Monday, March 03, 2014

Can a group have intentions?

A group of four or four individual cyclists?

In the philosophy of action almost all books and articles are about what individuals do. Action philosophers discuss about concepts like belief, desire, intention, action and behaviour etc. and their relations and about how we can explain and understand the doings of individuals with the help of these concepts. But how about groups? People are basically social. This is not only so because they live in groups and need other people in order to survive, but there are also many biological and psychological − not to speak of sociological − reasons for this claim. Nevertheless, most philosophers of action do not take notice of groups, although common sense ascribes intentional concepts not only to individuals but also to groups. Isn’t it normal to say things like:
- the government has decided to cut the budget
- the orange team has won the gold medal on the team pursuit
- we carried the piano upstairs
- the crowd chased away the president?
In common parlance it is normal to attribute a belief to a government and say it reduced the budget because it believed that this would stimulate the economy. It is okay to say that the orange team wanted to win the gold medal, although actually three skaters wanted to win. We can say that we had the intention to bring the piano together upstairs, since it was impossible to do it alone. And no one can chase away a president alone but a crowd can do it.
On the face of it there is no difference between these group actions and individual actions, and it seems obvious to attribute intentions, beliefs, desires etc. to groups as if they are a kind of aggregate individuals. Even so group phenomena are generally ignored by action philosophers. Exceptions are Raimo Tuomela and Philip Pettit, for instance, and just they have to say interesting things in this field. However, in this blog I’ll ignore them. Here I’ll discuss only whether it’s reasonable to bypass the question whether groups can be seen as agents in their own right.
There are several reasons why action philosophers do not discuss this question. I think that the one that stands out is that all so-called group agency is nothing else but what each agent individually does put together. However, is it?
I think that this problem has two sides. We can ask whether groups really exist in the sense whether they have properties that cannot be ascribed to the properties of their individual members. I think that there are good arguments for it – I cannot carry a piano upstairs alone – and against it – the individual members of the orange team only have to agree on how to skate together in order to win as a team –. Although in my view the arguments that sustain the idea of group agency are better than those that refute it, at the moment I am indecisive about this what philosophers call ontological question. However, I think that the problem of group agency has also another side, which makes that it is a mistake that it doesn’t receive more attention in the philosophy of action. In order to make this clear I’ll use the example of a river. In fact, a river is simply a flowing quantity of water molecules. Perhaps it is theoretically possible to reduce the effects of this water current on the landscape, the way a river flows, the occurrence of whirlpools and so on to the behaviour of separate water molecules, in practice this is completely impossible, of course. And although we can say that the flow of a river has a certain direction (from the mountains downwards to the sea, for instance), it sounds strange to say that single water molecules show such a kind of behaviour (molecule x flows downward to the sea and along the way it erodes the mountain). That’s why we consider rivers as phenomena of their own and treat them that way. Even if we could defend the thesis that a river is nothing but a number of separate molecules, it is not a workable approach and rivers are considered as independent phenomena. In this way many fluvial geomorphologic processes can be explained in a satisfying way. In philosophical terms, epistemologically it is sensible to treat rivers as such, even if they are nothing but a bundle of water molecules.
I think it is the same with groups in the philosophy of action. Groups behave often that way that the can be considered agents. They display behaviour that looks like the actions of individual persons: as if they have intentions, beliefs, desires and what more. Therefore I think that it makes sense to analyse them – or to analyse them also – from the intentional perspective, even if it is merely an epistemologically assumption and even if ontologically groups do not exist but only their members do. See it this way: We say that the team has won gold, although we give the medals to its individual members.

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