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cover of The Elements of moral philosophyIN HIS LIVELY introduction to moral theory, James Rachels concludes Chapter One by answering the question: What is a conscientious moral agent?

A conscientious moral agent is one “who is concerned impartially with the interests of everyone affected by what he or she does; who carefully sifts facts and examines their implications; who accepts principles of conduct only after scrutinizing them to make sure they are sound; who is willing to “listen to reason” even when it means that prior convictions may have to be revised; and who, finally, is willing to act on the results of this deliberation.”

Am I someone who is concerned impartially with the interests of everyone affected by what I do?

As I think about this, and as I contemplate the great variety of moral theories that abound throughout the world and throughout time, it seems to me that it is far more important to become a conscientious moral agent than it is to adhere to any specific moral theory.

Articulating one’s own moral theory is difficult, but if one is not a conscientious moral agent, or only a weak moral agent, one’s theorizing will be in vain. Becoming a conscientious moral agent is a life-long challenge, a life-long task.

One might examine oneself regularly on each of the following questions:

  1. Am I someone who is concerned impartially with the interests of everyone affected by what I do?
  2. Am I someone who sifts facts and examines their implications?
  3. Am I someone who accepts principles of conduct only after scrutinizing them to make sure they are sound?
  4. Am I someone who is willing to “listen to reason” even when it means that prior convictions may have to be revised?
  5. Am I someone who is willing to act on the results of this deliberation?

One of the greatest challenges to all of us in regard to these questions is the problem of attachment, or clinging. If we are attached to a social circle, a fixed idea, a moral position, or even a religion, it may hinder our ability to see the value of other views.

Am I someone who is willing to “listen to reason” even when it means that prior convictions may have to be revised?

I was impressed when I read the following words of the Dalai Lama*: “Once, at a scientific conference in Argentina, a mentor of my friend Francisco Varela told me that, as a scientist, he should not be too attached to his own field of research, as this might distort his ability to assess evidence objectively. Hearing these words, I immediately felt they should also apply to the religious domain. For example, as a Buddhist, I should strive not to develop excessive attachment toward Buddhism. For to do so would hinder my ability to see the value of other faith traditions.”

If we are overly attached, it will be difficult to sift all the facts and examine them without bias; perhaps we will even bend the facts. If we are overly attached, it will be difficult to examine and re-examine long-held principles. It will be difficult for us to be honest with ourselves when we find our principles wanting. If we are overly attached to our convictions, it will be difficult to revise them when we discover a higher truth.

Am I someone who is willing to act on the results of this deliberation?

Becoming a conscientious moral agent takes unflinching courage and honesty, for it may require us to leave behind long-held ideas and myopic perspectives. It may mean we have to leave  the community we grew up in. To be a conscientious moral agent means that we agree to follow the truth where ever it leads, and at whatever the cost. It means that we will do this even when we know the truth we arrive at today may not be the truth we see tomorrow. For we understand that whatever truth we find will have its blind spots and lacunae. And, most importantly, to be a fully conscious moral agent, we must invite all sentient beings to help us see these blind spots, and to rejoice when they are brought to light.

*The Dalai Lama, Beyond Religion, 51.