Is agency the same thing as moral autonomy?

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Many people think of agency as a mostly just a matter of moral autonomy; that is, because the individual self is sovereign only we can decide what is right or wrong for us. In this view, true agency means being able to decide and freely enact our own preferences. An alternative view is that human agency involves choosing between rebellion against God or being mastered by a divine, loving sovereign above ourselves. Asserting our agency is, on this alternative view, less about personal independence and more about submission to God.

The Hidden Worldview:  Agency as Moral Autonomy

True agency represents the capacity to decide for ourselves what is right or wrong, and to enact our own preferences over and against those of outside authority.

Agency has often been thought of as a form of moral autonomy, meaning that we exercise agency when we make choices that reflect our interests and priorities instead of the interests and priorities of others. From this view, agency is the ability to choose for ourselves, without any undue influence from others, what is right or wrong for us. The term “autonomy” literally means “self-law” (auto = self, and nomia = law) or being a “law unto oneself.” It implies that we are answerable only to ourselves for our actions and moral choices.

For example, from this view, anything that purports to tell me what I should treat as right or wrong — rather than letting me freely decide for myself — actually is a threat to my agency. This includes any obligations or duties from beyond myself that I did not freely choose to take upon myself, or from which I cannot freely withdraw. The only duties or moral codes that should afflict my conscience, in this view, are those that I have chosen and defined for myself.  As the philosopher Robert Paul Wolff wrote: “Since the responsible man arrives at moral decisions which he expresses to himself in the form of imperatives, we may say that he gives laws to himself, or is self-legislating. In short, he is autonomous. . . . moral autonomy is a submission to laws which one has made for oneself.”((Wolff, R. P. (1970).  In Defense of Anarchism.  New York, NY:  Harper and Row, pp. 13-14.))

In this view, agency means we have the ability to decide for ourselves, without undue influence from others, what we will think is important and what we will value.  In this perspective, then, the only person to whom we are in any way answerable for our choices is ourselves. For example, consider this comment from an online social media forum:

I keep seeing posts on this site questioning about what we, as Latter Day Saints, are ‘Allowed’ or ‘Not Allowed’ to do, as members of the Church. No-where and, at no time, will Latter Day Saints be ‘TOLD’ what to do, by any leader of the Church. We will be ‘encouraged’ or ‘invited’ to do, or not do something but, at the end of the day, we will never have our vital AGENCY taken away from us.((Anonymous comment from a Facebook discussion.))

In this comment, we see this subtle assumption in action:  if Church leaders were to tell us what is right (or do anything more than gently invite us), it would somehow be a threat to our agency. From this view, when we feel social and familial pressure to serve a mission, marry, serve in a calling, or live chastely, we might feel that our agency is being constrained or infringed. Because a template for our lives has been chosen by others or forced on us by our culture, we feel that our own preferences and freely chosen priorities are disregarded. In this view, to be fully moral agents, we must choose what we value in a wholly rational and autonomous way, rather than allowing our culture, family, or church to dictate our values.

This view of agency as moral autonomy dovetails with expressive individualism (where personal authenticity is king) and self-efficacy (where our confidence is grounded in a belief that we control the outcomes of our endeavors). Agency is an assertion of independence of mind and spirit.  The poem Invictus by William Earnest Henley helpfully illustrates the theme of this view:

Out of the night that covers me
Black as the Pit from pole to pole
I thank whatever Gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the Shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how straight the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.((William Earnest Henley. “Invictus.”))

In this poem, the narrator declares that his soul is “unconquerable.” No one shall rule him but himself. He is independent. And although things might happen to him without his consent — the “bludgeonings of chance” — he will not give up that independence of soul:  his head will remain unbowed. Yes, he might be thwarted at times, but he will never willingly submit to forces or powers beyond himself. This way of thinking about agency is one that places the self at the forefront of the issue, declaring the self as the master of its own fate and direction.

Further, it doesn’t matter what society accuses him of, he is the master of his fate, and he is the captain of his soul. Nobody is going to decide for him what he should value, or how he should live. A central theme of this view of agency is that the moral agent is pitted against the “powers that be,” and that he will lay hold upon salvation with challenge in his heart. The moral agent, in this view, adopts the stance of a rebel, asserting his preferences and priorities over those of God, church, family, or society.

The Alternative: Agency as Submission to God

Moral agency involves being subject to a moral authority higher than ourselves, and is most fully expressed in total submission to God and his will for us.

From a gospel point of view, agency is not about asserting personal independence or elevating our will over that of another. In framing it this way, we can set our hearts against God when He asks us to give up our preferences in order to prioritize His. When we equate agency with moral autonomy, we can imply that cultural, family, and institutional norms that lay out what our priorities should be — such as serving a mission, caring for aging parents, getting married, maintaining activity in the church, or any other moral duty — jeopardize our agency or restrict our freedom. Further, it can inadvertently lead to a form of moral relativism. If agency means that we decide for ourselves what is important and what is right (or wrong), in very real sense we are setting up ourselves as the arbiter of right and wrong in our moral universe.

Simply put, the scriptures teach that agency means choosing between right and wrong, not choosing what is right or wrong. It is the ability to choose between the voice of God and the voice of the adversary. Elder D. Todd Christofferson wrote:  “The word agency appears [in scriptures] either by itself or with the modifier moral… When we use the term moral agency, we are appropriately emphasizing the accountability that is an essential part of the divine gift of agency. We are moral beings and agents unto ourselves, free to choose but also responsible for our choices.”((Elder D. Todd Christofferson, “Moral Agency,” Ensign, June 2009.”))  It is one thing to be a “law unto ourselves” (autonomy) and something very different to be “agents unto ourselves” (moral agency).

If we understand moral agency as the capacity for moral accountability, then moral autonomy cannot be our goal, and the self and its desires or preferences cannot be the ultimate arbiter of right or wrong in our lives. Furthermore, we cannot be held eternally accountable for moral systems if we have fabricated them for ourselves. Granting this view of agency and accountability is simply to endorse the doctrine proclaimed by the ancient Greek philosopher Protagoras when he said that “man is the measure of all things.” This is perhaps what Isaiah warned about, when he wrote:  “Behold, all ye that kindle a fire, that compass yourselves about with sparks: walk in the light of your fire, and in the sparks that ye have kindled. This shall ye have of mine hand; ye shall lie down in sorrow” (Isaiah 50:11).

Agency is not, therefore, the ability to bend the moral universe however we please, nor does it mean that we are the creators of our own little moral universes. Agency, in this alternative view, requires a law that originates outside of ourselves. Agency is not enabled by self-law, but by God’s law. This means that we must rely on sources beyond the self in learning that law, such as prayer, listening to the Holy Spirit, studying God’s word and listening to His servants, and even adhering to traditions (when those traditions are informed by revelation). Institutions such as family and church can help educate our intuitions about right and wrong, and scaffold our efforts to follow what is right. When Church leaders give us instructions, it might in fact increase our moral agency, not only by giving us more choices of moral significance but also provide a moral depth and structure within which to make better, more fruitful choices.

Agency, on the view we are articulating here, is the ability to choose who shall be our master — Christ or the Adversary. To make the self our master is really just to choose the Adversary as our master and to reject Christ. When God speaks to us, it gives us occasion to show our loyalty to Him. Every day, every hour, we are invited by Spirit, and by the mundane circumstances of life, to treat others with consideration and respect, to advance the will of God and to serve His kingdom. Conversely, we are enticed by the adversary, and by mundane circumstances of life, to set our hearts at war with others, to assert our will over God’s, and to hedge up God’s kingdom. Moral agency is the capacity to choose between these competing voices. It is a choice between moral summons that come from outside of ourselves.

We answer to a divine being who makes demands of us, and we live in a web of cultural and familial institutions with norms and expectations that are, at times, informed by divine insight. Our task as moral agents is not to assert moral autonomy from culture, religion, or family, but to learn to recognize and follow the voice of God among those various and competing voices. As we become converted to the belief that God founded our religious community, for example, we might adopt as our own many of the priorities, traditions, and values of that community. Doing so does not make us any less a moral agent, merely because we are no longer asserting our independence from that community. Rather, it allows a flourishing and deepening of our moral agency by providing a meaningful context within which to understand ourselves, others, and our possibilities, constraints, and obligations.

In short, our task in life is to surrender our will to God’s, and to seek out His will. We must be willing to relinquish the helm to our Lord and Master, and let Him guide our ship where He pleases.  Elder Orson F. Whitney famously penned a poem in response to Henley’s Invictus:

Art thou in truth? Then what of him
Who bought thee with his blood?
Who plunged into devouring seas
And snatched thee from the flood?

Who bore for all our fallen race
What none but him could bear. –
The God who died that man might live,
And endless glory share?

Of what avail thy vaunted strength,
Apart from his vast might?
Pray that his Light may pierce the gloom,
That thou mayest see aright.

Men are as bubbles on the wave,
As leaves upon the tree.
Thou, captain of thy soul, forsooth
Who gave that place to thee?

Free will is thine — free agency
To wield for right or wrong;
But thou must answer unto him
To whom all souls belong.

Bend to the dust that head “unbowed,”
Small part of Life’s great whole!
And see in him, and him alone,
The Captain of thy soul.

In these verses, Elder Whitney proposes that agency is about learning to willfully submit to God, rather than asserting moral autonomy over and against divine law. Christ wrote, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.  For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: but whosoever will lose his life for my sake, the same shall save it” (Luke 9:23-24). Seen in this way, then, moral agency is not a matter of moral autonomy or “being the master of one’s own soul,” rather it is a matter of choosing a master for our soul.

One comment

  1. This seems like a very muddy description of agency. If the idea is to effectively set up moral relativism against moral objectivism, then I have to agree with that description.

    If that is the objective, however, there are a number of ways the author undercuts that understanding.

    A) Moral “autonomy”: Normally, when I used the word “autonomy”, or hear it used, the idea is that some entity gets to make decisions for itself. I can see that the connection with the idea of being a “law unto oneself” makes the word attractive but just about every time the essay uses the term, it ascribes ideas and philosophy to it which are foreign to how the word fits in my mind. Nobody imagines that an autonomous state is free to decide the laws of nature, it simply gets to act according to its own rules and policies. (Though, certainly the history of the world has shown that even states can be deluded into thinking otherwise. Possibly these could be conveniently lumped into the category of theocracies, or some subset of theocracies.) A similar point could be made for individuals.

    B) The author’s own descriptions of the moral autonomy view are not consistently representative of moral relativism. The Moral Autonomy segment is an inconsistent mishmash of moral relativism and moral objectivism, while the Submission to God segment is pure moral objectivism. The use of Invictus, in particular, as an example, seems particularly inept. I would imagine, from the failure to recognize how the mindset of Invictus is not a declaration of moral relativism, that the author is either an obliger or upholder personality type (using the Gretchen categorization). Certainly no questioner (and probably not a rebel either) could possibly fail to understand that the willingness and perseverance to travel a difficult path despite that difficulty equates to the lunacy of imagining that they can pick whatever path they want independent of the intended destination.

    The author begins by defining moral autonomy as “meaning that we exercise agency when we make choices that reflect our interests and priorities instead of the interests and priorities of others.” That’s not a statement of moral relativism.

    But he contrasts that with the scriptural teaching, stating “Simply put, the scriptures teach that agency means choosing between right and wrong, not choosing what is right or wrong.” Now he’s setting up a contrast with moral relativism.

    The real heart of the problem with the author’s thinking, however, is here: “When we equate agency with moral autonomy, we can imply that cultural, family, and institutional norms that lay out what our priorities should be — such as serving a mission, caring for aging parents, getting married, maintaining activity in the church, or any other moral duty — jeopardize our agency or restrict our freedom. Further, it can inadvertently lead to a form of moral relativism.” The reality is that “cultural, family, and institutional norms” don’t define right or wrong either. They DON’T “lay out what our priorities should be.” (Though an obliger, or, to a lesser extent, an upholder, could easily fail to recognize this.) He lays out some hard-to-dismiss examples of norms, but it is easy to see that when the norms are on-demand abortion, getting pregnant to trap a man, slavery, female circumcision, or the racial inferiority of jews, then having the strength to follow a different path independent of those influences could be a very good thing; possibly even essential. The author goes on to say that it could “inadvertently” lead to moral relativism. This, just before he makes the leap that he IS, in fact, contrasting with the evil of moral relativism.

    Sure, it’s dumb, and common, for individuals to assert that people giving them their thoughts and opinions are somehow infringing on their agency. But to me, it is more blatantly thoughtless to assert that the spirit of standing up for what you think is right despite the consequences, is somehow not a legitimate way to view moral agency.

    In the end, nobody can make choices for you, except you, (without some kind of enslaving abuse), so even if you follow the north star, you are still the captain of your soul, which is a principle of accountability that far too many dismiss. You cannot rely on institutions to make your choices for you, because they WILL be wrong at some point, and they just might be horribly wrong for you.

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