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.…

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