Dr Sean Cordell
Group Virtues: Backwards with Collectivism!
4 June 2014
Some contemporary work in ethics and epistemology argues that certain social groups can themselves bear virtues and vices: morally or epistemically valuable traits which we normally attribute to the character of individual agents. Focusing on two different accounts of distinctly collective group virtues as examples, I argue that the project faces a basic problem. On one hand, characteristics of social groups which look most like character virtues are explained by features of individuals, thus undermining the explanatory power of the collective picture. On the other hand, insofar as some group characteristic is irreducibly social and not explicable in terms of features of individuals – collective par excellence – it fails to meet minimal conditions of a character virtue. So the more like a character virtue a social feature appears, the less it is distinctively collective: and the more distinctly collective a group characteristic is, the less it is like a character virtue.
This shows only that the project of distinctly collective virtues is misguided, not that a conception of the virtues of groups per se is flawed or redundant. The positive upshot of the problem is that we can only understand group virtues in terms of the mutually dependent conditions of a) the purpose of or practice embodied in a particular group and b) the group-oriented attitudes and actions of individuals. This implies that neither the group nor the individual has explanatorily privilege as the starting point for group virtues. One level cannot get going without the other: there are no group-orientated virtue generating features of individuals without a group, and there is no such group virtue without such appropriately oriented individuals. If this is generally true of relations between individual features and social collectives (I think it is), then maybe we should resist such prioritization in any case.