Workshop 2: Blame and groups

St Andrews. Summer 2019


Traditionally, philosophical work on moral responsibility focused on the individual agent. However, we regularly hold groups morally responsible, whether they are corporations, governments or public bodies such as hospitals or universities. We also hold collectives morally responsible where a collective is a disorganised group of people such as Western consumers. These practices raise important questions about what duties collectives and groups have, and when they are excused for failing to carry out their duties. The aim of this workshop is to bring together epistemologists interested in group belief and those working in philosophy of mind and ethics on group action and agency to illuminate central questions concerning group agency


Several of the participants focused on what duties collectives have. Lackey argued that understood as a collective, we have the responsibility to object to false statements, whether made in conversation or writing including on the Internet. More precisely, she claimed that we have an imperfect duty to object to false statements, where the duty each of us has as an individual depends on our expertise or authority in the relevant area along with our social economic status. Bjornsson examined the general question of when collectives have duties. He argued that a collective’s duties are grounded in the duties of its members to care about what’s morally important. More precisely, he argued that a collective has an all-things-considered moral obligation to α if and only if the groups α-ing meets the following conditions: 1) it is morally important; and 2) would be ensured, in a normal way, if members cared, as can be morally demanded of them, about the values that make it morally important. Schmid examined a Sartrean notion of freedom and then examined the extent to which this can be applied to groups.

Even when a collective or group has a duty to do something, they may fail to be blameworthy for failing to do their duty if the failure arose out of blameless ignorance. Several of the papers focused on this issue from different directions. The paper by Kelp, Pettigrove and Simion focused on when a group is aware, or believes that, it’s doing wrong. They criticised extant accounts of group belief and suggested that an alternative knowledge-first social approach is preferable. Brown focused on when groups have an excuse from blameless ignorance and argued that the best way to understand this is by appeal to group duties.

Tollefsen looked at the related issue of when corporations are legally responsible. Although it’s standard to suppose that whether a corporation is legally responsible depends on what it knew, she argues that existing legal theories of group knowledge are inadequate. Instead, she offered an alternative account of group knowledge for legal purposes. According to her proposed account, a group knows that p when they have the ability to track the truth that p in a way that makes p available for action.

Collins attempted to illuminate what makes groups responsible and potentially blameworthy for their actions by comparing them with robots who we don’t take to be responsible for their actions. She showed that a number of existing accounts of why groups are responsible would also count robots as responsible for their actions. She suggested that what makes groups, but not robots, responsible is the fact that their members can have phenomenological states. In more detail, there’s something that it is like for members of groups to take themselves to be blameworthy. For instance, when I think “I did wrong” I might feel guilt. In virtue of this, groups but not robots are morally responsible and potentially blameworthy.