Groups and Group Identity: A Deontic Account


We use the notion of groups to adjudicate moral and legal claims. It is normal for a collection of individuals with common grievances to be treated as a group within law. For instance, a class action lawsuit has people of a class acting in common legal interest. Courts can also take suo motu cognizance of cases wherein one of the parties to the case are people who have never met or coordinated with each other. The court may ‘group’ them together based on them being persecuted or wronged. I expand on this legal conception by arguing for a more permissive account of groups in general. I present a two-part account of groups: the application of an inclusion criteria in some possible world as a necessary condition to obtain collections of individuals; and a sufficiency criteria that determines that collections are groups if and only if their potential members bear at least one deontic enablement or curtailment by virtue of being members of that collection. A deontic enablement is the ability to do or be something more easily than it would be without such an enablement. A deontic curtailment is the ability to do or be something with more difficulty than it would be without such a curtailment. I present a way to frame group identity – individuals identifying with groups they may belong to – in terms of these deontic characteristics. I argue that thinking of groups and group identity in these terms presents at least two advantages: One, it allows for the categorisation of social kinds such as gender, race, class and caste as groups without essentialising their meaning while doing justice to people with intersectional identities wherein their membership of different groups can produce complex deontic profiles. Two, in an era of transnational corporations and international (in)voluntary migration (think climate refugees, asylum seekers), it allows for people to be the subjects of moral and legal claims without having to rely on state-judicial boundaries of recognition.


6 thoughts on “Groups and Group Identity: A Deontic Account

  1. Sucaet, Peter says:

    Ajinkya – Thank you for this clear presentation. I still have a question though. How do these deontic enablements or curtailments arise? It would look to me that some collections to which an individual belongs (e.g. the owner of pizza-oven to continue Antoine’s examples) don’t come with such deontic enablements or curtailments, while others clearly do (e.g. being a member of an university). Moreover, do you think that in the last case, we should make a distinction between those groups where an individual has a choice (e.g. i decide to become a member of a university) and those groups that are ”imposed” on a person (e.g. your family; gender; nationality; etc.)?

    1. Deshmukh, Ajinkya says:

      Hi Peter,

      Excellent points! How these enablements/curtailments come to be is the subject of that third area of interest I did not mention: the sources of normativity. And the short answer is, they can have various sources. There may be biologically or physically necessary enablements (genetic predisposition to certain illness, higher chance of stress fractures for really tall individuals, etc.) or they could be ‘social’ broadly construed. In the pizza oven case, this could be that the local municipal body requires more ventilation as part of building code. It could be a mix of both: a deontic profile can emerge out of biological necessity which is then subject to local laws or customs.

      And yes, I think it is quite useful to make distinctions between voluntary and involuntary group membership. Some group identities are harder to disavow because their deontic profile derives at least partially from a biological foundation. Hence, it is harder to get rid of one’s biological sex identity. One may not value it, and hence not identify with it, but it is ‘stickier’ than a university scholar identity. Thank you for your comment.

  2. Vuille, Antoine says:

    Thank you Ajinkya. I had a similar question. On the one hand, the collection of people who have an oven at home seems like the collection of people who pour cereal first, then milk (which is the correct thing to do, by the way) : i.e., it is just a collection, not a group. At the other hand to have an oven at home make possible to cook a pizza, so in that sense, it would be a group. If this is true, then you have a very broad (too broad?) definition of a group ?

    1. Deshmukh, Ajinkya says:

      Hi Antoine,

      Thank you for your question. I understand the worry that this account might be too permissive. In deciding which is the greater ‘sin’, over or undergenerating groups, I erred in favour of overgeneration. That said, the specific example of oven-havers can be considered a group if they face extra enablements/curtailments because of their membership in the collection. These could be requiring extra insurance, more fire safety measures, building code inspections, etc. If they face these or similar things, they are a group.

  3. Massin, Olivier says:

    Thanks Ajinkya for that original proposal. Two small questions. Why speak « deontic » enablements (and curtailements) ? Why no just enablement tout court, given your definition? —an enablement is what make us able to do sth more easily?
    I like this idea of having enablement by virtue of being in a collection. I wonder however whether in some cases it does not yield to diagnose groups where they aren’t. By virtue of being in a crowded metro, it’s easier for me to be a pickpocket : this seems to satisfy you definition (I have one enablement in virtue of being in a collection, the others have a curtailement in virtue of being in that collection) yet it’s hard to think that the presence of on single pickpocket in a crowd is sufficient to turn it into a group. Am I missing sth obvious here ?

    1. Deshmukh, Ajinkya says:

      Hi Olivier,

      Thank you for your question and for attending the Q&A. I am writing out my response here too, in case someone is interested in reading it. I call them “deontic” because part of my larger project is to see if it is possible to develop a formal multimodal logic for such cases. I use “deontic” for how it captures ‘cans/cannot’ and ‘oughts/ought-nots’ — and aren’t all enablements/curtailments various degrees of cans and oughts?

      Coming to the crowded metro case, I would argue that those are legitimate groups even if they don’t quite feature in our everyday experience. For those who are more vulnerable to being pickpocketed (or in the current case, contracting COVID-19), they are a group because they face curtailment(s) that can be the subject of legislation, regulation, policing, etc. Even for pickpockets, the fact that crowded places may place warnings like ‘Beware of Pickpockets’, already recognises pickpocketers as a group that face an enablement by being part of the crowd.

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