“Agent”, OED says, could mean “an active and efficient cause, capable of producing a certain effect”; “agency” could mean “a thing or person that acts to produce a particular result”. It seems they are synonyms.

Then I come across two related phrases: moral agent, moral agency. “Agent” in “moral agent”, though means simply a subject, an “actor”, can be understood in a sense as a cause of an act.

Since “moral agency” is used to mean the inner dynamics of the moral agent, “agency” is to be understood as “cause” too: what makes the agent act morally? To treat them both as meaning “cause” cannot justify them representing two things different in order.

Therefore I doubt that maybe “agent” refers to the causes which are of natural kind, such as human or corporation, while “agency” can mean the inner cause that explains how the causes work as a cause. Sorry, this may be a very immature thought, please feel free to correct me!

3 Answers 3


Moral agent and moral agency are terms in ethics (moral philosophy) used in discussions of responsibility, negligence, judgment, and free will. You will also find it in philosophy of law, psychology, theology, and other fields interested in questions of accountability.

The philosophical sense of agent is of a person or thing which performs an action, and agency is the capacity to take that action. That is, an agent is one who possesses agency.

As Blackwell puts it, moral agency is

Any individual who is capable of formulating or following general moral principles and rules, and who has an autonomous will so that he can decide ultimately what acts he should perform and not perform.

Moral agents can react to the acts of other moral agents. Accordingly they are responsible for their acts and are the subject of blame or praise. Adult human beings are paradigmatic moral agents.

Moral agents are contrasted to moral patients: beings that lack rationality and cannot be held morally accountable for their acts.

Various authors in various fields offer more nuanced definitions:

Moral agents are various described— as entities that are causally responsible for actions (Eshleman, 2004; Heider, 1958), as entities that can earn blame or praise for their actions (Shaver, 1985), as entities that know their actions as right or wrong (Edwards, 1790; H. B. Miller, 1994), or as entities that can intend (Bratman, 1987). These definitions allow moral agency to be ascribed to humans, of course, but also to be attributed in limited ways to groups (e.g. corporations, nations; Knobe & Prinz, 2008) and sometimes even to animals (Shapiro, 2006) or mechanical agents, such as robots or computers (Floridi & Sanders, 2004).

  • Sorry I can't upvote more. Oct 13, 2013 at 16:34

'Agency' also carries a sense of 'capacity' or 'capability'. People with moral agency (or, e.g., political agency, or agency with respect to any given context or concern) have the capacity for moral behavior or thought, or are capable of moral agency: they are moral agents.

'Agency' understood as a business or organization is one that aggregates individual 'agents' acting in an agent capacity, and so in that sense "has agency." This sense of agency is structurally like that of 'bureaucracy', as in an aggregation of bureaucrats.


"agent" is :

  • a person acting for another ; such as "estate agent" ;

  • a natural cause having an effect on mater ; such as "oxidizing agent".

"agency" is :

  • the business and function of an agent, or the office where he / she is working ;

  • intervening action : "earth is fertilized through the agency of bacteria and earthworms".

"moral agent / agency" are not used in British-English. Perhaps "soberness is the moral agent of a good health" could be accepted ?

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    Moral agent is a term of art in philosophy. If it is not used in British English, what do British ethicists say instead? There are 14 instances in the BNC, as opposed to 59 in the COCA.
    – choster
    Oct 13, 2013 at 15:48
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    The above (unattributed) definition for agent does not give all accepted nuances. There are many examples on the web of the following form: 'Barack Obama says he is an agent for change' – where the sense 'a person having an effect on a matter' is obviously being used. Oct 13, 2013 at 16:26
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    Have you an authority for these definitions? And on what are you basing your assertion "moral agent / agency" are not used in British [ ] English? I haven't checked choster's research, but it would argue strongly against this claim. Oct 13, 2013 at 16:32
  • The above comments are right, I should have said "not commonly used". I was not trying to give all the meanings of the words, but to stay within the scope of the question. I generally work by instinct, and check sometimes, mainly in the Oxford publications. Oct 13, 2013 at 17:40
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    ELU being a question and answer site for 'linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts', I think that 'instinctive answers' (though experienced English users should not discount their expertise) need checking before a wrong statement that feels right is given. ' "[M]oral agent / agency" are not used in British English' is just plain wrong. And from the BNC and COCA results, the terms seem rather uncommon in the US as well as the UK. Which is unsurprising, given the register (moral philosophy) they are largely confined to. Oct 13, 2013 at 22:59

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