As my readers certainly will have noticed, one of my main fields of interest is the philosophy of action, so the field of philosophy that thinks about the possibility of intentional action and about what happens if we say that we act for a reason. Aristotle was the first who thought about such questions and since then the discussion has never ended. Or rather, sometimes the problem seemed forgotten but then it flared up again. However, this all is about what persons individually do. But how about groups? Do groups have intentions more or less in the way as individuals have them? Some philosophers like Tuomela, Bratman and Gilbert answer this question in a positive way in one way or another and they say that groups certainly have if we talk about small groups. Is this right? In order to examine this question let me start with a case that John Searle treats in a contribution to the debate. I have changed the case a lot, however. Here I cannot refer to individual contributors to the discussion. I simply present my view.
Smith and Jones, who work in a restaurant, are preparing a hollandaise sauce together. Jones is stirring while Smith slowly pours in the ingredients. Some philosophers would say now that Smith and Jones have a kind of collective intention to prepare the sauce. While they are busy, Baker calls Jones and tells him that he is wanted on the telephone. Since the sauce will be ruined if Jones stops stirring, Baker takes his place. Does it make any difference if the sauce will be ready before Jones returns or that he is called away for an urgent case and doesn’t return? I think that in both cases it is not simply so that there is a collective intention that makes that Baker and Smith do what they do. For I think that what Baker does is not preparing the hollandaise sauce as such but helping Smith and Jones. Baker, who is the switchboard operator in the restaurant, doesn’t know what a hollandaise sauce is. Therefore Smith tells Baker what he has to do and in this way the sauce is prepared. However, actually Baker doesn’t know what he is doing but he simply follows Smith’s instructions. He is just making physical moves and his intention is only helping Smith and Jones. By means of making the moves that Smith says he has to perform, Baker helps Smith and Jones. Helping is Baker’s intention. His intention is different from the intentions of Smith and Jones each, who wanted to make a hollandaise sauce. Therefore, even if we might have had first a group with the collective intention of making a hollandaise sauce, namely the group consisting of Smith and Jones, after that Jones has been replaced by Baker we don’t have a group with such an intention any longer, for Baker doesn’t know well what he is doing and that the result of his stirring is that a hollandaise sauce is prepared (in cooperation with Smith). Smith’s intention is pouring in the ingredients so that is hollandaise sauce is prepared, while Baker’s intention is helping Smith and Jones, or replacing Jones, if you like. Nevertheless, we get a hollandaise sauce in the end by the joint activities of Smith and Baker (and Jones, of course, who did his part, too, and maybe comes back before Smith and Baker have finished).
Now we can talk yet a lot about the identity of the group Smith-Jones-Baker, but I think that anyway we cannot deny that here we have a group of people who fulfil a task successfully together, but nevertheless not all of them know what the purpose of the group is. They simply do the prescribed tasks. The upshot is that people can work successfully together in a group and as group, but nevertheless there doesn’t need to be a collective intention for this.