What I Am Reading: Pettit – Groups with Minds of Their Own

Socializing Metaphysics
Socializing Metaphysics

Pettit, Philip. 2003: “Groups with Minds of Their Own”. In: Schmitt, Frederick F. (ed.). Socializing Metaphysics. Rowman & Littlefield. Lanham. 167-193.

For my research on group agency I have read many texts by Philip Pettit, this book chapter, however, escaped my attention so far, so it was time to catch up. The basic idea is familiar to everyone who has read others texts on group agency by Pettit, especially the book Group Agency which Pettit co-authored with Christian List. In “Groups with Minds of Their Own” Pettit puts the basic idea the following way:

“Rational unity is a constrain that binds the attitudes of the collectivity at any time and across different times, and the satisfaction of that constrain means that those attitudes cannot be smoothly continuous with the corresponding attitudes of members.” (p. 184)

Pettit claims that groups face a pressure to meet certain constrains, but that to meet these constrains, it is often necessary that the attitudes of the group cannot be continuous, or at least not smoothly continuous, with that of the members. The decisions a group makes can in appropriate situations bind it to basic norms of rationality like coherence over time, which pushes the group to accept attitudes, notably representational and motivational attitudes, which are not shared by the majority of the member and in some cases by no members at all.

To argue for this Pettit makes us of the discursive dilemma, which also plays a central role in the Group Agency book and many of his papers on group agency. A case of the discursive dilemma is the following: For a group three propositions matter A, B, and (A&B) – assume that (A&B) has a practical consequence neither of the other propositions has on its own. If one member votes A and not-B, another votes B and not-A and the last votes A and B, then there is a majority for A, a majority for B, but a majority for not-(A&B). How is the group supposed to act on such a scenario? This is the discursive dilemma, which can be generalised beyond majority vote and groups of three members.

I am not going into details here, but Pettit holds that given the discursive dilemma and given that their is some pressure for rationality on the group, the group is likely to collectivise its reasoning and thereby become a functional mind of its own. It becomes an intentional subject, as Pettit says here, or a group agent, as he says in other places.

There are a few interesting differences between this book chapter and other texts on group agency by Pettit. One difference is that he uses the term “subject” rather than “agent” here. I assume that he uses the terms synonymously or almost synonymously, but there might be a difference between them and I wonder whether this difference bears on the argument Pettit makes.

Another difference is the discussion of the use of “we” as an essential indexical (a notion he takes from John Perry’s famous paper), or at least I cannot remember Pettit offering such a discussion anywhere else although Perry’s paper is also mentioned in Group Agency. I find this topic intriguing and wondered whether there could be group agents, which use “I” as their essential indexical, and what would be different about these group agents. Pettit’s discussion of this matter is rather limited here.

A last difference I noticed is that Pettit took not exiting a group as a sort of endorsement of the group agent’s intentional profile on the side. He does not argue very much for this and I am not sure what this endorsement amounts to. Maybe it is better that he dropped this idea later on, but the questions whether endorsement by the members matters for group agency and what forms this endorsement can take are interesting and as far as I can see somewhat neglected.

Most of these differences are minor. Overall this book chapter is a good place to start with Pettit’s theory of group agency, if one does not have the time to read the whole book he co-authored with List. For me it mostly served as a reminder of Pettit’s main ideas and as a suggestion for what might be developed.