The argument from normative autonomy for collective agents

Journal of Social Philosophy 38 (3):410–427 (2007)
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This paper is concerned with a recent, clever, and novel argument for the need for genuine collectives in our ontology of agents to accommodate the kinds of normative judgments we make about them. The argument appears in a new paper by David Copp, "On the Agency of Certain Collective Entities: An Argument from 'Normative Autonomy'" (Midwest Studies in Philosophy: Shared Intentions and Collective Responsibility, XXX, 2006, pp. 194-221; henceforth ‘ACE’), and is developed in Copp’s paper for this special journal issue, “The Collective Moral Autonomy Thesis” (henceforth ‘CAT’). The argument goes as follows. (1) We correctly assign blame (or obligations) to collectives in circumstances in which it would be a mistake to assign any (relevantly related) blame (or obligations) to their members. (2) If (1), then collectives are genuine agents over and above their members. (3) Therefore, collectives are genuine agents over and above their members. Following Copp, I call (1) the Collective Moral Autonomy Thesis (CMA). Copp argues for CMA primarily by appeal to cases, but also offers two general arguments for it. In the cases that Copp describes, we are to judge that a collective act is blameworthy, though each member of the group that acts is blameless because he is merely following procedures appropriate for his participation, or because there are excusing factors, or because of overriding personal duties. I argue that the case for CMA has not been made. In particular, I argue that, in each case in which we feel inclined to hold a group responsible for something but not its members, it is because 1. we have accepted a false dilemma, that when no one agent is fully responsible for the action of a group of which he is a member, the only entity that could be responsible is the group as such, or 2. we have directed our attention to the wrong individual or individuals, or 3. we have become confused about the commitments of the individuals, or 4. we have mistaken ameliorating for excusing factors, or 5. we have mistaken moral blameworthiness and all-in rational blameworthiness, or 6. a combination of these things.

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Kirk Ludwig
Indiana University, Bloomington


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