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Is Our Exercise of Agency Always Intentional?

When we equate agency with being merely choice, we miss out on how human agency manifests in rich ways that are not always conscious and deliberately chosen.
Photo by Josh Applegate on Unsplash

The extent to which human beings have agency has been a major philosophical question throughout history.  In an effort to grant a fresh perspective on this age-old question, we believe it would be worthwhile to examine some aspects of agency that are not often articulated in discussing a Latter-day Saint perspective. Some content has already been written by experts in the field, Dr. Richard Williams and Dr. Edwin Gantt, on an understanding of agency specific to the Church of Jesus Christ, some of which has been published in Public Square Magazine. Indeed, we draw on their work for our conceptualization of agency throughout this article in an effort to expound upon and facilitate a greater understanding of their original ideas and work.  Beyond their efforts, more has been written on agency, generally, than we could ever hope to cover in this brief analysis. Therefore, this article will be focusing exclusively on a particular aspect of agency that we believe is frequently overlooked. This aspect, simply put, is that agency involves and encompasses more than just the ability to choose things consciously. In other words, human action that is not conscious and deliberate can still be agentic. 

Free will as one part of agency

Regardless of the numerous and competing positions philosophers have taken in regard to agency, it seems to be the case that most people generally assume they have agency. That is, most people believe that as human beings, we have the ability to choose things of our own will and accord. Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints certainly believe this to be the case. Agency is one of the core essentials of our doctrine. We believe that the reason a war was fought in heaven and a “son of the morning” was cast down from on high was over the issue of agency. Additionally, prophets and apostles have regularly emphasized the importance of agency through the years.

What a small consolation it would be to be able to choose what shirt to wear when the core of our being is totally beyond the scope of our agentic capabilities.

But just what exactly is agency, and what does it entail? Elder Bednar has said that “moral agency is the least understood of all gospel principles,” perhaps, in part, because members of the Church around the world define it simply as the ability to act and do what they want.  This conceptualization is not unique to members of the Church. The common defining characteristic of agency both within and outside of the Church is the availability of choices. You have two options, maybe more, and you are free to choose which option you want. In other words, this is all really about rational, conscious decision-making. This is one understanding of agency that, for the purposes of this article, we are going to label “free will.”

While philosophically, there may be some problems with the overall concept of free will, it’s still important to acknowledge that being able to make deliberate, conscious decisions is certainly an important part of agency. The reason we label this decision-making ability as “free will” and not agency in of itself is that, from a Latter-day Saint perspective, “agency” is much broader than mere decision-making—encompassing a whole host of agentic human actions and experiences. 

Persuaded away from agency

The reason we believe this distinction matters is that free will is a surprisingly limited view of agency. If we consider agency to be constrained by only what we can consciously choose, then any human action that we do not perceive or understand as a conscious choice naturally falls outside of the realm of agency. These human actions must then be accounted for by other things besides agency, things that are beyond our control. 

For example, there is an old question in psychology as to whether human nature and behavior are primarily a product of genetic heritage or social upbringing—known as the “nature vs. nurture debate.” The problem with this debate is that it’s a lose-lose situation: human behavior is either determined by nature or by nurture or some combination of the two, but either way, it’s ultimately non-agentic. Psychologists still like to make some allowances for conscious choice; it is too obvious that people have free will, or at least the appearance of it, in some regard. Even so, everything else that makes us human—our personalities, desires, tastes, emotions, inclinations, motivations, beliefs, preferences—all of those building blocks of our identity are not necessarily things we consciously choose and are ultimately not agentic. 

What a small consolation it would be to be able to choose what shirt to wear when the core of our being, the really important parts that define who we are, are totally beyond the scope of our agentic capabilities. Is this really what God had in mind when he revealed the Plan of Salvation to us? We learn from the scriptures that the purpose of this life is to become a new creature in Christ. Christ doesn’t just want us to choose the right; He wants us to have our very natures changed so that we become different kinds of human beingsmore full of light, love, and goodnessmore like Him. But how can we do that if our inner natures are predetermined by our genes or our upbringing, or anything else for that matter? Are repentance and change even possible under this paradigm? Can we actually cultivate Christlike emotions, desires, inclinations, or personalities if we believe that none of those things are up for agentic possibility?

Meaning in possibility

Too often, our understanding of human nature can take us to a place of meaninglessness. Having predetermined intrinsic human features deflates the value and importance we place on those features and, in turn, can create a sort of existential crisis when we do not truly feel like we are acting as engaged agents in our own lives. Meaning arises out of possibility, the possibility for something to be other than what it is. For example, it is meaningful that we treat our spouse and kids with love, care, and respect because it could have been otherwise; we do not have to do that. We can recognize that patterns of domestic abuse can be difficult to break, and it is meaningful when it does happen because a person did not have to break those patterns. Hence, meaning arises out of possibility, and when there is a lack of this possibility, it can again create feelings of hopelessness, meaninglessness, and purposelessness.

Therefore, if the core of our being arises simply out of happenstance or because we were ‘born this way,’ then just how much do the experiences really mean? Additionally, if there was no opportunity for us to be anything other than what we are, then what opportunity is there for us to change what we are? Once again, how would repentance and progression be possible in this paradigm? President Nelson has taught that “when Jesus said ‘repent,’ He asked us to change—to change our mind, knowledge, and spirit—even our breath.” Minds, spirits, and even the way we breathethese are pretty fundamental things. But we cannot change our core being if our core was never negotiable in the first place.

If the core of our being arises simply out of happenstance or because we were ‘born this way,’ then just how much do the experiences really mean?

Nevertheless, we can and do repent. We take it as doctrine that our inner natures can be sanctified and that hearts change all the time. Thus, it seems to us that we need to rethink what constitutes agentic action. We need an understanding of agency that allows the things we typically don’t see as “choosable” to also exist within the realm of possibility and meaning.

Invitations of Meaning

We learn from Lehi that there is “opposition in all things” or, in other words, possibility in all things. We exist in a world of possibilities. These possibilities include things like choosing what shirt to wear in the morning, but there are naturally also many possibilities that go well beyond the mundane. There are possibilities in how we encounter, engage, and interact with other people and the world as a whole. There are possibilities of meaning. That’s because, as human beings, things simply mean stuff to us. Things matter. And things can matter to us in different ways. To one person, a book may mean nothing more than a collection of words printed on pages. To another, a book may mean an excellent and convenient paperweight. To yet another person, a book may mean a doorway through which they can escape into another world—whether fantasy or celestial. A book can mean all of those things and more depending on how a person encounters and “takes it up.” 

Furthermore, a person could engage with a book one way and then engage with it a different way in a different moment. While I am reading a book, it means something other than when I use the same book as a flyswatter. You could say that those different possibilities of meaning are all contained within the book, waiting for someone to engage with them. You could even say further that the book invites people to engage with it in a certain way. For example, a book invites people to read it; it doesn’t really invite people to swing it wildly through the air to smash a bug (granted, books don’t actually do anything in of themselves; they are inanimate objects. We find we must speak somewhat metaphorically here to make our point).

Of course, that isn’t to say that people can’t use a book as a fly swatter, just like they don’t have to read it. The key word is invite. One meaning of a book invites people to read, to ‘take on’ the book in that way. Another meaning of the book invites people to use it as a flyswatter, to ‘take on’ the book in a very different way. Nonetheless, it is the case that reading a book seems to fulfill its purpose in a way that using it to kill bugs does not. Most people would agree that there is something fundamental to the nature of a book that we end up missing if we don’t engage with it in a certain way (that way being to read the book). You might say that reading a book is a more truthful way to engage and take up a book, and using it like a fly swatter is, while still a possibility, a somewhat less truthful possibility that suggests we are fundamentally missing something about the book’s nature. When we are interacting with the book in the way that was intended, we have more access to truth, and there is more meaning and purpose in that use. By yielding to the intended purpose, we then have a more fruitful engagement with the book.

Yielding to Invitations

The idea of yielding, or “giving oneself over to” a particular meaning may seem unusual. We often think of choice and choosing in terms of asserting our power or authority over something, not giving up our power to that thing, especially something as mundane as a book. Nevertheless, it seems that one way of exercising agency, the non-deliberate, non-conscious way, involves a degree of yielding to an invitation. King Benjamin taught us that:

The natural man is an enemy unto God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord …

King Benjamin defines the natural man not as a fundamental part of human nature but as “an enemy unto God,” or somebody who is rebelling against God, and he defines a saint as the opposite. In other words, the natural man is one who resists the invitation of the Holy Spirit and instead yields to invitations that are against God. A saint is one who yields, or “gives oneself up,” to the Holy Spirit’s invitation and resists the contrary invitations.

This language of yielding and resisting is helpful in understanding what is going on when we are engaging with different meanings on the non-deliberate level, that is, meanings we are not fully attentive to or cognizant of. Obviously, we can deliberately choose how we take things up, whether truthfully or not. We can choose to engage with a book truthfully and read it or engage with it less truthfully and do something else with it.

We receive God’s light by gradually giving ourselves over to it. The more we do it, the more it becomes a part of us.

But there are other kinds of meanings and possibilities that we can take up that often seem not to involve very much if any at all, conscious choice. Even when we read a book, the different meanings we could take up from it can change depending on our context. Take the scriptures, for example. It is true we must consciously choose to read them. But do we consciously choose the meanings we get out of scriptures? Sometimes, maybe, but usually, it’s more like the meanings appear before us without our input. How many times have we read the same scriptures throughout our life but have gotten totally different meanings from them? When I (Jacob) was a missionary, every scripture was about missionary work. When I became a father, every scripture was suddenly about fatherhood. I did not intend for that to happen. It seems we rarely rationally and deliberately search for new meanings to take up from scriptures, but rather new meanings jump out at us unlooked for and unchosen. Nonetheless, and we cannot emphasize this point strongly enough, it is still us who are doing the thing, even if we are not thinking about it. It is we who are agentically engaging with the scriptures in different ways, even if it’s not a fully self-directed and deliberate engagement. We read the same scripture again and again, and then suddenly it changes, a new meaning calls to us, we feel it in our soul, and then we ‘take it up’ and incorporate it in our lives, oftentimes without intending to or realizing we’re even doing so.

The Agentic Unintentionality of Liturgies

We can witness a similar, non-deliberate, yet still agentic process happening within liturgies. In the most basic sense, liturgy is a type of ritual, one that incorporates a physical act that is imbued with meaning. In a religious context, liturgies are often a type of worship. Because of the meaning inherent in a liturgical act and because the act is typically repeated throughout the life of a person, a liturgy can be very formative. In his book on liturgies, James Smith states that liturgies “shape and constitute our identities by forming our most fundamental desires and our most basic attunement to the world. In short, liturgies make us certain kinds of people.” Additionally, liturgies are typically not something one does alone; they are often performed with other people. 

A common example of liturgy would be a Catholic mass. Throughout a mass, the congregation is led in standing, kneeling, praying, singing, and chanting, all done as a group under the direction of the leading priest. All of the actions taken in a Catholic mass, from the reading of the scriptures to the administration of the eucharist, are imbued with meaning and intention. By participating on a regular basis in mass, an attendee begins “taking up” the meaning that is inherent in the actions he or she is performing, even if that meaning is not always being thought of in conscious, deliberate ways.

We have our own set of liturgies in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Our weekly partaking of the sacrament is one; our temple ordinances consist of many. In fact, an endowment ceremony is a good example of taking up meanings non-deliberately. When I (Jacob) was preparing to enter the temple for the first time, one thing I was often told was that I would learn a lot: the temple was a place of teaching and learning, and my knowledge of the Gospel would be expanded by going through the temple. This led me to have the false expectation that I would be receiving new and unknown educational exposition on deep and mysterious Gospel doctrine and that the temple was something like a celestial institute class. After going through the temple my first time, I was mostly just confused because I didn’t feel like I had learned anything at all about Gospel doctrine, let alone anything new. 

Now that I am older and somewhat wiser, I realize that what I was originally told was true: the temple truly is a place of great learning. But the kind of learning that goes on in it is not the kind that can be fully understood on the rational, conscious level. Rather, we learn things in the temple through participation in the liturgies. The temple ordinances are incredibly meaningful and ‘meaning-filled,’ reflected in meanings that invite us to ‘take them up,’ not through consciously deciding to but through participating in the meaning. Through regular participation in the temple ordinances (participation of all kinds: physical, social, mental, spiritual, etc.), we gradually yield or give ourselves over to the inherent meanings until they become a part of us. 

People often attend the temple with specific questions that they then find answers to, yet at no time during the ordinances were those questions ever specifically, consciously addressed. People go in with concerns and worries and afterward leave with a heart of peace, yet rarely if ever, can people deliberately decide to simply be at peace. Rather, we are invited to partake of the peace that Christ offers us through the temple ceremonies. By participating in the liturgies of the temple, we ‘give ourselves over’ and yield to the invitation to have a relationship with Jesus Christ and all the heavenly meanings that come with that. 

Taking up Righteousness

Liturgies are a great example of taking up and giving ourselves over to certain ways of being. However, we do that outside of more symbolic and religious environments as well. Take, for example, someone who is incredibly kind and genuine. We all know one of those people whose sincerity you can just feel in your soul. They have a specific way of being in the world, a specific light.  And perhaps one reason we can recognize that this is meaningful is that they do not have to be that way. Not because they are machines that have been conditioned to be that way but because they are choosing to live truthfully in the world by genuinely loving other people. I (Brianna) can personally witness to my sister-in-law’s genuine kindness and goodness as something that has been ‘taken up’ and gently cultivated. She is genuinely one of the best people I know, but it is deeper than simply an innate characteristic—“oh well, that’s just who she is.” Do not cheapen the experience and inherent meaningfulness of such kind and genuine engagement by attributing those characteristics to forces that are outside of our control and ability. At root, we are witnessing here something more: a light and truth cultivated through agentic engagement and action.

We are more than the sum of our choices; we are the sum of our being in the world.

Our sacred canon states, “that which is of God is light; and he that receiveth light, and continueth in God, receiveth more light …” Much like how you cannot find happiness by seeking it, we posit that the light of God is difficult to obtain merely through deliberate decision making. Rather, we receive God’s light by gradually giving ourselves over to it. The more we do it, the more it becomes a part of us. We assert that taking God’s light up into us must be an agentic act, even if not always a conscious act, because if it were not agentic, it would be utterly meaningless, if not impossible, to become like Christ.

As we heed God’s invitations and take up Christ-like meanings in our lives, we take on the light of Christ and the “disposition to do good” (while losing the “disposition to do evil.”) The word disposition can be understood as an inclination or tendency to act or respond to something in a certain way. This is generally not seen as something agentic; dispositions are typically understood as being part of our internal, unalterable nature—not to mention that our tendencies to act in certain ways are usually non-deliberative and non-rational. In fact, it seems our dispositions seem to be what inform our reflexive and spontaneous actions. Nonetheless, the example of ancient people such as King Benjamin’s (and the teachings of many other scriptures and prophets) make it clear that dispositions can change. Our spontaneous reactions can change. 

We posit that this is what we, as disciples of Christ, are trying to cultivate: to have our first unconscious, non-deliberated response to other people always be in the direction of goodness and truth—a “spontaneous righteousness,” if you will, where our first inclination is to do what is right. 

Eventually, “[our] whole bodies shall be filled with light, and there shall be no darkness in [us].” We shall be like the people of King Benjamin, who had “no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually.”  This disposition, in turn, comes about through agentic (both conscious and unconscious) engagement in the world. We are more than the sum of our choices; we are the sum of our being in the world. In the end, our understanding of what it means to be agentic beings can directly impact our attitudes around change and create different meanings around what it means to become a ‘new creature’ in Christ.

About the authors

Jacob Tubbs

Jacob Tubbs is in the Psychology Ph.D. program at the University of West Georgia. His dissertation is on the nature of joy and how classic children’s literature can aid people in experiencing joy in their lives. He and his wife have three beautiful girls.

Brianna Holmes

Brianna Holmes graduated with a degree in Marriage, Couples, and Family Counseling and is currently a practicing counselor in Utah. Her area of interest is how professionals can focus on the agentic nature of human beings in therapeutic practices. She and her husband are parents to four beautiful children.
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