Friday, June 24, 2011

Quote of the Week

Philosophers Julian Baggini and Peter Fosl on group agency:
It may seem strange to consider things like corporations or nations or mobs or social classes as agents, but the issue often arises in reflections about whether one should make judgements that attribute collective responsibility. People did speak of the guilt of the German nation and demand that all Germans contribute to war reparations after World War I. When the government of a truly democratic nation goes to war, because its policy in some sense expresses "the will of the people," the country arguably acts as though it were a kind of single agent. People also, of course, speak collectively of the responsibilities of the ruling class, corporations, families, tribes, and ethnic groups. Because human life is populated by collectives, institutions, organizations, and other social groupings, agency can sometimes be dispersed or at least seem irremediably unclear. These "gray zones," as thinkers like Primo Levi (The Periodic Table, 1975) and Claudia Card (The Atrocity Paradigm, 2002) have called them, make determining agency in areas like sexual conduct and political action exceedingly difficult.
There are three ways of understanding how we talk about collectives as agents. One is that it's just mistaken and that collectives cannot be agents. The second is that collectives are agents in some alternative, perhaps metaphorical sense – that they are like real agents but not quite the same as them. The third is that collectives are as much agents as individual people, who are themselves perhaps not as singular, cohesive, and unified as many would like to believe.
From The Ethics Toolkit: A Compendium of Ethical Concepts and Methods.

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