Elucidations: Prev Next

  • Can a group of people do an action?
    • We regularly conjoin plural subjects with action verbs.
    • We have a desire to analyze the collective action purely into terms of the individual actions. This is a mistake - removes what is interesting about collective action.
  • Example: five people building a wall
    • Someone could say there is no more to this action than just the individuals laying bricks / cement.
      • This account gives no relations between the people doing the various actions
  • Example: swedish diplomat
    • Case 1: collective action
      • Want to talk to the diplomat, who is talking to someone else. Your teammate engages the other person, opening up the diplomat for you to sweep in.
      • Together you pull off the plan together
    • Case 2: no collective action
      • Same as above, except no coordination was planned with the teammate
      • It just happens that this other person started talking to the person talking to the diplomat, and you seize the opportunity.
      • It’s just one agent exploiting the actions of another agent.
    • The reduction of group actions to individual actions cannot distinguish the two cases.
  • One source of pressure that makes people (illegitimately) doubt the reality of collective action:
    • Cause by an intuitive (but bad) picture of how solitary action happens
      • A process that is caused by a psychological state
    • When we generalize this to groups, it requires us to postulate a group mind.
    • Laurence: this picture is bad because it presupposes the causality between action and mental states is like the causality between rocks bumping each other.
      • Different kinds of explanation ought be appropriate for talking about human action.
      • It lacks any reference to people’s purposes for acting.
    • Alternative
      • Slogan: acting together is acting with a common purpose.
      • E.g. bank robber is listening to a stethescope
        • We can ask why and get the answer “to crack the safe”
        • We can ask why is he cracking the safe and get the answer “because the robbers are robbing the bank”
          • Isn’t this circular?
            • All that was presupposed was that an intentional action with a plural subject is intelligible.
              • Proof: Laurence can articulate the difference between actions with plural subjects and plural agents
      • Why is the gunman holding the gun on the security guard? To immobilize him? Why? Because the robbers are robbing the bank.
      • What it means for the two actors to be acting together is that the “purposive explanations” of their actions unify at some point.
  • Ethical/political consequences
    • Individualistic picture of acting together can cause problems
      • E.g. understanding democratic reasoning in terms of a lone agent tries to satisfy his preferences will cause distortions
        • What goes missing is the notion of a shared purpose/mission
        • Will be difficult to reconstruct the group from the individual citizen’s purposes.
    • Situations where impermissible coercion is involved
      • “Jump through this hoop or else I’ll set your pants on fire”
      • Force used against free riders (e.g. taxation)
      • Without collective reasons, we end up with strong libertarian arguments that taxation is theft.
  • My response:
    • Why is the reduction to individuals ‘a mistake’? Agree that it’s not the only way to make sense of a collective action, e.g. I can think of a person as a person or as a collection of atoms. The existence of one (even one that is strictly ‘more fundamental’) doesn’t render other interpretations incorrect?