The Agency of Man

I taught the captioned lesson at Institute Wednesday night, to about a dozen or so young single adults. I was a guest instructor for that one evening in the Doctrines of the Church class, and my assigned topic was The Agency of Man. [I made a little joke telling the sisters that this lesson obviously didn’t apply to them, then made sure everyone knew “Man” here was used in the generic, not gendered sense.] I thought I’d try to convey the gist of my lesson here for anyone interested.

I. The word “agency.” Derives from the Latin verb agere, which (among many other meanings) means “to do.” So the gerundive form, agendum “something that ought to be done,” in the plural agenda “things that ought to be done” becomes our English word “agenda.” The nominative participle is agens, and in the accusative the form is agentem, which becomes a noun, agentia, and which is anglicized in our English words agency and agent. The basic notion behind these words is that of “doing” something.

II. The other kind of agency. When we talk about agency in the Church, there are usually two possible referents. One is agency as a field of secular law, applied by analogy to the church context. Agency law has to do with a principal authorizing someone else, called the agent, to act on his behalf. (Thus the “doing” sense of the word.) Agency law has to do with how the relationship is established, the duties of the principal to the agent, the agent to the principal, and both to third parties. (I also briefly described the funnest legal doctrine in the history of Anglo-American common law, “frolic and detour.”) Since we are a hierarchical church with all sorts of delegation of authority and things like prophets, priesthood, keys, quorums, offices, assignments, etc., agency principles can be very instructive in the church context. See for instance D&C 1:38, “…whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same.” That is an agency principle. (One of the best church lessons I’ve ever sat through was early in my mission when an EQP, a pharmaceutical rep, gave a lesson on principles of agency derived from the law and applied them to the Church. Simply outstanding.) But that’s not the kind of “agency” this lesson is actually about.

III. Free Agnecy and Politically Correct semantics. The lesson manual talks about “agency,” but the concept was when I was their age widely called “free agency.” We have certain terms that have fallen out of favor, like inactive or nonmember, and free agency seems to be one of them. I understand the drift away from “free agency,” as that is not a scriptural formulation, it is an in-house expression that non-LDS don’t use, the “free” part is sort of redundant and seems to derive from a mash-up of free will and agency, and most influential of all is how many of our young people seem to misconstrue the word “free” to mean that they can act free of consequences. But I grew up with that formulation, and I still kind of like it, and in any event it is ubiquitous in older church literature, so they need to be aware of that usage.

IV. So what is free agency? It is the eternal, unfettered right we have to make choices for ourselves (thus “doing” for ourselves), given to us as a gift from God. There are two sides to the coin: one is complete freedom in making choices, but the other is that we must bear the responsibility for the choices we make.

V. Alternatives need to be genuinely open. I told them I saw a movie once where Fred Astaire danced on the ceiling. (Had any of them seen it? No, only the regular instructor. Boy did that make me feel old.) I would like to do that. Is that a choice I can make? I can try, but unless I live in the Matrix (a more recent cultural allusion!) I’ll get maybe two steps up the wall before I fall and hurt myself. So we’re constrained in our choices by physical law.

When the movie “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” came out, the theater had these huge posters of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, both dressed to the nines, Angie with a long slit in her dress and a gun strapped to her thigh. I thought these have got to be the most beautiful people on the planet. So suppose I made a choice to have an affair with Angelina. I might be able to find her, say in New Orleans. Is that ever gonna happen? Of course not; I’d probably get arrested for stalking. Because while I have agency to do what I want, she’s a free agent also. And so my free decisions as an agent unto myself are of necessity limited by the free decisions of other free agents. (This was, I wager, the first time in the history of humankind that a point was made in a CES classroom based on a proposed adulterous tryst of the instructor!)

I said it’s like that creepy RM guy at BYU who asks out the most gorgeous girl on a date and tells her he has had a revelation that they are to marry. That’s nice and all, and he’s perfectly free to propose, but she’s an agent unto herself, and she’s perfectly free to kick him to the curb, which is exactly what she should do.

This is why I don’t like missionary goals for baptisms. At Zone Conference the elders all start to get competitive, and pretty soon by the end of the line guys with no teaching pool are setting goals to baptize 20 people within a month. But you have limited control over who gets baptized; ultimately that’s someone else’s free decision to make, not yours.

VI. Not all choices have moral significance. If I go to Subway and have a tough time deciding between the chicken club or the Italian BMT, does God care? No. There are lots of choices like that in our lives, even significant choices. If I have offers for a job in San Francisco or Boston, God might care which I choose, but more often than not it’s six of one, a half-dozen of the other. You do your due diligence and examine each job and location carefully, discuss it with your wife, make a tentative decision, and then you pray about it. Don’t put the decision in the first instance in God’s lap, but pray for ratification.

VII. Choices we make today can constrain the choices available to us in the future. “There is an old man up there ahead of you that you ought to know…. Whether he is miserable or happy depends on you. For you made him. He is you, grown older.”

It’s like a game of chess. Every move involves a decision, and the decisions you make early in the game constrain the decisions available to you later in the game.

Elder Bednar has talked about how students at Ricks were always complaining about the honor code, saying “But we have our free agency!” Yes, they had their free agency when deciding where to go to school; they could have gone to the community college or to Berkeley, but they made a decision to go to Ricks, with its honor code. And you’re still perfectly free to violate the honor code; no one is stopping you. I talked about the Naked Guy at Berkeley, and how you’re free to walk around the Rexburg campus naked if you like. But of course, there are consequences to that action, and you will be arrested and kicked out of school. When we make commitments, such as joining the church, going to the temple, enrolling in a church school, our freedom to make choices doesn’t change, but the consequences of the choices we make do.

VIII. Appreciating the consequences. Of course, for free agency to be fully operative we need to have a full appreciation of the consequences of our actions. I talked about my autistic brother, and how he can understand some consequences but not others.

IX. Is Free Agency a truism? I talked about how when I was younger the principle of free agency seemed so obvious to me that I didn’t understand why we talked about it so much; I assumed that of course everyone believed it. Only much later did I learn that it’s actually a pretty radical idea, and that lots of Christians don’t believe it at all. Talked about Augustine, who taught that man had moral freedom in the garden, and was posse non peccare (“able not to sin”) there. But as a consequence of the Fall, man lost his moral freedom, and became non posse non peccare, “not able not to sin.” Talked a little bit about the difference between hypothetical free will and libertarian free will, and also talked about Calvinism and went over TULIP. I never realized just how radical that cheap little CTR ring really was…

X. Free agency in the premortal world. We talked about how the principle of agency was so important that we fought a war over it in the preexistence.

XI. Our accountabiity to God for the use of our agency. Our eternal destiny is determined by the use or misuse of our agency. John Taylor (The Gospel Kingdom, 341):

“Are we not the framers of our own destiny? Are we not the arbitrators of our fate? This is another part of my text, and I argue from it that it is our privilege to determine our own exaltation or degradation. It is our privilege to determine our own happiness or misery in the world to come. What is it that brings happiness now–that makes us so joyous in our assembling together? It is not wealth; for you may pour wealth, honor, influence and all the luxuries of this world into the lap of man; and, destitute of the Spirit of God, he will not be happy, for that is the only source from which true happiness and comfort can come.”

We are what we have willed ourselves to be. We choose those alternatives that we want–that we love. In the final analysis, we will end up in the kingdom that we choose for ourselves.


  1. justkidding says:

    Here’s a question about agency and its application that I’ve had for a while, and maybe someone can shed some light on it for me. It has to do with baby blessings. I don’t yet have kids, so I’m not speaking from any level of experience, but is it appropriate for the one giving the baby blessing to bless the child to go on a mission, marry in the temple, etc.? I would think it was appropriate to bless the child with a desire and/or the physical capacity to do so, but to bless them to take some specific action? Does that cross some line?

  2. I’d never thought of Points II. and III. separately, but assumed the agency in the church (aka, “free agency”) equated to their being agents unto themselves instead of agents of someone else; agents unto themselves get to make their own choices instead of following orders.

    #1 re baby blessings (or any others): it’s always risky to prescribe actions and outcomes in a blessing for the reasons you fear. People get to make their own choices. Some blessings I’ve heard include a conditional statement like, “The receipt of these blessings is conditional upon your faithfulness.” I think my partiarchal blessing may follow that pattern. Hopefully blessing givers will listen to the spirit and bless only as prompted.

  3. justkidding says:

    Paul, I like your distinction on “free” agency. As one of those darned lawyers, the agency concept under the common law and agency the way we define it always seemed weird. A “free” agent, the way you describe it, makes a lot of sense to me.

  4. Eric Russell says:

    jk, what line would it possibly be crossing? Your blessing is binding on neither god nor the child no matter what you say, so there’s really no reason not to bless your child with awesome stuff — and lots of it.

  5. justkidding (1),
    I think there are two questions here:
    1. Are such statements efficacious?
    2. Are such statements appropriate?

    I think that the answer to both questions, though perhaps unsatisfying, is that it depends entirely on whether the statements are uttered in response to true divine inspiration or in response to cultural norms about prayer language. Often times when I hear baby blessings, the words being spoken seem delivered with a level of sincerity, concentration, and inspiration that I expect in prayers over the food at a linger longer. In such cases, I think such statements are both inappropriate and (obviously) not efficacious.

    Of course, there are also the other times, and I think the appropriateness is fine, and the efficacy is something to be seen later…

  6. Eric Russell (4),
    Just as I think it’s inappropriate to promise recovery in a blessing for healing that is not inspired, I think it’s inappropriate to make such promises in public baby blessings when they aren’t truly originating from the Spirit, because I think that such statements create community norms that can render holy language commonplace and decrease faith when ill-conceived promises are left unfulfilled.

  7. justkidding says:

    My concern is that, if someone considers agency as the ability to act independently, commanding a child to take specific actions would be violative of that principle of agency. To me, that would seem to indicate that the person either hasn’t thought much about the extensions of their own belief regarding agency or that they are willing to violate the principle in the hope that the child will do good things. If the former, that signals a shortcoming in the spiritual education of someone who holds the Mechezidek Priesthood. If the latter, couldn’t it be seen as unrighteous dominion? I agree that the blessings aren’t binding on anyone, but if in giving a priesthood blessing you exercise unrighteous dominion or violate principles of agency, isn’t that priesthood holder hurting themselves? Similarly, couldn’t the attitude that it’s not binding, so I should bless them with all sorts of cool stuff lead us to diminish the importance of priesthood blessings, generally? Do they matter at all? Are they really important? Is the priesthood all that important? I don’t think the questions are the logical conclusion of that line of thinking, but there are a lot of illogical people in the church.

    As for the influence of revelation, I would hope that all priesthood holders would attempt to gain the inspiration they are entitled to when giving a priesthood blessing. However, how often does God give specific commands regarding actions to be taken? To his prophets, probably quite often, but to small children? Even in patriarchal blessings, the statements are usually couched in the language of agency. Most baby blessings that run along these lines aren’t, which is why the question has been raised in my mind.

    Finally, there are certainly cultural norms regarding prayer language, but if norms give the impression of being violative of eternal principles, and an alternative wording would remove that appearance, shouldn’t we endeavor to change the norms?

  8. Eric Russell says:

    Scott, I don’t believe baby blessings are a vehicle for prophesies or promise making. Of course, if the spirit inspires someone somewhere to make some kind of promise, that’s cool. But a baby blessing is not a patriarchal blessing, and I don’t think it should be treated as such.

  9. Eric,
    That’s exactly my point: I don’t think that they are a vehicle for prophecies or promise making, AND SO I don’t think it’s appropriate to make prophecies or promises, because that establishes folk beliefs and language norms that run contrary to reality. Given your (8), I would think that you of all people would be an ardent opponent of blessing your child “with awesome stuff–and lots of it.” You say that they shouldn’t be treated as Patriarchal blessings, and yet you specifically suggested doing as much in your #4!

  10. Loved this Kevin, thanks. You could have pointed out that the Agency at issue in point II is expressly not “free” agency because the agent is not free to do what he or she would like in that sense but must limit his or her actions to those things that are within the specific delegation that they’ve been given in such agency roles. Perhaps that is why they spoke of “free agency” — to contrast it with real, Anglo-American legal agency — back before the push in General Conference in the last couple of decades to call it “moral agency”. I’m on board with this new politically correct usage for the reasons that you refer to in your point III and do not miss the old usage of “free agency”.

  11. SLO_Sapo says:

    Points V and VII indirectly raise the issue of determinism, which I think is inescapable. Our agency is undoubtedly limited by the prior actions of others and ourselves. Further, our agency is diminished (and our lives become more deterministic) when we fail to exercise our agency, most often by taking the path of least resistance.

  12. byustudent says:

    I would go to institute more if you were the instructor, I think.

  13. “VI. Not all choices have moral significance.”

    When the Book of Moses tells us that Satan sought to destroy the agency of man, I’ve wondered if this aspect of agency was a big part of it, taking moral significance away from all choices. I wonder this particularly since it aligns with some current modes of temptation. Maybe the Tempter’s methods haven’t changed.

  14. I agree that objection to the term “free agency” is a bit overdone. I don’t think any teenager really believes that actions are devoid of consequences. I don’t think any sane person does. When teenagers invoke ‘free agency’ it is really a plea not to have arbitrary consequences constructed by the parent/authority foisted upon them because they are willing to take the more natural consequences or risks. This isn’t an argument that parents/others shouldn’t step in use their considerable power to restrict certain bad choices, but rather just that it is a bit insulting and reductionist to believe teenagers or most anybody else think actions are free of consequences. It misconstrues what is going on and gives a cheap answer to a much more difficult question.

    The most interesting thing about agency to me is the belief that so many have that *all* actions we take are a pure expression of our agency. It is unclear to me that many of the actions I take are really all that agentic. A lot of what I do is at least heavily influenced, if not determined, by my environment, biology, culture and actions of others. Often this is in complex ways that defy my ability to even recognize many of them. This doesn’t mean I don’t have some control and agency. In my view it is just constantly being contested by social and other forces. Maybe one of the big tests/purposes of this life is to learn how to recognize such forces and render ourselves free of them – making ourselves more “forces to act instead of be acted upon”. This is hard work that requires reflection, mindfulness, self study etc. In some sense I think you could say that true gospel practice may be the process by which we can become more pure agents. The lazy belief we are always acting “freely” could then actually blind us to all the little “flaxen cords” which guide us around.

    Just my thoughts to add to your great lesson.

  15. 14 – Rah, your point is interesting and I’d add my own to it… I think in many areas that is one of the major functions of the gospel and the atonement. To put off the natural man and reclaim some of that biological-social-conditioned lack of agency through the power of the atonement. It’s obviously not as simple as just praying about it though… but I think the closer you get to the Lord, the more you start to see various things you are doing that really don’t matter and are even distracting from your primary purpose.

    I think it’s one of the reasons why we bicker a lot in the church about various rules. So many things aren’t really that significant (2 earings) in and of themselves but if you can look at it as you exercising your agency to do something which doesn’t bring you closer to Christ what’s really the point of doing it? I’m not condemning 2-earing peoples by a long shot… just saying at some point in the gospel if you take it for what it claims to be, we’re to make ourselves more holy with the Saviors help. And there are a lot of things we do, be it biological or through social conditioning that distract from that purpose. I’m also not suggesting we can ever fully escape the “prison” we’re in as a part of this mortal probation but there is a lot of the natural man we can put off as we seek for the blessings of the atonement.

    I also just wanted to add that the righteous use of our agency (whether in thought or action) is what activates the Holy Ghost to enter our heart and mind and not only provide revelation but sanctify us so we can gradually put off the natural man little by little.

    In my own case, I notice all to often I make one large step forward and notice the effects of it clearly in my life but fail to notice how I then slid .99 steps backwards as a subsequent result of my use of agency by doing some piddly little thing that doesn’t have any eternal significance and doesn’t contribute to making me more holy. Of course, a serious can take several steps backwards, but I’m just talking about those little decisions that don’t really matter in the grand scheme of things, and yet we spend so much time on them and see them as being so important. Gotta back to surfing the web now! (minus .99 steps)

  16. …a serious {insert word} sin can take us several steps backwards…

  17. ByTheRules says:

    /plagerize freely/
    Thanks Kevin!

    Re baby blessings: Are not all priesthood blessings dependant, in part, on faith? To grant general blessings available through church membership specifically to the infant is congruent, although upon reflection somewhat redundant. But I see nothing wrong with blessing an infant with (+/- opportunities) to the milestones of life such as education, mission, temple sealing, etc. And due to the inherent involvement of faith, I see no reason for blessing language to emphasize conditionality.

  18. justkidding says:

    By the Rules (17):

    Blessing with opportunities is one thing, but isn’t it another thing entirely to bless the child that they WILL do something?

  19. Loved this, Kevin – especially the last paragraph.

  20. Eric Russell says:

    Scott, if my comments are that clearly contradictory, maybe I don’t mean what you think I mean? If I defined “blessing” as a prophesy or promise, then yes, my comments are contradictory and absurdly so. But I don’t. You can bless someone with your desires. Kind of how bishopric members pretty much always bless members that the Lord will help them succeed or otherwise perform dutifully in their calling when setting them apart. Like any other prayer, it’s just a request.

  21. Ugly Mahana says:

    Without being the person giving the blessing, I am not willing to judge the inspiration of the person giving the blessing. I do not see “will” statements as wrong per se, because I view them as prophetic, not statements of command. And I presume that God accounts for agency when giving prophecy. For example, I do not believe that Joseph of Egypt’s prophecy of Moses and of Joseph Smith abrogated the agency of either of these prophets.

  22. Eric Russell (20),
    As I’ve tried to make clear in both of my comments here, the concern for me is about establishing norms. If you feel like that is not a concern, by all means: treat baby blessings like requests. I think that is wrongheaded, but to each their own.

  23. justkidding says:

    Ugly Mahana (21): I’m interested by the concept of baby blessings as prophecy. I’ve never thought of it that way before. Because prophesy has some specific meanings in the doctrine, I wonder what the consequences would be if you are right. Also, I’m not entirely convinced that a baby blessing, where words are pronounced on the head of an individual child, can be correctly analogized to a prophecy that an individual, hundreds or thousands of years into the future, would do certain things. The former still seems like a command to me, while the latter seems like words of comfort given to a people in preparation for the future. It may just be my own sensibilities, but that’s still how everything fits together in my mind.

  24. Matt W. says:

    Good Lesson Kevin. I probably would have gone all 2 Ne. 2 (compound in one, atonement, etc.), and missed the interesting allusion to the other type of agency. Also, in thinking of our Agency being constrained by the Agency of others, it’s interesting to note that God’s Agency is also thus constrained by us.

  25. Matt W. says:

    I have no idea why I capitalized the word agency in that last comment…

  26. “VI. Not all choices have moral significance.”

    This principle is really interesting to me b/c it seems so hard to pin down. While some decisions seem to be pretty morally constant (murder, charity, etc.), the moral significance of others fluctuate according to time and context. Presumably, someone who grew up in antebellum America cannot be morally responsible for someone poor or starving in Europe or even in another state because they have zero access to them. In modern times, charitable donations, even to places around the world, are infinitely easier. How does that change our agency? Or, to take another example, how has our agency in regards to the environment changed due to what we know about ecosystems and climate change? Can we say that in modern times, we “have” more agency b/c of wealth and technology?

  27. So much of our agency is framed by our genes, our nurture and accidental occurrences. We feel free but this “freedom” may be more illusory than real because of the deep behavioral channels riven in our brains by forces beyond our control. Think of the psychopath who, for whatever reason, has no empathy, or a person without much prefrontal cortex functioning (I know several). Or people with low serotonin who are terminally depressed.

    Our eternal destiny is determined by the use or misuse of our agency. John Taylor (The Gospel Kingdom, 341):

    We are what we have willed ourselves to be. We choose those alternatives that we want–that we love. In the final analysis, we will end up in the kingdom that we choose for ourselves.

    God has lots of figuring to do as agency is expressed by real people. If God has set up a system like this strict standard, there will be many people who become condemned for no cause of there own, only by the whims of God and nature.

  28. DL: Can we say that in modern times, we “have” more agency b/c of wealth and technology?

    Indeed, and we could even drop the comparative and simply attempt to better outline our own responsibility today based on the wider reach of our influence and knowledge regarding global circumstances.

  29. #26

    Yes I think this deserves some more thought. All decisions made with more or less of our agency have consequences and many even moral ones. I think it is at least plausible to say that for American’s or others in the rich OECD countries, what and how we choose to purchase/not purchase may actually influence, in aggregate, more lives any of the things we do in interacting with people directly. The supply chain that gives us everything we have is just tremendous and now spans across literally thousands and thousands of lives for better and worse. Will i be held accountable ultimately for these decisions? I wonder. Maybe, maybe not. If so I am worried…I could just choose to ignore the fact and hope that this counts as ignorance. Don’t know. Don’t know.

  30. Further, our agency is diminished (and our lives become more deterministic) when we fail to exercise our agency, most often by taking the path of least resistance.

    Our agency always becomes more diminished in the long run, either by internal constraints or external limitations.

    Depends on how you define agency of course.

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