Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Who Is a Moral Agent?

There is an important assumption about moral agency which always goes unstated in political discussion. It is this: institutions have moral agency. I could not possibly disagree with anything more than this. I believe that this assumption is responsible for a great deal of the evil that happens in the world. The assumption is unquestioned and unacknowledged because people do not think carefully about where moral agency can rest. Liberals who are outraged by the Citizens United verdict have no problems with treating the government as a valid moral agent, capable of killing, stealing, and taking on social projects. Likewise, right-wingers want to treat huge, fascistic corporations as equivalent to human beings, but balk at the idea of the government doing anything which doesn't put money into their wallets.

My take on this matter is simple: moral agency must lie with individual human beings. This is a minimal assumption, and I will take it for granted. However, humans do not live in isolation, and collective decisions must be made. As such, there must be some provision for super-individual moral agency. This is what I refer to as a group of individuals, or simply group. I do not use this term in a simple way, meaning any attempt at decision making involving more than one person. Instead, I use it in a technical way, to mean a voluntary association of individuals, none of whom relinquish or subvert their own moral agency, but merely use some method to determine the prevailing moral judgement of the group. The methods by which a group can come to such a determination are manifold: voting, by simple or super majority; formal debate; consensus building; and many not yet invented, I'm sure.

I contrast the idea of the group to the idea of the institution. An institution is also a super-individual decision-making body. However, it is not composed of individuals. In fact (as I shall discuss in a future post) institutions have priorities and prerogatives completely independent of the will of any given person. Obviously, decisions within institutions are ultimately made by individuals. But that individual must be willing to act, and must in fact act, in the interests of the institution rather than in their own individual interest or they would not be placed in such a position to begin with. A perfect example of this comes from a friend of mine who was tasked to go to a State Legislature meeting on behalf of the healthcare non-profit he works for. The people in charge had decided they would side with a certain political bloc which my friend opposed. However, it was his job to go and relay, and argue for, the position of the non-profit. His individual opinion of the matter at hand did not matter in the slightest. All that mattered was whether or not he could accurately relay the prevailing opinion of the institution he was a part of.

I do not think that the suppression of one's own moral agency in such a circumstance is conscionable. Be it as an employee, a soldier, or a politician, one should not have to abnegate one's own moral agency to serve a greater good. Such a good can be served voluntarily, and morally, by acting as part of a group of individuals, whose decision you can protest and even reject with no artificially contrived consequences to you, such as destitution or imprisonment.

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