Persons and Morally Considerable Beings

© By Dr. Jan Garrett, Western Kentucky University

Last modified April 18, 2011

This short essay is meant as a summary for students of the collective wisdom on this topic of academic teachers of first university-level courses in Ethics. After this introduction its current form is essentially unmodified from an earlier version dated 2001. I explore some related issues in this dialogue, A Conversation on Persons, also designed for students in their first college ethics course.

There are two categories of beings that play a central role in discussions of ethical problems and in the application of ethical theories: persons and what we can call, for lack of a clearer term, morally considerable beings.

Jacques Thiroux, in his textbook Ethics: Theory and Practice, asks, "To whom does morality apply?" (10) Answer: In many moral systems it applies to these two types of being.


Persons are also called moral agents, or moral actors, or moral subjects. ("Agent" comes from the Latin word for "one who does something"; a "subject" in this context is the kind of being who thinks and acts, as distinct from a "object," which or who is acted upon.)

Morality always applies to a person or group of persons in the sense that it applies to some individual or group capable of voluntary action. That's because moral evaluation is an evaluation of conduct which could have been different from what it was. Not only could it have been different but past moral experience and moral evaluation could have made it different. That is, the kinds of actions we judge as good or bad are precisely the kinds that are affected by moral evaluations. (Moral evaluation, after all, exists for a reason, and that reason is to encourage better conduct, not just to make somebody who has done wrong feel bad.)

Morality in the sense of moral evaluation always applies to beings like us--not to stones, not to plants, not to nonhuman animals that only act according to instincts or with which we cannot really communicate, not to machines that only follow the instructions of their drivers or programmers, not to very young children, and not to people so defective mentally that they cannot think about the consequences of their actions and decide accordingly. Moral agents have to be free and able to do otherwise. They have to be capable of foresight, of forming an intention. They have to be capable of weighing alternatives. If they are not capable of these things, at least to a significant degree, then they are not subject to moral praise or blame, their acts are not voluntary, and they are not considered morally responsible.

Persons and Human Beings

The word "people" refers to human beings. In connection with many ethical issues, what is important about "people" is not merely their biological status, that they are primates, mammals, animals, and living beings. What is important is their psychological dimension, which goes along with their being persons and moral agents.

Most people are

  • sentient beings (capable of feeling pleasure and pain)
  • have emotional capacities
  • have powers of memory and anticipation
  • can learn skills and develop moral habits, good or bad
  • can reason, at least sometimes, about technical problems and even moral issues
  • have life plans (more or less defined) that they may be trying to carry out, or at least hopes
  • have outlooks on life that depend heavily upon their past experiences
  • perceive the world, people, and living beings, around them
  • act on the world and observe how it responds
  • have memories built up through experiences
  • have attitudes on life shaped by their experiences, even those they have forgotten or repressed
  • are self-conscious, that is, they have a sense of who they are. (This affects how they relate to others, how they "know" what they should do and can do.)
  • It is plausible that happiness, whatever it is, is built upon this complex psychological life.

    We can imagine beings other than biologically human beings having these psychological capacities. Science fiction stories and movies (for example, "E.T.") give us examples of such beings. Personhood therefore does not necessarily coincide with a group of human beings. In theory at least, there could be persons who were not biologically human. If there is intelligent life in other solar systems, those life forms could well be persons.

    Morally Considerable Beings

    The beings we are now going to discuss are sometimes called "moral patients." ("Moral patient" suggests, among other things, that the being is being acted-upon by a moral agent). Morally considerable beings are also sometimes called "moral objects." ("Object" here has the same meaning as "patient" did in the previous remark.)

    The question "to whom/what does morality apply?" has a second meaning that we shall now consider. In making our moral choices, to whom or what do we owe attention "in their own right"? What individuals or entities should we be considering when we think about applying moral rules or when we weigh the anticipated good and bad consequences of actions?

    At the very least, it seems, all persons or moral agents, including all human beings capable of choice and voluntary action, fall into the group of morally considerable beings. (If there are nonhuman persons, there is no reason for denying that they are morally considerable beings: other things equal, it would have been wrong to prevent E.T., say, from returning home: as a moral agent, capable of choice, he had a right to liberty.) In other words, persons, beings whose actions we can morally evaluate, should also be regarded as morally considerable beings. We should be concerned about them in their own right when we ask about applying rules of conduct or are considering the good or bad consequences of our actions.

    The most common way of talking about being morally considerable is to talk about having human or moral rights.

    The human or moral rights on whose existence most people agree exist clearly pertain to human persons or moral agents, even if people disagree about how far beyond this basic group these rights extend (for instance, to animals? to human fetuses? to corporations?).

    But we do not have to restrict the group of morally considerable beings to moral agents or persons. Young children and adults who are not capable of reasoning on an adult level are also usually considered as morally considerable beings, even if they cannot function fully as moral choosers. However, it is somewhat more controversial to claim that they have the full set of moral rights that the first group has.

    Nonhuman animals may or may not have rights--that is disputed--but most of us agree that they ought not to be treated cruelly or made to suffer merely for the fun of it. The animal rights movement wants to extend the language of rights to cover nonhuman animals. It says we have duties to nonhuman animals similar to the duties we have toward human animals. At the very least, then, we are inclined to admit that nonhuman animals are morally considerable in some way. The animal rights movement wants to express (and strengthen) this commitment by saying that nonhuman animals have rights.

    Some people say that the only reason it might be wrong to harm a plant is that doing so might indirectly harm humans or nonhuman animals. Yet to some of us it is plausible that wanton destruction of, say, a large Redwood tree is wrong partly because the tree has some value "in its own right," not merely value for us. A sign of its inherent value, it might be argued, is that it has an interest in its own preservation. (Perhaps it is possible for non-conscious things to have interests; it is in a plant's interest, for example, to receive sunlight.) If that is correct, then, whether or not we wish to talk of tree rights, we might want to say more cautiously that trees are morally considerable beings.

    Some ethical thinkers who are concerned with preservation of the natural environment go farther than these other positions and say that ecological systems have value "in their own rights." Thus for these thinkers, ecological systems are morally considerable beings (or moral patients, or moral objects) along with humans, animals, and plants. Aldo Leopold, developer of the "land ethic," is an example of somebody who holds this position.