Group Agency, Voting, Same-Sex Marriage

Estimated read time (minus contemplative pauses): 15 min.

“Callin’ it your job don’t make it right, boss.” –Cool Hand Luke

I. Overview: Philip Pettit on Group Agency

The other day, I heard a fascinating interview with philosopher Philip Pettit on the Philip PettitPhilosophy Bites podcast. The topic was group agency (the subject and title of Pettit’s as-yet unreleased new book), described thus on the podcast’s website:

How do groups act? We hold them morally and legally responsible, but are their decisions simply a majoritarian sum of individuals’ decisions? Princeton philosopher Philip Pettit, who has written a book on this topic with the LSE’s Christian List, explores these questions in this episode of the Philosophy Bites podcast.

Here’s the book description (full title: Group Agency: The Possibility, Design, and Status of Corporate Agents):

Are companies, churches, and states genuine agents? Or are they just collections of individuals that give a misleading impression of unity? This question is important, since the answer dictates how we should explain the behaviour of these entities and whether we should treat them as responsible and accountable on the model of individual agents. Group Agency offers a new approach to that question and is relevant, therefore, to a range of fields from philosophy to law, politics, and the social sciences. Christian List and Philip Pettit argue that there really are group or corporate agents, over and above the individual agents who compose them, and that a proper approach to the social sciences, law, morality, and politics must take account of this fact. Unlike some earlier defences of group agency, their account is entirely unmysterious in character and, despite not being technically difficult, is grounded in cutting-edge work in social choice theory, economics, and philosophy.

And, “agency,” as defined in its philosophical and sociological connotations, taken from Wikipedia:

Agency is the capacity of an agent to act in a world. In philosophy, the agency is considered as belonging to that agent even if that agent represents a fictitious character, or some other non-existent entity. The capacity to act does not at first imply a specific moral dimension to the ability to make the choice to act, therefore moral agency is a distinct concept. In sociology, an agent is an individual engaging with the social structure; the structure and agency debate concerning the level of reflexivity that agent may possess.

II. The Problem with Voting

Drag Me to HellBefore I touch on the podcast discussion, some comments:

I have for a long while had a problem with voting as a means of deciding what’s best for individuals. Here are some of the issues I find most bothersome:

– when a democracy is established, nobody votes on who gets to vote; that right is designed by those with power and given as they see fit to serve their own interests

– what’s best for the group is not necessarily best for each individual in the group, which is to say, most people are voting for their own best interest, and those who happen to share the most similar self-interests win; often people will band together simply for the sake of winning; all of this falls more or less under the Tyranny of the Majority problem, a recent example of which is same-sex marriage (I’ll get back to that)

– no group ever gained the right to vote by voting, they gained that right through protest (which is true of most progressive social victories); once the right to vote is won in an already established democracy, most protest movements wane and are reduced to those few who understand that that particular victory is one step in a longer journey

– it seems to me that voting in the U.S. (with its Electoral College, judicial system, etc.) is a largely symbolic gesture of expressing one’s voice (as uninformed as it may be, in which case voting is not the practice of voicing one’s opinion on a particular philosophical, social, or political ideology, but, instead, is the practice of asserting the right to vote per se as a symbol of living in a free country; in this symbolic form, voting is treated more like badge/duty than a right); the political process too often serves to placate and exploit those eligible to vote by giving them the impression of voter/civil influence

– in the broader sense of group agency, I am not convinced of individual moral impunity: if you are a part of a group, and are aware of the ethical implications of the group’s actions, you are responsible for your actions despite personal gains or perils that might come with complying or not complying with the group’s belief system/policies/etc. (a fantastic morality play [to use the term loosely] on this subject is Sam Raimi’s 2008 film, “Drag Me to Hell,” which deals with a bank loan officer who, against her guilty conscience, forecloses on a sick elderly woman’s house in the hopes of winning herself a promotion).

There are disconcerting problems with how large groups tend to be organized. In most corporations, for example, members of upper management make policy but don’t have to deal face-to-face regularly with low level staff or customers (especially significant in the case of essential services such as health care, credit lending, heating gas, et al.), while lower level staff deals out the bad news to those customers, citing policy and saying “I’m just the messenger, just doing my job to feed my kids.” Thanks to this arrangement, the individual members of the group have manageably clear consciences, however, this arrangement does not translate into moral impunity for the group or, frankly, for the individual members (though, considering that I only believe in morality as a human conception, I would have to make a fine distinction between conceptions of moral duty and practical social accountability to fully argue this premise). These members might have elaborate and justifiable explanations for their actions, but those explanations don’t automatically remove the moral implications of actions and their consequences. I myself have worked for a major insurance company and health care network, and have seen the consequences of such group organizing on both lower level staff and clients/patients; “disconcerting” is putting it lightly.

With all this in mind, however, I’m not actually convinced that the low level employee, the low ranking soldier, or the least affluent of the voter classes are genuine members of the group they serve (I say this keeping well in mind the possible differences as well as similarities between being born into a group and purposively joining one). One of the reasons companies need to put the effort they do into employee morale is to compensate for the tremendous discrepancy between that which the lower level employees accept to be the case and that which the middle and upper management employees accept to be the case. Lower level employees have little to no say in the group’s belief system (how the company is run) and are therefore prone to morale problems. As you move up the ladder, these problems are less prevalent because of the control and influence held by those positions (it is generally accepted, and borne out by studies, that employee satisfaction is more related to a sense of personal control and autonomy than pay scale, just as customer satisfaction is more influenced by customer service than product cost).

These are general issues I have with voting practices. To be clear, I’m not against the idea of voting per se, but at the same time, I see these flaws in its practice and they bother me. It seems obvious to me that voting’s only one small part of a flourishing democratic life, despite its status as the be-all and end-all symbol of American democratic freedom. In fact, voting often seems more like a justification for laziness, which those who are more socially active either exploit, or towards which they adopt a, “well, it’s the least you can do,” attitude.

III. Same-Sex Marriage and Rights Distribution (States of Being vs. Kinds of Persons)it's wrong to vote on rights

To look at a specific example of problems with voting practices (whether at the popular or governmental/higher courts/etc. levels), we have the recent controversy of same-sex marriage. The problem in this case is that we have established that any two consenting adults of a certain age who aren’t too closely blood-related and who aren’t already married etc. have the right to marry one another, and those who wish to not get married don’t have to. To establish such a set of criteria toward the goal of determining the scope of a civil liberty is, in effect, to establish a right. Surely there are people who feel they should be able to marry their brothers or have 12 wives, and, for their loss, I see no solution. They are out of luck. But I do feel that once a right is established (including the right to a privilege, for those of you who like to argue that marriage is merely a privilege*), that right should be viewed as a shared, inviolable vision for the group as a facet of free agency within a democracy.

Violation of that vision occurs when people begin to decide exactly which KINDS of consenting adults of a certain age (and so forth) have the right to marry. This is a step too far, and is where problems arise: in some states, a majority of people (again, either at the popular or governmental levels) won’t allow for same-sex marriage because they don’t believe that “self -evident” human rights apply to every kind of person. This is, in fact, a blatant violation of human rights as we conceive of the idea in the Western world (see the below footnote). They are applying specific as opposed to general criteria to which they themselves could never be subject.

To resolve this, it’s necessary here to make a critically important distinction. It could be argued that, especially as these criteria originate at the state level where age, blood-relation and other such criteria may vary, so may the criterion of gender. That is a groundless argument, however, just as it’s groundless to argue that liberty should be determined by a criterion of race. I will make a distinction here between two types of criterion: (1) kinds of persons; (2) a state of being in which any kind of person can exist or find him/herself.


Age does not designate a kind of person, but instead a state of being in which any kind of person can exist or find him/herself. So, an African American, homosexual and heterosexual can all find themselves at the age of 17 or 18. In marriage laws, state of being criteria are covered by the stipulation of consent between both individuals. We determine states of being in which any kind of person is unable to consent: children, the comatose, severely mentally disabled, dead… these are all states of being in which any KIND of person can find themselves or exist (or, in the case of death, be found by others).

Incest, polygamy, et al. are also states of being that are not restricted to kinds of people, but they are states of relationships as opposed to states in which a single individual can exist. They are often evaluated based upon cultural taboos with varying levels of rational support, but this is irrelevant to the question of to whom we should apply established human rights. Counterarguments invoking cultural taboos in the same-sex scenario often have to take the slippery slope route because, unlike incest, polygamy (especially polyandry), bestiality and, for that matter, cannibalism, homosexuality is not a genuine cultural taboo and is not a relationship state of being: a homosexual can, just as a heterosexual, find him/herself in a relationship state of incest or polygamy. (Citizenship falls into the relationship state classification as well, but that’s a case that comes with its own special prickliness not worth getting into here.)

IV. Back to the Podcast: Group Agency and the Discursive Dilemma

Ok, back now to the abovementioned podcast in which Pettit discusses group agency. Most interestingly, he describes Philosophy Bites with David Edmonds & Nigel Warburtona paradox which he calls the discursive dilemma (a generalized version of the jurisprudential doctrinal paradox) in the voting process within a group (or, more specifically, the means by which a group’s beliefs are established). He doesn’t have time to fully explain his proposed solutions, but does point out that groups should be treated like individuals (as “institutional persons”), and that the group should have a shared vision toward which it works and which is not dependent on majoritarian support that can lead to incoherence in the group’s beliefs. Here’s the paradox, followed by his example (edited for the sake of simplicity/clarity):

Tom, Joan and Ed are to vote on P and Q:

Tom believes P and Q
Joan believes P not Q
Ed believes Q not P

Result: The group believes P and Q as being disjunctively true, but not P and Q as being conjunctively true = paradox


A tenant has a faulty heater in his apartment. He complains to the landlord that it’s malfunctioning and needs to be fixed. The landlord does nothing. The heater explodes, which the tenant claims has caused him trauma, for which he sues the landlord. The case is taken to the housing board. The questions at hand are: Was the explosion the landlord’s fault? and Did the tenant really suffer trauma? If both things are true, then, presumably, the man has grounds for suing the landlord. They vote:

Tom believes that the landlord is responsible for the explosion (P) and that the man suffered trauma (Q)
Joan believes P but not Q
Ed believes Q but not P

Result: the group believes that the landlord is responsible for the heater exploding (P), and that the tenant was traumatized as a result (Q), but the group does not believe both P and Q together: that the landlord should be held accountable. In other words, viewing the group as possessing a single mind (an “institutional person”), the group believes that, as two separate ideas, the landlord is responsible AND that the man experienced trauma, but the group as a single mind doesn’t believe those things together: that the landlord is responsible and that the man experienced trauma. In which case, the landlord is off the hook, and the group’s beliefs are clearly incoherent.

Pettit and List’s book is not out yet, though I did find an article in which Pettit describes the basic problems of the discursive dilemma and some proposed solutions: Groups with Minds (I am also interested in his paper, Rawl’s Political Ontology in this context, but haven’t read it yet). He also explains (in Groups with Minds) that he believes that groups should be viewed as individuals in their own right.

Whether or not the group is to be treated as having a single mind, it seems clear to me that sharing a common vision would be essential for coherence. In cases such as the above, it seems that such a vision would be: if both P & Q are considered true by a majority of the group, then P & Q together will be considered true by the group, and P & not Q will be considered false. This is very sticky, and is ultimately an ethical problem (I take “vision” to mean “moral stance,” really) because it would seem to be just as easy to say that if each P & Q separately are not considered true, then P & Q together will be considered not true by the group.

The group would need to decide beforehand the ethical thrust of their purpose. To be clear, what I’m interested in are the ethical implications of group agency and determining case outcome in general (itself something of debate in law… natural law vs. legal positivism vs. soft positivism… namely, the role of ethics in jurisprudence). Pettit’s article deals mainly with the metaphysical idea of the group forming a single mind, so I’ll need to read his book to understand his take on ethics and accountability (I get the impression that the book does deal with ethics to some extent, which it should, considering that agency is tied to ideas about moral accountability).

Anyway, in order to determine the thrust of their vision before voting, the group will first decide if it is their belief AS A GROUP that if it’s the landlord’s fault and if the tenant did suffer, then the tenant has grounds for being compensated by the landlord (what’s referred to as a premise-centered procedure, as opposed to conclusion-centered). Which approach to take should be decided based on considerations of ethical thrust and group agency coherence (metaphysically, I’m not convinced of the single-mindedness of the group, but, either way, the incoherence exists). With these considerations in mind, the outcome then becomes a matter of how the culture of that group affects the group’s evaluation of the ethical grounds for holding the landlord accountable for a breach of duty of care, which, in our society, I think the outcome would most likely be that of the premise-centered procedure.

(Of course, this still doesn’t take care of the problem of a majoritarian ethical perspective [“tyrranically”] beating out a less prevalent one, which is why I’m more concerned with the ethical than metaphysical implications, though I do understand the importance of the metaphysical question when determining the accountibility of the group itself as well as the members that constitute it. I’ll be curious to see how Pettit and List approach this problem. I’m skeptical of there being any practical solution to the ethical problems of voting [including the notion I suggest, that some members are really only ostensibly such], despite achieving group coherence.)

To make things more complicated, voting isn’t always laid out as it is in the above example. P and Q are not always voted on separately. For example, the housing board might vote individually simply on whether the landlord should be held accountable (a conclusion-centered procedure). In this case, you’d have one yes and two nos. However, that doesn’t change the fact that, AS A GROUP, there is still incoherence, whether it’s as apparent as it is in the earlier example or not. Even trickier is the incoherence resulting when P and Q are voted on at different times (Pettit calls this scenario the diachronic generalization), perhaps even by different members of a group fulfilling the voting quota at different times (a problem tackled by 18th century philosopher Marquis de Condorcet).

V. Wrapping it Up

Muppet's Robot PoliticianI look forward to reading Pettit and List’s book to see how they deal with the concept of group agency in and outside of the jurisprudential context, and I am happy to have learned about the discursive dilemma (which is the relative of quite a few similar voting paradoxes, just google “doctrinal paradox” and you’ll see what I mean; if you’re interested in economic theory, you’ll notice some shared ideas between voting paradox and game theory).

One last bit of clarification: I am very frustrated by political practice, and am therefore not interested in politics. I am, however, very concerned with those things which politics are supposedly in place to address. But, given the way the political machinery actually works, I have little interest in it for reasons which, were I to point them out, would seem too obvious to even bother stating. The best cure for this frustration seems to be writing about it. If you made it this far, thanks for reading and please feel free to share your own ideas.


*The UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights lists marriage as a right, and there is nothing in it that explicitly states people can only marry those of the opposite gender, though I could imagine someone arguing that it is implied:

Article 16:
(1) Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.
(2) Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.
(3) The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.

Article 2:
Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.

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