Date of Degree
Charles W. Mills
Ethics and Political Philosophy | Other Philosophy
Shared Agency, Cooperation, Cooperativeness, Collective Intentionality, Action Theory, Social Ontology
Picture yourself at a Parisian café, gazing at people walking down the street. At first, they seem to be typical Parisians going about their own business. Until you realize, as you spot cameras, that they are all actors on a movie set. You thought you were in the midst of many individual actions, but it is now clear that each actor is playing their part in a different kind of activity: a shared activity.
Our capacity for shared agency is fundamental to our social lives. We make movies, sit in Parliament, and fight pandemics together. In my thesis, I first offer a novel theory of what is required for collections of activities to count as shared. I then develop an account of cooperativeness, i.e. the disposition to think and act as a good partner in shared activity.
What makes it the case that the actors in the Parisian street are engaged in more than mere parallel individual actions? From the café, it was—at first—impossible to distinguish the actors from real flâneurs. Such examples have led shared agency theorists to argue that the difference between shared activities and individual actions is a psychological matter: while flâneurs have individual intentions to go about their own business, actors share the intention to make a movie. Some theorists add a normative twist: they argue that our activities are shared only when, in addition to sharing intentions, we are bound by mutual obligations to play our roles. The Parisian actors would, thus, act together only if they had obligations to stick to the script. I disagree with these dominant views.
In my dissertation, I offer a minimalist account of shared agency. My account has two main components: a conceptual analysis of shared agency in terms of the notion of plan, and an explanation of the mechanisms through which we pool our agential powers. In my analysis of shared agency, our activities are shared if and only if our activities conform to a plan and that plan figures in an explanation of our activities’ conformity to it. In short, our activities are shared if and only if they are coordinated by a common plan. Sometimes, doing one’s bit in a common plan will be obligatory, but not necessarily; and sometimes, of course, the plan will figure in the content of intentions we share. However, besides shared intentions, there are two additional families of agency-pooling mechanisms that the literature has neglected: one involves a central planner (e.g. a film director), another involves selective processes of a roughly Darwinian sort. Both mechanisms can coordinate our activities even in the absence of shared intentions. This minimalist account does justice to the variety of jobs that the concept of shared agency does for us. This concept, indeed, is not just a useful label for activities we engage in willingly together. Another of its functions is to help us navigate our social world by identifying the common plans that somewhat unintentionally, and perhaps at first unknowingly, we have enacted.
The starting point of my inquiry into cooperativeness is the observation that shared activity is an endemically risky business: perhaps you coerced me into sharing some intention with you, or you deviated from our plan without telling me. Thankfully, we have conceptual resources meant to keep us safe from the risks we run when we share our agency. The concept of cooperativeness is one such resource. Its point, I argue, is to flag agents moved by a disposition to think and act as good partners. Cooperativeness has weaker and stronger forms. A minimally cooperative partner, once committed to doing their bit, will neither deviate from, nor hijack our plan. A strongly cooperative partner, in addition, regards co-participants’ agency not as a given that one should predict and work around, but as an agential resource that one can engage with. Cooperativeness, so conceived, is a disposition that we have an interest in modelling as a virtue—indeed, the virtue that makes our social world go round.
Salomone-Sehr, Jules F., "Cooperation: The Ethics of Shared Agency" (2021). CUNY Academic Works.