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Paper abstracts

Workshop on
Stephanie Collins – Group Duties

Centre for Ethics in Public Life
University College Dublin
6 September 2019


            Newman Building, Room D101

The Newman Building is across from the Tiernan Building, next to the James Joyce Library, and is connected to either library by a walkway. Room D101 is on the first floor, the first room when you turn right at the landing of the stairwell serving the A and D blocks. As you enter the Newman building you’ll see coloured tracks marked out on the floor directing you to the various blocks, follow the track to the D block if you’re confused.

The stairwell to the D block and room D101 is the one closest to the main entrance (the entrance facing the main entrance to campus, and across from the Tiernan building). At the main entrance of the building there is a café (the Bluebird Café), if you pass to the left of the café and into the building you’ll see a few computers and a seating area, and behind that the stairwell to the A and D blocks. Go up this stairwell one floor, and turn right, and you’ll be right outside Room D101.


    Morning tea 
    Keynote: Stephanie Collins (Australian Catholic University) - "How much can we ask of group agents?"
    Bennet Francis (University of Reading) - "Proto-Shared Agency and Responsibility for Climate Change"
   Brian Carey (Trinity College Dublin) - “What should count as a credible commitment to collectivize?”
   Diana Adela Martin (Technical University Dublin) - "Macroethical duties: From individual to collective responsibility in engineering"
   Afternoon tea
    Kenneth Silver (Trinity College Dublin) - "Group Weakness"
    Marinus Ferreira (University College Dublin) - "Coalitions and the group duty to maintain going concerns"


How Much Can We Ask of Collective Agents?

Stephanie Collins
Australian Catholic University

It's typically assumed that a moral duty is undermined or overridden if it asks too much of its bearer. How does this work for collective agents? Specifically: Can collective agents legitimately make overdemandingness complaints that aren’t equivalent to (a collection of) individual overdemandingness complaints? In this paper, I begin by characterising collectives as moral agents in their own right. I then consider three possible interpretations of collectives’ overdemandingness complaints: perhaps collectives’ duties are overly demanding just in case the duty asks too must of at least one member of the collective; or perhaps collectives’ duties are overly demanding just in case the duty frustrates the collective’s deep preferences; or perhaps collectives’ duties are overly demanding just in case the duty is ruled out by the collective’s procedural constraints. I argue that only the third interpretation works. But, on this interpretation, collective overdemandingness is simply a matter of collective inability. In this way, no duties are too demanding to place on collective agents.

Handout for Stephanie Collins's talk at the 6 September 2019 workshop on her book 'Group Duties'

Proto-Shared Agency and Responsibility for Climate Change

Bennet Francis
University of Reading

Climate Change may be regarded (at least in part) as an instance of what Stephanie Collins has called a collective duty gap. An appealing strategy when attempting to bridge such gaps is to posit some degree of group coordination, so that the group can itself be considered an entity capable of bearing remedial duties.

The strategy is, however, inherently precarious: posit too much coordination, and we no longer have a realistic description of the relations that obtain between actors in central problem cases. Climate change is a thorny example of the problem precisely because individual emitters are so widely dispersed in time and space, making significant group coordination implausible. This paper argues that views which attempt to tread this line are doomed to fall down on one side or the other: they are either unrealistic or fail to ground remedial duties. Elizabeth Cripps (2013) and Stephanie Collins (2017) offer recent accounts that invoke a form of proto-shared agency to bridge responsibility gaps, and each provides an example of the two ways in which such accounts can fail to achieve their aims.

Such accounts depend for their persuasiveness on cases designed to conflate our intuitions regarding shared agency and ‘pro-shared agency’. We are either left unconvinced whether such cases imply the right normative results in terms of remedial responsibility, or unconvinced we are not simply faced with a group agent proper.

Finally, it is suggested Kutz’s (2000) concept of the ‘quasi-participatory basis of accountability’ contains the seed of a solution to the problem. Individuals can be considered accountable for participation in a collective impact insofar as these individuals partake in a universe of shared values. Structures of shared accountability can be assigned to consumer groups, generating participatory obligations to mitigate the impacts of particular industries.


What should count as a credible commitment to collectivize?

Brian Carey
Trinity University College

Stephanie Collins’s tripartite model of group duties characterises ‘coalitions’ as groups whose members share common goals, but which lack the decision-making structures necessary to act as a group agent (and to bear group duties). In certain circumstances, however, coalition members can have a duty to collectivize – to act together with a view to transforming a coalition into a collective in order to more effectively address some issue(s) of pressing moral concern.

Part of coalition members’ collectivization duties include the duty to signal a willingness to collectivize with other coalition members. Such signals provide vital information to coalition members in helping them to determine whether collectivization is feasible, with whom collectivization should be attempted, and how.

However, in order for such signals to be effective, they must be credible. This poses a ‘credibility challenge’ for coalition members: how can we be (reasonably) certain that someone who signals that they are member of our coalition, and that they are willing to bear whatever costs might be associated with collectivization is sincere in that commitment? If the costs of signalling commitment are too low, we may be unwilling to act on the assumption that a person’s commitment is sincere. If the costs are very high, then we risk reducing the number of people willing to make sincere commitments, which in turn increases the burdens of commitment upon those who are.

In this paper, I argue that we should respond to the credibility challenge by assuming that people’s signals are sincere, even when those signals come at a very low cost, unless and until we have good reason to think otherwise. I argue that this is because people are more likely to make insincere commitments when they think they have something to gain from doing so, and people are more likely to have something to gain from doing so when large numbers of people are sincerely committed to the goals in question. When large numbers of people are sincerely committed to a particular goal, we have good reason to take the average person at her word when she signals such a commitment, even if her signal seems to come at relatively little cost.


Macroethical duties: From individual to collective responsibility in engineering

Diana Adela Martin
Technical University Dublin

My contribution aims to explore the concept of collective responsibility in engineering. Attempts to subsume responsibility in engineering fall under two main categories, which also shape the ethics education of engineering students. On one hand, we have the dominant microethics model focused on the individual responsibility of engineers, typically concerned with decision-making in moments of crisis. This approach draws on ethical theories and professional codes for pointing towards what constitutes the right course of action. On the other hand, macroethics is concerned with the collective responsibility of engineering as a profession and societal decision making about technology. At the heart of this approach is the relationship, often tense, between the agency of engineers and the extent to which the structures in which they work constrain or enable a socially responsible engineering practice.

My contribution starts by identifying two problematic assumptions behind the microethical individualist approach to responsibility in engineering, related to full individual agency and value neutrality, I then examine how a macroethical collective approach to engineering responsibility addresses the deficits of the individualistic approach previously identified. The collective macro responsibilities of engineering should involve interrogating both the context in which engineers practice and the goals of the profession.

The first responsibility is rooted in the assumption of an engineer’s lack of full agency to pursue what she identifies as the right course of action in a situation of unethical practice, given the structural factors encountered, be it institutional ethos, the cultural or political climate. This assumption highlights the existence of impediments to the engineer acting responsibly as a lonely agent and the need for a collective group whose aim is to correct the very structure in which engineering practice takes place. Individual engineers, despite themselves lacking the agency to correct the structural features identified as problematic from an ethical point of view, have the macroethical duty to collectivize (Collins 2013) or join collectives in such way as to enable agency. An example of collective group are professional associations and societies. These have the duty is to strengthen support structures, such as civic coalitions, and to develop or modify the tools that affect engineering practice, such as regulations, policies and legislation (Zandvoort, 2005; Son, 2008). A second responsibility is to promote an active value driven stance that requires members of engineering collectives to reflect on the kind of world they aim for engineering to develop. The goal of a macroethical approach is for engineers to correct the context of engineering practice in a way that enables ethical and social responsible behaviour (Conlon and Zandvoort, 2011). This might refer to developing technologies that are congruent with egalitarian and democratic values (Vanderburg, 1989) or to an active involvement in formulating rules and regulations that promote socially just practices (Martin and Schinzinger 2005; Conlon 2008). The scope of macroethical duties goes beyond the physical consequences of engineering artefacts and includes also nonphysical consequences such as globalization or inequality (Hansson 2017).

Collins, S. (2013). Collectives, Duties and Collectivization Duties. Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 91(2),
Conlon, E., Zandvoort, H. (2011). Broadening Ethics Teaching in Engineering: Beyond the Individualistic
Approach. Science and Engineering Ethics. 17(2), 217-232.
Hansson, S.O. (2017). Technology and Distributive Justice. In Hansson, S.O. (ed.). The Ethics of
Technology : Methods and Approaches, 51-66, London
Martin, M. W. & Schinzinger, R. (2005), Ethics in Engineering, New York: McGraw-Hill
Son, W. C. (2008). Philosophy of Technology and Micro-Ethics in Engineering. Science and Engineering
Ethics, 14(3), 405–415.
Vanderburg, W. H. (1989). Professionals and Social Responsibility: Some Patterns. Journal of Business
Ethics, 8(2/3), 209-215
Zandvoort, H. (2005). Good Engineers Need Good Laws. European Journal of Engineering Education, 30(1),

Group Weakenss

Kenneth Silver
Trinity College Dublin

According to Stephanie Collins and other proponents of group agency, certain groups are capable of being responsible in ways that do not reduce to the responsibility of their members. If proponents are right, one follow-up question concerns what leads groups to fail to do their duty. A much-discussed way that we fail morally as individuals is when we know what we should do and yet fail to do it, perhaps out of incontinence, akrasia, or weakness of will. However, this kind of failure is much less discussed in the context of groups. Peter French has argued that groups are less prone to weakness, and only Philip Pettit has argued that groups can act weakly (in very circumscribed situations).

Here, I argue that the groups Collins labels ‘collectives’ can and often do suffer from weakness of the will, and I use this result to draw out a number of further conclusions. After introducing this topic, I begin by considering the various capacities that have been thought necessary for instantiating a failure of weakness of will—from extra psychological components like willpower to a more bare-bones conception requiring only the ability make judgments and act against them. Then, I show how proponents of group agency are already well-placed to predicate most of these capacities to collectives.

What is more interesting, though, is the reason why large groups act akratically. Rather than caving to temptation, as we often do, I argue that their akratic actions tend to result from failures of self-control, where they are responsible for a lack of vigilance. Making this connection suggests a clear normative foundation for the work being done in the context of corporations on the importance of securing corporate compliance. It also allows us to frame instances of collective weakness of will as failures of organizational control.

Coalitions and the group duty to maintain going concerns

Marinus Ferreira
University College Dublin

Stephanie Collins’s account of group agency and the duties that accompany them are centred around the question of what would be required to ground a group’s ability to create new duties, such as responding to particular situations, or how to fill responsibility gaps where there are issues of widespread concern but no existing normative framework that can handle them sufficiently well. One of her main conclusions is that group duties can only be ascribed to what she calls ‘collectives’, groups which are united under an effective decision-making procedure, because only such groups can meet the practical requirements and epistemic demands that allow group duties to be effectively discharged. I look here at how we should use Collins’s framework in order to address cases where there isn’t a requirement to do anything novel, but where groups respond to existing social structures and other going concerns.

My focus is on existing social structures the participants of which don’t count as the members of a collective, because there isn’t a collective decision-making procedure which unites them—so, what Collins calls ‘coalitions’ and perhaps in some circumstances also what she calls ‘combinations’. Despite the lack of a decision procedure which would allow the group to react to novel circumstances, such social structures can play an important role for any socially situated agent. Examples include at the most abstract level many social norms, such as the norms of language, assertion, testimony, recognition, and so on; more concretely, the maintenance of various institutions including ones you aren’t yourself a member of; but also prosaic concerns like keeping a communal kitchen clean. The epistemic situation of acting within the context of a going concern is very different from a situation where you need to able to respond to novel circumstances or don’t have existing structures to depend on, because often when there is an existing social structure there are well-established expectations which individuals can lean on to coordinate their actions without requiring a fully-fledged collective decision-procedure. I use these epistemic features to show how we can ascribe group duties to coalitions (and perhaps even some combinations) in the circumscribed cases involving existing social structures.

Contact the Centre for Ethics in Public Life (CEPL)

CEPL, School of Philosophy, University College Dublin, Belfield, Dublin 4, Ireland.
E: cepl@ucd.ie