Group Duties


Group Duties: Their Existence and Their Implications for Individuals was published by Oxford University Press in 2019. You can download a pre-print of Chapter One, which gives an overview of the argument. You (or your library) can also buy the book.

At Social Ontology 2019, I gave a keynote address that you can watch here, the first twenty minutes of which summarise the book’s main ideas. That conference also hosted a symposium on the book, with commentaries by Gunnar Björnsson, Olle Blomberg, Anne Schwenkenbecher, and Bill Wringe. The symposium was published by Journal of Social Ontology and you can read it open-access here. I also wrote an accessible blog post about the book at The Page 99 Test.

The book starts from the fact that moral duties are regularly attributed to groups: we might hear that the United Kingdom has a duty to defend human rights, that environmentalists have a duty to push for global systemic reform, or that humanity has a duty to eradicate poverty. But are groups the kind of thing that can bear moral duties? We need a model that can take in details about the groups involved in real-world political problems and produce conclusions about (i) which of these groups can have duties and (ii) what this implies for each group’s members.

The book develops (what I call) the ‘Tripartite Model’ of group duties, which divides groups into three types.

First, there are groups that are mere combinations—collections of agents that don’t have any goals or decision-making procedures in common. ‘Humanity’, ‘the affluent’, and ‘the international community’ are examples of combinations. These groups cannot bear moral duties. Instead, when we are tempted to attribute duties to them, we should re-cast the purported duty as a series of duties—one borne by each agent in the combination. Each duty demands its bearer to ‘I-reason’: roughly, to do the best they can, given whatever they happen to believe the others will do.

Second, there are groups whose members share goals but lack decision-making procedures. These are coalitions. Coalitions include environmentalists, social justice warriors, and the alt-right. Coalitions also cannot bear duties, but their alleged duties should be replaced with members’ several duties to ‘we-reason’: roughly, to act on the presumption that the other members will do their part in pursuing the group’s goal.

Third and finally, collectives have group-level procedures that have the capacity to make decisions on the basis of moral considerations. Collectives include states, limited liability companies, and non-profits. They can bear duties. Collectives’ duties imply duties for collectives’ members to use their role in the collective with a view to the collective doing its duty.

This model allows us to properly discipline our ethical-political thought, talk, and practice: to attribute moral duties to only those groups that can bear them, and to attribute duties to groups’ members on that basis.

You can read these reviews of Group Duties:
– Megs S. Gendreau in Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews
– Kai Spiekermann in Mind  (behind a paywall, sorry)
– Colin Hickey in Journal of Applied Philosophy (behind a paywall, sorry)