May 27, 2005

Moral Agency and Personhood

Don Boudreaux is of the opinion that stem cell research (presumably 'embryonic' stem cell research, rather than adult stem cell research) is not obviously immoral because the embryo doesn't have moral agency. Moral agency, implicitly, is the threshold (or A necessary condition) for personhood.

Of course, if this is so then I could kill a newborn without worrying about anything more than the time and cost of its construction. After all, little Johnny makes cute gurgling sounds and opens his eyes wide but he doesn't have much moral agency at a week old. Even when kids get to be a little older, they don't have very developed senses of morality - or even of truth. Little kids lie all the time, claim everything is theirs, and react angrily at times when some perceived object of theirs is touched or looked at. Kids don't really get morality, so how can they really be moral agents? I mean, at least some rescue dogs can save people in wells or burning buildings or something. Timmy was saved by Lassie, not a toddler.

There's certainly some question to whether kids have moral agency - the first part of the question being just how you define moral agency. I'd leave the definition at something vague for now, like the ability to discern right actions from wrong ones (or perhaps the ability to choose between right actions and wrong ones).

Given that as a standard for personhood, there's a sliding scale o' personhood. Babies wouldn't really be on the scale, as they have few actions beyond curiosity and are barely capable of comprehending pain or evil, let alone avoiding them. That's why we give them a pass when they do gross, destructive, mean or dangerous things. They're not expected to have moral agency, to 'know any better.' That'd put them somewhere around lab rats - off the personhood charts.

As children mature, they tend to view morality in terms of punishment. One action is wrong because it gets them punished, while another action is okay or good because either a lack of punishment or the receipt of reward is the result. Is that really moral agency? I'd say it's self-interest, and lab rats are capable of that (see: maze experiments in positive and negative reinforcement). The lab rat finishes the maze correctly and wins cheese or takes too long gets the shock. The child cleans his room and gets a cookie or breaks a lamp and gets no dinner. Not exactly a crystal clear theory for personhood, even if the child is far better at discerning the behaviors desired than the lab rat. Separate from moral agency, children have loyalty and emotions and love that the rats do not have, but little kids are pretty shaky on moral agency (the defined signpost).

The basis of adult relations to kids starts and ends with the fact that a baby or little kid "doesn't know any better." That's the essence of moral non-agency.

The question, beyond immaturity, is sociopaths. Those people who, for whatever reason, display narcissism instead of sympathy and apathy instead of morality. There are people without compassion for other humans and without any real sense of moral right and wrong. They aren't crazy like hearing voices, but they are mentally defective in their inability to care about the moral lines you and I take for granted. They don't have moral agency in any substantive way, only in an ability to mimic the common behavior of others. Is that moral agency? I don't think so. Of course, how could you prove who these human non-persons are? It would take a series of psych tests and the assumption that they exist and can be discovered through testing, but then you'd have to figure out if these amoral humans have rights.

If moral agency is the signpost of personhood, then embryos, fetuses, infants, young children and sociopaths aren't persons. They're human non-persons, living without true moral agency. Would it be okay to kill them? I certainly don't think so.

I submit that all humans are persons. Every different human is a person, and therefore you can't go around killing them any more than you would kill a fully grown human being. I realize this has implications on scientific research and birth control, but it'd be a despicably poor example of moral agency if I altered my definition of humanity for the sake of convenience.


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