A Look at Moral Agency

Charles Swift

Associate Professor of Ancient Scripture, BYU

When I begin the discussion in my Book of Mormon classes about agency as found in 2 Nephi 2, I often begin by setting up a scenario. I go into more detail in class, but basically I ask the students to imagine someone being locked in a box, unable to move. I then take a vote, telling them they can vote for one of three propositions: (1) the person has no agency, (2) the person has limited agency, or (3) the person has complete agency.

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Many of my students will vote that the person in the hypothetical situation has no agency, but the majority vote that the person has limited agency. Only a few will vote that the person has complete agency. We always have an interesting class discussion after the vote, exploring the ramifications and real-world implications of each option. If someone can take away our agency, for example, does that mean the plan of salvation will be thwarted for us? Isn’t agency necessary?

After this introductory discussion, I put two definitions on the board. First, agency is the ability to make moral choices—choices between good and evil. Second, freedom is the ability to act on our choices. The person in the box has very limited freedom, but he or she still has agency. The person in the box cannot act by standing up or eating lunch or leaving the box; his or her freedom is severely limited. But the person can still choose between good and evil: to love the captors or to hate them; to humbly seek God’s help or to rebelliously curse God for the current circumstances.

As Elder Oaks explained:

First, because free agency is a God-given precondition to the purpose of mortal life, no person or organization can take away our free agency in mortality.

Second, what can be taken away or reduced by the conditions of mortality is our freedom, the power to act upon our choices. Free agency is absolute, but in the circumstances of mortality freedom is always qualified.

Freedom may be qualified or taken away (1) by physical laws, including the physical limitations with which we are born, (2) by our own action, and (3) by the action of others, including governments. . . .

A loss of freedom reduces the extent to which we can act upon our choices, but it does not deprive us of our God-given free agency.
(Dallin H. Oaks, “Free Agency and Freedom,” fireside address at BYU, October 11, 1987)

Elder Oaks used the term “free agency” because that was the phrase commonly used at the time. Now, we often use the term “moral agency” to emphasize that we are talking about making moral choices: choices between good and evil.

There are many choices I cannot make in this life for one reason or another. I cannot choose
to fly, for example, nor can I choose to be a professional basketball player. But these choices are not moral choices. Not being able to make these choices does not limit my agency. Even though some of my choices are limited, and even though there are choices I cannot act on because of limits to my freedom, I still have my moral agency.

I can exercise my moral agency and make the most important choices that have to do with either following Heavenly Father or not following him. As Nephi explained, people can “choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or . . . choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil” (2 Nephi 2:27).