Monday, May 26, 2014

The possibility of we-intentions

A part of the gang

The question of responsibility for an action, in case this action has been performed on orders from a superior (see last week) is related to the question whether someone is responsible for the actions of a group s/he belongs to. I have discussed this theme long ago in my blogs, especially in relation to the philosophy of Hannah Arendt, so I’ll bypass it. However, it is generally accepted that it is possible to ascribe responsibility to a group, as is done, for instance, when a company as such – and not the individual managers – is sentenced for breaking the Environment Law. Who or what is it then that holds the responsibility? Or in my example, who or what is it then that is sentenced? For normally a sentence is passed only for something that is intentionally done or for what is the result of an action intentionally performed (even if this result hasn’t been foreseen or hasn’t been intended). Since our juridical system makes it possible to prosecute organisations and other formal groups, apparently they are ascribed actions and intentions. This is in line with common parlance, which ascribes intentions and actions to all kinds of groups, formal and informal. “The football team wanted to win in order to avoid relegation.” “The gang decided to beat up the first passer-by”. Such phrases are common use and they have nothing metaphysical and they are seen as reflecting the facts. Nevertheless, I think that it is reasonable to ask what we mean by them. For it’s not Local United that will do its utmost in order to avoid relegation but John, Pete, Charles and the others will do and kick the ball. And it is the same for the gang. For if John, Pete and Charles form a gang after the match (which they have lost) and then attack Henry, the first passer-by who happens to be also the goal keeper of the opponent, it is not a mysterious unity that hurts Henry intentionally, but there are three men of flesh and blood who do.
I think the problem is this. On the one hand a group is made up of individuals agents and it is they who act. On the other hand a group is a real social phenomenon and what a group does cannot be explained by referring to individual agents and simply put them together. For if we see groups only as an aggregate of individual agents, we get something like this: Agents have individual intentions and when they act together they have joined their intentions and have developed a joint commitment. On base of this joint commitment a group intention is formed. This is basically the approach of present-day philosophers like Raimo Tuomela or Michael E. Bratman. A typical case discussed by them is painting a house together. The approach sounds quite Thatcherian, for in the end it sees cooperating only a matter of bringing people together in the right way (and that’s why Thatcher thought that there are no societies but only individuals – and families at most). What this approach forgets, however, is that intentions and the ways they are put together do not come out of the blue. They are based on the possibilities, rules, associations etc. that an agent happens to find already present when s/he “decides” to act or develops intentions. It is this what is already there that determines and structures what an agent wants to want (and not just wishes to want) and what this agent factually can do and will do (within a certain latitude; it’s true). These “existences” or “availabilities” or how we would call them (structure, culture) are the foundations of our we-intentions or group intentions. It’s an idea that is a consequence of Anthony Giddens’s structuration theory and actually it is a concise rephrasing of this theory in a we-intentional wording. It sounds quite Marxian, indeed, but it is Marxian only for a part. For it is not without reason that I said that an agent has a certain latitude when s/he is going to act in a certain situation. For every situation where an agent has to act needs both to be interpreted (“what am I supposed to do?”; “what can I do?”; etc.) and it leaves room for choices: our elbow room. Sometimes our elbow room is limited; sometimes it is very large. And here, and especially in the latter case, the first (“Thatcherian”) approach becomes valid, namely the freedom to choose our own joint intentions and commitments. Only then and there we can say: we can leave it or we can take it. Only then and there we can jointly put our individual intentions together so that we get a we-intention, for instance for painting our house together. It’s a thing that every free rider knows.

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