Moral agents

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L049-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 19, 2024, from

4. Collectives and moral agency

There is sometimes disagreement about whether such categories as the insane, children, robots and collectives are moral agents. This disagreement can partly reflect different standards of moral agency being used. It can also be due to different views about the facts. Thus some of us may deny that robots are moral agents on the ground that they lack an inner life. Others may disagree with us on the grounds that an inner life is not essential to moral agency; and some may argue that even though an inner life is essential, robots of the sophisticated variety might be constructed in the future who have inner lives in the sense that human beings do.

People often wonder whether collectives such as nations, states and corporations are moral agents. On the assumption that they lack an irreducible inner life or that they lack a permanent or enduring self, they will not fulfil an essential condition for moral agency in the Kantian sense. But if we use moral agency in a weaker sense, then they too could be moral agents. Kantians would say that they are at best quasi-moral agents, but critics of the Kantian approach would complain that the Kantian view is too stringent; it has presuppositions that are unverifiable and controversial. Some of these critics prefer a practical solution where terms like free will and moral agency are used in a weaker sense.

On a Humean view people can be given moral praise if they meet the external requirement of morality by promoting social welfare, provided their conduct reflects their character (see Hume, D. §4). Similarly, they can be apportioned moral blame and punished if they produce social misery, provided their conduct stems from their character (rather than by accident). No permanent or enduring self in any deep sense is required. What is required is that the individual being blamed has the same character traits (in the relevant respects) as the one who committed the act. We are free to the extent that our conduct reflects our character. Deep problems like whether we are responsible for acquiring our characters are bypassed on this view. It implies that collectives too could be moral agents in the way that individual persons are.

Indeed Hume explicitly compared the person’s self to a republic or a commonwealth. So the argument that groups are less eligible for moral agency than individual human beings collapses on this view. Individual human beings can have character traits that persist; but so can groups. And though groups do not have an irreducible inner life, neither do individual human beings on the Humean view, according to which the ultimate constituents are the items of experience. The person does not persist over time in any deeper sense than groups do. The person’s relation to the individual items of experience is like the relation of the republic to individual members who compose it (see Mind, bundle theory of). So on this view an individual can be morally accountable in much the same sense as collectives; this is one of the corollaries of his view that Hume did not notice.

Much communal violence presupposes ideas of collective moral agency. For instance, during the partition of India, when some Muslims in one part of the country persecuted Hindus, another group of Hindus would take retributive actions against some other Muslims in another part of India. The Hindus would often justify such conduct on the grounds that the people they attacked shared common characteristics with their coreligionists who committed the evil deeds elsewhere. The Muslims would use a similar justification against the Hindus and the vicious circle would continue. Jonathan Edwards (1758) thought that human beings are now morally accountable for the sins of Adam, for they belong to the same collective, humanity, and share the same fallen nature as Adam (see Edwards, J.). On the Kantian view (as well as on some other individualist views) this is not enough. Persons now are separate moral agents and have a separate centre of consciousness from Adam, even if they have similar character traits; the self is different from and transcends the character. Such requirements are often violated by those who mete out retribution at a collective level.

But we do seem to make moral demands upon collectives. Thus one might say that the IMF (International Monetary Fund) ought to provide more facilities for the poorer countries. And it has been claimed that some of these demands are not reducible to demands upon individuals. If this claim is correct, it would follow that at least a part of our moral language is addressed to those who are moral agents in the weak sense but not in the Kantian sense. This can also be seen in the case of young children, with whom we sometimes use moral language before they have become moral agents in the full Kantian sense. Indeed it is partly by participating in such use of language that children gradually acquire moral sentiments.

The Kantian sense of moral agency is presupposed only by parts of our moral system, especially that part which is concerned with apportioning moral desert from the point of view of cosmic fairness. If certain wrongdoers are not Kantian moral agents, the view that they deserve to suffer for their conduct is undermined. We do say to a child of two that it ought not to kill. We may even punish the child for its wrongs if that does some good; but we do not think that if it did not suffer for its wrongs in this life, it would be fair if there were another world, a hell, where it would be made to suffer, in the way that it would be fair if Stalin (assuming that he was a Kantian moral agent) were made to suffer in hell. As for the IMF, even God would not be able to send it to hell or make sense of its deserving to suffer (in the irreducible phenomenological sense) as a collective.

Citing this article:
Haksar, Vinit. Collectives and moral agency. Moral agents, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L049-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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