.

  18. Great discussion–I wish we could also help our youth work through these distinctions between freedom, coercion, and the personal responsiblity that comes with choosing–not just the stark choices of following or not following a few “Strength of Youth” restrictions, but the awesome potential of choosing what kind of person you will become.

    As a culture I think we have become too paternalistic with the youth, terrified that they might make a wrong choice (duh, they’re teenagers), that we forget to guide them along their own path of becoming, which may be different than our own, and that’s okay. We need to help them find their own vision of what they can become, not put blinders on each side and force them to look straight ahead.

    We seem to think if we can just distract them with fun and activities and contrl them with rules/standards until their missions, then we can breathe a sigh of relief. And why do so many wonderful, decent, and faithful RM’s wander around life for a while, lost and aimless (sadly, some never find their way back)? They’re great “doers”, just not very good “become-inger’s”.

    I cringe at some youth lessons where they just end a discussion with “the prophet said” or only one earring, not two. Instead of understanding that the way they dress, act, speak, and represent themselves sends a message that reveals who they are and can affect people around them. That they are responsible for that message.

    Instead it’s like we want them to avoid the whole issue of personal responsiblity, the chance to understand who they truly are, and find the intrinsic motivation to “go ye forth” and engage in the work. We get all wide-eyed and frantic when we tell them only one pair of earrings, when it’s pretty obvious, even to an immature goofy teenager, that it’s basically an arbitrary line some well-meaning adults drew in the sand. Is their celestial glory okay with one, but not two, or, heaven forbid, three? It’s an endless discussion or argument about rights, freedoms, coercion and father-knows-best, when it should be a wise lesson about their potential, the risks they may have to take with an unpredictable life ahead, and how the kind of person they want to become may or may not match with God’s plan?

    While this is a good and meaningful discussion for adults to have, who are already settled into life somewhat, with awkward adolescent memories already fading, this is the core of what we should be engaging our youth with. So they won’t be so afraid of doing something wrong and be more courageous about doing something right.

  19. Homer, I don’t see this as a topic that is necessarily more important for the youth. Indeed I see with many adults a tendency to become complacent in their membership and spiritual growth as time goes on (I know it’s bee that way for me!).

  20. You are correct. That’s sometimes why I can’t sit in on Gospel Doctrine lessons without getting irritated. Don’t get me started on high priest group lessons. I guess I’m just seeing the youth as a great place to put our energies. Issues of personal freedom and choice and limits are the core issues of adolescent development, so it’s very relevant to them. Maybe, we sort of encourage the complacency in adults because we’re relieved they “made it”. Or maybe it’s just that I believe the children are our future . . .

  21. Yes, this drives me nuts as well. First, there is our fundamental ability to choose (which is apparently intrinsic to intelligence). There is no such thing as having “more” or “less” agency in this sense.

    To this, we must add genuine alternatives or there are no choices and our ability to choose is worthless (cf. “In the Garden of Eden, gave I unto man his agency” (Moses 6:32). God gave agency to Adam and Eve in the garden by giving them a choice between two trees).

    In this second sense of the word agency, our agency can shrink or grow because it is based on having more or fewer alternatives from which to choose. I think these are the same two senses being delineated in the post.

    Unfortunately, I believe even more distinctions are necessary to make sense of Lehi’s statement that “because that they are redeemed from the fall they have become free forever …to act for themselves and not to be acted upon” (2 Ne. 2:26)

  22. It strikes me that agency, such as we have it, is both something to be used and to be given away in our becoming. Elder Maxwell’s oft repeated refrain that our will is the only sacrifice that we can actually make is significant. Allowing God the opportunity to work with us and with our agency strikes me as the only means to become what we ought to be.

    I also think that the Nephite notion of freedom can be separated from the LDS notion. Mormon cites with a straight face the Nephite right to freedom of belief before jumping into the history of Korihor.

  23. Oh, I should have said, the reason I bring up 2 Ne 2:26 is because it seems to be exactly parallel (if not the doctrinal springboard) to Helaman 14:30 (correctly linked in the post, but accidentally written as Helaman 13)

  24. Steve Evans says:

    Jacob, I completely agree about the parallel to 2 Ne 2 — indeed I think Samuel is largely reproducing Lehi’s message on that point (thanks btw for the typo correction).

  25. I’m catching up on things missed while we were without power, so all I will say here is that this is a critical discussion – and I wish we understood it better.

    Also, Jacob, 2 Nephi 2:26 is one of my favorite verses in the entire BofM. I wish we quoted and discussed it as much as we do the verses preceding it.

  26. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about free agency. At this point, I’m convinced that for most of my life I’ve been mistaken about it. And since I may never meet another group interested in this topic, I’ll explain:

    Over the years, I’ve become convinced that we too often “over-analyze” scripture. That is, we study it, come up with some interpretation, and then trust our best interpretation. I know that I’m guilty of this – forgetting my own fallibility.

    I believe that this “illusion of understanding” is, in fact, a serious problem. I think the result is that we often can’t hear God – we are busy denying the truth of the “small voice”.

    The typical analysis of “free agency” fits this category perfectly. Really, there is quite a bit we don’t know about free agency. How much does it vary by person or situation? How does it interact with the laws we know? How does it interact with God’s will in a particular situation? What about the laws we don’t know yet?

    For example, as in scripture, God may cause some sequence of events. Further, these events may go against our definition of free agency. What’s more, the “small voice” may next be telling us to do things we consider “evil” or even “of Satan”— a categorization that arises only because of our “illusion of understanding”.*

    The only solution to this problem that I can think of is an absolutely insane amount of humility – far beyond what our community, even our LDS community, defines as humility.

    *So good and evil become less defined. The only solution I know is to recognize that the veil really is quite thin, and learn to hear that small voice. You may find that, while evil is quite real, it is also not where you expected.

  27. Good questions and thoughts, TonyD. Humility seems to be the inevitable end of true intellectual thought, as we suddenly realize how much we don’t know or understand. The need to quickly find the answer, know how we stand before God, or just come up with a list of do’s and don’t’s and appropriate earring ratios or moustache measurements, indulges our need to get the inconvenient chores of life checked off out “to do” lists, so we can get back to the fun. When in reality, the unanswerable, the paradoxes, become the essence of our life journey. It’s not the end or the reward, it’s the journey itself and what we become along the way.

    Your questions deepens for me what we don’t know about agency and free will. Every human comes with a unique set of talents, abilities or disabilities, circumstances of birth and parentage that will affect the course of their life right from the beginning.

    Let’s just say I’m a brilliant genious (I’m just saying) and someone else is a wonderful simple person with less intellectual capacity. How does that affect me? How do I affect the life of my simple friend? How do our free agencies interact and affect our individual lives and destiny? Where does that take us both in the end? Are we judged individually or jointly as we both affect each other? Is it more complex and interconnected than I can possibly comprehend? So, do moustaches, earrings, or tatoos or other shallow do’s and don’t lists have any bearing on our heavenly rewards, on our eternal destinies?

    It’s like some people are on Interstate 80 and some are on State Road 252. It’s still a journey and a fine ride either way, but they will be unique–maybe even the destination will be unique. You can go slow, you can stop along the way at a fruit stand, you can plow through all night to make good time (like my dad always wanted to do). Who travels with me–family, friends, alone–seems like that is up to me, or is it? How you choose to travel your particular journey is up to you. Heck, even the car I use (or lack of car) can be up to me. A sweet 1982 T-top Corvette would be a sweet ride, but the journey could be equally compelling and pleasureable on a bike, or even on foot. Maybe that’s free agency. And humility comes from accepting what it is.

  28. Great post!

    I pray you will not be offended if I point out a couple of things you said that could be taken incorrectly by someone who is unfamiliar with LDS doctrine.

    By all scriptural accounts, there were not two plans presented for humanity. There was only one plan in the pre-mortal world, and not only was it the Father’s plan, but it was established and in operation long before the council in heaven took place. The question asked by the Father was not “What shall we do now?” but “Whom shall I send?” and of the two who asked to be sent; only Christ volunteered to fulfill the Father’s plan in the manner it had to be fulfilled in. This might seem like an insignificant distinction on the surface, but the deeper you go, the more relevance it has.

    In order to obtain exaltation, intelligences must be allowed to “freely” act without constraints or compulsion by an outside source. This “freedom to choose” is an eternal principle that has always existed, and is how Father became a God, so we don’t “enjoy it by virtue of having chosen to come to Earth”. We exercised independent choices as we grew from spirit children to adult spirits and we were fully responsible for the choices we made during the council and war in heaven. If this were not so, God could not have justly revoked the eternal blessings of one third of the host of heaven.

    This agency also governs how much “intelligence” or light and truth we obtain in this life. When we use our agency to choose to obey the commandments of God we are worthy to have the Holy Ghost teach us more than we currently know. We are given more light and truth, which we are then responsible to apply our agency to. If we choose to disobey His commandments, or to ignore the greater light and truth He gives us, we can lose even what we had to begin with. Thus, the amount of intelligence or truth we gain in this life depends on our willingness to use our agency to obey rather than disobey.

    For Tony and Homer, your agency holds the keys to answering the questions you have and all the Lord requires is sincere repentance, sincere desire to know more, and sincere obedience to the knowledge you already have.

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