Believing is said of groups in many ways

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In defence of pluralism

Recently, after a couple of hours discussing a problem in the philosophy of mathematics, a colleague mentioned that he wanted to propose a sort of pluralism as a solution. We were debating the foundations of mathematics, and he wanted to consider the claim that there might be no single unique foundation, but rather many different foundations, no one of them better than the others. Before he did so, though, he wanted to preface his suggestion with an apology. Pluralism, he admitted, is unpopular wherever it is proposed as a solution to a longstanding philosophical problem. 

I agree with his sociological observation. Philosophers tend to react badly to pluralist solutions. But why? And is the reaction reasonable? This is pure speculative generalisation based on my limited experience, but I've found that the most common source of resistance is a conviction that there is a particular special role that the concept in question must play; and moreover, in that role, whether or not something falls under the concept determines some important issue concerning it. So, in the philosophy of mathematics, you might think that a proof of a mathematical proposition is legitimate just in case it can be carried out in the system that provides the foundation for mathematics. And, if you allow a plurality of foundations of differing logical strength, the legitimacy of certain proof becomes indeterminate---relative to some foundations, they're legit; relative to others, they aren't. Similarly, you might think that a person who accidentally poisons another person is innocent of murder if, and only if, they were justified in their belief that the liquid they administered was not poisonous. And, if you allow a plurality of concepts of justification, then whether or not the person is innocent might become indeterminate. 

I tend to respond to such concerns in two ways. First, I note that, while the special role that my interlocutor picks out for the concept we're discussing is certainly among the roles that this concept needs to play, it isn't the only one; and it is usually not clear why we should take it to be the most important one. One role for a foundation of mathematics is to test the legitimacy of proofs; but another is to provide a universal language that mathematicians might use, and that might help them discover new mathematical truths (see this paper by Jean-Pierre Marquis for a pluralist approach that takes both of these roles seriously).

Second, I note that we usually determine the important issues in question independently of the concept and then use our determinations to test an account of the concept, not the other way around. So, for instance, we usually begin by determining whether we think a particular proof is legitimate---perhaps by asking what it assumes and whether we have good reason for believing that those assumptions are true---and then see whether a particular foundation measures up by asking whether the proof can be carried out within it. We don't proceed the other way around. And we usually determine whether or not a person is innocent independently of our concept of justification---perhaps just by looking at the evidence they had and their account of the reasoning they undertook---and then see whether a particular account of justification measures up by asking whether the person is innocent according to it. Again, we don't proceed the other way around.

For these two reasons, I tend not to be very moved by arguments against pluralism. Moreover, while it's true that pluralism is often greeted with a roll of the eyes, there are a number of cases in which it has gained wide acceptance. We no longer talk of the probability of an event but distinguish between its chance of occurring, a particular individual's credence in it occurring, and perhaps even it's evidential probability relative to a body of evidence. That is, we are pluralists about probability. Similarly, we no longer talk of a particular belief being justified simpliciter, but distinguish between propositional, doxastic, and personal justification. We are, along some dimensions at least, pluralists about justification. We no longer talk of a person having a reason to choose one thing rather than another, but distinguish between their internal and external reasons

I want to argue that we should extend pluralism to so-called group beliefs or collective beliefs. Britain believes lockdowns are necessary to slow the virus. Scotland believes it would fare well economically as an independent country. The University believes the pension fund has been undervalued and requires no further increase in contributions in the near future to meet its obligations in the further future. In 1916, Russia believed Rasputin was dishonest. In each of these sentences, we seem to ascribe a belief to a group or collective entity. When is it correct to do this? I want to argue that there is no single answer. Rather, as Aristotle said of being, believing is said of groups in many ways---that is, a pluralist account is appropriate.

I've been thinking about this recently because I've been reading Jennifer Lackey's fascinating new book, The Epistemology of Groups (all page numbers in what follows refer to that). In it, Lackey offers an account of group belief, justified group belief, group knowledge, and group assertion. I'll focus here only on the first.

Lackey's treatment of group belief

Three accounts of group belief

Lackey considers two existing accounts of group belief as well as her own proposal. 

The first, due to Margaret Gilbert and with amendments by Raimo Tuomela, is a non-summative account that treats groups as having 'a mind of their own'. Lackey calls it the Joint Acceptance Account (JAA). I'll stick with the simpler Gilbert version, since the points I'll make don't rely on Tuomela's more involved amendment (24):

JAA  A group $G$ believes that $p$ iff it is common knowledge in $G$ that the members of $G$ individually have intentionally and openly expressed their willingness jointly to accept that $p$ with the other members of $G$.

The second, due to Philip Pettit, is a summative account that treats group belief as strongly linked to individual belief. Lackey calls it the Premise-Based Aggregation Account (PBAA) (29). Here's a rough paraphrase:

PBAA  A group $G$ believes that $p$ iff there is some collection of propositions $q_1, \ldots, q_n$ such that (i) it is common knowledge among the operative members of $G$ that $p$ is true iff each $q_i$ is true, (ii) for each operative member of $G$, they believe $p$ iff they believe each $q_i$, and (iii) for each $q_i$, the majority of operative members of $G$ believe $q_i$.

Lackey's own proposal is the Group Agent Account (GAA) (48-9):

GAA  A group $G$ believes that $p$ iff (i) there is a significant percentage of $G$'s operative members who believe that $p$, and (ii) are such that adding together the bases of their beliefs that $p$ yields a belief set that is not substantively incoherent.

Group lies (and bullshit) and judgment fragility: two desiderata for accounts of group belief

To distinguish between these three accounts, Lackey enumerates four desiderata for accounts of group belief that she takes to tell against JAA and PBAA and in favour of GAA. The first three are related to an objection to Gilbert's account of group belief that was developed by K. Brad Wray, A. W. M. Meijers, and Raul Hakli in the 2000s. According to this, JAA makes it too easy for groups to actively, consciously, and intentionally choose what they believe: all they need to do is intentionally and openly express their willingness jointly to accept the proposition in question. Lackey notes two consequences of this: (a) on such an account, it is difficult to give a satisfactory account of group lies (or group bullshit, though I'll focus on group lies); (b) on such an account, whether or not a group believes something at a particular time is sensitive to the group's situation at that time in a way that beliefs should not be sensitive.

So Lackey's first desideratum for an account of group belief is that it must be able to accommodate a plausible account of group lies (and the second that it accommodate group bullshit, but as I said I'll leave that for now). Suppose each member of a group strongly believes $p$ on the basis of excellent evidence that they all share, but they also know that the institution will be culpable of a serious crime if it is taken to believe $p$. Then they might jointly agree to accept $\neg p$. And, if they do, Gilbert must say that they do believe $\neg p$. But were they to assert $\neg p$, we would take the group to have lied, which would require that it believes $p$. The point is that, if a group's belief is so thorougly within its voluntary control, it can manipulate it whenever it likes in order to avoid ever lying in situations in which dishonesty would be subject to censure. 

Lackey's third desideratum for an account of group belief is that such belief should not be rendered sensitive in certain ways to the situation in which the group formed it. Suppose that, on the basis of the same shared evidence, a substantial majority of members of a group judge the horse Cisco most likely to win the race, the horse Jasper next most likely, and the horse Whiskey very unlikely to win. But, again on the basis of this same shared body of evidence, the remaining minority of members judge Whiskey most likely to win, Jasper next most likely, and Cisco very unlikely to win. The group would like a consensus before it reports its opinion, but time is short---the race is about to begin, say, and the group has been asked for its opinion before the starting gates open. So, in order to achieve something close to a consensus, it unanimously agrees to accept that Jasper will win, even though he is everyone's second favourite. Yet we might also assume that, had time not been short, the majority would have been able to persuade the minority of Cisco's virtues; and, in that case, they'd unanimously agree to accept that Cisco will win. So, according to Gilbert's account, under time pressure, the group believes Jasper will win, while with world enough and time, they would have believed that Cisco will win. Lackey holds that no account of group belief should make it sensitive to the situation in which it is formed in this way, and thus rejects JAA.

Lackey argues that any account of group belief must satisfy the two desiderata we've just considered. I agree that we need at least one account of group belief that satisfies the first desideratum, but I'm not convinced that all need do this---but I'll leave that for later, when I try to motivate pluralism. For now, I'd like to explain why I'm not convinced that any account needs to satisfy the second desideratum. After all, we know from various empirical studies in social psychology, as well as our experience as thinkers and reasoners and believers, that our ordinary beliefs as individuals are sensitive to the situation in which they're formed in just the sort of way that Lackey wishes to rule out for the beliefs of groups. One of the central theses of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman's work is that we use a different reasoning system when we are forced to make a judgment under time pressure from the one we use when more time is available. So, when my implicit biases are mobilised under time pressure, I might come to believe that a particular job candidate is incompetent, while I might judge them to be competent were I to have more time to assess their track record and override my irrational hasty judgment. And, whenever we are faced with a complex body of evidence that, on the face of it, seems to point in one direction, but which, under closer scrutiny, points in the opposite direction, we will form a different belief if we must do so under time pressure than if we have greater leisure to unpick and balance the different components of the evidence. If individual beliefs can be sensitive to the situation in which they're formed in this way, I see no reason why group beliefs might not also be sensitive in this way.

Before moving on, I'd like to consider whether the PBAA---Pettit's premise-based aggregation account---satisfies Lackey's first desideratum. If it doesn't, it can't be for the same reason that Gilbert's JAA doesn't. After all, according to the PBAA, the group's belief is no more under its voluntary control than the beliefs of its individual members. If, for each $q_i$, a majority believes $q_i$, then the group believes $p$. The only way a group could manipulate its belief is by manipulating the beliefs of its members. But if that sort of manipulation rules out a group belief, Lackey's account is just as vulnerable.

So why does Lackey think that PBAA cannot adequately account for group lies. She considers a case in which the three board members of a tobacco company know that smoking is safe to health iff it doesn't cause lung cancer and it doesn't cause emphysema and it doesn't cause heart disease. The first member believes it doesn't cause lung cancer or heart disease, but believes it does cause emphysema, and so believes it is not safe to health; the second believes it doesn't cause emphysema or heart disease, but it does cause lung cancer, and so believes it is not safe to health; and the third believes it doesn't cause lung cancer or emphysema, but it does cause heart disease, and so believes it is not safe to health. The case is illustrated in Table 1. 

Then each board member believes it is not safe to health, but PBAA says that it is, because a majority (first and third) believe it doesn't cause lung cancer, a majority (second and third) believe it doesn't cause emphysema, and a majority (first and second) believe it doesn't cause heart disease. If the company then asserts that it is safe to health, then Lackey claims that it lies, while PBAA says that it believes the proposition it asserts and so does not lie.

I think this case is a bit tricky. I suspect our reaction to it is influenced by our knowledge of how the real-world version played out and the devastating effect it has had. So let us imagine that this group of three is not the board of a tobacco company, but the scientific committee of a public health organisation. The structure of the case will be exactly the same, and the nature of the organisation should not affect whether or not belief is present. Now suppose that, since the stakes are so high, each member would only come to believe of a specific putative risk that it is not present if their credence that it is not present is above 95%. That is, there is some pragmatic encroachment here to the extent that the threshold for belief is determined in part by the stakes involved. And suppose further that the first member of the scientific committee has credence 99% that smoking doesn't cause lung cancer, 99% that it doesn't cause heart disease, and 93% that it doesn't cause emphysema. And let's suppose that, by a tragic bout of bad luck that has bestowed on them very misleading evidence, the evidence available to them supports these credences. Then their credence that smoking is safe to health must be at most 93%---since the probability of a conjunction must be at most the probability of any of the conjuncts---and thus below 95%. So the first member doesn't believe it is safe to health. And suppose the same for the other two members of the committee, but for the other combinations of risks. So the second is 99% sure it doesn't cause emphysema and 99% sure it doesn't cause heart disease, but only 93% sure it doesn't cause lung cancer. And the third is 99% sure it doesn't cause lung cancer and 99% sure it doesn't cause emphysema, but only 93% sure it doesn't cause heart disease. So none of the three believe that smoking is safe to health. The case is illustrated in Table 2. 

However, just averaging the group's credences in each of the three specific risks, we might say that it is 97% sure that smoking doesn't cause lung cancer, 97% sure it doesn't cause emphysema, and 97% sure it doesn't cause heart disease ($\frac{0.99 + 0.99 + 0.93}{3} = 0.97$). And it is then possible that the group assigns a higher than 95% credence to the conjunction of these three. And, if it does, it seems to me, the PBAA may well get things right, and the group does not lie if it says that smoking carries no health risks.

Nonetheless, I think the PBAA cannot be right. In the example I just described, I noted that, just taking a straight average gives, for each specific risk, a credence of 97% that it doesn't exist. And I noted that it's then possible that the group credence that smoking is safe to health is above 95%. But of course, it's also possible that it's below 95%. This would happen, for instance, if the group were to take the three risks to be independent. Then the group credence that smoking is safe to health would be a little over 91%---too low for the group to believe it given the stakes. But PBAA would still say that the group believes that smoking is safe to health. The point is that PBAA is not sufficiently sensitive to the more fine-grained attitudes to the propositions that lie behind the beliefs in those propositions. Simply knowing what each member believes about the three putative risks is not sufficient to determine what the group thinks about them. You also need to look to their credences.

Of course, there are lots of reasons to dislike straight averaging as a means for pooling credences---it can't preserve judgments of independence, for instance---and lots of reasons to dislike the naive application of a threshold or Lockean view of belief that is in the background here---it gives rise to the lottery paradox. But it seems that, for any reasonable method of probablistic aggregation and any reasonable account of the relationship between belief and credence, there will be cases like this in which the PBAA says the group believes a proposition when it shouldn't. So I agree with Lackey that the PBAA sometimes gets things wrong, but I disagree about exactly when.

Base fragility: a further desideratum

Consider an area of science in which two theories vie for precedence, $T_1$ and $T_2$. Half of the scientists working in this area believe the following:

  • ($A_1$) $T_1$ is simpler than $T_2$,
  • ($B_1$) $T_2$ is more explanatory than $T_1$,
  • ($C_1$) simplicity always trumps explanatory power in theory choice.

These scientists consequently believe $T_1$. The other half of the scientists believe the following: 

  • ($A_2$) $T_2$ is simpler than $T_1$,
  • ($B_2$) $T_1$ is more explanatory than $T_2$,
  • ($C_2$) explanatory power always trumps simplicity in theory choice.

These scientists consequently believe $T_1$. So all scientists believe $T_1$. But they do so for diametrically opposed reasons. Indeed, all of their beliefs about the comparisons between $T_1$ and $T_2$ are in conflict, but because their views about theory choice are also in conflict, they end up believing the same theory. Does the scientific community believe $T_1$? Lackey says no. In order for a group to believe a proposition, the bases of the members' beliefs must not be substantively incoherent. In our example, for half of the members, the basis of their belief in $T_1$ is $A_1\ \&\ B_1\ \&\ C_1$, while for the other half, it's $A_2\ \&\ B_2\ \&\ C_2$. And $A_1$ contradicts $A_2$, $B_1$ contradicts $B_2$, and $C_1$ contradicts $C_2$. The bases are about as incoherent as can be. 

Is Lackey correct to say that the scientific community does not believe in this case? I'm not so sure. For one thing, attributing belief in $T_1$ would help to explain a lot of the group's behaviour. Why does the scientific community fund and pursue research projects that are of interest only if $T_1$ is true? Why does the scientific community endorse and teach from textbooks that give much greater space to expounding and explaining $T_1$? Why do departments in this area hire those with the mathematical expertise required to understand $T_1$ when that expertise is useless for understanding $T_2$? In each case, we might say: because the community believes $T_1$.

Lackey raises two worries about group beliefs based in incoherent bases: (i) they cannot be subject to rational evaluation; (ii) they cannot coherently figure in accounts of collective deliberation. On (ii), it seems to me that the group belief could figure in deliberation. Suppose the community is deliberating about whether to invite a $T_1$-theorist or a $T_2$-theorist to give the keynote address at the major conference in the area. It seems that the group's belief in the superiority of $T_1$ could play a role in the discussions: 'Yes, we want the speaker who will pose the greatest challenge intellectually, but we don't want to hear a string of falsehoods, so let's go with the $T_1$-theorist,' they might reason.

On (i): Lackey asks what we would say if the group were to receive new evidence that $T_1$ has greater simplicity and less explanatory power than we initially thought. For the first half of the group, this would make their belief in $T_1$ more justified; for the second half, it would make their belief less justified. What would it do to the group's belief? Without an account of justification for group belief, it's hard to say. But I don't think the incoherent bases rule out an answer. For instance, we might be reliabilists about group justification. And if we are, then we look at all the times that the members of the group have made judgments about simplicity and explanatory power that have the same pattern as they have time---that is, half one way, half the other---and we look at the proportion of those times that the group belief---formed by whatever aggregation method we favour---has been true. If it's high, then the belief is justified; if it's not, it's not. And we can do that for the group before and after this new evidence comes in. And by doing that, we can compare the level of justification for the group belief.

Of course, this is not to say that reliabilism is the correct account of justification for group beliefs. But it does suggest that incoherent bases don't create a barrier to such accounts.

Varieties of group belief

One thing that is striking when we consider different proposed accounts of group belief is how large the supervenience base might be; that is, how many different features of a group $G$ might partially determine whether or not it believes a proposition $p$. Here's a list, though I don't pretend that it's exhaustive:

(1) The beliefs of individual members of the group

(1a) Some accounts are concerned only with individual members' beliefs in $p$; others are interested in members' beliefs beyond that. For instance, a simple majoritarian account is interested only in members' beliefs in $p$. But Pettit's PBAA is interested instead in members' beliefs in each proposition from a set $q_1, \ldots, q_n$ whose conjunction is equivalent to $p$. And Lackey's GAA is interested in the members' beliefs in $p$ as well as the members' beliefs that form the bases for their belief in $p$ when they do believe $p$.

(1b) Some accounts are concerned with the individual beliefs of all members of the group, some only with so-called operative members. For instance, some will say that what determines whether a company believes $p$ is only whether or not members of their board believe $p$, while others will say that all employees of the company count.

(2) The credences of individual members of the group

There are distinctions corresponding to (1a) and (1b) here as well.

(3) The outcomes of discussions between the members of the group

(3a) Some will say that only discussions that actually take place make a difference---you might say that, before a discussion takes place, the members of the group each believe $p$, but after they discuss it and retain those beliefs, you can say that the group believes $p$; others will say that hypothetical discussions can also make a difference---if individual members would dramatically change their beliefs were they to discuss the matter, that might mean the group does not believe, even if all members do.

(3b) Some will say that it is not the individual members' beliefs after discussion that is important, but their joint decision to accept $p$ as the group's belief. (Margaret Gilbert's JAA is such an account.)

(4) Belief-forming structures within the group

(4a) Some groups are extremely highly structured, and some of these structures relate to group belief formation. Some accounts of group belief acknowledge this by talking of 'operative members' of groups, and taking their attitudes to have greater weight in determining the group's attitude. For instance, it is common to say that the operative members of a company are its board members; the operative members of a British university might be its senior management team; the operative members of a trade union might be its executive committee. But of course many groups have much more complex structures than these. For instance, many large organisations are concerned with complex problems that break down into smaller problems, each of which requires a different sort of expertise to understand. The World Health Organization (WHO) might be such an example, or the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), or Médecins san Frontières (MSF). In each case, there might be a rigid reporting structure whereby subcommittees report their findings to the main committee, but each subcommittee might form its own subcommittees that report to them; and there might be strict rules about how the findings of a subcommittee must be taken into account by the committee to which it reports before that committee itself reports upwards. In such a structure, the notion of operative members and their beliefs is too crude to capture what's necessary.

(5) The actions of the group 

(5a) Some might say that a group has a belief just in case it acts in a way that is best explained by positing a group belief. Why does the scientific community persist in appointing only $T_1$-theorists and no $T_2$-theorists? Answer: It believes $T_1$. (I think Kenny Easwaran and Reuben Stern take this view in their recent joint work.)

So, in the case of group beliefs, the disagreement between different accounts does not concern only the conditions on an agree supervenience base; it also concerns the extent of the supervenience base itself. Now, this might soften us up for pluralism, but it is hardly an argument. To give an argument, I'd like to consider a range of possible accounts and, for each, describe a role that group beliefs are typically taken to play and for which this account is best suited.

Group beliefs as summaries

One thing we do when we ascribe beliefs to groups is simply to summarise the views of the group. If I say that, in 1916, Russia believed that Rasputin was dishonest, I simply give a summary of the views of people who belong to the group to which 'Russia' refers in this sentence, namely, Russians alive in 1916. And I say roughly that a substantial majority believed that he was dishonest. 

For this role, a simple majoritarian account (SMA) seems best:

SMA  A group $G$ believes $p$ iff a substantial majority of members of $G$ believes $p$.

There is an interesting semantic point in the background here. Consider the sentence: 'At the beginning of negotiations at Brest-Litovsk in 1917-8, Russia believed Germany's demands would be less harsh than they turned out to be.' We might suppose that, in fact, this belief was not widespread in Russia, but it was almost universal among the Bolshevik government. Then we might nonetheless say that the sentence is true. At first sight, it doesn't seem that SMA can account for this. But it might do if 'Russia' refers to different groups in the two different sentences: to the whole population in 1916 in the first sentence; to the members of the Bolshevik government in the second. 

I'm tempted to think that this happens a lot when we discuss group beliefs. Groups are complex entities, and the name of a group might be used in one sentence to pick out some subset of its structure---just its members, for instance---and in another sentence some other subset of its structure---its members as well as its operative group, for instance---and in another sentence yet some further subset of its structure---its members, its operative group, and the rules by which the operative group abide when they are debating an issue.

Of course, this might look like straightforward synecdoche, but I'm inclined to think it's not, because it isn't clear that there is one default referent of the term 'Russia' such that all other terms are parasitic on that. Rather, there are just many many different group structures that might be picked out by the term, and we have to hope that context determines this with sufficient precision to evaluate the sentence.

Group beliefs as attitudes that play a functional role

An important recent development in our understanding of injustice and oppression has been the recognition of structural forms of racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, and so on. The notion is contested and there are many competing definitions, but to illustrate the point, let me quote from a recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine that considers structural racism in the US healthcare system:

All definitions [of structural racism] make clear that racism is not simply the result of private prejudices held by individuals, but is also produced and reproduced by laws, rules, and practices, sanctioned and even implemented by various levels of government, and embedded in the economic system as well as in cultural and societal norms (Bailey, et al. 2021).

The point is that a group---a university, perhaps, or an entire healthcare system, or a corporation---might act as if it holds racist or sexist beliefs, even though no majority of its members holds those beliefs. A university might pay academics who are women less, promote them less frequently, and so on, even while few individuals within the organisation, and certainly not a majority, believe that women's labour is worth less, and that women are less worthy of promotion. In such a case, we might wish to ascribe those beliefs to the institution as a whole. After all, on certain functionalist accounts of belief, to have a belief simply is to be in a state that has certain casual relationships with other states, including actions. And the state of a group is determined not only by the state of the individuals within it but also by the other structural features of the group, such as its laws, rules and practices. And if the states of the individuals within the group, combined with these laws, rules and practices give rise to the sort of behaviour that we would explain in a individual by positing a belief, it seems reasonable to do so in the group case as well. What's more, doing so helps to explain group behaviour in just the same way that ascribing beliefs to individuals helps to explain their behaviour. (As mentioned above, I take it that Kenny Easwaran and Reuben Stern take something like this view of group belief.)

Group beliefs as ascriptions that have legal standing

In her book, Lackey pays particular attention to cases of group belief that are relevant to corporate culpability and liability. In the 1970s, did the tobacco company Philip Morris believe that their product is hazardous to health, even while they repeatedly denied it? Between 1998 and 2014, did Volkswagen believe that their diesel emissions reports were accurate? In 2003, did the British government believe that Iraq could deploy biological weapons within forty-five minutes of an order to do so? Playing this role well is an important job for an account of group belief. It can have very significant real world consequences: Do those who trusted the assertions of tobacco companies and became ill as a result receive compensation? Do governments have a case against car manufacturers? Should a government stand down?

In fact, I think the consequences are often so large and, perhaps more importantly, so varied that the decision whether or not to put them in train should not depend on the applicability of a single concept with a single precise definition. Consider cases of corporate culpability. There are many ways in which this might be punished. We might fine the company. We might demand that it change certain internal policies or rules. We might demand that it change its corporate structure. We might do many things. Some will be appropriate and effective if the company believes a crucial proposition in one sense; some appropriate if it believes that proposition in some other sense. For instance, a fine does many things, but among them is this: it affects the wealth of the company's shareholders, who will react by putting pressure on the company's board. Thus, it might be appropriate to impose a fine if we think that the company believed the proposition that it denied in its public assertions in the sense that a substantial majority of its board believed it. On the other hand, demanding that the company change certain internal policies or rules would be appropriate if the company believes the proposition that it publicly denied in the sense that it is the outcome of applying its belief-forming rules and policies (such as, for instance, the nested set of subcommittees that I imagined for the WHO or the IPPC or MSF above).

The point is that our purpose in ascribing culpability and liability to a group is essentially pragmatic. We do it in order to determine what sort of punishment we might mete out. This is perhaps in contrast to cases of individual culpability and liability, where we are interested also in the moral status of the individual's action independent of how we respond to it. But, in many cases, such as when a corporation has lied, which punishment is appropriate depends on which of the many ways in which a group can believe the company believed the negation of the proposition it asserted in its lie.

So it seems to me that, even if this role were the only role that our concept of group belief had to play, pluralism would be appropriate. Groups are complex entities and there are consequently many ways in which we can seek to change them in order to avoid the sorts of harms that arise when they behave badly. We need different concepts of group belief in order to identify which is appropriate in a given case.

It's perhaps worth noting that, while Lackey's opens her book with cases of corporate culpability, and this is a central motivation for her emphasis on group lying, it isn't clear to me that her group agent account (GAA) can accommodate all cases of corporate lies. Consider the following situation. The board of a tobacco company is composed of eleven people. Each of them believes that tobacco is hazardous to health. However, some believe it for very different reasons from the others. They have all read the same scientific literature on the topic, but six of them remember it correctly and the other five remember it incorrectly. The six who remember it correctly remember that tobacco contains chemical A and remember that when chemical A comes into contact with tissue X in the human body, it causes cancer in that tissue; and they also remember that tobacco does not contain chemical B and they remember that, when chemical B comes into contact with tissue Y in the human body, it does not cause cancer in that tissue. The five who remember the scientific literature incorrectly believe that tobacco contains chemical B and believe that when chemical B comes into contact with tissue Y in the human body, it causes cancer in that tissue; and they also believe that tobacco does not contain chemical A and they believe that, when chemical A comes into contact with tissue X in the human body, it does not cause cancer in that tissue. So, all board members believe that smoking causes cancer. However, the bases of their beliefs forms an incoherent set. The two propositions on which the six base their belief directly contradict the two propositions on which the five base theirs. The board then issues a statement saying that tobacco does not cause cancer. The board is surely lying, but according to GAA, they are not because the bases of their beliefs conflict and so they do not believe that tobacco does cause cancer.


  1. Interesting - haven't quite digested it, but just to note that you might find it interesting (if you haven't already) to look at Christian List's 'Three Kinds of Collective Attitudes' (Erkenntnis 79, 2014). Despite the title and initial framing of the paper, his pluralism (to call it that) does not concern three different accounts of what group attitudes are, but three kinds of ascriptions of collective attitudes with somewhat different explanatory roles. So his distinctions are kind of preliminary to the kind of discussion you're having here. I have some quibbles with his classification (I think it doesn't quite cover all the cases) but I found it pretty enlightening.

    1. Thanks, Thomas! That's really useful -- I'll have a look. I'm pretty new to the area, so I feel like there's a lot of standard literature I just don't know.

  2. Interesting. I very much agree with your take but I think you miss one of big reasons people often are disposed against pluralism.

    It seems that most people have a kind of default bias toward realism about any concept they employ, e.g., I talk about what's rational in some cases so people assume there is simply a fact of the matter about whether any particular thing is rational even when your usage doesn't obviously extend to there.

    I mean philosophers aren't immune to the same dispositions which make people hardcore linguistic prescriptivists. There isn't any objective reason to think there is a clear fact of the matter about whether the oxford comma is correct (there is a fact that it is the better rule to adopt but that's different than it being grammatically correct as is) and the very fact that such args often roil forums and aren't phrased as which would be the better std but which is correct suggests that the same issue probably pops up in philosophy too.

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