Ethics Unwrapped Blog

Subject of Moral Worth

People are always considered subjects of moral worth.

A subject of moral worth can also include beings, such as animals or objects such as art, that are vulnerable to harm and have importance to the moral community. The moral community includes all people from birth to death. Theoretically, every person in the moral community has equal, natural rights to moral protection.

According to philosopher Deni Elliott and others, all members of the moral community are subjects of moral worth. However, not all subjects of moral worth are part of the moral community. For example, animals, art, cultural artifacts, and the environment are not members of the moral community, although they should be protected from unjustified harm.

As Elliott explains, say there was a fire at an art museum. Fire fighters should save people before saving artwork. Even though art is a subject of moral worth, saving artwork is not as important as saving human life.

So, while moral protection is given to all subjects of moral worth, the rights of members of the moral community are most important.

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Moral Agent

A moral agent is a person who has the ability to discern right from wrong and to be held accountable for his or her own actions. Moral agents have a moral responsibility not to cause unjustified harm.

Traditionally, moral agency is assigned only to those who can be held responsible for their actions. Children, and adults with certain mental disabilities, may have little or no capacity to be moral agents. Adults with full mental capacity relinquish their moral agency only in extreme situations, like being held hostage.

By expecting people to act as moral agents, we hold people accountable for the harm they cause others.

So, do corporations have moral agency? As artificial intelligence develops, will robots have moral agency? And what about socially intelligent non-human animals such as dolphins and elephants?

Indeed, future philosophers and legal scholars will need to consider moral agency as it applies to these situations and others.

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