- Just as we may ask whether, and under what conditions, a collection of objects composes a single object, we may ask whether, and under what conditions, a collection of actions composes a single action. Peter van Inwagen calls the problem concerning material objects the 'special composition question' (van Inwagen 1985). I have argued elsewhere (Chant 2006) that van Inwagen's question may be applied to actions to pose what I have called 'the special composition question in action.'
- In this chapter, I shall introduce a second composition question in action. Here we will also ask whether, and under what conditions, a collection of agents constitutes a single collective agent. In this chapter, I will refer to the first composition question in action as 'CA1' and the second question regarding agents as 'CA2.' One might think, as a number of authors do, that a correct answer to CA1 determines a correct answer to CA2. For it is argued that if there is a single collective action that cannot be reduced to the actions of individuals, then there must be some single collective agent that is the author of that act. If this is right, then a correct answer to CA1 will guide us directly to a correct answer to CA2, or so the argument goes.
- In this chapter, I will argue that the two composition questions are not so closely related. In fact, there are excellent reasons to think that CA1 demands a positive solution that does not impose any restrictions on CA2. I will also argue for a solution to CA2; I will conclude that a proper understanding of collective agency helps shed light on issues concerning individual agency.
- In this chapter, I have argued for several theses:
- that the right analysis of collective action will make use of the causal consequences of the alleged collective action;
- that an analysis of collective action does not settle any important issues regarding collective agency;
- that an analysis of collective agency needs to be argued independently of questions regarding collective moral responsibility; and finally,
- that we may get closer to an account of collective agency by stripping the question of some of its ontological presuppositions.
- We may say a bit more about the last argument in an attempt to tie together some of the separate threads of this chapter. Earlier, I said that the existence of collective action and agency is really best thought of as a working hypothesis - that is, it is a working hypothesis that there is an informative analysis of the behaviour of groups that makes recourse to a vocabulary like that of the folk psychological theory of individual behaviour. If this working hypothesis is to be vindicated, then we have an additional reason to shift our attention from the question of collective agents to one of collective agency. For if we keep the question focused on the existence of a thing - the agent - then we will undoubtedly lose much of the relevant similarity between individuals and groups. After all, although I do not know what, from the perspective of metaphysics, a collective agent would turn out to be, I am reasonably confident that it would turn out to be extremely different from an individual agent. In other words, the similarity (if there is such) between individual and collective agents is not that the same thing exists in both cases. Rather, the similarity is that there is an important property or characteristic shared (at least sometimes) by both individuals and groups. The working hypothesis amounts to the assumption that this shared property can play the same explanatory role in accounting for the behaviour of individuals and for groups. Whether this hypothesis is borne out over the long run will depend on whether the details of the analysis yield a useful general theory of individual and group behaviour. If the arguments in this chapter are correct, then we have at least a roadmap for deriving such a theory.
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