Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Are associations entities exercising agency?

It seems that committees, corporations, clubs and countries can and do exercise agency. That a committee has done A is not a claim that all or most of the people on the committee have done A (in fact, one person might have been deputed), and some of the things that a committee can do seem to be things that no individual can do (e.g., collectively deliberate). Thus, there seems to be good reason to introduce the notion of collective agency.

Now, some people go one step further and say that the collective agency is exercised by an entity—the committee, corporation, club or country—that is an agent. Here is an argument for this further step. For x to exercise agency, x must think (deliberate, etc.) But if x thinks, then x is. (Otherwise the inference "I think therefore I am" is invalid.) Therefore anything that exercises agency must be. And to be is to be an entity, a something or other, (a tode ti, to use the terminology of Metaphysics Z).

So the move for positing an agent where there is collective agency is not unjustified. But the move has the following consequence: committees, clubs and countries are persons. For it seems to be a conceptual truth that only persons are agents. To be an agent, one must be a rational being, after all.

But if committees, corporations, clubs and countries are persons, then to dissolve a committee, corporation, club or country is to kill a person. Therefore, to dissolve a committee, corporation, club or country requires reasons that have the kind of gravity that killing a person requires. But that is absurd, at least in the case of committees, corporations and clubs. While it is wrong to kill a person because her work is more efficiently done by someone else, it is not wrong to dissolve a committee because its deliberations can be more efficiently subsumed under another head. And while it can be permissible for a state to dissolve a corporation or club that refuses to accept members of some minority group, this kind of discrimination does not rise to the level of a capital crime—we would not, for instance, think it acceptable to execute a sole proprietor who exhibited racism in hiring.

Therefore, it is absurd to say that committees, corporations and clubs are entities that exercise agency. And if the argument from collective agency to collectives being agents is sound, then it follows that committees, corporations and clubs do not exercise agency, except in an analogical sense.

Notice something, though. My argument above is carefully phrased to apply to committees, corporations and clubs. It might be argued not to apply to countries. For there is some plausibility to the idea that a country can only be permissibly dissolved for the gravest of reasons, reasons akin to those that justify execution (think of the partition of Germany after WWII as a form of capital punishment on the country). Still, I think this is mistaken. Reasons for two nationalities within a country to separate need not be as grave as the reasons for killing a person, if the separation can be done in a peaceful way (perhaps the separation of the Czechs and the Slovaks is an example?)

It could also be that there are some genuine collective entities. Thus, it could be that the Church is a genuine collective entity. Certainly the Christian is likely to say that to try to destroy the Church is worse than trying to kill a person (but, fortunately, destroying the Church is impossible). It could also be that a Christian marriage is a genuine collective entity, and that therefore to try to break up such a marriage is akin to attempted murder (again, fortunately, only death can actually break up a Christian marriage).

But even if there are such supernatural collective entities, it is clear that the phenomenon that gets analyzed by some as "collective agency" is not limited to them. Thus, if the argument from collective agency to collectives being agents is sound, one needs a different story about colelctive agency.


Heath White said...

I have no fixed views about this. But here is a line of thought.

One weak link might be the claim that only persons are agents. You seem to be using Boethius' def of "person", "an individual substance with a rational nature." But this definition is not good, since the persons of the Trinity have rational natures but are not an individual substance.

Might we not say the same thing about corporations? That they have a "rational nature" in some sense, and thus exercise agency, but are not an "individual substance"?

OTOH, there are reasons besides agency to think of clubs, etc. as entities--they have rights, duties, tax statuses, temporal durations, etc. Also, one might not want to assimilate corporations and the Godhead too closely. :-)

Alexander R Pruss said...

Aquinas thinks that the persons of the Trinity are individual substances. :-)

Jason Dulle said...

You wrote, "Otherwise the inference 'I think therefore I am' is invalid." Is it valid? I've always thought so, but recently I have been made to question it.

While on the one hand it seems obvious that the act of contemplating existence requires a contemplator who exists, does Descartes's famous maxim beg the question?

Here is what I think his maxim looks like in syllogistic form:

(1) The act of thinking requires the existence of a thinker
(2) I experience the act of thinking
(3) I exist as a thinker

The question is whether there exists a personal subject, “I.” And yet “I” is smuggled into the second premise of the argument.

Did he really beg the question, or am I formulating his argument incorrectly?


Heath White said...

I thought it was quite clear that the Trinity was three persons, one substance?

Alexander R Pruss said...

Three persons, one ousia. Aquinas thinks "individual substance" is different from "ousia".

"According to the Philosopher (Metaph. v), substance is twofold. In one sense it means the quiddity of a thing, signified by its definition, and thus we say that the definition means the substance of a thing; in which sense substance is called by the Greeks ousia, what we may call "essence." In another sense substance means a subject or "suppositum," which subsists in the genus of substance." (Summa Theol. I 29 2)

larryniven said...

Jason: maybe, but if you aren't doing the thinking, what's going on? There don't seem to be any alternative hypotheses we can even venture, let alone support.

Alex: if I've read your opinion on this, I've forgotten it - can animals and robots be people for you? Also, do you really not hold people to be not responsible for those things which they didn't think about? They would, after all, not be exercising their agency in those cases.

(On a tangent, since it's been brought up, precisely how many substances do you think God has? I've been after an answer to this question for a while but I've been asking the wrong people.)

Alexander R Pruss said...


I am a dualist and find it implausible to suppose robots would have souls. I also think one needs to have or be a soul or something like it to be conscious. On the other hand, I do think animals do have souls.

We're animals, so some animals are persons. On theological grounds, I don't think any other presently extant species on earth has persons in it. I don't have any philosophical argument for this claim.

I hate to be squishy, but the answer to your Trinity question is tricky. The problem is that I accept Aquinas' view of the Trinity, which is basically this. There are two ways of counting objects. One is to count their substantial forms (in animals, we call these "souls"). The other is to count their underliers (hypostases), that which has the substantial form, their individualities (my term, not Aquinas', and somewhat unfortunate). Both ways of counting yield something that one can call "the number of substances". Moreover, both ways of counting yield the same answer when applied to ordinary substances like dogs and people. But in the case of God, the two ways of counting fall apart. God is, thus, three substances when one counts by individualities, and one substance when one counts by substantial forms.

Another way to put it is to say that God is three individual substances, but one ousia. And the word "substance" is ambiguous between "individual substance" and "ousia".

In other words, the question about the number of substances God has or is is going to depend a lot on what one means by "substance" and how one counts.

larryniven said...

"We're animals, so some animals are persons."

Er, quite right - good point. Failed to be quite as precise as I should be there...

"I also think one needs to have or be a soul or something like it to be conscious."

I was thinking of going down this road myself, but wasn't sure you endorsed it - what would the soul or soul-like thing be that would make a bridge club, say, a person? I'm skeptical about this just on principle, but maybe you have an idea ready or at least a reason for optimism.

"On theological grounds, I don't think any other presently extant species on earth has persons in it. I don't have any philosophical argument for this claim."

Fair enough - that was mostly just for my personal curiosity.

"I hate to be squishy, but..."


"...the answer to your Trinity question is tricky. ...God is, thus, three substances when one counts by individualities, and one substance when one counts by substantial forms."

Phew! That's what I was looking for. I understand that this is something of a complex issue (I mean, "quiddity"? Yikes.), so I appreciate the answer.

Jason Dulle said...


I agree with you. The ability to contemplate one’s existence requires that they exist. The question is whether a non-question-begging argument can be made for this prima facie, self-evident truth.

If Descartes proof is guilty of begging the question, then I would have to conclude there is no non-question-begging argument that could indubitably prove I exist. Of course, this does not mean I do not exist. I do, and I know I do. It simply means we can’t demonstrate how we know this, other than an appeal to basic intuition.


larryniven said...

Well, why not do it by contradiction, a la Descartes himself? Assume you don't exist and try to explain the things that appear to be your thoughts without contradiction. If, as seems to be the case, thoughts require thinkers, then something must exist beyond just the thoughts themselves, and at that point the assumption is contradicted. It might be harder to prove that you're a human with certain properties like you think you are, but that should work to at least establish your bare existence, no?

Jason Dulle said...


Either I wasn't clear, or I'm not understanding your response, because I thought I already explained it.

I agree with you that thoughts require thinkers who exist, but can a deductive argument be given for this conclusion that does not beg the question? Descartes's maxim seems to commit the fallacy of begging the question, because the second premise of the argument assumes the conclusion (that there is an "I"). While it is true that in order to contemplate whether we exist, we must first exist, I am trying to figure out if this is just a self-evident intuition that cannot be proven deductively.


larryniven said...

Proof by contradiction is a deductive argument:

1. I (which, for the sake of convenience, let's define partially as the thing thinking this argument) doesn't exist. (assumption)
2. All thoughts require thinkers. (def.)
3. By 2 (and the implicit premise that this argument is a thought), this argument requires a thinker.
4. Therefore, something thinking this argument (i.e., the thing we have defined to be me) does exist.
5. Therefore, nothing thinks this argument (from 1) and something thinks this argument (from 4) - in other words, I don't exist and I do exist.

Since 5 is a contradiction, go back and reject the offending assumption, in this case, premise 1, that I don't exist. If we reject the premise that I don't exist, then I must exist. This argument doesn't beg the question, right?

By the way, Alex, I'm certain you've at least given some cursory thought to this subject - have there been any responses to an argument like the one above?

Enigman said...

larryniven, doesn't that argument beg the question in (2), if the point of the argument is to take us from direct, infallible experiences to knowledge of our own existence? Russell would conclude from "I think" only that there is thinking. After all, some people would deny that we could conclude that there was a thought, in the sense of a proposition.

larryniven said...

Well, yes and no? It doesn't beg the question in the sense that Jason was worried about, but if the question is whether or not thoughts require thinkers, then yes, it absolutely does. I have heard of that objection of Russell's, but I can't bring myself to take it seriously enough to even read it. As such, I can't really analyze the objection other than to say it seems totally implausible. If you really want my opinion, I'm afraid you'll have to lay out the objection somewhat.

(PS Alex - sorry to hijack your comments thread)

Alexander R Pruss said...


To be the devil's advocate, what about the following anti-Cartesian line? "Our language (namely Latin--we're talking about Descartes!) has the unfortunate feature that verbs require a personal ending. Thus, the language includes forms like 'Cogito' ('I think'), 'Cogitamus' ('We think'), etc. But this language misleads. All one is warranted to say is 'Cogit' (maybe 'Think' in English?) with no personal ending, but unfortunately our language doesn't have this form. And the inference 'Cogit, ergo sum' would be invalid."

This is a variant of the Kantian objection that on Cartesian grounds we're not entitled to say "I think" but only "Thought is occurring."

larryniven said...

You know, I'd always heard that the Latin translation (the original was French, right?) avoided that linguistic objection. So much for that...

Sure, all we're initially entitled to is a sort of agrammatical observation about how thoughts are happening. But then, either these thoughts require thinkers (in which case the objection dissolves) or not. In order for thoughts not to require thinkers, there must either be no thoughts (false by assumption, if nothing else) or else thoughts outside of any mind (a mind with a thought =def a thinker). So then, if a thought exists outside of all minds, what, exactly, is it? It's not a physical thing, I think we can safely say, because thoughts aren't (to use the traditional jargon) extended in space. So it's not physical, and by assumption it's not mental. And even if I grant that laws (e.g. the law of non-contradiction or universal gravitation, assuming such a thing exists) are thinkerless thoughts,* not all thoughts are laws, especially laws of this sort. But on my view (which I guess would take some defending itself), those are all the choices: laws and objects. Again, we've reached a contradiction (an existing thing falls into no categories of existing things) and we reject the assumption that led to it, namely, that thoughts (other than laws...?) don't require thinkers. Again, this leaves open what I am, exactly, but so does "cogito ergo sum," so...

(I suppose I could also be stubborn and play a Berkeleyan game along the lines of "To be a sight is to be seen by a seer; to be a sound is to be heard by a hearer; likewise, to be a thought is to be thought by a thinker," but I'm not sure that counts as an argument and not just a fancy way of saying "nuh uh!" Though, if nothing else, that'd be a much cleaner reply.)

*which I might have to do if, say, I'm not really sure how else to categorize them, except to make a whole new category. Something about that solution is displeasing, though - I'll have to give this more thought...

Enigman said...

larryniven, upon reflection I think that (2) probably is true by definition, but if it is then wouldn't that just make the Cogit as valid but question-begging as the Cogito?

The problem would be our calling - presumably correctly - our experienced thoughts just that, where our public language contains such definitions. So what strikes me now, about the question of what we can deduce from our self-awareness, is that our basic thoughts are of the form "S is P." They are about S and being P, whence we should only be deducing facts about S and P, from such thoughts. And my guess is that we don't have words for any argument like the Cogito to be valid.

The natural comparison for the Cogito seems to be such as "The time is 4am, therefore time exists," which is clearly invalid. (Even if one meant by time existing that there was change, it might always be 4am.) But I'd've thought that if valid "I think, therefore I am" begged the question as a matter of logic - we can't get out more than we put in.

larryniven said...

The question as to whether or not my (2) is true is not, I'm pretty sure, the same as the question of whether or not I exist. I mean, we can talk about how Force powers require a high midichlorian count in the bloodstream (or whatever it was) while at the same time recognizing that nobody actually has Force powers because Star Wars is fiction. Likewise, we can talk (can't we?) about thoughts requiring thinkers without committing ourselves to the idea that there are thoughts (or, thus, thinkers) or, if so, that I am one. So if it begs the question, it begs a different question than we were originally asking. But...so what?

To take a page from mathematics, every logical system that's strong enough to axiomatize the natural numbers will either be inconsistent or incomplete - and, furthermore, will by definition have unproven axioms. Similarly, at some point, our argumentative logic just breaks down. At some point, we're going to get down to ~(p & ~p), at which point there is no explanation. So, every argument ultimately begs some question, but that doesn't mean that they're all equally untrustworthy in terms of establishing knowledge. The cogito is supposed to be an example of a particularly reliable one because its axioms ("I think"; or, if we want to go my route, "Thoughts are happening" and "Thoughts require thinkers") are among the most obvious ones imaginable (at least, in terms of evidential claims). So, yeah, you could start to question its axioms, but then, what are you left with?

Enigman said...

I'm not actually that sceptical, more of a pragmatist I think. I see plenty of evidence for non-physical things and so deny physicalism, for example. So I guess I agree with you; although I'm still not sure that you've an infallibly logical argument a la Descartes that more than thoughts exist. I think that Descartes must rely not on a general definition like (2) but on some direct knowledge about himself as an individual agent and subject, ultimately something that cannot be captured by our public defintiions...

Enigman said...

...I think that (2) is true (if not by definition), but one way to think of the possibility of thinkerless thoughts is by analogy with Lewisian Humeanism (that the world is fundamentally spacetime points with arbitrary physical properties, one of a full range of worlds, of all combinatorially possible assignments of such properties to such points).

Similarly, maybe there are just the thoughts; they just exist for no other reason. The thoughts are about things, but the things don't exist, just the thoughts. And the thoughts don't really connect up, there are just thoughts whose content is that they do! (The possibility may make most sense under Solipsism, but that's why I think that the nature of language gets in the way of trying to refute the possibility.)

Alexander R Pruss said...

All this reminds me of: http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11098-014-0387-8