Group Agency, Really? [Book Review]

Philosophy of the Social Sciences 44 (2):252-258 (2014)
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Treating groups as agents is not at all difficult; teenagers and social scientists do it all the time with great success. Reading Group Agency, though, makes it look like rocket science. According to List and Pettit, groups can be real, and such real groups can cause, as well as bear ethical responsibility for, events. Apparently, not just any collective qualifies as an agent, so a lot turns on how the attitudes and actions of individual members are aggregated. Although I am unsure who will read this book, I can envisage four relatively distinct population segments: philosophers, decision theorists, activists, and social scientists. Philosophers who take questions of ontology seriously will likely find this book evasive. Decision theorists who enjoy axiomatic model building for its own sake will find much to keep them occupied. Activists who have taken it upon themselves to “raise group consciousness” (193) will probably skip ahead to the third part and feel emboldened by the thought that the model builders are busy with the first two. However, since the normative questions (about responsibility and so on) are answerable to prior metaphysical questions for which Group Agency supplies vacillating answers at best, a transition to advocacy would seem hasty. As for social scientists, either they will glance at the book’s dust jacket and (wrongly) assume that philosophers have now “proven” the existence of the groups they study, or they will engage with List and Pettit’s model only to discover that, unless they happen to specialize in commercial corporations, the model’s many stipulations impede rather than facilitate/elucidate their usual group intentional ascriptions.

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Marc Champagne
Kwantlen Polytechnic University


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