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 does. 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, willfully. 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 will.
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 voluntary. 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.
Source: Moral Briefs by Rev. John H. Stapleton, Imprimatur 1904