Collective Agency and the Pretense of Ethics

There’s a problem about political discourse that’s been bugging me for a while and I think I finally understand what it is.

Ethics presumes agency. It makes no sense to make an ethical demand of an entity that is not an agent. It’s why we don’t demand of the Earth that it stop producing hurricanes. We can wish things were one way or another, but we can only add a “should” if we’re talking about something an agent can make a choice about.

I see no reason to imagine there is such a thing as “collective agency”. Indeed, there are powerful reasons not to believe in agency of any sort, even individual. But individual agency also has a lot going for it, not least of which is the visceral experience of having choice over personal actions. In the case of “collective” actors, there is no corresponding experience of agency that needs to be accounted for. This seems like good enough reason to regard collective agency as a useful fiction.

So when we say, for example, “war is wrong”, whose action are we talking about? War is not an action individuals take, only groups. So it is not subject to ethical evaluation. As something caused by an entity with no moral agency, war is more like a hurricane than like a murder.

Of course, that’s not the end of ethics and war. It’s plausible to argue that individual participation in war is wrong. And it’s important to note that if each moral actor acted ethically, the non-ethical but still very unfortunate events we call wars would no longer happen. But these facts, on their own, do not address the main point: there is no agent to whom we can attribute the supposed moral evil that war itself is.

Part of why we say things that are analogous to saying “hurricanes are wrong” is because people, by and large, like to pretend that there are moral agents “in control” of collective actions. These might be the politicians, the corporations, the intellectuals, Hollywood – pick your flavor. But the fact is that while, of course, differences of degree are relevant here, it’s also true that all of us who are reasonably well-integrated members of society participate at least in some small way in the sustenance of our society’s collective “actions”. No single one of us – or even small group of us – bears the responsibility for collective actions. No, not even the president.

Any form of political philosophy that argues “society should be x” is therefore, in effect, making a descriptive claim, not an ethical one. “I’d prefer it if it happened to turn out that x”. This kind of claim has its use. What interests me is that though it’s not an ethical claim, statements of this sort are often said as if they were.

So now imagine I say “war is bad”. What do I mean? Well, I might mean simply that I wish it wasn’t going on. If that were it, I’d be making a simple statement of preferences for how the world should look.

It might also mean, “for any individual x, x should not participate in war”. That’s an ethical position. But notice that its character is different. Do I really hold it universally? Do I really think everyone who contributes to war in any way should stop doing so, regardless of what their alternatives might be? What if x’s contribution to war is very minor (eg, paying taxes) and his next most preferable alternative involves a great deal of suffering for him (being incarcerated for tax evasion)? Should x still categorically not contribute to war?

The pretense of collective agency is a copout. It’s a way to pretend to participate in ethics by conjuring a diluted and impersonal rational actor on whom to project evildoing. Ethics is inherently personal. It claims of individuals that they ought to live some way over another. The ethics of how individuals ought to live their lives is rarely an easy and obviously principled matter. It is as messy and heavy as an ask.

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