Performance Character: Being a Respectful and Responsible Moral Agent

moralityWe had earlier written of foundations and elements of being an Ethical Thinker. There is moral competence, comprising of self-identity, discernment, effective moral behaviour and personal conscience. We move on to moral agency, the power to act in a respectful and responsible manner.

Moral agency is the power to act – with respect and responsibility. The dictionary defines agency as “the power to act.” Moral agency, as we view it, includes two basic kinds of moral action: respect and responsibility. Both are foundational for moral character.

Respect means showing regard for the intrinsic worth of someone or something. This includes respect for self, other people, property, animals, and the environment that sustains all life.

A deep respect for all human beings, for example, would lead us to take care never to intentionally act in a way that violates another person’s dignity, rights, or best interest. Responsibility is the active side of our morality. It goes beyond respect; it literally means “ability to respond.”

Responsibility defines our positive obligations. It leads us to fulfil our commitments and to intervene when necessary to stand up for what is right and correct what is wrong. Whereas respect says, “Don’t hurt,” responsibility says, “Do help-even when helping carries a cost.” Respect and Responsibility might be expressed as “Help Ever, Hurt Never”.

In a person of character, these two sides of moral agency are linked. If I have a deep respect for the dignity and rights of all people, for example, that attitude will often motivate me to take responsible action when I see someone’s rights or welfare being violated.

Dimensions of Respect:

In moral development, respect is the base on which other ethical virtues build.

1. A general respect that we owe to every human being without exception-a respect for every individual’s inherent worth, rights, and human dignity. Such respect is not “earned” in the way that admiration or esteem is; we deserve such respect simply by virtue of being human. We are obliged to treat all persons, including the weak and vulnerable and those who may not seem “useful” to society, with this kind of basic respect. No life has more or less value than any other.

2. The special respect that we owe to persons because of the role or position they occupy. Parents, teachers, and public officials, for example, deserve this respect because of the special authority and responsibility they have for the welfare of others. This is the sort of respect people are referring to when they say things such as, “I don’t agree with the President, but I respect the office.”

3. Respect as an inner attitude, not just external behaviour. We are not being truly respectful toward other persons if we are inwardly contemptuous of them, even if we do not show that attitude by our actions. To respect others is to look for the best in them, just as we want them to look for the best in us. If you do one thing and think another, you are not acting with integrity. The inner attitude has to be reflected in outer behaviour for respect to become gravitas – the energy, the vibration, the feeling others experience when they are around us.

Dimensions of Responsibility:

Whereas respect restrains us from doing harm, responsibility motivates us to do good. The responsibility side of moral agency inspires ethical intervention. Responsibility is at the core of moral courage. Edmund Burke was speaking about this aspect of moral agency when he said, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” A responsible moral agent realises that there are no innocent bystanders.

Testimony to the truth of Burke’s statement comes from past historical horrors such as the Nazi holocaust. The Third Reich of Nazi Germany systematically and ruthlessly murdered 11,000,000 civilians, including six million Jews. Although the vast majority of people did nothing to help those who were being persecuted by the Nazis, others had the compassion and courage to risk their lives to help those in danger. An examination of their motives helps us to better understand the nature of moral agency.

In 1988, in The Altruistic Personality, researchers Samuel and Pearl Oliner reported their research on 406 rescuers who had helped to save Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe.

For purposes of comparison, they also interviewed 126 non-rescuers. The Oliners found three kinds of “moral catalysts,” sometimes operating in combination, that moved people to rescue.

For the majority of rescuers (52%), a norm-centred motive-allegiance to the pro-social moral code of their social group-led to their first helping act. For example, the wife of a German minister initially took Jews into her home because her church was engaged in rescue activity.

For more than a third of the rescuers (37%), an empathic orientation-a response of the heart to people in pain-motivated their first helping act. For some of these individuals, merely knowing that others were suffering was enough to motivate action; for others, a direct encounter with a person in distress led to helping.

For a small minority of rescuers (11%), the first helping act was motivated by a belief in universal ethical principles of justice or caring. For example, a high school mathematics teacher was deeply involved in saving children-hiding them in various schools. She had not directly witnessed the mistreatment of Jews. Asked why she helped them, she responded simply: “All men are born free and equal by right.”

These three moral orientations-acting according to the norms of one’s group, having empathy for those in distress, and adhering to universal ethical principles-were three different paths to the virtuous act of rescuing. What they have in common, the Oliners concluded, is the capacity for extensive relationships-a feeling of responsibility for the welfare of others, including those outside one’s immediate family and community circle. This kind of feeling of responsibility appears to be a central component of moral agency.

Social Responsibility and Moral Agency
There are other matters that need to be addressed in another article. Respect and responsibility are not evident in many forms of social media. The trio of reason, respect, responsibility is abandoned when people post to social media using a persona, a handle, an avatar that does not directly identify them. There is also the matter of gaslighting, woke (cancel culture), mutual respect and collective responsibility. There is a pyramid of moral understanding, social skills and self-respect. This pyramid – which strengthens integrity – appears to be missing in action.

Where there is a lack of self-respect and a poorly developed conscience, we need to enquire, What is being perpetrated?


Respect and Responsibility



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