Global obligations and the agency objection

Ratio 23 (2):217-231 (2010)
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Abstract
Many authors hold that collectives, as well as individuals can be the subjects of obligations. Typically these authors have focussed on the obligations of highly structured groups, and of small, informal groups. One might wonder, however, whether there could also be collective obligations which fall on everyone – what I shall call ' global collective obligations '. One reason for thinking that this is not possible has to do with considerations about agency : it seems as though an entity can only be the subject of obligations if it is an agent. In this paper, I try to show that the argument from agency is not a good reason for being sceptical about the existence of global collective obligations : it derives whatever plausibility it has from the idea that claims about obligation need to be addressable to some agent. My suggestion is that we should accept this principle about the addressability of obligations, but deny that the addressee of an obligation need be the subject of that obligation. The collective obligations of unstructured collections of individuals, including global collective obligations, meet the addressability requirement insofar as they require something of the individuals who make up the collective
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