Moral Agency: Nature of Persons, Moral Character & Personhood

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  • 0:00 Nature of Persons
  • 0:52 Autonomy
  • 1:47 Moral Agency
  • 2:55 Moral Character
  • 4:48 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

How do you know that you're a person? Is it because you're human? This lesson explores this question as it delves into the nature of persons debate, the meaning of moral agency, and the idea of moral character.

Nature of Persons

Throughout the ages, philosophers have grappled with the nature of persons question. It's a pretty deep one to ponder, and no one's ever come up with a definitive answer. The nature of persons question is basically, 'What does it really mean to be a person?' For instance, is a person a person simply because he or she is human, or is more required?

Like I said, it's a pretty deep one to ponder, and although I'm a big fan of Dr. Seuss' 'A person's a person no matter how small' answer, we can't just stop here and call it quits. Instead, we'll be taking a look at some of the parameters philosophers have come up with to justify their own beliefs on the matter. Specifically, we're going to take a look at how the terms 'moral agency,' 'moral agent,' and 'moral character' fit into the nature of persons debate.


For starters, the famous 18th-century philosopher Immanuel Kant had a whole lot to say about the nature of persons debate. He believed that autonomy is required for personhood. In other words, personhood takes independence. It requires the ability to steer the course of one's own existence.

Of course, this definition just leads to more questions. For example, what constitutes autonomy and independence? For instance, by no stretch of the imagination is a newborn baby either autonomous or independent. Does this mean a baby is not a person? If so, when does it become a person? Are we granted personhood at our first word, our first step, or our first defiant action? Taking it a step further, what about someone who suffers with Lou Gehrig's disease? Having lost the ability to move or speak, is someone with this disease no longer a person? Like I said, the nature of persons debate is ripe with conundrums and questions.

Moral Agency

Along the same vein as Kant, some philosophers believe personhood requires moral agency, the capacity to make moral decisions based on the perception of right and wrong. Stated simply, it's the ability to judge between good and bad, moral and immoral. Building on this definition, a moral agent is a being who is conscious of the concepts of right and wrong.

For instance, a 7-year-old who bites her little brother, then lies about it to escape punishment, is exhibiting the traits of a moral agent. She knows what she did is wrong. Therefore, she makes it into the personhood club. However, a puppy who bites and excitedly tears up every shoe in sight does not. At first glance, this whole thing might seem cut and dry.

However, what about the severely and profoundly mentally handicapped man who bites his nurse every time she tries to feed him? Based on all observation, he has no concept that his biting is hurtful and wrong. Does this mean he's not a person? Just like the autonomy argument, the requirement of moral agency often gives rise to more questions than answers.

Moral Character

Adding to the autonomy and moral agency schools of thought, many argue that moral character accompanies personhood. No, it's not often listed as a requirement of personhood. However, many philosophers contend that those considered persons usually have some sort of moral character. Moral character can be summed up as the presence or lack of moral virtue.

Stated another way, moral character is the disposition to act, whether for good or bad, in a certain way. Familiar to most of us, if a person's moral character is good, we'd assume he, on the whole, exhibits traits like honesty, loyalty, kindness, and courage.

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