Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Phillip Pettit on Group Agency

First of all, I should ask you to take note of the podcast Philosophy Bites, a delightful podcast out of the UK. Two philosophers take turns hosting guest philosophers to discuss a wide range of topics. These podcasts are great while doing the dishes, mowing the loan, going for walks, etc. Each one is about 20 minutes long. You feel like your listening to a couple of philosophers discuss a subject, but they avoid (or explain) philosophical jargon, so the conversations are aimed a lay persons. It's quite often very high quality, indeed.

Nerd alert! (I'll post this for anyone who wants to avoid a really nerdy type subject.)

The linked podcast is a discussion with political philosopher Phillip Pettit on group agency. The idea that groups can form intentions and take actions. Plain, right? Well, not so easy. Such group powers were little known outside of the State in antiquity, but institutions in the Middle Ages, like guilds, the Church, monasteries, etc. gave rise to thinking about how groups may act. More recently, but only seriously since the 19th century, we developed the idea of corporations. Corporations: good or bad? Well, this is not so easy to answer. I'm having doubts about the power of such remote, single-purpose (pecuniary profit), long-lasting, and uber-rational agents. Do corporations do what no individual would do? Should corporations be held to criminal liability? Where's the "intent"? Can we have a group intent? Here's where we get into the other part of Pettit's talk: how can we decide a group intent? Although he doesn't mention it, I think that he's getting into issues of Condorcet's theorem, Arrow's theorem, and those of others who deal with the paradoxes of group choice. (Garry Wills addresses the issues in layman's terms in Confessions of a Conservative, if you want to check it out.) What this means is that groups have even more problems than individuals (to the extent that we are individuals--are we?) forming intent. The interview covers this topic all too briefly, but we can think of it as a teaser for Pettit's book! Really, it's an interesting problem.

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