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.