Academic journal article Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy

Distributing Collective Obligation

Academic journal article Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy

Distributing Collective Obligation

Article excerpt

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. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.