The possibility of collective moral obligations

In The Routledge Handbook on Collective Responsibility. New York: pp. 258-273 (2020)
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Our moral obligations can sometimes be collective in nature: They can jointly attach to two or more agents in that neither agent has that obligation on their own, but they – in some sense – share it or have it in common. In order for two or more agents to jointly hold an obligation to address some joint necessity problem they must have joint ability to address that problem. Joint ability is highly context-dependent and particularly sensitive to shared (or even common) beliefs. As such, joint ability can be deliberately generated in a given collection of agents by providing information related to collective goals and contributory actions. As moral agents, we regularly face problems wherein the outcome of our actions depends on how others choose. There are two ways of deliberating about our own choices in such cases. We can either think of our choices as best responses to others’ choices (I-mode reasoning). Or we can think of our own choices as contributions to the collectively best option (even when we do not know how others are (likely) to choose) (we-mode reasoning). In deliberating about the right (individual) course of action vis-à-vis collective action problems, agents regularly we-frame the case at hand, that is, they include options in their deliberation that are only collectively available, and they we-reason with regard to their individual contributory actions. It is a necessary condition for collective obligations that potential collaborators facing a joint necessity case have grounds to privilege we-reasoning over reasoning in I-mode.

Author's Profile

Anne Schwenkenbecher
Murdoch University


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