Group Agency

Group Agency: Ontology and Implications

Workshop Convenor: Brian Flanagan (Maynooth University)


Group agency is a widely acknowledged part of our explanation of the social world.  Thanks to an argument due to Christian List and Philip Pettit (e.g. List and Pettit 2011), the view that group agency is irreducible to individual agency is increasingly influential.  Non-reductionism appears to have immediate implications for the scope of moral responsibility: if a group’s intention cannot be reduced to the attitudes of its members, then it might seem that responsibility for its act cannot be reliably distributed among members alone.  Accordingly, to correctly attribute responsibility for a wrongful group act, it may be necessary to extend the capacity for responsibility to the group itself (e.g., Hess 2014).  A complication emerges, however.  Our understanding of the nature of responsibility suggests that the extension to groups as well as to individuals of responsibilities should lead to the extension to groups as well as to individuals of basic rights (e.g., Hindriks 2014).  So, for instance, those who would extend responsibility to groups are said to be compelled to recognize corporations as enjoying a right to free speech under the United States Constitution that is equal to that of individuals (Hasnas 2015).  There are several proposals for divorcing group rights from group responsibility (e.g., List and Pettit 2012; List 2016).  But there is as yet no agreement on how this ostensibly embarrassing consequence might be avoided.  


This workshop invites papers addressing the nature of group agency and its moral and political implications.    Interdisciplinary approaches are welcome.


Possible Questions:

  • Is the concept of group agency actually needed to explain our practical discourse about groups or are references to group acts essentially figurative?
  • Do List and Pettit succeed in showing that group agency is not reducible to individual agency?
  • What are the implications of non-reductionism for moral theory: does non-reductionism motivate a radical redistribution of responsibilities and basic rights?   
  • Does non-reductionism have implications for how we might conceive of our political institutions?  Do these implications suggest alternative positive or normative approaches to democratic politics or to social choice problems?
  • Does contemporary scholarship on group agency have implications for legal theory, for instance, for the theory of statutory interpretation?  
  • What connections can be drawn between reductionist theories of group agency proposed by philosophers of action and those proposed by political economists employing the ‘axiomatic’ method?


If you would like to give a paper at this workshop, please send an abstract of 500 words to by Monday, May 15.

Notification of acceptance: Monday, May 29

Deadline for full papers: Monday, August 28