Distributing collective obligation.

Author:Aas, Sean

IN 1939, GERMANY INVADED CZECHOSLOVAKIA. Several major powers denounced the invasion. But the (mostly moribund) League of Nations proved ineffectual at coordinating intervention, and the (severely weakened) Czechoslovakian state was unable to mount real resistance. In retrospect, it seems clear that the other great powers of the time should have intervened before matters came to this point--and that, since they did not, they were partly responsible for the horrors that followed. Of course, it never should have come to that: The German people should never have allowed the Nazi party to take power in the first place, and once it became clear how they would act when in power, the German army should have overthrown them.

Groups like these act. Sometimes they are obligated to act. And sometimes they are responsible or culpable for not acting, when they are obligated to act and do not. Group action and group responsibility have received a fair amount of philosophical attention. (1) Group obligation has, until recently, received much less. But this is changing. (2) It is becoming clear that some important moral-philosophical issues turn on questions concerning which groups can be obligated to act. The contemporary global justice literature, for instance, asks whether there is any agent on which obligations of global justice might fall. (3) Some argue, e.g., that, though strong principles of egalitarian justice like Rawls's difference principle apply within state-governed societies taken singly, they do not apply across state borders, because no transnational agent has an obligation to see them fulfilled. (4)

This sort of issue cannot be settled without a clearer conception of collective agency and obligation than we currently have. (5) Much of the existing literature on this begins with questions about the conditions under which collectives constitute an agent, asking for various putative obligations whether there are existing organized "agents" capable of fulfilling them. I take a different approach here, starting with the question of collective obligation, and proceeding only then to questions about collective agency. My strategy is to begin by developing an account of member obligation: What must be true of the members of a group if that group is to have an obligation? The thought, then, is that this account can be used as a heuristic for discovering potentially obligated collectives. If it is true of each of some collection of individuals, I, that they have the individual obligations they would have if they constituted a collective agent, C, that was obligated to do some thing, [phi], then it should be plausible that they do in fact constitute an obligated collective, and therefore plausible that they are, in at least a minimal sense, an agent.

My approach, then, is to begin by arguing for some necessary conditions for collective obligation, and then use these to propose an account of prospectively sufficient conditions for a collective to be obligated to act.

I argue, first, that, to know when a collective obligation entails obligations on that collective's members, we have to know, not just what it would take for each member to do their part in satisfying the collective obligation, but also what they should do if they cannot do their part because others will not do theirs. I go on to argue (contra recent proposals) (6) that it is not good enough for members in this situation to reasonably believe that others will not do their part. Rather, for a member of an obligated collective to permissibly escape doing her part in a collective obligation, she must both reasonably doubt that others will do theirs and stand ready to act in case others become ready as well.

This condition concerning member obligation, I argue, is necessary for collective obligation. But it is not yet sufficient: A collective, all of whose members are obligated to be ready to act together, might still not be obligated to act if coordination problems make it impossible to translate individual readiness into collective action. However: (a) If a collective's members are obligated to be ready to do their part, in a given collective action, and (b) if that readiness makes it sufficiently likely that the collective will in fact act, then, I argue, there should be no bar to an attribution of collective obligation. In particular, in that case, I argue, there ought to be no additional objection that there is no existing, organized, "agent" on which the obligation might fall: The only organization required for collective obligation is the organization required for some collection of individuals to act as a result of widespread individual readiness to act if others will act.

I go on to argue that these are relatively narrow grounds for rejecting putative collective obligations--narrow enough that we should be open to the possibility that many such obligations apply to many relatively unstructured groups, including, probably: the German army, the prewar powers and perhaps even the people of the world at large.

  1. Member Obligation: Some Existing Accounts

    Member obligations, again, are the obligations that individual constituents or members of an obligated collective have when and in virtue of the fact that this collective has this obligation. A very simple sort of account of this might say, only: When a collective is obligated to do something, all of its members are obligated to do their part in that thing. Suppose that, for our tow-truck company to tow a car, the owner has to provide a functioning truck and impound lot, the dispatcher has to take the call, and the driver has to hitch the car and pull it to the impound lot. On this simple account, the company's obligation to tow entails an obligation on each of us to do this thing--the owner is obligated to provide the truck, the dispatcher to take the call, and the driver to hitch and deliver. However, in some cases, some members of an obligated collective will know that there is no point in doing their part, since others will certainly not do theirs. In those cases, it is not plausible to say that they are obligated to do their part anyway--the driver need not and should not hitch up the car if the owner has not provided a lot to tow it to. (7)

    A slightly more complicated account tries to avoid "pointless" member obligations like these. On this account, the members of an obligated collective are obligated, only, to do their parts in the collectively obligated action, provided others are doing theirs. But this account will not work either. As Robert Goodin points out, making member obligations merely a matter of doing a part if others do threatens to allow badly motivated members of collectives to "let each other off the hook" far too easily, solely because they are all so badly motivated that none can be expected to do their part. (8) Suppose that nobody in our tow-truck company cares about their job. So nobody is doing their part to tow the cars we have agreed to tow. But nobody cares enough to even check whether others would do their part if they did theirs. On the present proposal, these suppositions entail that nobody in our group ought to do anything about our collective obligations. This, however, is ridiculous--we cannot let each other off the hook so easily, by being so badly motivated. We must therefore still have some member obligations, in respect of a collective obligation, even when others are not doing their part.

    So, there is some obligation that applies to each of us when we are a member of an obligated collective, even if we know that other members of this collective will not do their parts. This obligation, however, need not attach to an action aimed at promoting the performance of the collective obligation: Sometimes, perhaps, there is nothing we can or can be asked to do that will make collective performance any more likely. Even in those cases, however, utter indifference to collective obligation seems wrong. That is, it seems that, when we are a member of an obligated group, we ought to: do our part, or to in some sense care, to form some yet-to-be-specified attitude, about doing our part. This attitude, whatever it is, "lets us off the hook" for a collective action when we cannot do our part because others will not do theirs. So, to determine which member-obligations follow from a collective obligation, we should ask: What attitudes must we have if we are to be "off the hook"--immune to blame and other relevant reactive attitudes--for not doing our part in satisfying a collective obligation? (9) Answer in hand, we could say: What we are obligated to do when we are a member of an obligated collective is to act if we can, or, if we cannot, have this attitude instead.

    Holly Lawford-Smith proposes one such answer; since my different answer will arise from problems with hers, I will discuss her account in some detail here. (10) Lawford-Smith proceeds from the natural thought that, sometimes, the members of an obligated collective are not obligated to do their part in trying to fulfill that collective obligation because they reasonably believe that it would be futile to do so--since, so they reasonably believe, others will not do their part in turn. On this account, a collective is obligated to do something only if its members are obligated to: do their part in that thing unless they reasonably believe that (enough) others will not do theirs (so as to prevent the collective from satisfying the obligation). (11)

    This account has the right logical structure to solve the aforementioned problem concerning the distribution of collective obligation. (12) Critically, as Lawford-Smith emphasizes, the member obligation it identifies takes wide scope over a conditional connecting an action and an attitude. It does not say, merely: If we reasonably believe others are not going to do their part, then we are not obligated to do ours. That narrow-scope version would not say what obligation we in fact still...

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