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Levels of Agency

As moral agents we can act in various ways: we can do things directly; we can fail to do things; and we can contribute to things. The first area of scrutiny in any assessment of moral responsibility needs to examine the level and quality of our own or others’ agency in a particular situation. Traditionally, ethics has distinguished between two main types of action: acts of commission and acts of omission. These general categories recognize that the things we do and the things we do not do are both subject to moral scrutiny. But moral philosophy also recognizes more nuanced forms of these two types of agency that are manifest in ideas of permission and "bringing about”.

Acts of Commission

Acts of commission are actions that we commit directly ourselves or as part of our organization. We actually do them. A humanitarian agency delivers health supplies to a local partner that is running primary health care clinics in a particular place, or organizes a cash distribution in a cer?tain way, or advocates on Al Jazeera for particular changes in international policy. In one country, a President mobilizes the armed forces to help rescue people threatened by floods. In another, a Minister of the Interior incites hatred against a minority group and encourages his police forces to evict them from their homes. In a certain civil war, one armed group imposes harsh taxes on the vulnerable population under its control, another enables humanitarian agencies to distribute seeds and tools in areas it controls. These are all direct acts of commission in which people actively do certain things, some good and some bad. When we actively do things, we are responsible for the deeds we commit and must give moral reasons to explain why we did them.

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