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« Helen Beebee on Laws of Nature | Main | Martha Nussbaum on the Value of the Humanities »

December 18, 2010


Chris Cousineau

I feel that there are some issues surrounding group agency that weren't covered in the podcast. In the example of the landlord and the heater, what happens when the landlord is an agent of the group making the decision? Thoreau says in "On Civil Disobedience" that groups tend to absolve individuals of moral responsibility. An individual may do things for the group that they wouldn't do for themselves because it is morally wrong, but the group shelters them from responsibility because they are doing what's best for the company, Army, nation, or party. Do Pettit and List cover this in their book? What do we say about group agency when we see this happening in both large (Abu Grabe) and small (lending practices) ways?


Hey Chris, I think you are missing Pettit's point. I understand what you are talking about, the psychology and ethics of groups. Diffusion of responsibility is a heavily studied area with examples like the Stanford prison experiment and the murder of Kitty Genovese.

What I think Pettit is talking about is much less studied(can't find much on a google search) and much more interesting. He is talking about a kind of logical paradox where a group of completely logical agents can vote for something that is against the will of the majority of the agents. This Paradox would hold even if agents weren't humans but completely rational beings.

This is my take on it anyway. I find this episode of philosophy bites
particularly good. You could even use this as an argument against direct democracy, which I have always thought was a good idea.

Jim Vaughan

I appreciate this paradox, which is an original insight into the problem of group decision making. In practice, most groups get around this by having a leader, which requires just one decision.

That individual is then the effective agent. Provided he/she satisfies most of the group,most of the time, the group as individuals feel represented.

So, for the landlord/heater case, the Chair would decide, having listened to the others, that he was responsible AND caused injury. Thus everyone has the majority (at leasdt 50%) of their view represented and will back the leader's decision. A good leader thus has an overview, and complex decisions can get made. I'm surprised this was not discussed. Very thought provoking though.


I find difficulty in seeing what is original with this view? First of all, saying that Roman law didn't have any sort of group agency is just wrong (juridical persons, anyone?). Secondly, as stated, in law it is a common knowledge for more than a century that certain legal persons, such as companies, are "persons" different from their members, that they have rights and obligations AND that they can be criminally liable etc. There is nothing controversial in this...

the "paradox" seems to be a problem with plurality voting, where the answer is a consensus... again, not a problem on certain issues

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