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Moral agency is a person's ability to make moral judgments based on some commonly-held notion of right and wrong and to be held accountable for these actions.[1]

A Moral agent is "a being who is capable of acting with reference to right and wrong."[2]

Development and analysis[]

Most philosophers suggest only rational beings, people who can reason and form self-interested judgments, are capable of being moral agents. Some suggest those with limited rationality (for example, people with mild/moderate intellectual disability or infants/toddlers[1]) also have some basic moral capabilities.

Determinists argue all of our actions are the product of antecedent causes, and some believe this is incompatible with free will and thus claim that we have no real control over our actions. Immanuel Kant argued that whether or not our real self, the noumenal self, can choose, we have no choice but to believe that we choose freely when we make a choice. This does not mean that we can control the effects of our actions.

Some Indeterminists would argue we have no free will either. If, with respect to human behaviour, a so-called 'cause' results in an indeterminate number of possible, so-called 'effects', that does not mean the person had the free-thinking independent will to choose that 'effect'. More likely, it was the indeterminate consequence of his chance genetics, chance experiences and chance circumstances relevant at the time of the 'cause'.

In Kant's philosophy, this calls for an act of faith, the faith free agent is based on something a priori, yet to be known, or immaterial. Otherwise, without free agent's a priori fundamental source, socially essential concepts created from human mind, such as justice, would be undermined (responsibility implies freedom of choice) and, in short, civilization and human values would crumble.

It is useful to compare the idea of moral agency with the legal doctrine of mens rea, which means guilty mind, and states that a person is legally responsible for what their actions as long as they should know what they are doing, and their choices are deliberate. Some theorists discard any attempts to evaluate mental states and, instead, adopt the doctrine of strict liability, whereby one is liable under the law without regard to capacity, and that the only thing is to determine the degree of punishment, if any. Moral determinists would most likely adopt a similar point of view.

Distinction between moral agency and eligibility for moral consideration[]

Many philosophers, such as Kant, view morality as a transaction among rational parties, i.e., among moral agents. For this reason, they would exclude other animals from moral consideration.

Others, such as Utilitarian philosophers like Jeremy Bentham and Peter Singer have argued the key to inclusion in the moral community is not rationality — for if it were, we might have to exclude some people with intellectual disability and infants, and might also have to distinguish between the degrees of rationality of typically-developing adults — but the real object of moral action is the avoidance of suffering.

See also[]


  1. 1.0 1.1 Angus, Taylor (2003). Animals & Ethics: An Overview of the Philosophical Debate, Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press.
  2. Websters Revised Unabridged Dictionary, 1913


  • Singer, Peter, Animal Liberation, 1975.Template:Full

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