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PRINTED FROM the OXFORD RESEARCH ENCYCLOPEDIA, RELIGION (religion.oxfordre.com). (c) Oxford University Press USA, 2016. All Rights Reserved. Personal use only; commercial use is strictly prohibited. Please see applicable Privacy Policy and Legal Notice (for details see Privacy Policy).

date: 26 September 2017

Summary and Keywords

Do humans have a will capable of choosing the good, doing the good, and evaluating the good? These are the central questions of moral agency, the notion that humans can be morally responsible for their actions, that is, that they are capable of deliberately exercising agency for good or ill. The Hebrew Bible offers multiple perspectives on these questions, and at least three different models of moral agency can be discerned. Some traditions indicate that humans are fundamentally flawed moral creatures who are incapable of choosing the good apart from divine intervention. For example, the psalmist confesses: “I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me” (Ps. 51:5) and prays for a divine change in the human condition: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me” (51:10). Other traditions, however, frequently take the more optimistic view that humans are capable of choosing and acting in accord with the good, though they may not always exercise their inherent capacity to do so. The Deuteronomic law, for example, is based on the notion that humans have the ability to distinguish obedience from disobedience and to act accordingly. Thus humans will reap the consequences of their actions, for God “maintains covenant loyalty with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations, and [God] repays in their own person those who reject him … Therefore observe diligently the commandment” (Deut. 7:9–11). In other words, humans are held responsible for their moral choice. A third view, found especially in the book of Proverbs, takes a middle view that moral agency involves a combination of internal and external factors: while most, though not all, humans are inherently capable of choosing the good, their capacity for moral agency requires cultivation by external forces. That is, humans are capable of moral choice, yet their ability to choose according to the good depends upon both an innate receptivity and training by others. The Hebrew Bible thus reflects a diverse set of viewpoints about the status of human moral agency, the extent of human accountability, and the factors that influence human action.

Keywords: moral agency, moral self, character, Hebrew Bible, ethics, genesis, Deuteronomy, prophets, wisdom

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