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August 19, 2010
In The Village
The limits on free agency
by Orson Scott Card

Most of the time we think of freedom as a matter of limits. Either we can do what we want to do, or someone is blocking us from doing it.

It's easy to see how children come to this opinion. Their lives are full of limitations imposed by others.

Don't go into the street; don't go past the corner.

You can't go play till you eat your peas.

If you hit your brother you have to sit in the time-out chair.

Practice the piano for half an hour and you earn an hour of computer time.

Some people go through their lives with little more understanding of freedom than this: If nobody is blocking me from doing something, then I'm free. If they are blocking me, I'm not free.

Nobody is stopping me from repairing my own car engine, however. So why can't I do it? For that matter, why can't I program exactly the software tools that I desire for my work? Why can't I install my own fence in the back yard? Other people do those things -- why can't I?


Because I don't know how. Oh, I could open the hood of my car and brandish a bunch of tools in the hope that the car will be intimidated and start behaving. I actually do know some programming, just not enough. I can dig holes, and I suppose with thought and some study I could learn how to install a fence.

But I have not yet acquired the skills I need. My only choice, right now, is either to spend the time to learn them, or hire somebody who has already learned them.

I can choose to have a repaired car, customized software, or a well-installed fence -- I can even choose whether to do it myself or hire someone else. But I can't do the work myself and be happy with the results unless I learn and practice until I'm good at the required skills.

When your parents force you to practice the piano as a child, they are actually giving you the freedom, when you're older, to sit down at a piano and play music at whatever level of skill you finally acquired. Lack of freedom then in order to give you greater freedom now.

Knowledge of Consequences

We spend most of our lives trying to plumb the mysteries of cause-and-effect. The entire business of science is to try and understand why things happen -- how to cause things and how to prevent them.

History is the effort to find out why things happened in the past -- and how to comport ourselves to bring about desired results in the present.

The greatest mystery of all is why people do the things they do. Now that psychology is finally beginning to become a science, we're finding out fascinating things about the causes of many of our desires and choices, but such generalities are useful only in understanding mass behavior.

The perpetual mystery is how to predict human behavior: what Ted will do if I tell him the truth about Irene, or refuse to hire his son, or invite him to come to church, or accuse him of stealing my sandwich out of the lunchroom fridge. (There's no denying that Ted is an interesting guy.)

We spend our lives trying to predict what other people will do. We're usually pretty good at it (because people have a lot of predictable responses), but our failures can be spectacular. We never know anybody so well that they are incapable of surprising us.

So are we free to say exactly the thing that will make another person do or feel or think what we want them to do or feel or think? We are not -- because there are always unpredictable consequences. We just don't know enough.


I would really like to solve the conflict between Arabs and Israelis. I would like to restore rail travel to a high degree of efficiency and comfort, and extend it to every city, so we could virtually eliminate the need for the internal combustion engine. I would like to run and run for hours on end, for the sheer joy of it.

But none of these things is in my power at the moment. Nor can I fly, or make my elbows bend backward without pain, or go back in time and warn myself about some particularly egregious mistakes that I would like to avoid making.

To be free, we have to have the power to carry out an action, the skill to do it well, and the knowledge of what action will bring about the desired result. Oh, and yes, it also helps if there's nobody stopping me from doing it, or threatening me with dire consequences if I do.

See how complicated freedom is? Kids don't even know the half of it.

When God gave us our free agency, it was a complicated gift with a lot of moving parts. On the one hand, our bodies and the societies we live in empower us to do many wonderful and terrible things to ourselves and others.

On the other hand, the veil of forgetfulness that we are born with, limiting us to knowing only what this world makes available, seems to be a huge barrier to our ability to make wise choices.

If we remembered being children of God, remembered all that we chose in our premortal lives, wouldn't we make better choices?

I have no choice but to continue this essay next week.

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