Human children and non-human animals are denied moral status or equal consideration with human adults due to their lack of consciousness, reason or autonomy

They are not moral agents or subjects of moral motivation who choose between different possible courses of action

Can they still be moral or immoral? Or be held accountable for their actions?

  • Unfocused. A child or a non-human animal, especially a mammal, usually lives too long to consider them (im)moral in general. You could ask about the (im)morality of a single action performed by them, though.
    – user64945
    Commented Feb 23, 2023 at 23:28

5 Answers 5


Children are not denied moral agency, they are usually denied legal culpability. That's a big difference. Children as agents can be engaged in ethics and are ethical beings, but they are often exculpated from punitive action on the basis they lack cognizance of consequence and the ability to consent. A child who murders is a murderer and has committed an immoral act, actus rea, but may not have a guilty mind, mens rea. The murder, actus rea, would be an occurrence of immorality which doesn't necessarily justify the label of a disposition of immorality, criminal.

  • If they don't have a "guilty mind", and they don't understand the rules pertaining to, or consequences of, their actions, this seems to clearly imply that they cannot act immorally. Morality is an understanding of right and wrong, and to do wrong, one needs to understand the consequences of one's actions. Also, for killing to classify as "murder" (in a legal sense), it often requires mens rea.
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Feb 23, 2023 at 14:04
  • @NotThatGuy I'll try again succinctly. "Acting moral" applies to the indivdual's assessment and societies assessment. You fail to recognize the distinction. It is precisely because it is presumed that a child who kills another child does not possess sufficient moral agency and can later be instilled with it that our moral agency insists that consequences be non-criminal. Thus, collective decisions of morality are imposed on an individual regardless of the nature of the moral or even amoral character of an agent so judged. Think about it...
    – J D
    Commented Feb 23, 2023 at 16:44
  • we exculpate confused generally moral children, but hold psychopathic children accountable. It's not the lack of morality (immoral versus amoral), and it's not the age (both are children), it's the societal judgement that the immoral act is occurrent and not a disposition. So, one needn't be a functional moral agent to be judged as violating morality. The difference in accountability is our meta-ethical stance towards how society reconciles the violation of morality with respect to the exact nature of the moral transgression and transgressor.
    – J D
    Commented Feb 23, 2023 at 16:47
  • To claim there is some ethical precept that objectively and universally deems an agent and actions is absolutist and simplistic. Practically, situational ethics are applied, and in US jurisprudence, it is called attendant circumstances.
    – J D
    Commented Feb 23, 2023 at 16:50

Since all morals are relative, the answer depends on the values of the culture in which the wrongdoer is being judged. In some societies a child who murders another, say, might be considered not to know what they have done, while in others the child might be considered evil. There is no absolute right or wrong way to judge.

Morals are values relating to standards of behaviour shared by members within a given group. If someone or something infringes those standards, the consequence is usually determined by the group, perhaps by consensus, perhaps by sub-groups (eg a judiciary and police force) to whom responsibility for law enforcement has been entrusted, perhaps by a potentate whose rule the group accepts.

The group might take the view that infringement of the moral standards should be punished regardless of whether the infringer understands their actions. If you had a dangerous dog that was continually biting people, you might decide that it should be put down, in the same way that if you had a car that was dangerously beyond repair you might decide it should be scrapped. In other words, you would take action to prevent future harm, without necessarily judging that the cause of the harm was 'morally' responsible for it.

  • Right, but persons are not dogs or cars.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Feb 22, 2023 at 23:54
  • 2
    @ScottRowe What is the significance of your statement?
    – Kröw
    Commented Feb 23, 2023 at 6:07
  • 1
    @ScottRowe what distinction is that? Commented Feb 23, 2023 at 12:39
  • 1
    @ScottRowe Why do you say it is absolute? I agree it is the prevailing view, but not absolute. Hitler was very fond of animals, but did not take the view that it was wrong to slaughter millions of people. In any case, you miss my point. I was not equating dogs, cars and people. I was only saying that you might decide to deal with a person causing harm, regardless of whether the person was morally responsible, as we do when we incarcerate the dangerously insane. Commented Feb 25, 2023 at 6:43
  • 1
    @ScottRowe I can imagine! That said, I also sympathise. To me, avoidable acts of harm are repulsive. Commented Feb 25, 2023 at 15:15

Yes, non-agents can be moral or immoral in the sense that their actions can be deemed moral or immoral.

Morality is associated with actions (and other things, like intentions, but for the purpose of this I will restrict myself to actions). An action in itself can be moral or immoral. For example, it is clearly immoral for a random, innocent, average person to be robbed and killed, at least in some if not most interpretations of morality.

So a child murdering another child is clearly performing an immoral action.

Or be held accountable for their actions?

This is the crux. We have decided that children or animals are treated differently for immoral actions because we know that their brains are either not fully developed yet, or in the case of animals never will have the capability of reasoning as humans. But both for children and an animal (say, a dog) there would most definitely be consequences for murdering another child. A dog biting a child to death would very likely be put down, at least in many places I know. A child killing another child might not be put into prison, but there will be something, probably involving psychotherapeutic treatment or whatever that society has come up with. It would not simply go on and happily get to kill its next victim tomorrow.

Even though we accept that children may not be mentally capable of foreseeing the result of their actions, there would still be accountability in the form that there would be some result from their action.

It's basically the same for when your cars brakes are broken - you would not punish the car for immoral behaviour, but you would take the car out of the streets and fix it before allowing it to drive again.

Or to put it still another way; at the end of the day, one reason for the existence of the concept of "morality" itself is to be able to prevent clearly immoral actors from doing nefarious things in the future. A child who has demonstrated that it is capable of immoral action (even if it clearly is incapable of being punished like an adult) would still be "taken out of the streets" and "fixed" before we'd put it into, say, a kindergarten again, because at the end of the day, we don't want children going around and killing other children!


Your focus seems to be on "morality", but the more interesting question would be that of "agency".

The thing is if you define morality as a code of conduct (descriptive or normative, by society, a group or an individual or whatnot), then the implied assumption is that you're a) dealing with agents that can do conduct and b) that they understand the rules.

So if you're dealing with inanimate objects that can't do anything or with animate beings that don't understand what they do or what you want them to do. Then you can assign labels to them, but these labels would be for you not for them. Like you'd tell yourself that an object or behavior is good or bad, but your assessment would not have any normative consequence for the thing that you describe. Like you could look at a poisonous substance and say "bad", but the substance has no possibility to act upon your judgement, it lacks agency.

Like say a wooden spoon is misused for a beating. Is it then "good" because it's a useful tool or "bad" because it's a weapon that inflicts harm? Or does it come down to the object itself in the first place or isn't it more about the person wielding it or the person interacting with it.

So in practical terms it's not a description of the thing itself, but rather about the interaction of an agent with the thing. The thing just is. Of course you can argue that it's existence itself is good or bad, but that doesn't change the morality of the thing, it just reflects your preferences towards the thing.

You could do some mental gymnastics and pretend that the thing is an agent and for example argue that a stick is good because it tries to help people to the best of it's abilities (it just doesn't have any abilities). Or that idk a radioactive substance is bad as it does harm to living things in it's environment. But it's purely descriptive, on their own they couldn't change that behavior and act "moral" or "immoral".

Now depending on your definition of morality that could already suffice, like if morality is just acting according to a code of conduct and you happen to do so by accident or happen to fail to be able to do so, equally by accident. Then you'd be moral or immoral. But that kinda feels pointless. It's like looking at a car driving in one direction and arguing "I command you to further drive in that direction". Sure it will probably do so unless it comes towards a junction but it's not really because of your command, it's because it would have done that anyway.

So if the point of morality is just that things act a certain way and they happen to do so and you really don't care for their reasons to do so, then you could assign a moral label to them.

So with respect to:

Can they still be moral or immoral?

Probably yes (if you really bend the definition to make them to).

With respect to the other question:

Or be held accountable for their actions?

It's more difficult. Because as implied in the beginning, in order to meaningfully hold them accountable for their action, they'd need to have some sort of agency. They'd need to know what to do and deliberately do something else. So there needs to be an understanding of the code of conduct, there needs to be an act that goes against that and there needs to be at least one feasible option to adhere to it.

And with children and animals you're already hitting a problem with regards to understanding the code of conduct in the first place. Like they don't innately do that and it kinda comes down to you teaching them and so their failure to adhere to the rules might actually be your failure to teach them correctly and in an understandable manner.

Legally this is often treated as binary as in "they do or they don't understand and are able to adhere to the rules", but practically the agency to do so is difficult to assess and more on a spectrum and so is the ability to meaningfully hold them morally accountable.

You can of course punish them regardless of their agency and ability, but then you're not really "holding them accountable", you're just harming them because you wanted to or even needed to (poisonous substance for example).

So the question is somewhat how you read the "be" in that question. Is morality a descriptive property of an object, like for example how redness describes the color of an apple. Then yes it can be moral and immoral. Or is it a description of the "character" of a thing, like how a person can have courage. In that case a person can be courageous, but for obvious reasons it wouldn't really make much sense to describe the character of a thing without a character to begin with.


A non-(moral-)agent cannot be moral or immoral. Morality pertains to an understanding of right and wrong, and acts in accordance with that understanding (i.e. choosing to do right, or choosing to do wrong). A moral agent is an entity capable of making moral decisions (i.e. acting in accordance with their understanding of morality). So a river, for example, doesn't do "right" (moral) or "wrong" (immoral). A river just flows with no purpose or intent, and it's up to us to get out of the way if we want to not be harmed.

Non-human animals are typically deemed to not be capable of knowing the difference between right and wrong, and are therefore not considered to be moral agents, and their actions are neither moral nor immoral.

Children go from being incapable to being capable of knowing the difference between right and wrong, as they age. So their status as moral agents at any given point in time is a bit more blurry, and can be judged differently depending on their age, maturity and mental state.

Animals may be put down if they're deemed to be a threat to humans, much like we'd act to prevent a dangerous river from further harming humans (which also arguably isn't that different from how we'd treat an adult who's an immediate threat to other humans and who can't safely be incapacitated). Whether this is "accountability" is left up to interpretation.

The accountability of children is more of a legal issue. They may be tried as adults if they're deemed to be moral agents on par with adults, and they knew their actions were wrong. Or they are tried as children, and the focus is more on educating them and stopping them from hurting others in the short and long term.

I'm not commenting on the appropriateness of how we hold animals or children (or adults) accountable for their actions, but rather merely explaining how we do so. Certainly our legal system leaves a lot to be desired.

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