Moral agents

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L049-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 19, 2024, from

2. Understanding

The view that moral agents must have the capacity to conform to some of the external demands of morality is consistent with the view that there are parts of morality that they cannot conform to. Thus kleptomaniacs do not have the capacity to conform to certain moral requirements about not stealing, but it does not follow that they are not moral agents or that they should not be held morally responsible for murders that they might commit (see Responsibility). Moral agents must be morally responsible for some of their conduct, not necessarily for all. What, then, are the conditions of moral agency?

One essential condition is that the agent must have the relevant understanding (or capacity for understanding) of what the external requirements of morality are (see Moral knowledge §1). Thus in the case of murder one must understand that murder is wrong and that a particular act is an instance of murder. Exactly how much understanding is required is not easy to specify. There are plenty of borderline cases, but there are clear cases on both sides of the line. A baby does not have the relevant understanding of any of the requirements of morality, while an average adult citizen does at least sometimes. Of course even average citizens are very ignorant in many matters, but that at most is relevant to assessing their responsibility in these matters; it does not prevent them being moral agents.

Some existentialist philosophers insist that moral agency requires the ability to create and choose one’s own values, unconstrained by objective or rational considerations (see Existentialist ethics). It is objected that such creation involves a capricious freedom, since the agents have no guide as to how they should choose their values. Charles Taylor (1982) attempts to overcome this problem by suggesting that moral agency requires that one should have the capacity to choose one’s values, after reflection, in accordance with one’s deepest and most authentic nature (see Taylor, C. §§4–5). Does this requirement provide the necessary guidance for the agent? Critics would point out that this just shifts the problem. In what sense are we responsible for our deepest nature?

It seems that moral accountability requires that the agents should have an objective basis for choosing their moral values. They could then be held morally accountable to the extent that they have the capacity to find out what the relevant moral requirements are and, to the extent that they have the capacity, to conform to such requirements in the relevant ways. People who cannot reason properly (such as the severely mentally ill) or those who lack certain volitional abilities lack the capacity to conform to the relevant moral requirements.

In order to be morally accountable, an agent does not always have to know or even have the correct opinion about what the moral requirements are. The capacity for finding out such things can be enough. For instance, some Nazis who persecuted Jews may have thought sincerely that they were doing the right thing; but if they could and should have known better then they can be censured for moral negligence. Had they thought things through, which they could and should have done, they would have realized how wrong such acts were. Or so it is believed by those of us who want to hold them morally responsible.

To have the capacity to find out that something is morally wrong does not necessarily involve having the capacity to know why. It is plausible to distinguish having right opinions on moral matters from knowledge of them. The person who has knowledge in moral matters not only has the right opinions but also has them for the right reasons. Even after a study of moral philosophy many people do not know why things like stealing and murder are morally wrong; they do not understand the grounds for such judgments. True, theories have been advanced to answer such problems, but there is no general agreement on correct answers. An ideal moral agent, who exists only in the imagination of philosophers, might have knowledge of all moral matters, but ordinary moral agents have only opinions (for example, that stealing is wrong) and the capacity to find out such opinions in areas where they are held morally responsible.

According to some philosophers it is not enough to have the intellectual ability to tell right from wrong. There are psychopaths who are quite intelligent in general, and can even talk intelligently about morality. They might be able to tell us what things are wrong and even why, but they lack moral sentiments, such as remorse and consideration for others, and are unable to act for the sake of moral considerations. Many would say that they are not moral agents, and therefore not subject to moral condemnation, nor to punishment in so far as punishment presupposes moral condemnation. Bradley (1894) thought that psychopathic killers are not moral agents and so we cannot morally condemn them or punish them in the way we punish moral agents, but we have the right to use social surgery, even to kill them if that is necessary for social welfare, somewhat as we have a right to kill dangerous animals; considerations of justice do not apply to those who are not moral agents. Bradley forgot that considerations of humanity may still apply to them.

Bradley’s view has been endorsed by Jeffrie Murphy (1972) but with two important qualifications. First, he points out that there is the danger of abuse in such a system. If we were permitted to go in for social surgery against nonmoral agents, moral agents might sometimes be wrongly diagnosed as nonmoral agents. Second, many people become psychopaths because of bad social conditions, and not of their own free will. Murphy rejects Aristotle’s view that psychopathic wickedness is like a disease that people are responsible for acquiring by their voluntary conduct. He argues that psychopaths are those whose potential moral agency has been destroyed by society, and that they should therefore not be treated too harshly.

John Rawls (1971) maintains that only those who can give justice are owed justice (see Rawls, J.). And he stresses the importance for moral personality of acting from the sense of justice. On this view those who cannot act from a sense of justice would not be moral agents and so would not be owed duties of justice. But there is a weaker thesis according to which it will suffice to be owed justice if people can give justice even if they are not motivated by the sense of justice. In the case of potential criminals, even if they are incapable of acting out of a sense of justice, or for the sake of moral considerations, we can apply considerations of justice to them and respect their rights if they respect the rights of others, even if their reasons for doing so are egoistic.

Indeed some Hobbesian philosophers contend that rational egoists can set up a just society, without the aid of a moral sense or a sense of justice (see Contractarianism §§2–3). Similarly, one could operate with a sense of moral agency, according to which agents have a capacity to conform to some of the external requirements of morality, but may lack the capacity to act for the sake of the moral law. They could sustain something like a morality. From a pragmatic point of view it would not matter too much why people conformed to moral requirements as long as they continued to do so. Jeremy Bentham (1817) thought that human beings were primarily egoistic, and that basic human nature was unalterable. He suggested that the setting up of the right institutions, such as representative democracy, and sanctions, such as punishment, would lead all members of the public, including the rulers, to see that contributing to the common good would be in their own best interests; thus rulers who acted against the public interest would be unlikely to be re-elected (see Bentham, J.). But would such rational egoists be moral agents? This is partly a verbal matter. They would satisfy the requirement that people should have the capacity to conform to some of the external requirements of morality, but they would not meet the Kantian requirement about being able to act for the sake of moral considerations.

Citing this article:
Haksar, Vinit. Understanding. Moral agents, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L049-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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