Moral status vs. moral agency

A recent post about the personhood of human embryos made me think about the distinction between moral status and moral agency. Moral status relates to how we should treat an individual who has it or does not have it. Moral agency has to do with whether the individual is capable of making decisions or doing actions for which the individual is morally responsible. Both are characteristics that an individual being or type of being may or may not have. Most would say that any being that is a moral agent should be considered to have full moral status. That means that any being who is able to be held morally responsible for its choices and actions should be treated as having the same moral value as myself. However, there may be some individuals who have full moral status, but are not moral agents. That would mean that such an individual is a person who should be treated by me as having the same moral worth that I have even though that person is not morally responsible for his or her own actions. Some examples of those who we commonly understand to have full moral status, but who are not moral agents, include young children, those who have a mental disability that makes them unable to understand the difference between right and wrong, and those who have dementia or even temporary incapacity to make moral decisions.

When we as Christians take the position that a human embryo has full moral status because that embryo is a member of the human family who has been made in the image of God, we take that position understanding that an embryo is not a moral agent. I think that one of the reasons for the problems with capacity definitions of moral status like the one used by May Ann Warren is that it confuses moral status and moral agency. Being a moral agent is totally dependent on the capabilities of the individual. It depends on having the ability to understand the concept of right and wrong, the reasoning capacity to determine what actions are right, and the ability to control his or her actions. If one assumes that moral status is similar to moral agency then it makes sense for there to be similar capacities that determine who has moral status. But moral status is a totally different type of thing. It has to do with the nature of a being not its capabilities. How we treat something morally has to do with what kind or category of being that the individual is and that is not dependent on its capabilities. That is why we treat children and the disabled as full human beings even though they are not moral agents. That is why we should treat human embryos the same way.

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John Kilner
John Kilner
8 years ago

Helpful distinction, Steve. Of course, some will say that if we are looking for what matters about people, there is really nothing to value other than their capacities. So as you know there remains a pressing need to explain what else matters.