Quit Telling I Shouldn’t Call It “Free Agency”

Rusty - March 18, 2007

Yes, I know free agency isn’t free, that it was paid for with Christ’s blood, thank you for the reminder. But guess what, the “free” in free agency isn’t the “100% discount” variety of free, rather it’s of the “freedom” variety. You know, like, you are free to raise your hand in Gospel Doctrine and tell everyone to not call it “free agency” and I’m free to write a blog post making fun of you.

47 Comments »

  1. Amen bro.

    Comment by Jacob J — March 18, 2007 @ 10:37 pm

  2. Sheesh! Someone bite your pride at church today?>:)

    I always thought “free agency” just sounded redundant and repetitive. “Agency” means freedom doesn’t it? Choice means having options and the freedom to decide which to choose.

    However, it still isn’t as bad as “Pre-existence.” That one drives me nuts!

    Comment by Bret — March 19, 2007 @ 12:16 am

  3. I have always thought, though, that part of the concern was about avoiding a mentality along the lines of “I can do whatever I want, so you can’t tell me what to do.” Agency is given us to see if we will do what God commands. If we do, we are free. If not, there is a price.

    Incidentally, though, several prophets/apostles have used this label, so you are in good company, methinks. :)

    Comment by m&m — March 19, 2007 @ 12:48 am

  4. I’m with Bret. I dislike the term because it’s nonsense. If agency = free will, then what the heck is “free agency”? Free free will? What is that?

    Notice that the term “free agency” isn’t one that exists outside of Mormonism. I think one of the early GA’s got their words mixed up one day and accidentally said “free agency” when they meant to say either “free will” or “agency” and then it just caught on from there.

    Comment by Eric Russell — March 19, 2007 @ 3:04 am

  5. Rusty, Bret and Eric are right, it is an exercise in redundancy. Do you go around saying free liberty? Why not?

    Comment by Mark IV — March 19, 2007 @ 4:36 am

  6. You were just born too late Rusty.

    Back in the days of President McKay, before anyone figured out that “free agency” was redundant, you’d have been in the vast majority–and nobody would have bothered you about it. I mean, if President McKay, who got his college degree in English, could say “free agency,” who’s gonna complain about Rusty saying it in Sunday school.

    Comment by Mark B. — March 19, 2007 @ 4:43 am

  7. HA! To be clear, nobody said this in Sunday School yesterday (nor in recent memory), so this isn’t a response to a specific incident, rather it’s a response to what I’ve heard many times over the years.

    Yeah, I know it’s redundant. I know it’s redundant.

    Comment by Rusty — March 19, 2007 @ 5:04 am

  8. An early LDS General Authority doesn’t deserve the blame (or credit) for the term. Examples of its use prior to 1830:

    Free Agency

    Comment by Justin — March 19, 2007 @ 7:04 am

  9. An early LDS General Authority doesn’t deserve the blame (or the credit) for the term. A Google book search of books published between 1700 and 1830 turns up hundreds of uses.

    Comment by Justin — March 19, 2007 @ 7:07 am

  10. Notice that the term “free agency” isn’t one that exists outside of Mormonism.

    It most certainly exists outside of Mormonism, and I think its usage in those contexts is instructive.

    Last October, Alfonso Soriano became a free agent. Then he signed a contract with the Cubs, and is no longer a free agent. He still has his free will–he can refuse to play for the Cubs, or he can choose to play poorly. But because he is not a free agent, he cannot (alas) play for the Nationals, free will notwithstanding.

    For most of the month of April 1965, I was a free agent. then I got baptized into the LDS Church and was no longer a free agent. I still had my free will–I can go inactive, and unlike Soriano, I can even play for another team. But there are consequences of my doing so that would not have applied had I not surrendered my free agency.

    So I don’t think the term “free agency” is redundant, and I think it is entirely appropriate for the brethren to point out that we who have entered into covenants should not apply the term to ourselves.

    Comment by Last_lemming — March 19, 2007 @ 7:21 am

  11. Haven’t you seen that awesome seminary video of the kid whose twin comes to explain agency? It’s pretty funny, but they draw a chart where Agency leads to 2 ends: Freedom or Captivity, depending on which choices you make.
    It’s a good way of explaining it to seminary kids and the whole thing taken together is actually pretty powerful.
    Anyway, that’s why I don’t call it free agency. In that sense it could also be called “captivitiy agency”
    but, whatever floats your boat!

    Comment by jessawhy — March 19, 2007 @ 7:55 am

  12. So I don’t think the term “free agency” is redundant, and I think it is entirely appropriate for the brethren to point out that we who have entered into covenants should not apply the term to ourselves.

    Love the baseball analogy lemming, but I’ve never heard the brethren or anyone say it doesn’t apply to baptized members. Have you?

    Comment by cj douglass — March 19, 2007 @ 8:18 am

  13. I’ve never heard the brethren or anyone say it doesn’t apply to baptized members. Have you?

    Not in so many words, but pretty darn close. For the most part, this seems to be an uphill battle of Boyd K. Packer’s, that he is just recently beginning to win. The key quote is as follows:

    We are free to obey or to ignore the spirit and the letter of the law. But the agency granted to man is a moral agency. (See D&C 101:78.) We are not free to break our covenants and escape the consequences.

    Boyd K. Packer, “Covenants,” Ensign, Nov 1990, 84

    Variations of that quote have been popping up in Packer talks and lesson manuals ever since, and several of the brethren seem to be consciously adopting his language. Whether they are implicitly adopting his logic is perhaps debatable–they only explicitly grant that the term “free agency” is not scriptural.

    An earlier reference that tracks closely to my analogy is the following:

    Let me interject an interesting little sidelight. As we read that last scripture concerning the oath and covenant that cannot be broken and neither can it be moved, one of the lads said, “Hey, where is my free agency in all of this?” A boy who had just been ordained a priest then spoke up: “We exercised our free agency in the premortal existence; people agree to baptism before they are baptized; we choose to renew the baptismal covenant each week during the sacrament service; we agreed to the conditions of the priesthood during the bishop’s interview. No,” he concluded, “I don’t think our free agency has been violated.”

    He was right. There has not been a violation of our free agency.

    Robert L. Simpson, “No Shortcuts,” Ensign, May 1987, 40

    Comment by Last_lemming — March 19, 2007 @ 9:26 am

  14. I think that the obvious reason why free agency isn’t free is that each time you exercize it, you pay. Eat too much fried chicken, you get heart-burn, or fat, or greasy fingers or. . .Lie, and you are very likely to lose a friend, etc. Agency gives you the right and opportunity to make a choice, but it doesn’t obviate the results (good or bad) of the choice. Ultimately every choice has a payment. But agency gives you the opportunity to at least evaluate the reward/payment ratio. (Whether you tell yourself it is free or not).

    Comment by R. Johnson — March 19, 2007 @ 9:43 am

  15. It’s irresponsible to use a term in the gospel that isn’t a gospel term. The term ‘free agency’ isn’t scriptural. It predisposes the listener to think about the term ‘agency’ in a certain way, and then eventually everyone uses the incorrect term. I can think of other terms, like ‘keep the commandments’ which are almost never found in scripture. Look it up, it’s almost always ‘keep his/my commandments’ or ‘keep the commandments of God/the Lord’.

    Comment by Garth — March 19, 2007 @ 10:20 am

  16. I don’t know that I fully agree that our agency was paid for. We had our agency in the pre-mortal existence. We probably used it prior to the grand council. We definetely used it at the grand council.

    With our choice to follow Heavenly Father’s plan, and His choice to allow Christ to be our Savior, our agency was extended into this existence.

    So the agency on this earthlife that we presently have was paid for, but the agency prior was not…or at least not in the normal way we think about it.

    So I guess that means earthlife’s agency isn’t free agency, but pre-mortal life’s agency is free agency.

    Comment by Don Clifton — March 19, 2007 @ 10:35 am

  17. As Justin observes, the term “free agency” has a long healthy history in the theological arena. It is most certainly not an LDS-ism.

    Also, the term “free agency” is not redundant. As the post observes, the “free” in “free agency” is not about whether choices have consequences. If you know anything about compatibilism vs. incompatibilism in the free will debate, you will know that not everyone who believes in agency thinks that it is genuinely free.

    Comment by Jacob J — March 19, 2007 @ 10:38 am

  18. Didn’t read any of the comments, but this was my reaction to this post:

    HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!! ROFL! Thanks for the laugh. :)

    Comment by Cheryl — March 19, 2007 @ 10:39 am

  19. Garth,

    It’s irresponsible to use a term in the gospel that isn’t a gospel term.

    So you are saying it is irresponsible to use such terms as “pre-existence,” “pre-mortal existence,” “fast offering,” and “sexual intercourse” in a gospel context because none of those terms appears in the standard works?

    Comment by Jacob J — March 19, 2007 @ 10:44 am

  20. No, I’m saying it’s irresponsible to alter a term that has a scriptural precedent (which agency does). Of course not all gospel terms are found in the standard works. You have to include the writings of the modern prophets. If you can show me where the modern prophets, the scriptures, or other authoritative sources use ‘free agency’ then I stand corrected. I only get uppity about agency because it’s a gospel term used in the scriptures like faith or charity. If you’ll recall, the GAs became very concerned that we say ‘faith in the Lord Jesus Christ’ so as to understand that faith isn’t something that you can have separate from the gospel. It would be fine if the ‘free’ prior to agency was merely an adjective, but it has become part of the entire term in many people’s minds, and leads to needless debates like we’re having right now. It’s cruft that has been added on and it leads to confusion. There is no confusion about any of the terms you specified. No one will argue what a fast offering is/isn’t. But ‘free’ agency is often debated. But you’re starting an argument on a false premise–there is no such thing as ‘free’ agency. It doesn’t even matter what the ‘free’ means, it’s just simply never referred to as such. And ‘free’ is already a loaded word.

    Now, if you want to have a discussion about what agency is, I’m in.

    Comment by Garth — March 19, 2007 @ 11:34 am

  21. How about the term “final judgement”, that has always got me going. There is no such thing as a “final judgement”. The scriptures never even state it. They state that there will be a great judgement at the “last day”, but we know that the last day is just the point when we become resurrected and immortsal.

    Agency is a very strange word indeed. It is most closely related to moral judgment and movement within that principle. For instance- We use our agency to make choices, if we make good moral choices we retain or agency wheras if we make bad moral choices we surrender our agency- we lose it! Does a body in Satans power have agency? No he cannot because he surrendered his right to “freely” walk in righteousness. Now he is held “captive” in the devils chains. Captivity is the opposite of agency and when a person follows satans plan his agency is surrendered according to justice. “Free agency” can be seen as freedom to the access to act according to free will, so yes, being a “free agent” or Free agency is not really redundant because in all reality the agency we give up when we do bad is no longer in our freedom to access it.

    Though I do agree that agency alone is the correct term to describe the state of the righteous who are free to move about and do as they please according to righteous and just principles.

    Comment by Rob Osborn — March 19, 2007 @ 12:01 pm

  22. For me, the “free” in “free agency” is the same as the “free” in “free will.” It means that I can freely choose the actions that I take. I don’t get to choose the consequences of my actions, but I can try to choose actions that will bring good consequences. Although the most important choice is whether to be on God’s team or Satan’s team, this isn’t a one-time choice, and it isn’t the only choice along the way. Free agency, as I understand it, is a central component of moral agency. In deciding whether to eat shredded wheat or to eat toasted oats, I am using the same free agency that allows me to see a link to a salacious web page and avoid clicking it. I can strengthen my moral agency by practicing the use of free agency in situations where the moral impact of my choices is small, by recognizing that choosing the right allows ample freedom to choose between different good alternatives, and by avoiding choices that will reduce my agency.

    Because the dominant use of “free agency” nowadays is in sports, where the choice is only about which team to join, it may be a good time to think about using a different term, but if the motivation for leaving out the “free” in “free agency” is a distrust of freedom, we ought to think twice about making the change.

    Comment by Steve S — March 19, 2007 @ 12:11 pm

  23. If you can show me where the modern prophets, the scriptures, or other authoritative sources use ‘free agency’ then I stand corrected.

    In researching the quotes listed in #12 above, I found that modern prophets have used the term “free agency” many many times. Since Packer began his campaign in 1990, however, it’s usage has dropped off significantly. In the past, the term was used both when “free will” would have been more appropriate and when what Packer would label “moral agency” was intended. That kind of imprecision fostered a great deal of misunderstanding–a lot of members equate moral agency with free will as a result. A more precise vocabulary should be applauded.

    Comment by Last_lemming — March 19, 2007 @ 12:12 pm

  24. Garth,

    In general church usage, there is no confusion about what is meant by “free agency.” If I say it in Sunday School, there is no more confusion than when I say “fast offering.” The places where free agency are debated are precisely the places where clarifying terminology (additional to scriptural terms) have the potential to be helpful. “Offering” is a term with a scriptural precedent just as “agency” is. By adding the word “fast” are we subverting the scriptural language? I think not. As far as modern prophets go, you can find the term “free agency” all over the place in the writings of modern prophets, just not so much in the last few years since some people took up the cause of getting rid of the term.

    But you’re starting an argument on a false premise–there is no such thing as ‘free’ agency. It doesn’t even matter what the ‘free’ means, it’s just simply never referred to as such.

    That is just the point. It most certainly is referred to as such–just not in the standard works. It is a term that has been used in theological discourse for centuries. There is such a thing as free agency, and if you are trying to communicate in an arena where that term is used, it most certainly does matter what the “free” means. You don’t get to wipe the term out of existence by fiat just because you have come up with some arbitrary rule about what can and cannot be used in addition to scriptural terminology.

    As a native of NCT, I am always up for a discussion of what agency is, but that would be a threadjack here.

    Comment by Jacob J — March 19, 2007 @ 12:13 pm

  25. Agent: one who, by mutual consent, acts for the benefit of another; one authorized by a party to act in that party’s behalf.

    Agency: relation in which one person, the agent, acts on behalf of another with the authority of the latter (the principal); a fiduciary relation which results from the manifestation of consent by one person that another shall act on the former’s behalf and subject to his control, and consent by the other so to act. The acts of an agent will be binding on his principal.

    Barron’s Law Dictionary

    Comment by Seth R. — March 19, 2007 @ 3:31 pm

  26. Another Amen here, too. Yet another LDS pet peeve of mine. One of those things people say to seem smart.

    Comment by Kim Siever — March 19, 2007 @ 4:53 pm

  27. I am wondering where the idea that the word agency means free will is coming from. None of these dictionaries agree. I didn’t find the term free will anywhere on that page. So if we mean free will I think calling it free will is a good idea. But if we aren’t willing to buck tradition in church I like the idea of sticking at least with the term free agency — it is at least closer to free will than just plain old agency.

    Comment by Geoff J — March 19, 2007 @ 5:12 pm

  28. Check this out. Over at wikipedia there is an entry for “Agency (Mormonism)”. Apparently this new use of the term agency to usually mean free will (though sometimes mean moral agency) is a uniquely Mormon form of sloppiness with language.

    Comment by Geoff J — March 19, 2007 @ 5:16 pm

  29. Geoff,

    Look at the seventh bullet on the wiki link and you will see they have an entry for “Human Agency” which is the vanilla meaning of agency in this context. Using “agency” to mean free will is not unique to Mormonism.

    Comment by Jacob J — March 19, 2007 @ 5:39 pm

  30. Oh, and also, I see some of the dictionary definitions that seem to map just fine to our usage, for example from the WordNet definition on the page you linked to:

    3. the state of being in action or exerting power; “the agency of providence”; “she has free agency”

    Comment by Jacob J — March 19, 2007 @ 5:43 pm

  31. Yeah I saw those Jacob. My point was that this oft-made claim that agency=free-will and therefore the term “free agency” is like saying “free free will” is unfounded. The dictionary definition you found actually uses the term free agency and the wiki on human agency makes the term less than the libertarian form of free agency that is most common in Mormonism.

    Comment by Geoff J — March 19, 2007 @ 6:20 pm

  32. The following Google search yields a respectably large estimated total of 14,000 mostly-non-LDS results.

    “free agency” determinism

    If “free will” is substituted, the estimated total (676,000) is much larger. The difference in the number of search results shows that “free agency” is less common than “free will,” but it doesn’t imply that “free agency” is wrong. Free agency, in Calvinistic thought, entails less freedom than free will: as fallen humans, we have free agency, the ability to act according to our desires, but we lack free will, the ability to choose righteous desires, unless God has elected to save us. A distinction between actions, on the one hand, and desires or thoughts, on the other hand, also exists in Mormonism, but the power to progress in choosing righteous desires and actions is thought to be available to all accountable humans, even in our fallen state, provided that we are willing to accept the grace that comes through the atonement of Christ.

    Comment by Steve S — March 19, 2007 @ 6:59 pm

  33. Rusty, wanna use your free agency and change the title of your post so that it makes sense? Sorry, been bugging all day.

    Comment by Susan M — March 19, 2007 @ 7:53 pm

  34. Rusty’s title only bugged me the first time I saw it Susan.

    I’ve since moved on. I’m sure if you try, you too can achieve some closure on this.

    Comment by Seth R. — March 19, 2007 @ 8:17 pm

  35. Geoff,

    Okay, I agree, you make a good point.

    Comment by Jacob J — March 19, 2007 @ 8:29 pm

  36. I don’t think that you can credit Elder Packer for starting the trend. I remember my father talking about this issue before Elder Packer was in the 12, and he wasn’t the only one.

    And, any implication that the making of covenants somehow restricts our agency is nonsense, and should be destroyed, root and branch. If our agency is restricted by following the Lord, why did he say that the truth would make us free?

    When I was in the Language Training Mission in Laie, a man came and spoke at our afternoon devotional. He was a former mission president. He was talking about agency, and asked whether we had greater agency as missionaries than we had had a few weeks earlier. I raised my hand and said that we had greater agency–he disagreed, and talked about all the restrictions placed on missionaries’ behavior. I didn’t bother trying to explain to him, figuring that if he didn’t get it before he came to that meeting, he wouldn’t understand because a brash 19-year-old missionary told him.

    What he didn’t seem to understand (and what anyone who says that our agency is somehow limited as we enter into more covenants with the Lord) is that the downside is always there–we can always choose to take that downward path (and, the lowest spot on that path is reserved for those who have reached the highest)–but the upside expands as we enter into and keep covenants, and the better we obey, the greater that upside.

    Comment by Mark B. — March 20, 2007 @ 7:04 am

  37. Mark B.,

    Your comment sort of demonstrates the problem. You haven’t defined what exactly you mean when you use the word agency. Are you defining it as libertarian free will? As moral agency? As the weaker “human agency” as pointed out in that wiki? As some combination of things? What does the word mean to you?

    The thing I like about the term free agency is that I believe it is almost always used as a synonym with free will (in the libertarian sense no less). Using the term agency can mean LFW but not all the time so it is a pretty nebulous word I think.

    Comment by Geoff J — March 20, 2007 @ 9:13 am

  38. You mean I have to define my terms? Who are you, anyway? Socrates? :-) I’m too tired and too busy. Maybe when I get back from Japan.

    Comment by Mark B. — March 20, 2007 @ 8:58 pm

  39. Why is everything always Elder Packer’s fault?

    Why can’t it be L. Tom Perry’s fault once in a while?

    Comment by Seth R. — March 20, 2007 @ 8:59 pm

  40. If you can show me where the modern prophets, the scriptures, or other authoritative sources use ‘free agency’ then I stand corrected.

    I actually agree with not calling agency “free agency” but in response to the above (all clearly earlier on…not later than the 70s):

    Teachings of Presidents of the Church: David O. McKay: “Free agency is the impelling source of the soul’s progress. Free agency is a gift of God.”

    Thomas S. Monson, “The 3 R’s of Free Agency,” New Era, Apr 1973, 4
    Right, Responsibility, Results
    I would like to discuss with you the three R’s of free agency: the right of choice, the responsibility of choice, and the results of choice.

    It was also used by John Taylor, Joseph F. Smith, and Spencer W. Kimball, and I didn’t finish looking through the search. Suffice it to say that the term has been used. Obviously, that concept is being clarified by our current leaders, and that should mean more to us than anything from the past.

    And this isn’t authoritative as in from a church authority, but I thought it was funny considering this discussion…an article by Daniel Ludlow about “Moral Free Agency.” :) (Daniel H. Ludlow, “Moral Free Agency,” New Era, Nov 1976, 44)

    Comment by m&m — March 20, 2007 @ 9:26 pm

  41. Why can’t it be L. Tom Perry’s fault once in a while?

    Well if it helps, I blame the surging popularity of talking like a pirate on Elder Perry…

    Comment by Geoff J — March 21, 2007 @ 8:11 am

  42. Geoff J.: Good one.

    But I still think you are wrong. “Agency” as a word in the context of our doctrine covers just as much ground as “Free Agency”. Therefore, saying free agency is dumb. Or I guess I should say dumb dumbness.

    Comment by Mark IV — March 21, 2007 @ 8:51 am

  43. “Agency” as a word in the context of our doctrine covers just as much ground as “Free Agency”.

    You are probably right about that. The real problem is that neither term is very well defined. I would prefer using the words we really mean like free will or moral agency. (Or if we wanted to get technical even libertarian free will, which is what we really mean 98% of the time.) To me, “agency” is far too nebulous and imprecise and “free agency” is only slightly less so.

    Comment by Geoff J — March 21, 2007 @ 9:26 am

  44. I like “free agency.” FWIW, the earliest use of “free agency” the OED listed was from 1754. The OED’s examples:

    1754 FIELDING Voy. Lisbon (1755) 129, I would rob him of nothing but that *free-agency which is the cause of all the corruption..of human nature. 1786 BURKE W. Hastings Wks. 1842 II. 205 The restoration of the Mogul..to his free-agency in the conduct of his affairs. 1860 PUSEY Min. Proph. 324 He so wills to be freely loved..that He does not force our free-agency.

    Its definition of agency, “1. The faculty of an agent or of acting; active working or operation; action, activity,” doesn’t implicate freedom at all and, in its examples under agency, mentions agency, moral agency, and free agency:

    1658 SIR H. SLINGSBY Diary (1836) 208 Privacy..if your Hours in it are not well employed, may become as dangerous as a place of agency. 1762 EDWARDS Freed. Will I. v. (R.) The moral agency of the Supreme Being..differs in that respect from the moral agency of created intelligent beings. 1830 COLERIDGE Ch. & St. 140 The State shall leave the largest portion of personal free agency to each of its citizens, that is compatible with the free agency of all.

    So, as best I can tell, anyone who uses “free agency” is in good, and old, company.

    Comment by Sam B — March 21, 2007 @ 9:51 am

  45. “Agency” as a word in the context of our doctrine covers just as much ground as “Free Agency”. Therefore, saying free agency is dumb.

    I draw the opposite conclusion. If “free agency” and “agency” cover the same ground in our discourse, than spending a lot of effort berating people and trying to get them to use a different term is the thing that is dumb. Add to this that the term is alive and well in the larger theological and philosophical discourse (i.e. larger than our small church), and it becomes more dumb. Add to that the fact that the people telling me not to say “free agency” are under the ridiculous assumption that “free” before agency means something about whether choices have consequences, and I start to get annoyed. If the terms have the same meaning, then why can’t we just chill out. Aren’t there actual problems we could spend our effort on?

    Comment by Jacob J — March 21, 2007 @ 12:55 pm

  46. The thing that bugs me about the whole “free agency isn’t free because jesus paid for it” bit, is that if that is the facts, then free agency is free because I DIDN’T PAY FOR IT. I mean, the grocery store pays for it’s free samples that it gives out of it’s branded products. I’m not gonna tell people to stop calling them free samples because the store is paying for them, so they should really just be called samples.

    Comment by Matt W. — March 21, 2007 @ 1:18 pm

  47. Agency exists whether Jesus paid for it or not.

    What Jesus “paid for” was a way out of an impossible situation caused by our “free agency.” But he didn’t pay for our agency in the first place.

    Comment by Seth R. — March 21, 2007 @ 5:58 pm

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