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.”