THE MORAL AGENT
MORALS are for man, not for the brute; they are concerned with his
thoughts, desires, words and deeds; they suppose a moral agent.
What is a moral agent?
A moral agent is one who, in the conduct of his life, is capable of
good and evil, and who, in consequence of this faculty of choosing
between right and wrong is responsible to God for the good and evil he
Is it enough, in order to qualify as a moral and responsible agent, to
be in a position to respect or to violate the Law?
It is not enough; but it is necessary that the agent know what he is
doing; know that it is right or wrong; that he will to do it, as such;
and that he be free to do it, or not to do it. Whenever any one of
these three elements--knowledge, consent and liberty--is wanting in the
commission or omission of any act, the deed is not a moral deed; and
the agent, under the circumstances, is not a moral agent.
When God created man, He did not make him simply a being that walks and
talks, sleeps and eats, laughs and cries; He endowed him with the
faculties of intelligence and free will. More than this, He intended
that these faculties should be exercised in all the details of life;
that the intelligence should direct, and the free will approve, every
step taken, every act performed, every deed left undone. Human energy
being thus controlled, all that man does is said to be voluntary and
bears the peculiar stamp of morality, the quality of being good or evil
in the sight of God and worthy of His praise or blame, according as it
squares or not with the Rule of Morality laid down by Him for the
shaping of human life. Of all else He takes no cognizance, since all
else refers to Him not indifferently from the rest of animal creation,
and offers no higher homage than that of instinct and necessity.
When a man in his waking hours does something in which his intelligence
has no share, does it without being aware of what he is doing, he is
said to be in a state of mental aberration, which is only another name
for insanity or folly, whether it be momentary or permanent of its
nature. A human being, in such a condition, stands on the same plane
with the animal, with this difference, that the one is a freak and the
other is not. Morals, good or bad, have no meaning for either.
If the will or consent has no part in what is done, we do nothing,
another acts through us; 'tis not ours, but the deed of another. An
instrument or tool used in the accomplishment of a purpose possesses
the same negative merit or demerit, whether it be a thing without a
will or an unwilling human being. If we are not free, have no choice in
the matter, must consent, we differ in nothing from all brutish and
inanimate nature that follows necessarily, fatally, the bent of its
instinctive inclinations and obeys the laws of its being. Under these
conditions, there can be no morality or responsibility before God; our
deeds are alike blameless and valueless in His sight.
Thus, the simple transgression of the Law does not constitute us in
guilt; we must transgress deliberately, wilfully. Full inadvertence,
perfect forgetfulness, total blindness is called invincible ignorance;
this destroys utterly the moral act and makes us involuntary agents.
When knowledge is incomplete, the act is less voluntary; except it be
the case of ignorance brought on purposely, a wilful blinding of
oneself, in the vain hope of escaping the consequences of one's acts.
This betrays a stronger willingness to act, a more deliberately set
Concupiscence has a kindred effect on our reason. It is a consequence
of our fallen nature by which we are prone to evil rather than to good,
find it more to our taste and easier to yield to wrong than to resist
it. Call it passion, temperament, character, what you will,--it is an
inclination to evil. We cannot always control its action. Everyone has
felt more or less the tyranny of concupiscence, and no child of Adam
but has it branded in his nature and flesh. Passion may rob us of our
reason, and run into folly or insanity; in which event we are
unconscious agents, and do nothing voluntary. It may so obscure the
reason as to make us less ourselves, and consequently less willing. But
there is such a thing as, with studied and refined malice and
depravity, to purposely and artificially, as it were, excite
concupiscence, in order the more intensely and savagely to act. This is
only a proof of greater deliberation, and renders the deed all the more
A person is therefore more or less responsible according as what he
does, or the good or evil of what he does, is more or less clear to
him. Ignorance or the passions may affect his clear vision of right and
wrong, and under the stress of this deception, wring a reluctant
yielding of the will, a consent only half willingly given. Because
there is consent, there is guilt but the guilt is measured by the
degree of premeditation. God looks upon things solely in their relation
to Him. An abomination before men may be something very different in
His sight who searches the heart and reins of man and measures evil by
the malice of the evil-doer. The only good or evil He sees in our deeds
is the good or evil we ourselves see in them before or while we act.
Violence and fear may oppress the will, and thereby prove destructive
to the morality of an act and the responsibility of the agent. Certain
it is, that we can be forced to act against our will, to perform that
which we abhor, and do not consent to do. Such force may be brought to
bear upon us as we cannot withstand. Fear may influence us in a like
manner. It may paralyze our faculties and rob us of our senses.
Evidently, under these conditions, no voluntary act is possible, since
the will does not concur and no consent is given. The subject becomes a
mere tool in the hands of another.
Can violence and fear do more than this? Can it not only rob us of the
power to will, not only force us to act without consent, but also force
the will, force us to consent? Never; and the simple reason is that we
cannot do two contradictory things at the same time--consent and not
consent, for that is what it means to be forced to consent. Violence
and fear may weaken the will so that it finally yield. The fault, if
fault there be, may be less inexcusable by reason of the pressure under
which it labored. But once we have willed, we have willed, and
essentially, there is nothing unwilling about what is willingly done.
The will is an inviolable shrine. Men may circumvent, attack, seduce
and weaken it. But it cannot be forced. The power of man and devil
cannot go so far. Even God respects it to that point.
In all cases of pressure being brought to bear upon the moral agent for
an evil purpose, when resistance is possible, resistance alone can save
him from the consequences. He must resist to his utmost, to the end,
never yield, if he would not incur the responsibility of a free agent.
Non-resistance betokens perfect willingness to act. The greater the
resistance, the less voluntary the act in the event of consent being
finally given; for resistance implies reluctance, and reluctance is the
opposition of a will that battles against an oppressing influence. In
moral matters, defeat can never be condoned, no matter how great the
struggle, if there is a final yielding of the will; but the
circumstance of energetic defense stands to a man's credit and will
protect him from much of the blame and disgrace due to defeat.
Thus we see that the first quality of the acts of a moral agent is that
he think, desire, say and do with knowledge and free consent. Such
acts, and only such, can be called good or bad. What makes them good
and bad, is another question.
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