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Group Agency and Belief Workshop

1st July 2019 - 2nd July 2019

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St Salvators Quad, School III, The University of St Andrews. July 1-2, 2019

Local organiser: Jessica Brown (jab30@st-andrews.ac.uk).

Speakers: Gunnar Bjornsson (Stockholm); Jessica Brown (St Andrews); Stephanie Collins (Australian Catholic University); Jennifer Lackey (Northwestern); Hans Bernard Schmid (Vienna); Deborah Tollefsen (Memphis).

Traditionally, philosophical work on moral responsibility has focused on the individual agent. However, there’s been a recent explosion of work on the moral responsibility of groups, whether structured groups such as companies; or unstructured groups such as Westerners. In ordinary life, we often criticise such groups for their activities, apparently holding them responsible and blameworthy. Just as in the case of individuals, our assessment of a group’s actions seems sensitive to epistemological considerations: was a group ignorant that it was doing wrong? Even if it was ignorant, should it have known it was doing wrong? Did it act on justified beliefs? 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 and responsibility.

This workshop is part of a series funded by a grant from the Royal Society of Edinburgh – for details, see https://blameandresponsibility.wp.st-andrews.ac.uk/

Please register here and bring along your ticket to the event.

Monday 1st July
09:00 -10:30 Group Ignorance Jessica Brown.
10:45 -1215 Epistemic requirements on group responsibility and group obligations without group agents Gunnar Bjornsson
12:15 Lunch
13:45 -15:15 Institutional Knowledge and Ignorance Deborah Tollefsen
15:15 Coffe/Tea
15:30 -17:00 Organisations’ Self-Beliefs Stephanie Collins

Tuesday 2nd July
09:00 -10:30 Group Belief and Responsibility Transmission Kelp, Pettigrove, and Simion.
10:45 -12:15 Hans Bernard Schmid tba
12:15 Lunch
13:15 -14:45  Imperfect Epistemic Duties as Group Duties Jennifer Lackey


Group Ignorance
Jessica Brown
In this paper, I examine a neglected issue in the literature on group responsibility, the issue of when groups have an excuse through ignorance for wrongdoing. Many philosophers accept that groups can be responsible and potentially blameworthy for their actions. If that’s the case, then it seems that groups may also potentially have excuses for wrong actions in the way that individuals do. One kind of excuse in the case of individuals is an excuse from ignorance. The main focus of this paper is to develop a new account of when a group acts from blameless ignorance.

Epistemic requirements on group responsibility and group obligations without group agents
Gunnar Bjornsson
Many think that some highly organized groups constitute full-fledged moral agents. But we often attribute moral responsibility and moral obligations to groups of agents that do not themselves constitute moral agents, lacking the requisite rational structures, beliefs, desires, and intentions. In previous work, I’ve argued that such non-agential groups might nevertheless be the subject of moral obligations and be morally responsible and blameworthy for actions, omissions, and outcomes. Because of what the relations of responsibility and obligations are, it can be enough that the individuals constituting these groups satisfy the basic conditions of moral agency. In this talk, I look closer at how such groups, though lacking beliefs about morally relevant features of their surroundings, can satisfy generally recognized epistemic constraints on responsibility and obligations.

Organisations’ Self-Beliefs
Stephanie Collins
It is widely accepted that collective agents have beliefs that are distinct from an aggregate of individuals’ beliefs. I start by spelling out my preferred account of how this happens, focusing on organisations (large hierarchical collective agents that divide labour by roles). Like other accounts, mine is functionalist: beliefs are characterised by the role they play in thought and action. On this view, organisations’ beliefs face a problem: how can those beliefs be de se? That is, how can organisations have beliefs with the first-person pronoun, such as “I spilled the oil”? The functionalist picture is not entirely satisfactory in capturing the normative import of these beliefs. In humans, the normative import of “I” arguably arrives via a kind of pre-reflective self-awareness. How does this work in the organisation case? I argue that the answer does not lie in plural self-awareness. Instead, under the right conditions, a member’s pre-reflective self-awareness just is the organisation’s pre-reflective self-awareness. This allows organisations to have normatively significant de se beliefs.

Group Belief and Responsibility Transmission
Christoph Kelp, Glen Pettigrove and Mona Simion
Epistemically bad belief and ignorance matter for moral responsibility. Groups are morally blameworthy for ϕ-ing in moral norm N violation when they are not epistemically blamelessly ignorant that ϕ-ing violates N. One straightforward way this can happen is if the relevant group believes that they are violating N in ϕ-ing, and they go ahead and ϕ anyway. In this talk we do two things; first we look into how this variety of moral blameworthiness transmits to group members. Second, we argue that extant accounts of group belief have difficulties accommodating responsibility transmission, and show that our preferred account does better in this regard.


Imperfect Epistemic Duties as Group Duties
Jennifer Lackey

In this paper, I argue that certain epistemic duties—paradigmatically the duty to object to what one takes to be false or unwarranted—are best understood as imperfect, rather than perfect, in nature. This provides reason for concluding that there are not just imperfect moral duties, but epistemic ones, as well. I then show that a model according to which imperfect epistemic duties apply primarily to groups, and group members are responsible for a certain share of these duties, best captures their distinctive features. In this way, it is our epistemic responsibility to object to what we take to be false or unwarranted, and each of us must do our part. I conclude by showing that our part of this duty is determined by what other members of our epistemic community do and by our social status, so the epistemic burden is not equally distributed among community members.


Hans Bernhard-Schmid

Institutional Knowledge and Ignorance
Deborah Tollefsen
Consider the following cases:
In 2004, the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States released the 9/11 Commission Report. The report provides, among other things, a detailed look at the widespread epistemic failures surrounding the September 11, 1999 terrorist attacks. In characterizing the FBI’s failure to implement a counter terrorism plan, for instance, the commission writes: “The FBI lacked the ability to know what it knew: there was not effective mechanism for capturing or sharing institutional knowledge (p. 77 9/11 Commission Report, 2004).” (italics, my emphasis)
In United States v. Bank of New England (N.A.., 821 F.2d 844,855, 1st Cir. 1987) the Bank of New England was charged with knowingly violating the Currency Reporting Act by failing to report cash transfers in excess of $10,000. Individual tellers cashed checks to the same customer, that when summed, totaled more than $10,000. Other employees knew about the reporting requirement but not about these particular transactions. The court acquitted all of the employees but found the corporation itself guilty.
In this talk I will use these cases as a litmus test for a theory of institutional knowledge and ignorance. I begin with a brief description of institutions and distinguish them from other types of groups. I argue that current accounts of group knowledge (based on joint acceptance of a proposition) do not handle the institutional case well. I then sketch a theory of institutional knowledge and ignorance. Institutional knowledge, on my account, is best thought of as a form of know-how—an ability to register that p accurately. Institutional ignorance is, therefore, a lack of ability to accurately register that p. I argue that this way of understanding institutional knowledge makes sense of the cases above and many others like them.




1st July 2019
2nd July 2019


School III
United College, St salvators Quad
St Andrews, KY169AL United Kingdom
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