Mormons tend to have a very robust, though unsophisticated, belief in free will. Most will refer to this free will as free agency. This term agency seems to add an element of accountability to God for the choices that are made, while maintaining the freedom of the will.
There has been something of a subtle movement within the church to change the phrase ‘free agency’ to ‘moral agency’. A few of the local members in my home ward are quite fond of pointing this out every time anyone mentions free agency in a lesson discussion. They feel the need to correct some error on the part of the individual who uses the more common term free agency. These good folks will point out that the phrase ‘free agency’ is not a scriptural phrase (although they never mention that the phrase ‘moral agency’ isn’t scriptural either). – [Update: D&C 101:78 does use ‘moral agency’. I was wrong.]
But these few local members are not the only one’s getting into the act. A search on the phrase ‘moral agency’ at lds.org will bring up several recent conference talks. It does appear that some church leaders are beginning to prefer the term ‘moral’ to ‘free’ when describing our agency. Why should this be, and what is at stake?
There is a long history of philosophical and religious debate regarding free will. There is a pretty good wikipedia entry that seems to be a good introduction to the basics of this debate. I think it would do us well to be somewhat familiar with this history without getting bogged down by it. This will help us know what is at stake when considering the terms ‘free’ and ‘moral’ with regards to agency.
It is my opinion that the term ‘free’ will push us toward being in the same camp with those who believe in Libertarian Free Will. These people will reject determinism altogether, and maintain that our futures will have some aspects that are truly open, and that all the philosophers, scientists, and even God himself, will not be able to perfectly predict or perfectly know every detail of our eternal future.
It seems that the term ‘moral’ would eventually push us toward the camp of the compatibilists. These people may accept determinism, yet maintain accountability for individual behavior since there is a lack of coercion on the part of God. Thus even if we are not free in the libertarian sense, we can still be held accountable.
Those who forward the phrase ‘moral agency’ will justify this by expressing the need to emphasize the accountability aspect of our agency. Personally, I do not feel that this emphasis is necessary within Mormonism. Mormonism takes a strong stand on personal choice, behavior, and keeping the commandments. The concept of the degrees of glory also force something of a merit judged level of salvation.
Additionally, I think the term ‘moral’ could place us on the wrong side of the debate over free will. Emphasizing accountability at the expense of emphasizing the freedom of the will could give ourselves and others the impression that we are compatibilists rather that libertarian free willers.
I feel that the term ‘moral agency’ brings with it an unnecessary emphasis on accountability and an unfortunate implication that we are compatibilists. For these reasons I prefer the term ‘free agency’ to ‘moral agency’.