Sociality and Responsibility: New Essays in Plural Subject Theory

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The collective decision is based on unanimity, that is, the collective decision is X if and only if both of them voted for X. This includes the possibility of collective indecision. The best group action, therefore, depends on some external factor.

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This case may uphold the possibility of a responsibility void. Say Ann thinks it is likely that the candidate is an excellent researcher whereas Bob thinks the opposite. Therefore, Ann will conclude, in the first stage of participatory reasoning, that they should coordinate on Y, Y , whereas Bob will conclude that they should coordinate on N, N. Then, in the second stage, each will reach the opposite conclusion, thereby yielding Y, N : collective indecision results.

I will assume that the concept of collective moral responsibility makes sense in this case. Can any of the committee members be held responsible? This expectation affects the first stage of participatory reasoning in the premises concerning the expected outcomes of the available group acts, viz.

C2 — C5. One of the committee members must be wrong in his or her expectation, and hence, in the absence of a plausible excuse, the member who has the least accurate expectations is most blameworthy; under the given circumstances, this would be Bob. So there would be no responsibility gap.

However, if Bob has reasonable or justifiable expectations, then he would not be responsible for the collective outcome. His mistake would then be justifiable. The study of these cases is beyond the scope of the current paper, and a discussion of whether certain expectations are reasonable or justifiable has to be left for future work. Let me briefly clarify how this discussion can be transferred to the original discursive dilemma Figure 1.

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Suppose the members award tenure in the way stated in the original formulation, but Mr. Borderline is actually a poor candidate.

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This means that the candidate is poor in at least one of the fields of competence. Let us say that the candidate is poor in research. In that case, participatory reasoning helps to clarify that the failure is in the premises C2 — C5.

For instance, M1 would falsely think that the candidate is excellent in research and that they should decide correspondingly. Although this brief discussion might not solve the responsibility distribution in cases of external uncertainty, it is important to note that the literature has largely neglected this type of uncertainty. Moreover, the literature on judgment aggregation see List and Pettit , chapter 2, for a useful overview seems to largely focus on cases where the group jointly faces a decision problem under certainty.

My discussion conveys the importance of cases of external uncertainty to debates on distributing responsibility.


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Clarice has the ball, but an opponent is approaching her. Devin, her team-mate, has more space, so she contemplates passing the ball to him. Let us suppose that there are two directions in which Devin could run, say, left and right. There are two corresponding points on the field, left and right, to which Clarice could pass the ball to be picked up by Devin. There is no time for communication, or for one player to wait and see what the other does: each must simultaneously choose left or right.

Suppose that the move to the right puts Devin in an equally good position as the move to the left would. One could say that the probability that the pass will result in a goal if both choose right is the same as the probability if both choose left.

Margaret Gilbert, Sociality and Responsibility: New Essays in Plural Subject Theory - PhilPapers

If one chooses right and the other left, the probability is zero. Most importantly, this is a scenario in which the attackers must coordinate to solve the problem, there are two ways to solve the problem, and they are indifferent about which way they do it.

1. Introduction

As noted before, I assume that collective moral responsibility makes sense in this case. That is, the team is collectively morally responsible for losing their match. When endorsing participatory reasoning, the first stage will result in the conclusion that Clarice and Devin should coordinate on either left, left or right, right. This underdetermination may result in a responsibility void. Let us see how.


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Imagine that Clarice expects Devin to run left. At the second stage of participatory reasoning, she will think that her passing left is more likely to yield successful coordination, viz. Consequently, she concludes that she should pass left. However, if Devin expects Clarice to pass right , he will, analogously, conclude that he should run right. Hence, the resulting group action will be left, right , which is surely a suboptimal group act. In this case, it is impossible to point out who is at fault.

It is, however, unclear who is at fault: when Clarice blames Devin for not expecting her to pass left , Devin can react by blaming Clarice for not passing like he expected, that is, for failing to pass right. Can any of the team members be held responsible? Their expectation affects the second stage of participatory reasoning in the premises concerning the expected outcomes of the available individual acts, viz. In the absence of a coordinating mechanism, it is, however, impossible to say who has the least accurate expectation regarding coordination.

A responsibility void arises. How can we circumvent such a responsibility void?

If communication is possible and agreement is unproblematic, then one way is to align the expectations of group members by letting them agree on a coordinating plan. If agreement making is in question, there will also be a publicly existing social or, if you like, quasi-moral obligation to participate in joint action.

This entailment of an obligation can be regarded as a conceptual truth about the notion of agreement. If communication is impossible, an alternative way to address this responsibility void is given by a theory of salience. In game theory, the most well-known discussion of salience is given by Thomas Schelling , 57 , who writes,. A theory of salience may, therefore, highlight a particular strategy profile as salient. It may thus be reasonable to expect that both are aware of this focal point. This means that members who have opposing expectations, and therefore aim at coordinating on left, left , could be held responsible.

The existence of a salient focal point would avoid the type of responsibility void just discussed. Although agreements and focal points may circumvent this type of responsibility void, it remains unclear whether they are available in every cooperative decision context that includes coordination uncertainty. When these mechanisms are unavailable, my discussion reveals that responsibility voids potentially arise. I have discussed the outline of a reasoning-based framework for moral responsibility and highlighted its application in collective action problems.

The existence of responsibility voids depends on the nature of the decision context: competitive decision contexts are free of such voids, whereas cooperative decision contexts may host such voids. In the latter case, the conditions for the existence of these voids rest on the type of uncertainty the group faces, that is, either external or coordination uncertainty.

The common denominator in the conditions for the existence of responsibility voids is that they include justified false beliefs or expectations. The assessment of the legitimacy of these beliefs is hence vital for the study of responsibility voids. Let me briefly elaborate on cooperative decision contexts that include external uncertainty. I have argued that such cases may give rise to responsibility voids only if at least one of the group members has a false belief regarding some external factor and, furthermore, this false belief is justified.

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In general, the importance of epistemic justification in collective action problems shows that theories of expertise and disagreement are relevant for the study of responsibility voids in democratic institutions. After all, democratic institutions often rely on committee decision making and expert opinions to deal with disagreement. On the other hand, if the discursive dilemma is faced by laypersons, then it could be argued that there are no responsibility voids. After all, in the absence of a justification for their false beliefs, laypersons can be held individually morally responsible for their contribution, and there is hence no responsibility void.

Responsibility voids have recently been used to justify the need for corporate responsibility and agency, as opposed to individual responsibility and agency, in order to dissolve the deficit in the moral accounting books. Stated differently, justified false beliefs are a condition for corporate responsibility and agency. However, the justification for these false beliefs may need to be reconsidered in light of the prospect of responsibility voids and the relevance of such voids.

In such a context, the demands for epistemic justification may be increased.

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