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The Normative and Moral Foundations of Group Agency

Periodic Reporting for period 4 - Group Agency (The Normative and Moral Foundations of Group Agency)

Reporting period: 2022-06-01 to 2023-05-31

The functioning of groups and corporations is a highly important topic in current social philosophy and philosophy of action. In particular, the question of how groups and corporations can be considered as agents and therefore be held morally accountable is highly relevant. The project had three overall objectives: first, the constitutive conditions and internal structure of group agents and corporate agents; second, the moral status of group agents and corporations and whether and in which way they can be seen as moral agents; third, an analysis of group and corporate agents’ moral responsibility. The project investigated these issues in novel and original ways. Research (first objective) has focused on an analysis of the internal make-up of groups, particularly the role of conditional commitments of a group’s members to the joint plans and goals. A specific question addressed has been how practical reasoning works when seen from a group’s perspective. The project’s second main objective has focused on the relevance of relational morality for interpreting group agent’s (culpable) activities. A special issue which has been explored is the complicity of group members in a group’s bad practices. The third objective has been an analysis of corporate and economic agents’ self-understanding and whether they are aware of the morally relevant consequences of their activities. Research in the project has suggested that corporate agents are morally responsible even if they claim to have not intended the bad outcomes of their practices. One way to assess this flawed denial of corporate responsibility is in terms of the incoherence between a corporations’ self-presentation and the corporation’s implicit denial of the normative standards that define moral integrity. Often, a group or corporate agent delegates a proxy to communicate not only the group’s plans, strategies, and goals to the public, but also its ethical commitments and corporate ethical code. These performative utterances must be consistent with the group agent’s concrete activities.
The project was successfully implemented at the Department of Philosophy of the University of Vienna. The research team working on the project consisted of the PI, one PhD scholar (Franz Altner), seven postdoctoral scholars (Lars J. K. Moen, Nathan Biebel, Olof Leffler, Grace Paterson, Niels De Haan, Matthew Rachar and Carlos Nunez) and five visiting research professors (Velislava Mitova, Monika Betzler, Veronica Rodriguez-Blanco, Anne Schwenkenbecher and Stephanie Collins). Research on the project has focused on all three subprojects. Regarding the first subproject (the metaphysics of agency), the team has investigated the scope of a structural account of group agency that relies on the institutional roles and related commitments of its members. Several research articles on this topic were written by team members, including papers on the framing of group members’ practical identities and their strategic and pathological deviances from the group agent’s ends and goals (by Moen, Rachar, Leffler, Mitova). Regarding subproject 2 (the moral status of group agents), the team investigated the representation of groups by spokespersons, the sincerity of group communication, the distribution of information in informal and structured groups, and to what extent groups and corporations count as moral agents. Papers on these topics were written by Paterson, Schwenkenbecher, de Haan. Concerning subproject 3 (the responsibility of group agents), research has focused on how groups are blameworthy and can be held accountable, independently of an intentional commitment to carry out a plan (papers by Biebel, Pauer-Studer). Team members Leffler and Moen have put together a Special Issue on “Holistic and non-holistic accounts of group agency” which will appear in the peer-reviewed Journal Inquiry (either fall 2023 or early 2024). Among the contributors are Philip Pettit, Christian List, and Kendy Hess; also Moen and Leffler both have a paper in that Special Issue. Former team members Matthew Rachar and Franz Altner have put together a Special Issue on “Group agency and team reasoning” which will appear in the peer-reviewed Journal Social Theory and Practice in 2024; the Special Issue will also contain papers by Grace Paterson, PI Pauer-Studer, and Matthew Rachar. During the project, the team member Franz Altner has successfully defended his dissertation on “Group agency, constitutivism, and responsibility.” The team has also organized eight events related to the project, including the international conference “Social agency, group agency, and relational normativity”.
From the beginning until the end of the project, the research of team members has resulted in several significant publications. The research on the metaphysical constitution of group agents has resulted in papers that defend a reductive and non-mentalistic account of group agency. These papers tie nicely with the research on corporate agents’ culpability and moral accountability. Major progress has also been made on the issue of individual agents’ responsibility for their institutional roles as group members. Research on the epistemic conditions of group membership has led to several papers on the issue of culpable ignorance and moral accountability of corporate agents which are forthcoming in peer-reviewed journals.
Altogether, the project has been highly successful in terms of publications (altogether over 30 papers and special issues in peer-reviewed journals) and the presence at international conferences and workshops.
The work in this project has made a remarkable contribution to the discussion of group action and corporate agency, presenting new and original views on the topic. The particular focus on the constitutive normative conditions of group agency and the concentration on the relationship between the role obligations of individual members and the constitutive normative standards of group agents has led to a novel account of group agency which is independent of the controversial assumption of a group mind, but still attributes moral responsibility to groups and corporations.
Journal of Applied Philosophy (among 20 most downloaded articles)