What is a Moral Agent?

A moral agent is a being that is “capable of acting with reference to right and wrong”.[1] A moral agent is anything that can be held responsible for behavior or decisions. “It is moral agents who have rights and responsibilities, because it is moral agents whom we take to have choices and the power to choose”.[2] If you do not believe that anything or anyone should ever be blamed or deemed responsible, then you are going against the idea of moral agency, and denying the concept of responsibilities and rights.[3]

What does it mean to be a Moral Agent?

When something or someone is deemed a moral agent, it does not necessarily mean that they are successfully making moral decisions. It means that they are in a category that enables them to be blamed. If someone is unable to be blamed, then they do not have rights. Being a moral agent means that they can be held responsible for their decisions and behaviors, whether they are good or bad.[4]

A moral agent must be a living creature, as they must be able to comprehend abstract moral principles and apply them to decision making. They must have “self-consciousness, memory, moral principles, other values, and the reasoning faculty, which allows him to devise plans for achieving his objectives, to weigh alternatives, and so on”.[5] Also, in order to weigh the options in decision making, a moral agent must “attach a positive value to acts that conform to his moral principles and a positive value to some of the results that he can achieve by violating his moral principles”.[6] This means that in order to be a moral agent “you must live in a world of scarcity rather than paradise”.[7] If all of your values could be easily and immediately be achieved, you wouldn’t have to pick between your moral and nonmoral goals, and you couldn’t practice moral agency.[8]

In order to be a moral agent who makes decisions about justice and takes action based on those decisions, one must live in a society with others who they consider to have moral rights. If one lives alone or with others who do not have moral rights, then they are unable to make decisions regarding other’s rights. In order to act morally, one must be free to act. If one is unable to act, then they do not have moral responsibility. As long as each person does not violate the rights of other moral agent, then each moral agent has the right to make decisions and take action on these decisions.[9]


Aristotle and Moral Responsibility:

Aristotle was the first to discuss moral responsibility. He stated that it is “sometimes appropriate to respond to an agent with praise or blame on the basis of her actions and/or dispositional traits of character”.[10] He discusses that “only a certain kind of agent qualifies as a moral agent and is thus properly subject to ascriptions of responsibility, namely, one who possess a capacity for decision”.[11] From Aristotle’s perspective, “a decision is a particular kind of desire resulting from deliberation, one that expresses the agent's conception of what is good”.[12]

In reference to modern ethical theories, which separate actions and questions about them, Aristotle would not agree. “Praiseworthy and blameworthy actions are not those which match up to a particular template of rules or principles. Rather, they are ones which flow from, and reveal, a certain type of character”.[13] Moral agency is not just a about which rules to follow, it comes from a way of life which Aristotle called the virtuous life, which necessitates a unison of thought and feeling.[14]
  1. ^ Moral Agent. (n.d.). Retrieved October 20, 2009 from: http://www.thefreedictionary.com/Moral+agent
  2. ^ Black Crayon. (n.d.). Retrieved October 19, 2009 from: http://www.blackcrayon.com/library/dictionary/?term=moralAgent
  3. ^ Black Crayon, 2009.
  4. ^ Black Crayon, 2009.
  5. ^ Halliday, R. (2000). In Defense of Moral Agents. Retrieved October 20, 2009 from: http://libertariannation.org/a/f73h2.html
  6. ^ Halliday, 2000.
  7. ^ Halliday, 2000.
  8. ^ Halliday, 2000.
  9. ^ Halliday, 2000.
  10. ^ Eshleman, A. (2004). Moral Responsibility. Retrieved October 20, 2009 from: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/moral-responsibility/
  11. ^ Eshleman, 2004.
  12. ^ Eshleman, 2004.
  13. ^ Waluchow, W. (2003). The dimensions of ethics: an introduction to ethical theory. Peterborough: Broadview Press, Ltd., p. 203
  14. ^ Waluchow, 2003.