Reason is the capacity for consciously making sense of things, applying logic, for establishing and verifying facts, and changing or justifying practices, institutions, and beliefs based on new or existing information.


Faith is a synonym of trust, in most general form.


Since, it seems we do not (not cannot), during out daily routines, ascertain the valid attribution of moral agency, it would seem we do so on faith.

Is faith the proper word for how we go about attributing moral agency? Is agency subjective? How does one decide what is an agent and what isn't without using the term faith (or some synonym)?

  • I do understand how my answer below fails to capture the intended scope of 'agency'. I am thinking "adult vs child vs dog vs vegetable", and you are thinking "human vs company vs computer". Moving this comment here, lest others make the same mistake. – jobermark May 31 '16 at 18:17

At least one philosophical position operated without faith:

We necessarily assign freedom of will to us and others, even if we and they might not have it, i.e. we are not able to prove it theoretically. It makes no difference, because by acting accordingly, we make the idea of free/moral agency factual. As operating with necessity, faith plays no role here.

See Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, Ak. 447-8, Cambridge Edition pp. 64-5, especially the footnote. I will quote the whole paragraph as pointing out the main aspects without loosing necessary context would end up there, anyway:

Freedom must be presupposed as a quality of the will of all rational beings.

It is not enough that we ascribe freedom to our will, on whatever grounds, if we do not also have sufficient grounds to attribute the same quality also to all rational beings. For since morality serves as a law for us merely as for rational beings, it must also be valid for all rational beings, and since it must be derived solely from the quality of freedom, therefore freedom must also be proved as a quality of the will of all rational beings, and it is not enough to || establish it from certain alleged experiences of human nature (although this is absolutely impossible, and it can be established solely a priori); but rather one must prove it of the activity of rational beings in general, who are endowed with a will. Now I say: Every being that cannot act otherwise than under the idea of freedom is precisely for this reason actually free in a practical respect, i.e., all laws inseparably combined with freedom are valid for it, just as if its will had also been declared free in itself and in a way that is valid in theoretical philosophy.* Now I assert that we must necessarily lend to every rational being that has a will also the idea of freedom, under which alone it would act. For in such a being we think a reason that is practical, i.e., has causality in regard to its objects. Now one cannot possibly think a reason [Vernunft] that, in its own consciousness, would receive steering from elsewhere in regard to its judgments; for then the subject would ascribe the determination of its power of judgment not to its reason but to an impulse. It must regard itself as the author of its principles independently of alien influences; consequently it must, as practical reason or as the will of a rational being, be regarded by itself as free, i.e., the will of a rational being can be a will of its own only under the idea of freedom and must therefore with a practical aim be attributed to all rational beings.

*I take this route, of assuming freedom as sufficient for our aim only as rational beings ground it on the idea in their actions, so that I may not be obligated to prove freedom also in its theoretical intent. For even if this latter is left unsettled, these same laws that would obligate a being that is actually free are still valid for a being that cannot act otherwise than as under the idea of its own freedom. Thus we can free ourselves of the burden that pressures theory.

That also means that whoever and whatever we think to have reason and conciousness is blamable for us, may it be a dog or the weather.

  • It almost does seem he claims we utilize "faith" in ascribing the "activity of rational beings in general". Am I misunderstanding or could that sentence be seen as a term of faith in determining agency? It acts as if it has agency for us, therefore, it does have agency. – NationWidePants Jun 1 '16 at 10:37
  • The move is quite similar: It is rational and qua being rational it cannot be thought otherwise than acting (at least!) under the idea of freedom, i.e. being able to act morally. The open question then moves to "How can I know rationality?". This is worked out e.g. in Fichte's practical philosophy: By summoning and reacting accordingly. That means we behave as if the counterpart is rational and by acting rationally ("behaving back as if you are rational") we achieve knowledge about it, and like I said above "make it factual". It's not faith, it's trial and error, so to say. – Philip Klöcking Jun 1 '16 at 11:14

If you're going to have a finite discussion, you'll need to agree on some unfounded assumptions. If this constitutes "having faith" then you're done -- essentially everything in life requires faith in this sense.

You can construct an argument by working out from introspection:

  1. (Via introspection) most of the the time, I'm aware of my volitions and how they relate to actions. I consider myself the maker of my actions, and thus I am (morally) responsible for them.

  2. (Via observation) I see other people, their construction and outward behavior is clearly of a similar nature as my own. Therefore I attribute them the same inner workings as myself.

  3. (Inference) Since they have the same inner workings as me (in an overall sense even if the details differ), I attribute the same kind of agency to them as I attribute to myself. This relies on an assumption of similar causes lead to similar effects.

Though far from ironclad, this is the outline of way to reason towards attributing moral agency to others. The application amongst humans is pretty straightforward, and done on a day to day basis -- we generally assume moral responsibility as a default, but regularly relieve people of their moral responsibility in the case of clear mental defect.

The nub of applying this kind of approach to more esoteric problems involves drilling down into which aspects of us (or more solipsistically, me) are the features on which we are making the equivalence claim. But how you proceed from here will depend on how you answer other questions. Maybe only humans have souls, or consciousness or self-awareness (of the right sort) or whatever, and thus only humans are, or can be moral agents. Or maybe, you take a functionalist view of mind so that other sorts of things, like say dolphins that seem to torture and kill other animals for fun can be held morally culpable. You'd do so if you concluded they both dolphins and humans exhibit the key functional characteristics necessary to support moral agency.

  • At the end of the day, however, we do not hold a dolphin or a dog culpable for their actions, through trials, the same way we do humans. And souls aren't the cause of this social difference because we do not observe soulessness, but I can, as an individual, identify what I deem to be lawlessness. – NationWidePants May 31 '16 at 21:32
  • 1
    No, we easily summarily execute them, without trials... Or we do in fact punish them in some way if we think they might understand and adapt their behavior. I am not sure you are being altogether fair here. It is not that we absolve them of guilt, it is that we don't consider communicating with them worthwhile. – jobermark May 31 '16 at 21:39
  • @NationWidePants You might not hold a dog or dolphin responsible for its actions but I do, and my community does (for dogs) in the sense that a dog that misbehaves will be put down (as mentioned by jobermark). If you argue that the dog is not morally responsible then there must be some feature of the dog's agency that is different from humans' -- drilling into that clarifies the what/how things need to be similar in order to share in moral agency. – Dave May 31 '16 at 22:23
  • @NationWidePants 13wham.com/news/local/… -- the dog got a hearing, also consider the quote "If you've got an animal that's loving to you, you don't see the bad in it." [emphasis mine]. This is an indication that at least some people and communities have come to a different conclusion than you have. – Dave May 31 '16 at 22:36
  • @jobermark I said "we do not hold them culpable ... same way we do humans", which you seem to agree with, so the question is why? I think it's because we see a causal relationship to the ends, but I don't see a societal belief that dogs, or other animals, have agency (within societal beliefs). Just an observation, but this does seem tangental from the primary topic. – NationWidePants Jun 1 '16 at 10:23

I am not sure that agency is responsible for the effects and determinations you are assigning it.

We can assume that children and the mentally disabled have full agency. Their free will is unimpeded. And yet we do not consider them fully morally culpable in most situations. We adjust our sense of their guilt to account for their limited ability to take context into account.

On the other hand, we also raise estimates of guilt due to limited ability. We adjust punishment to the perceived ability of actors to be changed. The inability to show remorse will get you a higher sentence. A psychopath or someone who is 'morally numb' due to deprivation or PTSD does not have more moral agency than a mentally healthy person, but he is less amenable to being morally corrected, so we consider him more guilty and punish him more.

At the same time most people would believe that any group of agents lacks independent agency, and that all the agency involved belongs to some involved individual or set of them. Yet we devise systems that punish corporations. Simply punishing the actual guilty human individual is not adequate. The responsible party might no longer even be an employee, but we want to encourage group behavior that will lead to better internal scrutiny.

Given your comments to previous answers, this leads me to conclude that agency is not the relevant issue in your question.

What seems to be at issue is reparability or redeemability. We assume machines are totally capable of being repaired, so we assign them very little culpability for their past actions. This is not about agency, it is about our limited ability to control our environment.

We surely do not make that determination based on faith alone. We spend a lot of intellectual effort in trying to make those predictions fair to individuals.

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