How to explain spontaneous group actions


This paper argues that in order to explain spontaneous group actions a theory must appeal to something external to the agents’ attitudes and their connections. The paper is divided into three parts. The first part defines spontaneous group actions and provides reason to believe that they exist. Spontaneous group actions are those where there is no binding interaction on the part of the agents before they begin acting together. By binding interaction, I mean that which would count as binding two or more individuals together, e.g., recognition of mutual willing (Gilbert 1990). Spontaneous group actions are characterized by agents acting together immediately, without relying on the other’s validation, and isolate an essential feature of group action, that is, the co-agential perspective agents have towards one another as agents acting together. Many theories appeal to such a perspective: we-attitudes (Tuomela and Miller 1988), practical intersubjectivity (Roth 2003), and treating the other as an intentional co-participant (Bratman 2014). Usually theories appeal to this perspective to explain how agents are adequately bound together in group action. But the co-agential perspective on fellow agents in group action is also essential to explaining how spontaneous co-agents are bound together at all. If there is this coagential perspective on agents, then it is possible for spontaneous group actions to exist. Hence, spontaneous group actions are those performed without binding interaction by co-agents, and their possibility is implied by the co-agential perspective that agents have on their fellow coagents in group action generally. In part two, I argue that one form of theory, ‘internalism about group action’, is inadequate for explaining spontaneous group actions. Internalism explains group actions with reference to the attitudes and their connections of the co-agents performing the group action. How could internalist accounts explain spontaneous group actions? Each co-agent has to know the other’s intention in order for her attitudes to ‘mesh’ with her co-agent’s. As per the agential perspective, they should not be frustrating each other’s courses of action, so knowing the other’s intention is crucial. But the only way to achieve this knowledge is to interact with her in some relevant bonding way. Interaction appears to be necessary to explain any group action for internalists, rendering spontaneous group actions are impossible. For this reason, ‘externalism about group action’ must be explored. It claims that something external to the agents’ attitudes (and their connections) partly explains a group’s action. The general idea for externalism is that the external element will overcome the need for interaction and, thus, spontaneous group actions can be explained. The final part briefly suggests that this external element is a normative group-reason. These are considerations that count in favour of performing actions together, for two or more people, which must be objective, external, and normatively public. If two or more people respond to a normative group-reason, then they would not need to interact with each other in order to act together. The group reason would bind them together in spontaneous group action.


2 thoughts on “How to explain spontaneous group actions

  1. Brouwer, Thomas says:

    Hi Alexander, sorry I missed your talk – I’ve just been catching up on some talks I didn’t get a chance to attend during the conference. A couple of (hopefully helpful) comments on your talk.

    On your argument re common knowledge: I think it’s worth noting that it’s not unusual for people to think of common knowledge as something that can arise quite spontaneously and immediately without substantial interaction with other agents. In Lewis, for instance, the paradigmatic situations where common knowledge arises are cases in which multiple agents (let’s call them A and B) are witness to a public event (e.g. Shaquille falling over). On the basis of seeing this, and on the basis of default assumptions about other agents’ perceptual abilities and rationality, agent A has immediate reason to believe not only that Shaquille has fallen over, but also that the agent B has reason to believe this, that B has reason to believe that A has reason to believe this, etc. And similarly for B. So Lewisian common knowledge arises immediately. (For Lewis common knowledge is defined in terms of reasons to believe, rather than outright belief – that would make it a bit more demanding, but still not in such a way that interaction would necessarily be required.)

    Second, re your externalist proposal: I’m sympathetic to externalism, but I do think there’s a route open here for the internalist to push back. For one might think that for these normative reasons to show up in the causal story that explains the group action, we need some concrete mechanism, and that’s plausibly in terms of norms that the agents actually recognise. That is, norms in the social-descriptive sense. And it’s quite common for accounts of social norms to be internalist, e.g. stated in terms of agents’ expectations about other people’s normative attitudes, etc. So you may well be right that normative reasons have some crucial role to play in spontaneous group action, but it seems to me that a little more work is required to make it clear that this makes your proposal an externalist one.

    1. Leferman, Alexander says:

      Hi Thomas, I really apologise for not responding sooner, luckily I checked on the off-chance to see if there was a comment. I didn’t see a notification email. Thank you for these! They are very helpful and I need to think more about them. I do have a few things to say to both comments.

      (1) You say that some accounts of common knoweldge, in particular Lewis’, shouldn’t be troubled by spontaneity seeing as agents can have common knowledge by witnessing a public event. Even if there is some evidence to the effect that Shaq needs help, I worry that evidence will not often be fine-grained enough to settle whether there is reason for each to help Shaq as an indiviual or reason to help Shaq together. Coordinated action would help Shaq all the same, but that is different than group action. And if there isn’t good grounds to settle on the individual or group reason without interaction, then it doesn’t seem that we would come to have common knowledge about the other’s intentions because there wouldn’t be reason to believe that they are acting on one reason rather than another. (The example might need to be altered because I make it clear that Shaq is too heavy for one, but the protest case is perhaps better for this purpose.) When Gilbert offers her account of common knoweldge, she says that it is more intuitive than Lewis’ but I also suspect that she worries that Lewis’ account may not result in the relevant sense of ‘we’. She explicitly includes interactional conditions into her account in order to leave no doubt in the co-agents’ minds. I need to think more about this, and if you have some sources that take up this issue explicitly, I would appreciate them. Part of my trouble is that the evidence Lewis talks about is being witness to an agreement that leads to common knowledge about expectations of future action and then conventions, but I think that there can be non-conventional spontaneous group actions.

      (2) I think you are right that some more work is needed, I was more or less just throwing it out there to give an indication of the way that I think the issue can be resolved. Now, agents might have group reasons because those group reasons are provided by social norms (read internalistically). I worry that this leaves out ‘non-conventional’ spontaneous group actions, e.g., running through the Louvre together, standing up to a bully together, counting grass together, protesting a governmental act together, and I see no reason to relegate these actions from those that should be explained. I don’t doubt that social norms can provide group reasons, but I think that their explanatory scope is limited.

      Thanks for engaging!

Leave a Reply