Moral Agent & Subject of Moral Worth

A moral agent is capable of acting with reference to right and wrong, and has the power to intentionally cause harm to another. A moral subject is anything that can be harmed.

Discussion Questions

This video focuses on distinguishing between the concepts of moral agent and subject of moral worth. Also important to this relationship is the moral community, which includes every person from birth to death. According to philosopher Deni Elliott, all members of the moral community are subjects of moral worth, but not all subjects of moral worth are part of the moral community. For example, animals, art, artifacts of culture, and the environment are not members of the moral community although they should also be protected from unjustified harm. Moral agent, subject of moral worth, and moral community are not static categories. In some situations, a person is a moral agent and is a subject of moral worth in others. Non-human subjects of moral worth generally require a human steward, someone to protect them from harm, to be recognized as a subject.

1. Name some abilities that are essential for someone to be a moral agent.

2. What is necessary to qualify as a subject of moral worth?

3. What is the difference between being a subject of moral worth and being included in the moral community? Do you agree with this distinction? Why or why not?

4. Individuals or groups of people from different cultures might have different ideas of what counts as membership in the moral community and what counts as other subjects of moral worth. Explain with examples.

5. Subjects of moral worth that are outside of the moral community require moral agents who are within the moral community to protect them and advocate on their behalf. Why is that necessary?

Case Studies

Prenatal Diagnosis & Parental Choice

In the United States, many citizens agree that the government may impose limits on the freedom of individuals when individuals interfere with the rights of others, but the extent of these limits is often a topic of debate. Among the most debated of bioethical issues is the issue of abortion, which hinges on whether the fetus is a person with rights, notably the right to life.

In conjunction with the legal right to abortion affirmed in the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade, the issue of prenatal diagnosis has led to decisions by pregnant women to pursue abortion where prenatal testing has revealed genetic abnormalities in fetuses. However, this practice has met with recent opposition in the wake of research showing that between 60 and 90 percent of fetal diagnoses of Down syndrome have led to abortion. In 2015, legislation was introduced in the Ohio Legislature that would make it illegal to terminate a pregnancy for the purpose of avoiding giving birth to a baby with Down syndrome.

Those opposed to this legislation have noted that such a law would violate the Roe v. Wade decision by the Supreme Court, and that laws based on intention or motivation to terminate would be unenforceable. “This is interference with a medical decision following a complicated diagnosis,” according to Kellie Copeland, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio, “Not
knowing the family and the circumstances, the legislature can’t possibly take into account all the factors involved.”

Supporters of the legislation have described this as a way to limit the number of abortions in the state and protect babies born with disabilities. Mike Gonidakis, president of Ohio Right to Life,
stated, “We all want to be born perfect, but none of us are, and everyone has a right to live, perfect or not.” Rachel Mullen, a member of the Cuyahoga County chapter of Ohio Right to Life, said in an interview, “we need this bill so that [babies with Down syndrome] can be born, and not culled.”

Teaching Note:

Bioethics examines the moral dimensions surrounding the use of medical technology, raising questions such as: Should all scientific advances in medicine be made available to all? Do some advances conflict with society’s values and morals? What role should the government play in the moral decision-making of individuals insofar and with respect to limiting or expanding choices available? These are broader questions to keep in mind while reading and discussing this case study.

Discussion Questions

1. According to those opposing the legislation, what harm is done by limiting women’s freedom to terminate a pregnancy? According to supporters of the legislation, what is the harm done by not limiting women’s freedom to terminate a pregnancy?

2. Who are all of the moral agents in this case? Who are the subjects of moral worth? Explain your reasoning.

3. Since Roe v. Wade holds that first-trimester abortions are legal, is it ethically permissible to limit the freedom of women who do not wish to bear babies with birth defects if the diagnosis and the procedure take place in the first trimester? Why or why not?

4. If it is legal to abort babies with disabilities like Down syndrome, what message does this convey about the value that society places on the lives of persons with disabilities?

5. If the Ohio Legislature decides to criminalize abortion in cases where the motivation for abortion is a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome, does the Legislature have an ethical responsibility to ensure that poor families are not driven into bankruptcy by the high medical and educational costs of raising children with disabilities? Why or why not?

6. Should physicians be required to divulge the motivation for terminating a pregnancy? Do you think this is an ethically defensible reason to breach doctor-patient confidentiality? Explain your reasoning.

7. Should parents have the freedom to decide whether to abort for other reasons, such as the discovery that the fetus will be born deaf or diabetic? In a free society, should the government limit the reproductive options of families who will be left with a financial, emotional, and physical burden as a result? Explain.


Prenatal diagnosis and selective abortion: a challenge to practice and policy

Baby conceived to provide cell transplant for his dying sister

The problem with an almost-perfect genetic world

Ohio bill would ban abortion if Down syndrome is reason

First-Trimester or Second-Trimester Screening, or Both, for Down’s Syndrome

Prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome: a systematic review of termination rates (1995-2011)

Ethics Questions Arise as Genetic Testing of Embryos Increases

Wanting babies like themselves, some parents choose genetic defects

Prenatal whole-genome sequencing — is the quest to know a fetus’s future ethical?

Teaching Notes

This video introduces the general ethics concepts of moral agent and subject of moral worth. A moral agent is capable of acting with reference to right and wrong, and has the power to intentionally cause harm to another. A subject of moral worth is anything that can be harmed.

To learn about related general ethics concepts, watch Fundamental Moral Unit and Causing Harm.

The case studies covered on this page explore moral agency and subjectivity in terms of scientific research and prenatal care. “Cadavers in Car Safety Research” examines the case of a group of engineers who insisted that their use of human cadavers in car safety research was ethical because their research could save lives. “Prenatal Diagnosis & Parental Choice” looks at the debate over the ethics of prenatal diagnosis and reproductive freedom in instances where testing reveals genetic abnormalities and frequently result in parents choosing to terminate the pregnancy. For a case study that examines child migrants as subjects of moral worth in the face of U.S. immigration policies, read “Responding to Child Migration.”

Terms defined in our ethics glossary that are related to the video and case studies include: framing, moral agent, and subject of moral worth.

Additional Resources

For more information on concepts covered in this and other videos, as well as activities to help think through these concepts, see Deni Elliott’s workbook Ethical Challenges: Building an Ethics Toolkit, which may be downloaded for free as a PDF. This workbook explores what ethics is and what it means to be ethical, offering readers a variety of exercises to identify their own values and reason through ethical conflicts. A discussion of moral agency and what makes an ethical being may be found beginning on page 1. A detailed description of moral community and subjects of moral worth begins on page 30.

Transcript of Narration

Written and Narrated by

Deni Elliott, Ph.D., M.A.
Department of Journalism & Media Studies
College of Arts and Sciences
The University of South Florida at St. Petersburg

“More than 2000 years ago, Aristotle and other wealthy Athenian men decided how people like themselves should treat one another. Everyone should be free to pursue their own idea of the good life, as long as that person’s choice did not interfere with somebody else’s pursuit of the good life. That idea of “don’t cause unjustified harm” was probably the first statement of Western Moral Philosophy.

It is only natural that we should first begin our ethical inquiry by thinking about ourselves, and how we want to be treated by the people around us. Take a few minutes to watch children on a playground. You do not have to wait long before you hear somebody yell, “That’s not fair!” or “Cheater.” By the time that kids are about 5, they begin to make rules for how to take turns and how to give special privilege to those younger or less able. These children are practicing moral agency.

The difference between a moral agent and a subject of moral worth is this: A moral agent is someone who has the power to intentionally cause harm to another. A subject of moral worth is any being or natural system that is vulnerable – it can be harmed. It is easy to see that children, pets, and even natural resources like water and air are all subjects of moral worth. They are all clearly vulnerable to harms caused by those who have power over them.

Throughout our history and across cultures, there have been people who were stripped of their ability to be moral agents or sometimes even to count as subjects of moral worth because of inescapable characteristics. That includes people from minority ethnic, racial, or religious groups, women, people who are lesbian, gay, or transgendered, and people with disabilities. The moral obligation of moral agents is to use their power with care and never intentionally cause unjustified harm.”