General Conference and Agency

One of the themes of conference that emerged for me was that of agency.  Elder Hales and President Monson (priesthood session) both spoke on this topic directly.  One idea from the scriptures, which both men shared, is that agency is God-given.  This might seem unambiguous and straight forward, but it brings to my mind questions about what is agency, and how is it given?

What Is Agency?

There has been a centuries old debate regarding free will, that for the most part the Mormon Church and its members seem blissfully unaware.  I have only scratched the surface of it myself.  Many of the greatest philosophers have concluded that the choices that humans make are the results of prior causes – and thus there is no free will.  Some theologians assert that God is so absolute that everything that happens is a form of divine intervention – and thus there is no free will (or at least it is greatly foreshortened). 

For the most part this assumption of free will in Mormonism suits me just fine, since I believe is free will.  Yet, when basic free will is just assumed as a given, I think it is then easy to miss out on the possible insight that ‘free will’ (in philosophical and theological contexts) and agency (in a Mormon context) are different things.

I did a little searching for definitions, and found a couple from a Merriam-Webster online dictionary that I like.  For free will we have:

Freedom of humans to make choices that are not determined by prior causes or by divine intervention.

And for agency we have:

The capacity, condition, or state of acting or of exerting power.

From the above definitions we can see that while there may be some overlap between the two terms, there are important distinctions as well.  With free will one may make independent and original choices, with agency we have the capacity to bring such choices about – or to act on our will.

How Is It Given?

The scriptures say that God gave us our agency.  With the above definitions in mind, it seems then that what God gave us was the stuff of capacity, but not necessarily will.  It is my personal opinion that free will is an eternal thing, likely associated with our ‘intelligence’.  If God were to absolutely give us this will, it seems that this would be a form of creation out of nothing – where at one point in time we were without any will at all, and then God absolutely gives us will.  This places God right back into a position of being responsible for moral evil in the world.  If God absolutely gives us our will, why did he not give us better or stronger wills?

Now, if what God gave to us is agency, rather than will, it all begins to make more sense to me.  If we consider that our spirit bodies and/or our mortal bodies (and ultimately our resurrected bodies)  are given to us by God, then this speaks of capacity which we may not have had as intelligences.  This would avoid much of the problem of attributing moral evil to God since it would be our eternal will involved, and gives meaning to God-given agency.

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16 Responses to “General Conference and Agency”


  1. 1 Matt W. October 4, 2010 at 9:50 am

    I really like this. I have always conflated the two ideas. Is there any evidence that the general authorities hold this distinction. I’ll try to research it.

  2. 2 Eric Nielson October 4, 2010 at 10:52 am

    Thanks Matt.

    Personally I think GA conflate these ideas all the time.

  3. 3 Ben Pratt October 4, 2010 at 10:59 am

    We watched the last session at my parents’ house, and afterward we went around the table sharing something we each found noteworthy about the conference.

    My daughter (age almost-8): “There were five talks about agency!”
    Another family member who watched elsewhere: “Really?
    Daughter: “Didn’t you watch conference?”

  4. 4 Eric Nielson October 4, 2010 at 11:31 am

    Ben:

    Your daughter must be awesome. I did not view all sessions, but agency certainly seemed like a theme to me.

  5. 5 Matt W. October 4, 2010 at 2:46 pm

    Eric:

    Actually- I find it interesting that the term free will doesn’t seem to be in use at least since the 70s by the general authorities. The only reason I am saying this, is it definitely gives you a window to proliferate this idea without getting into a “GA Quotes” contest.

  6. 6 shematwater October 4, 2010 at 3:49 pm

    I think that all people use the terms interchangably at times, because the meanings are very similar. However, I do agree with the distinction, and I think the General Authorities do as well.

    There is a great seminary video in the Book of Mormon that deals with this. It lists four things that are needed to have agency.
    The very first thing listed is the Power to Choice, which is another way of saying Free Will. It is through combining this with the other three that we have agency.
    The other three are Opposition, Laws, and a Knowledge of Good and Evil.
    Opposition is inherent in all things. Existance itself hinges on opposition,
    I believe we had the knowledge as spirits, as we were able to exercise our agency in the War in Heaven. It is blocked for a time by our mortal bodies, but we again aquire it in this life.
    God truly gives us agency by giving us the Laws, for we do not create our own Laws, nor do we know the Laws of ourselves. They must be given to us.

    Sorry for rambling, but this is how the Church describes agency, and I have heard no better explanation. Of the four elements that are required to have agency one is inherent in us and cannot be taken away. However, the other three can be given or supressed at different times. At these times we do not truly have agency.

  7. 7 Paul October 4, 2010 at 3:55 pm

    It’s interesting to note that Elder Hales felt the dictionary definitions for agency missed the mark. His definition as I recall focused on choice and accountability for those choices. Pr Monson’s address also focused primarily on choice. Both of those seem to lean toward free will, though that definition does not speak to accountability.

    The scriptures (particularly in the creation stories in the PoGP) suggest that men were agents unto themselves, suggesting they had power to make choices rather than only being agents (or, conversely, puppets) of someone else.

    As it relates to capacity not available to us as intelligences, to the extent that our choices are physical in nature (as in whether we satify appeptites or constrain them), it seems those would require a body.

  8. 8 Eric Russell October 4, 2010 at 5:44 pm

    When D&C 101:78 says god has given man his moral agency, I take this to mean the knowledge of good and evil, without which we would have no moral agency in the mortal world. But I do not see this concept of agency as anything different from free will. If the will is our intelligence, than god has given us free will in this mortal state through a knowledge of good and evil.

    Agency must refer to the will, because if it only refers to our actions, then it leaves little to the heart, which is what is ultimately at stake. In any case, there’s definitely room for confusion because, I believe, modern GA references to agency are generally without precision.

  9. 9 michelle October 5, 2010 at 3:11 am

    God truly gives us agency by giving us the Laws, for we do not create our own Laws, nor do we know the Laws of ourselves. They must be given to us.

    (And yet, certain leaders are pummeled mercilessly when they expound upon what those laws are. Ahem.)

    I think shematwater covered it well. I think agency is inextricably tied to law/knowledge. It’s not just something that exists because we exist, it exists because laws exist (and I think that all exists because law is inextricably tied to who God is). I think agency is given as knowledge is given.

    When we are placed in a state or situation where we have opposition and knowledge at some level of good and evil, we then (and only then) can we choose to act. With that ability comes accountability.

    Interestingly, another law comes into play for those w/o knowledge. The law of mercy includes the reality that w/o knowledge are not held accountable (but also perhaps can’t experience the same growth in mortality that comes of knowing and choosing to follow God’s law); those with knowledge who violate God’s law risk losing agency as they become trapped by the adversary’s snares and give up the power that comes of acting and not being acted upon.

    I think it’s important, too, to note how connected agency is to the Atonement. The more people try to deny the reality of or go against eternal law or give up agency through sin, the more they deny the Savior’s potential power in their lives. That to me was a repeated message I heard in conference as well. We are our own judges, as the scriptures say.

    I also think agency would be meaningless without that atonement, because the ability to choose (the will) w/o the ability to choose to repent when mistakes are made would guarantee that we would be ‘angels to a devil.’

    I think this is why the Mormon concept of agency is not neatly captured in a dictionary definition; because it’s connected to other elements of the doctrine of the plan of salvation in ways that are rich and layered, that go beyond philosophical discussions about will, etc.

  10. 10 Eric Nielson October 5, 2010 at 8:31 am

    shem, Eric, Michelle:

    It seems you are all on the same page with knowledge of good and evil being an important part of agency, and something that is God-given. This is very helpful and I agree with it. This at least makes our choices informed rather than random.

    Paul:

    I agree with you also. Without capacity, will is ineffectual.

  11. 11 shematwater October 5, 2010 at 10:59 am

    MICHELLE

    I like what you say. I would only like to comment on what you say concerning those who are without knowledge.

    They must gain the knowledge, whether in this life or in the next, for God has said that man cannot be saved in ignorance (D&C 131: 6).
    So, their is another grand Law and principle that agency is connected with. That is the law and principle of Salvation for the Dead. They must learn it at some time before they can be judged by God in a just judgment.

    In this way ignorance cannot be used as an excuse for any man, for all will eventually know the truth and the Law.

  12. 12 Matt W. October 6, 2010 at 10:11 am

    It seems the ultimate LDS proof text for this would be D&C 58:27-28

    “…men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness; For the power is in them, wherein they are agents unto themselves…”

    Here I think we can see that agency and free will are easily conflated. Still, I think the concept is good. There are really two ways we can see God giving us our agency. 1st, he can, as you suggest, give us increased capacity to exert power, which I think is doctrinally valid, and also he can withhold control via spiritual separation, which I think is also doctrinally valid.

  13. 13 Eric Nielson October 6, 2010 at 11:39 am

    Thanks Matt. And as others have said above, He can inform us about what good and evil are which allows us to make more meaningful choices (rather than acting randomly or always guessing).

  14. 14 michelle October 6, 2010 at 1:39 pm

    shematwater,

    Good point, which only underscores the wondrous mercy of God.

    And how much work there is to do on both sides of the veil. ;)

  15. 15 shematwater October 7, 2010 at 2:58 pm

    I just had another thought.

    All men are born with agency, as all men have a basic knowledge of Good and Evil. This is what is commonly called the Light of Christ that is given to all men.

    Thus, even a man who never hears the Gospel or learns the true laws of God can still be judged based on his works in this life. If we did not have this Light of Christ than those who died in ignorance to the Law could be justly excused in the same manner that young children are Saved through the Atonement.

  16. 16 Chad October 14, 2010 at 2:12 pm

    You can find quotes categorized by topic (including Agency) of the October 2010 conference at http://conference.zzl.org

    There is also a list of speakers, word occurrences, photos, scriptures referenced and games.

    It’s a great site for talks, lessons and personal study.


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