Deep Agency

One of the most common answers LDS’s give to the “purpose of life” question is that this life is a “training”,  or a time in which we are “proven” and “tested”. Central to this notion of the purpose of life is the concept of “free agency”. We must be “free to choose” between “good and evil” in order to gain experience for ourselves and grow in this exam, called “life”.

The way we often talk about free agency is in a context where we are “tempted” by “the adversary” to do something wrong or evil. If we resist we become stronger. If we give in, we feel remorse, regret, and hope that next time we will be able to withstand the temptation. This exercise of free agency is predicated on us having an awareness of which option is right and which option is wrong. The focus of free agency tends, then, to be on our “will”, or our strength to endure temptation and choose the right. 

What I’d like to challenge here is whether or not this conceptualization of free agency is actually the most relevant to fulfilling the purpose of life. 

“Gaining experience”, “growing”, or “being tested”, IMO, is best served when there are multiple “live options”. In other words, many of the most transformative experiences I’ve had have been when I’ve struggled to make a “good” choice not in the context where I recognized “good” from “bad”, but when it seemed that there were multiple “good” choices; or yet, when there seemed to only be “bad” choices. I consider these “live options” in the sense that I faced a difficulty, not in my will, but in deciding from the reality that I could only choose one of many “real” possibilities. This differs from the conception of “free agency” in the sense that free agency lacks “live options”. Indeed, there are only “live options” if something is wrong with me. If my will is weak, then doing wrong is in fact a “real” choice. But even here it is not “real” in a deep sense. I must recognize it to be wrong in order for it to be a choice. 

Deep growth, IMO, comes by entertaining multiple “live options”. The process of introspection, weighing alternatives, visualizing the potential outcomes, etc. seems to be central to the process of “training” as far as the purpose of life is concerned. Deep human character seems to come about in people who are truly tormented by options–not in the sense of having a weak will, but in the sense of working through live possibilities that are in fact real. How much time should I spend with my family, versus working at my job? What kind of occupation should I choose? An example of the difference between “free agency” and “deep agency” is the difference in the process for many young LDS men choosing to go on a mission versus young LDS women. For the former it tends to be a sign of weakness to not go, whereas for the latter it tends toward a situation with “real” options. Many of these questions, of course, could be contextualized within the framework of “free agency” and weakness of will; but my sense is that they are better discussed in the framework of deep agency.

Lastly, this is not to suggest that we do not have the resources for addressing this issue–“thinking it out in your mind” is certainly one of those resources. However, it seems, at least to me, that these kinds of resources are far less developed than those focusing on the issue of free agency. I think I’ll stop here before this gets too long.

11 Replies to “Deep Agency”

  1. Excellent post. I think that a good scripture on this is D&C 58: 26 For behold, it is not meet that I should command in all things; for he that is compelled in all things, the same is a slothful and not a wise servant; wherefore he receiveth no reward.
    27 Verily I say, men should be aanxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness;

  2. Smallaxe,

    Although I have not thought too deeply about this issue, the little bit of thinking I have done has led me to the following conclusion: Saying that this life is a test makes for a good Primary answer, not a very good answer for adults. Even then, it really only makes for a good answer for children in a certain subset of circumstances. Those circumstances are fulfilled (though not exclusively) in prosperous and peaceful countries like the United States or Western Europe.

    I guess my main point is that the “life is a test” doctrine doesn’t really explain much, and in many circumstances is counterproductive. There are just too many horrible things that have happened in this world which provide no good choices and which teach people nothing.

  3. Perhaps my use of “the” at times is a bit unhelpful. I certainly didn’t mean to suggest that there is only one purpose of life. Truth be told I’m not terribly interested in the issue (for many of the same problems you raise). I do think, however, that a certain degree of ambiguity is productive. I do believe that one purpose of life is to become a better person. This may be couched in language about “testing”, “gaining experience”, etc. This is a thin notion in the sense that I’m not wanting to define the terms too precisely. I think it’s important to remain ambiguous. For the most part I’m not sure how God fits into the larger picture–what he does, what he allows, what he knows about, what he cannot prevent, etc.

    I don’t think this should necessarily stop us in talking about the purpose of life. As it relates to this post, I’m not sure a thick notion of purpose is necessary to engaging the issue of deep agency. I think if we settled on a fairly thin consensus of “one purpose of this life is to learn”, without over-defining the notion of “learn”, the conversation could still progress.

  4. Smallaxe,

    Kidding aside, I agree with the point I think you are making. I believe I have posted on the same general concept in the past a couple of times. I called this deep growth you are referring to track-jumping. By track jumping I mean that we start on a track in life and we either go with the flow and follow the track we are on or we consciously use our libertarian free will and jump tracks to a different life track. Those hard track jumping decisions (often to more godly or less godly life tracks) are the truly important tests in life. See here for those discussions. (I call the track jumping “veto free will” at times as well because we are free to veto our natural inclinations and go against the flow when we choose to do so)

  5. Was kind of free agency did Jesus have? Was he “tempted” in all things? Did he just follow the Spirit when life presented him with “live options”?

  6. Geoff,

    I read through your posts and some of the comments. The most relevant passage is probably this one:

    I think that these “tracks” I am referring to can be most closely associated to the concept of character. Our character makes us predictable – sort of like tracks make the destination of a train predictable. So in this analogy the goal is to get off whatever track we were given in life and get onto the highest and best tracks we possibly can — or in other words it is to make difficult free choices that change our fundamental characters to make them more like God’s character. I think jumping tracks specifically means doing some things out of character. If we are to jump tracks upwardly we have to do things so Christ-like that they are basically out of character for us. I contend that only by so using our free will can we change our fundamental characters.

    I believe we’re in agreement for the most part, but let me make sure that I’m understanding you.

    The notion of free agency tends to be spoken of as choosing between more Christlike and less Christlike options. In your terms I would suppose that this would be like choosing between “higher” and “lower” tracks.

    IMO the problem with this paradigm is that choosing between higher and lower tracks is not really a choice. If I am a good person or want to be a good person there is no choice to be made. I am going to choose the higher track. Of course we could say that all too often we are not good people, that we tend to succumb to the natural man, etc. But even in this sense there are no live options. There is only the higher track and my inability to choose it (i.e., my weakness of will).

    What I like about a notion of character development is that it seems to me that a well-developed character comes about because one is confronted with multiple live options. IMO we can become more Christlike when faced with not simply a battle of will (e.g., how can I move to the next track?), but also in determining from among the plurality of “higher” tracks, which track we will choose.

  7. The problem with my track analogy is it implies there are only a few colossal character-defining choices (track-jumps). In reality choosing character is more like a series of aof on going incremental changes. No on ever became a virtuoso on a musical instrument with a small number of super-practices. Rather becoming a virtuoso is a matter of persistent daily devotion. Becoming a virtuoso of goodness and morality must be the same thing I suppose.

    So if you are a morally good person the question is are you daily drifting toward being a less good, more mediocre person or active choosing daily to be a better person.

    And while there are of course always multiple live options in real life every individual option has a binary yes/no aspect to it.

  8. I like this question a lot, mainly because it exposes the facile nature of our Mormon culture’s approach to agency. I pretty much agree with Geoff J here when he says that character is built by little choices every day. I agree with Terry Warner when he states that the only choice we truly have is whether or not we resist the needs and the reality of “others” (seeing them as objects) or rather to respond to others’ needs. Everything else is just tactics.

    We look at life as if we were really building something that will last, but the atonement is really a way to heal all the pain we cause ourselves and others in the end; so you can’t really botch your mortal life, in the end it still is valuable to everyone by what it teaches. We all recognize that no factual information is going to be all that important to us in the next life since we will be super-smart within moments (instantaneous data transfer of massive amounts of information is a huge bonus with revelation). Character is what we are building here.

    The purpose of this life is that it gives us opportunities to teach us how to love. Imagine living in a gated community on an otherwise deserted island where everyone was a millionaire Superman, never getting sick or aging, and never really needing anything to survive. How easy is it to build deep interpersonal bonds in such a place (think of the pre-mortal world and the spirit world)? The benefit of this life is the scarcity of resources (including time) which allows us to be truly touched when acts like the widow’s mite take place. When I see an street orphan in Haiti sharing a bit of bread with another street orphan, it can truly make me weep because I know the price that is being paid and I am feeling love for those parties I am witnessing.

    The beauty of this life is that it offers us opportunities to sacrifice for others, even if all we are sacrificing is time, since those sacrifices are the tangible signs of love. Only by responding to the real needs of others can we deepen our relationships and character to the point where we can enjoy a relationship that the Father and Son have together, exercising absolute trustworthiness with the needs of others.

  9. Was kind of free agency did Jesus have? Was he “tempted” in all things? Did he just follow the Spirit when life presented him with “live options”?

    I’m not entirely sure. FWIW, I’m more interested in reconceptualizing free agency for us, rather than speculating about Jesus.

    Certainly any response to this question must be related to the kind of being we believe Jesus to have been while on Earth. Did he have a perfect knowledge of things? If so, then perhaps he had no real live options. Personally I’d like to think that Jesus’ decisions were similar to mine. He faced scenarios in which he had to decide for himself, where making a decision was sometime an agonizing process.

    His three “temptations” seems to be cast in the language of free agency LDSs tend to use. They were exercises of Jesus’ will. As explained above, however, I believe there’s more to agency than that.

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