There is an intuitive distinction between things we do as individuals and things we do together. This distinction has a profound practical importance for us, conceptually, pragmatically, and normatively. Singing a duet is only possible for us if we can do things together. I might be able to solve a puzzle on my own, but not if I want to enjoy myself. And only those people who engage in price-fixing should be punished, not everyone whose individual actions contribute to the resulting price. We have structures of thought and judgment that we use to engage in these endeavors and judge others when they do so. My dissertation is an attempt to identify, characterize, and explicate the concepts involved in these structures of thought and judgment about the things we do together.
Many think that the distinction between individual and collective action bears a strong resemblance to the one between individual action and mere behavior. Since we make the latter using the concept of intention, those people think, we should employ collective intention to make the former. Current approaches that understand collective action in terms of collective intention can be profitably divided into two camps. Non-normativists argue that collective intentions are a structure of individual psychological attitudes that have, variously, a special form, content, or interrelations. Normativists argue that collective intentions involve a special standing between the participants, generated by particular states or acts of the individuals and involving interpersonal, directed obligations.
I argue for a novel normativist view. My argument begins from recent experimental research about our common intuitions about acting together, which suggests that collective action has three features: (i) exiting a collective action involves an obligation to make that exit public, (ii) this obligation is present in “morally wrong” cases of collective action, and (iii) exiting the collective does not involve an obligation to seek the permission of the other participants. Based on this research, I claim that non-normativist views are misguided, and highlight the difficulty of providing a non-normativist view that accounts for these judgments. I also address the normativist views in the literature and show how they fail to properly characterize the normative properties of collective action. I then present an account of collective intention that best explains these features of collective action.
On my view, a collective intention is a public representation that collectively commits participants to a course of action. It arises from a combination of individual conditional commitments to act that combine into the categorical commitment of all. After clarifying the idea of a public representation, specifying how public representations relate to the idea of collective commitment, and spelling out how these representations fulfil the action-guiding roles of intentions, I show how this account incorporates and explains the four judgments.
I also explain the source of normativity in collective action. Acting together involves a special standing between the participants, a shared status that allows them to negotiate, encourage, criticize, propose, and rebuke in ways that are not appropriate for others, because of the nature of the conditional commitment of the participants inherent in collective intention. The condition on each conditional commitment is not the action or commitment of the others, but the conditional commitment of the others. And, it is not just that each commitment is dependent on the others, but that each commitment is dependent on the others being dependent on it. This higher-order interdependence is what binds participants together in collective action, what generates the special standing between them.