Morality Religion

Moral agency

I’ve been thinking more about the National Interfaith Leadership Council, following an invitation to participate in the After 8 Debate (SAFM, September 25, around 08h05 NOW POSTPONED) alongside Ray McCauley and a representative of the SA Council of Churches.

Part of the problem with religion hijacking moral discourse is the way in which it dumbs people down, and makes them unable to see that moral conclusions are the result of arguments – not simply absolute rules that we learn via some or other collection of myths (where how we choose which such collection to pay attention to is anyone’s guess).

In these moral arguments, a starting point that’s rarely considered is that of what makes something a moral issue in the first place – for example, I find it difficult to imagine any set of circumstances in which same-sex marriage even gets off the ground as a potential moral issue.

The other allegedly moral issue that the NILC have been making a noise about is abortion – something which barely counts as a moral issue, in that I’d like to think that moral agents need to be involved before something counts as a moral issue.

On the standard criteria of being able to reason and make judgements, foetuses are clearly not moral agents – and even on broader criteria such as sentience, or the ability to feel pain, early-stage foetuses would not make the grade either.

This is not to say that there are no good arguments against certain attitudes about, or laws regulating, abortion – it’s simply unlikely to be the case that they will be good moral arguments. And we should sometimes remember that not every issue we feel strongly about should also be considered a moral issue – and that not every moral issue should also be considered a legal issue.

I’m afraid that it’s a bit more complicated than that.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.

12 replies on “Moral agency”

Re: moral agents
What about babies or mentally handicapped people? They can’t think for themselves or make informed decisions about anything, yet they still have a right (to life), and killing them would definitely constitute as a moral issue. Even if foetuses aren’t sentient, they have the capacity to become sentient.

I’m not anti-abortion…just want to know if there are any counter-arguments to those points.

And I think your site’s RSS feeds are broken.

Amy: The two examples you cite are not moral agents to my mind – although you’ll find plenty of dispute around these ideas. But the fact that they aren’t moral agents doesn’t automatically mean we have no reason to treat them well. While I don’t think that they have the right to life, it’s still perhaps not a good idea to kill them (or allow them to die) in all cases, as our attitudes towards them – and how we treat them – may have positive or negative consequences for creatures that are moral agents. The simple summary is that moral obligations are just one sort of obligation: when something is not a moral agent, that doesn’t necessarily leave it unprotected. As for the “right to life” in general, for me that’s a political and legal right, not a moral right. I don’t think that I, for example, have a right to life, simply by being alive and thinking – but of course I want people to be discouraged from taking my life, so I’m quite happy for this alleged “right” to be taken seriously.

Thanks for alerting me to the feed issue – seems to be something wrong with feedburner, so I’ve gone back to the native WordPress feed for now.

So, you’re saying that abortion isn’t a moral issue because no moral agents are involved…the same way that killing a baby isn’t a moral issue because babies aren’t moral agents (?) Isn’t that counter-intuitive? Who says moral agents need to be involved before something becomes a moral issue anyways? Also, what if a moral agent (e.g. the mother of the baby) acts on behalf of the baby or foetus…would that not make the baby/foetus moral agents by proxy?

“when something is not a moral agent, that doesn’t necessarily leave it unprotected.” — isn’t this an argument for the anti-abortion guys?

Yes, it is counter-intuitive, but in this case our intuitions are the problem. We need some way to make clear distinctions, or to draw what Ainslie calls “bright lines” – one such bright line is to say that moral agents need to be involved for morality to be involved, another such bright line is to say protection kicks in at birth (the only other available bright line, conception, makes no sense for reasons I won’t go into now). Without bright lines such as these, we have no way to make consistent decisions on difficult issues. These are psychological arguments, not moral ones.

If the mother of the foetus acts on its behalf, she clearly places value in its continued existence (or non-existence) – we can respect her moral agency by allowing her to do so, but it’s not as if she can establish what the foetus wants. So they can have proxy status, but that’s only useful when the granter of that status (mother, “owner” of pet, etc.) asks us to treat it in a certain way – the proxy status shouldn’t be allowed to slide into full agent status.

On your last point: it could be, if it could be shown that there were serious economic, social, psychological (etc.) consequences to allowing abortion which outweigh the positives. I don’t believe that case can successfully be made, though.

Until a foetus is born alive it cannot claim rights. Its life is not its own until it is born and until such time its life is in fact the mother’s life – it may be considered as part of the mother in the same sense as her heart or stomack or liver belongs to the mother.
The concept “right” is the name that we use to affirm the existence of a relationship. Moral concepts are derived from relational concepts. When something it ‘right’ it is simultaneously considered to be good. When something is wrong it is simultaneously considered to be evil. People only establish rights in relation to other people by means of contracts.
[When we say that something is wrong we are in fact stating that ‘no relationship is evident’. We do not mean that a relationship exists but that such a relationship is necessarily evil/bad].
To enforce a relationship/ to assurp a relationship is evil because such actions require the initiation or the threat of force.
All individuals are equal {before the law}- 🙂 an interesting assertion and general assumption that is never applied and has never been discussed. (Some people (the lawmakers) are always more equal aren’t they?

Furthermore: because moral concepts apply only to living entities they properly belong to living organisms as individuals. eg. to decide what is good for it or not properly belongs to an individual whose life is the object of the judgement. People who play the morality card normally wish to enforce their own value system based on their own judgements.

Would I be wrong to say rationality and morality are synonymous? Because to me, it would irrational to me to not think offspring have a right to life. I mean, ultimately, all we strive for is propagation of the species, right?

Morality and rationality would be related – in many cases – but not synonymous. For example, if you preferred your food cooked, it would be irrational to eat it straight out of the freezer – but doing so would hardly be immoral. And “we” don’t necessarily strive for propagation of the species. Some of us do, when having kids or saving lives, but your statement confuses the evolutionary imperative – on a genetic, non-conscious level – with the choices of agents. So Kevin, I’m afraid that I don’t see a moral claim – or a sound appeal to rationality – in your comment.

We do – or at least, should. If we don’t, someone else will do it for us, and bundle morality with all sorts of garbage about gods, demons and the like.

If we each decide for ourselves what morality is… aren’t we giving rise to relativism? The whole, ‘it’s right for you but not for me’ crap…

I don’t mean “we” as individuals, but rather we as humans. Ideally, we would reach collective agreement on the most rational things to regard as good and bad, which to punish, which to reward, etc. That’s what we’re inching our way towards politically and economically, and one day people will hopefully treat morality as a similar problem-solving exercise.

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