Shared Agency, Plural Intentions, and Institutions


Prominent analytic approaches to institutional agency, including Scott Shapiro’s plan theoretic functionalism and Francesco Guala’s and Frank Hindriks’s game theoretic unified social ontology, purport to explain organized institutions (e.g. corporations and governments) as well as systematic institutions (e.g. money and property) without the need for collective attitudes among institutional participants. Moreover, while differing greatly in other respects, both views share a strong claim that shared intentions among participants in an institution are completely unnecessary to model complex institutional activity. There are a number of reasons to remain skeptical of this claim while nonetheless affirming that not all institutional actions necessarily entail collective attitudes. Moreover, denying that shared intentionality has any role to play in institutional agency comes with exceptionable philosophical costs. If it is possible to model rule-governed institutional activity without an element of shared intentionality, Guala, Hindriks, and Shapiro have not shown how.


3 thoughts on “Shared Agency, Plural Intentions, and Institutions

  1. Brouwer, Thomas says:

    Hi Julian, thanks for your helpful answer in the discussion session. I had another (hopefully helpful!) thought, inspired by Brian’s first remark, which I’ll just mention here. In your talk, you sometimes frame the overarching question as whether institutional agency can be explained without appealing to collective attitudes, and sometimes as whether institutional agency can be modelled without appealing to collective attitudes. There is a way in which the answers to these questions can come apart, notably the case where we ascribe e.g. intentions and beliefs to a collective agent as part of ascribing actions to it.

    On some theories of agency, e.g. interpretationist and functionalist ones, it may just be part and parcel of treating something like a rational agent that we ascribe some attitudes to it, because rational action, on such views, is action that is rationalisable in terms of what the agent desires and what it thinks the world is like. But one might have such a view without thinking that the beliefs and desires etc. are metaphysically prior to the actions – rather on might take the view that there is some metaphysical story, in terms of lower-level stuff (for example, behaviour of individual agents) that explains how the whole shebang (action + beliefs & desires) comes about – ‘simultaneously’, as it were. So while the beliefs and desires here would still stand in some explanatory relation to the actions (after all, they rationalise them) they wouldn’t be a metaphysical resource that needs to be earned beforehand, that we then draw upon to explain the possibility of institutional action.

    So someone with that style of view (maybe List & Pettit would qualify, or Huebner) could think that some form of collective attitude is indispensable to modelling collective/institutional action without thinking that some form of collective attitude is indispensable to the metaphysical explanation of collective/institutional action (even though both kinds of indispensability would yield a necessary entailment from the existence of institutional action to the existence of (some form of) collective intentionality). And consequently the choice of whether to focus on indispensability vis-a-vis modelling or to focus on indispensability vis-a-vis explanation makes a difference to where the dialectical goal-posts will be.

    1. Davis, Julian says:

      Hi Thomas, thank you for your comments and questions both during the live discussion and here. In this discussion, I am not drawing a distinction that makes much of a difference between the dispensability of collective attitudes vis-a-vis modeling institutional agency and the dispensability of collective attitudes vis-a-vis explaining it. I assume we want an explanatory model with theoretical resources both sufficient and at the same time not unnecessary to accomplish this goal.

      With regard to ascribing attitudes to group agents, we mightn’t need such a robust interpretivism and corresponding holism (such as that adopted by List and Petit) to make group action intelligible. While individual intentional actions are generally intelligible only on the basis of ascribing a richer set propositional attitudes to an agent, it does not follow the that group agents are only likewise intelligible. Consider that the intentional agency of a person with a mind has individual actions as outputs, while the intentional agency of a group has individual actions as inputs and group actions as outputs. From this, it does not follow that group actions are the outputs of a group person with a group mind.

      So, ascribing additional propositional attitudes (beliefs, desires) and emotions, beyond intentions and intentions-in-action, to a group subject (qua group mind) seems to be a practically useful mode of speech sometimes, yet not necessarily an explanatorily important device. The concept of a group agent (as opposed to a group subject or group mind) makes a lot of more sense when we limit the explanandum to action rather than involving the sundry other aspects of human mental life exhibited by individual rational agents.

      I do, however, want to distinguish between collective attitudes, with a plural subject, from shared attitudes with plural content. While this approach to group agency is generally methodologically individualist, it is not narrowly singularist or atomist. That is, I think the tool box of individual mental states that are sufficient to explain group agency is fuller than that used by typical reductionist theories (e.g. game theoretic and rational choice approaches), and includes, for instance, shared intentions (with plural/social content) among individual members of a group. It therefore becomes explanatorily relevant to posit a group agent as the subject of intentional actions (but without thoughts, beliefs, desires, emotions, and other mental states of its own). In this way, it makes sense to say that Facebook did XYZ or intended XYZ, but to say that Facebook believes/desires/feels XYZ is more of a (sometimes useful) façon de parler.

      I hope this helps to clarify my current thoughts on the matter.

  2. martens, wil says:

    Dear Julian, let me start with saying that I agree with you on the point that without shared intentionality we cannot get an adequate description of institutions. I would go one step further. Institutions as complexes of distributed and coordinated actions of several agents always imply shared intentions, at least in the sense that the participants need to intend their own action and cannot avoid to intend the shared action. Then, without the intention to realize, in terms of Shapiro, their part of the plan they simple cannot act adequately. And they know that they are contributing to a shared plan aiming at some shared end. Even if they do not agree with this end. Wil Martens

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