Group Agency: On Which Level?

12 September 2019

I hold that some families are group agents and others are not. The Strohmaiers are too loose a group to be an agent, but perhaps the Gilmores are an agent with desires and beliefs. The Gilmores can act as a group. They meet regularly, discuss what they believe, intend to go on a vacation together, and behave accordingly. I want to say that the Strohmaiers are not an agent while the Gilmores are.

For those open to the idea of group agency, this claim might seem innocuous, but it is not. Brian Epstein (2017) has recently suggested that we should attribute agency to groups based on belonging to a kind, rather than a group’s particular structure. That is, the local soccer team would be a group agent in virtue of being a soccer team, not because of anything having to do with its structure or how it functions.

If belonging to the kind family fixed whether a group was an agent, either all families or none would have to be group agents. The difference between the Strohmaiers and the Gilmores would not be possible. There is, however, a caveat to this claim. A kind can also leave open whether its instances are agents. The kind group is an example of that. Some groups are agents, and some are not. Whether a group is an agent is decided by whether it is belongs to a more specific kind, according to Epstein. Thus, one might suggest that some families are group agents, and some are not depending on which more specific kind they belong to.

Letting another kind settle the status might be a solution, if such a kind was available. But while families instantiate more specific kinds (clan, “traditional family”, noble house etc.), I don’t see a good candidate to settle the difference between the Strohmaiers and the Gilmores. My sense is that any such kind would seem to terribly ad-hoc. (But feel free to come up with one and drop me a line.)

Epstein’s proposal builds upon already existing literature. Similar positions have been defended for human agents, that is I might be an agent in virtue of belonging to the kind human rather than to my specific functional arrangement. But there is a special problem with social kinds: They are extraordinarily heterogeneous. That makes it less plausible that all the instances should be agents or not. I, for one, find it hard to believe in the case of families. Epstein has mitigated the heterogeneity by focussing on rather specific kinds, such as a Tufts University College of Arts, Sciences and Engineering elected standing faculty committee. This strategy, I believe, fails in the case of families, because families are heterogeneous in regard to agency while there are no other more specific and non-ad-hoc kinds that could do the work.