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Moral agents

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L049-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved March 22, 2018, from

Article Summary

Moral agents are those agents expected to meet the demands of morality. Not all agents are moral agents. Young children and animals, being capable of performing actions, may be agents in the way that stones, plants and cars are not. But though they are agents they are not automatically considered moral agents. For a moral agent must also be capable of conforming to at least some of the demands of morality.

This requirement can be interpreted in different ways. On the weakest interpretation it will suffice if the agent has the capacity to conform to some of the external requirements of morality. So if certain agents can obey moral laws such as ‘Murder is wrong’ or ‘Stealing is wrong’, then they are moral agents, even if they respond only to prudential reasons such as fear of punishment and even if they are incapable of acting for the sake of moral considerations. According to the strong version, the Kantian version, it is also essential that the agents should have the capacity to rise above their feelings and passions and act for the sake of the moral law. There is also a position in between which claims that it will suffice if the agent can perform the relevant act out of altruistic impulses. Other suggested conditions of moral agency are that agents should have: an enduring self with free will and an inner life; understanding of the relevant facts as well as moral understanding; and moral sentiments, such as capacity for remorse and concern for others.

Philosophers often disagree about which of these and other conditions are vital; the term moral agency is used with different degrees of stringency depending upon what one regards as its qualifying conditions. The Kantian sense is the most stringent. Since there are different senses of moral agency, answers to questions like ‘Are collectives moral agents?’ depend upon which sense is being used. From the Kantian standpoint, agents such as psychopaths, rational egoists, collectives and robots are at best only quasi-moral, for they do not fulfil some of the essential conditions of moral agency.

Citing this article:
Haksar, Vinit. Moral agents, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L049-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2018 Routledge.

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