Moral Agency: Learning to Do the Right Thing

What is the Right Thing to Do?

You’re filled with pressing doubt about how to begin. Or you’re unable to make up your mind. Or you vacillate back and forth without end. Or you act impulsively, doing the first thing that strikes you, only to regret it afterward. Or you end up doing whatever others recommend even if later you’re left wondering why you did it and what you truly believe.

Where are you in all this?

You doubt, put off, dragging your feet, or else you’re surprised by the mess you’ve gotten yourself into after having dashed off again. Either way, you feel foolish, stuck, lost.

Becoming a Moral Agent

A good moral agent is someone who can not only come up with and consider reasons for acting but also act on the right reasons. Over the years, I’ve conversed with conversation partners about a whole range of subjects, guiding them to clarity on such matters as

  • how to do the hard thing despite the pain it will cause others
  • whether to have a child
  • whether to leave a spouse
  • whether to leave a career
  • how to start a new business
  • which is the best place to live
  • how to live through a time of immense physical suffering
  • how to defend oneself against false accusations
  • how to become more self-reflective and less impulsive
  • how to speak the truth in the face of injustice
  • how to act courageously in spite of one’s fears
  • how to persist in the face of timidity and doubt
  • how to face up to existing reality

It’s easy to do the right thing in easy cases, but to be good moral agents capable of directing our lives we need to be able to act well in the hard cases and without having to lean on the council of others.

Learning Moral Agency

Through practice and philosophical conversation, we can learn how to do the right thing. Becoming a good moral agent involves learning

(1) to pick out what is most essential about the situation,

(2) to weigh, mull over, and consider the most relevant reasons for doing one thing rather than another,

(3) to test candidate actions through thought experiments and past experience, and

(4), at the right time, to act on the right reasons.

The goal is that, through conversations with me, you’re able to become an agent of your own life, thinking clearly, feeling steady, and acting well in your everyday life.

This is what I teach.

Money Rules for Simple Living: An Amazon Ebook

Alexandra and I are happy to report that we have published our first ebook on Amazon. It’s an updated and revised version of Money Rules for Simple Living: A Very Brief Guide. In it, I explore how each of us can use money wisely during a time of greater economic precarity in order to live more simply.

Money Rules for Simple Living_ A Very Brief Guide - Andrew James Taggart, Ph.D_

It is modeled on the idea of a spiritual journey, it consists of four stages of development, and it contains a variety of exercises and challenges to help the money practitioner along the way.

You can pick up a copy on Amazon here.

Getting a Clear View of our Basic Beliefs

After all these years of having philosophical conversations, I’m beginning to see something more clearly. Our everyday lives are built upon an elaborate edifice that itself rests on an unexamined basic belief or set of beliefs. We employ strategies, devise plans, create projects, and generally engage with others on the basis of this basic belief or set of beliefs, something that is always potentially visible yet usually lying just outside of view. Such a belief may animate us, our whole lives without ever having been disclosed.

It is interesting to discover that human beings create such dense complexity, such intricate structures on such a simple and often flimsy, incorrect, skewed, or false foundation. Philosophizing isn’t so much an act of “excavation” as it is a way of slowly and methodically removing the inessentials, of carefully removing the scaffolding in order to give a clear view of that upon which a whole life rests. One has to take one’s time as if the basic belief were always hiding itself (by being in clear view). That is breathtaking.

Consider examples:

  • Someone thinks that in all things he had better appear interesting. If not, no one will like him. Imagine a theatrical life emerging therefrom.
  • Another thinks that whatever happens she’ll find a way of figuring it out. Imagine an agental, highly pragmatic, and very optimistic view of life.
  • Another thinks that he must make the most out of his talents. His predilection for overwork inserts him into a capitalistic order that feeds off his predilection (to the point at which he dies momentarily of overwork).
  • Another presents himself as a very nice guy in order to be seen by others. One could imagine intricate structures associated with the desire for fame and for social recognition arising out of such a basic belief.
  • Another could place the centrality of work first and then go on to devise sophisticated plans, projects, and the like without being able to appreciate the world around him.
  • Another puts the needs of others before her own, and thus what could emerge (e.g.) would be someone involved in non-profit work, the caring professions, or social justice. (I once met conversed who went so far as to put the needs of others before her own that, committed to social justice, she couldn’t stand to be alone with herself.)

Listing in this fashion doesn’t do justice to what it is like to inquire and inquire for years, going through all these sophisticated accounts and byzantine thought-arrangements and life-arrangements and then to behold with the utmost simplicity–revealed to us–precisely that which animates a person’s life…

Once such a basic belief is revealed, fully examined, and well understood, then what? How is one to free oneself from it? Ah, that is a great question!

John O’Donohue on Being and Beauty

A good friend of mine recently shared with me this interview with John O’Donohue, an interview that had moved him greatly. It was, we learn, one of the last interviews the Irish poet and philosopher O’Donohue gave before he died in 2008.

I was so blown away by the startling beauty and perceptiveness that my desire to share it with friends quickly burgeoned into a desire to carry it into the larger world. So I do now. I include below a short biography of O’Donohue that accompanies the episode of “On Being.”


The Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue was beloved for his book Anam Ċara, Gaelic for “soul friend,” and for his insistence on beauty as a human calling. In one of his last interviews before his death in 2008, he articulated a Celtic imagination about how the material and the spiritual — the visible and the invisible — intertwine in human experience. His voice and writings continue to bring ancient mystical wisdom to modern confusions and longings.