The question whether there is some kind of collective intentionality that is shared by several people in – for instance – groups is one of the current themes in the philosophy of action. If there is, it will be a kind of we-intention that cannot be reduced to individual intentions put together in some way. In order to show that collective intentionality is a genuine phenomenon, John Searle discusses the case of a class of business school graduates. There is a difference, so Searle, between the way a group of business school graduates acts, if they simply try to behave as selfishly as possible according to the theory of Adam Smith after having left school, and a group of such graduates who have made a common pledge on the graduation day that they’ll help humanity by being as selfish as possible. Only in the latter case, so Searle, there is cooperation and a genuine collective intentionality – even though it is a cooperation not to cooperate on a lower level – for the latter class is bound by a common pact while the former class isn’t. But do we have here really a case of collective intentionality? Is the business class that made a pledge really different from the class that didn’t?
In order to answer this question, I want examine the relation between the supposed collective intentionality and the actions performed by those who made the pledge. Let me first take an example by Michael Bratman. Two people are painting a house together. It’s not just that each of them is painting on his own, but they coordinate the work in some way. One scrapes the old paint and the other paints what the first one has scraped. One buys the brushes and the other buys the paint. Both check what the other person has promised to do; etc. How different is it what the newly graduated businessmen – businessmen for short – who follow a common pledge do. Their actions are based on the common pledge, indeed, but nevertheless the individual actions have no relation with what the other businessmen do. Therefore, as such these actions are not different from the actions by the selfish businessmen who haven’t made a pledge. On the other hand, the two members of Bratman’s painting group, after having made the appointment to paint the house, act together in the sense that the individual actions are related in some way: they spread their tasks. Searle’s businessmen do not do such a common activity as a result of their pledge. On the contrary, a consequence of the pledge is that they do not cooperate, as Searle explicitly says. The actions based on the pledge are not related to each other. They follow purely individual intentions like selling certain products with a maximum gain for the seller. The collective intentionality of the pledge is not a reason for these actions; at most it is a reason for the way the actions are performed, so for the choice of the means. Therefore we can say that the two painters perform the action of painting-the-house-together but we cannot say that the businessmen perform the action of fulfilling-the-common-pledge. If there is a kind of collective intentionality in what the businessmen do (and I doubt if there is), it doesn’t follow from their common pledge.
Why this is so becomes clear when we look at Max Weber’s well-known definition of social action: An action is social if the agent’s behaviour is meaningfully orientated towards the behaviour of one or more other agents. If we look with this definition in mind at what the businessmen who made the pledge do, we see that there is no orientation towards the actions of the other businessmen in the individual actions of each of the businessmen taken apart. The pledge is merely a background factor of these actions. If we compare the actions of the businessmen, we see that the actions with and without the background of the pledge cannot be distinguished with respect to their content, such as intention and means. As regards content they are copies of each other. The upshot is that if collective intentionality exists, it is not for the reason produced by Searle with his businessmen example.