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Keith Graham, Practical Reasoning in a Social World: How We Act Together.

Keith Graham, Practical Reasoning in a Social World: How We Act Together. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Pp. xi, 202.

How does the fact that we are social creatures affect the normative reasons we have for acting? This is the most general question Keith Graham addresses in this wide-ranging book. A normative reason for acting, as Graham understands it, is a consideration about agents or their circumstances, which ought to incline them in the direction of acting in a particular way.

Graham's position is "anti-individualist" insofar as he allows that there is, in the world as it is, "irreducibly collective agency" (2). It is "moderate" in that it is "no part of my programme to 'eliminate' the individual" (2). Graham suggests that some contemporary theorists are not moderate in this sense, but does not cite any specific authors. Who, I wonder, denies that "[w]e are individual centers of consciousness as well as individual material bodies" (9) and are, to that extent, individuals?

Be that as it may, Graham usefully points out that the following are separate questions: Is there irreducibly collective, or group, agency? Are groups more fundamental then individuals? Is there more to individuals than their group membership? Are there any truly personal values? A positive answer to the first question does not imply a positive answer to any of the others (2-3). Graham focuses on the first question--the question of "collectivism," and on the implications of his positive answer.

In chapter 1, Graham addresses the contemporary context of practical reasoning. This includes a salient plurality of value systems, and, in our culture, though not in all, the valuing of autonomy. He plausibly argues that the plurality of value systems does not rule out the criticism of specific values. He suggests that one begin any such criticism with considerations about what it is like to be a human agent in any circumstances.

Graham proposes to investigate a doctrine that "constitutes one expression of our individualist culture" (7), a doctrine often referred to as the "distinctness of persons." He discerns a cluster of distinct points here. The two main ones are "the separateness of individual persons from one another" and "the qualitative distinctness of persons, as a type, from other types of entity" (36). In whatever way we elaborate them, Graham argues, they must remain compatible with the actual "indistinctness of persons" with respect to causal interconnection and collective agency.

In chapter 2, Graham explores the idea that persons are causally interconnected. He pursues a complex interpretation that alludes to both causal consequences and causal preconditions of human actions. The obvious case of a causal precondition of any action of mine is certain actions on the part of my biological parents. Graham emphasizes, rather, the host of actions of others that, as it happens, allow me to do such a thing as read a book on my own in a well-lit room.

He argues that the causal preconditions of actions are as relevant to practical reasoning as are their causal consequences, He then discusses some issues to which the matter of causal interconnection is relevant, including how best to draw a distinction between public and private behavior, and the normative relevance of a distinction made in various discussions between "nosy" preferences (which concern others' acts rather than one's own) and non-nosy preferences.

Having pressed on the idea of the separateness of individuals from one another in chapter 2, Graham presses on the qualitative distinctness of persons as a type in chapter 3. Here collectivities are characterized and argued to be strongly analogous to individual human persons, sufficiently so, at least, for the ascription of moral responsibility to be equally apposite in both cases. In particular, collectivities can make decisions on the basis of reasoned reflection. Further, Graham argues, certain collective agents should be objects of moral concern if anything else is. If, for instance, the thwarted expectations of individual human beings matter, then so should the thwarted expectations of a collectivity such as a neighborhood association. Other examples of collectivities include "committees, clubs, families, electorates, and firms" (69).

Chapter 4 discusses implications of the recognition of collective agency for practical reasoning. Members can always ask, "Shall I identify with or dissociate from this collectivity?" Graham distinguishes three forms of identification with a collective. This includes a "pure" type, in connection with which he invokes participation in a joint commitment. In this connection he quotes from work of mine in which I argue that such commitment is the foundation of collective existence (125). (1)

Chapter 5 is a careful discussion of the background against which agents both individual and collective engage in practical reasoning. It argues in particular that basic material needs of human beings--in particular the need to be adequately fed--are central, perennial constraints on such reasoning.

Chapter 6 focuses on moral matters. It questions the claim that morality has a preeminent role in practical reasoning. It argues that the "moral agenda" includes the adjudication of claims between collectivities and individuals. It considers the relationship of pure collective identification to serf-interest, on the one hand, and altruism, on the other, noting that such collective identification does not strictly speaking manifest a concern for individuals as such (186).

Graham concludes, congenially: "we need to retain a lively sense both of the existence of individuals who have the power to embrace or distance themselves from groups and of the fact that a significant portion of any individual's life is bound up with collective existence and cannot be properly and fully described in purely individual terms" (188).

There are interesting and helpful discussions on a variety of topics throughout Graham's book. He sees chapters 3 and 4 as central. I focus my concluding comments on Chapter 3.

A large amount has been written in the past decade or so on the nature of collectives and collective agency. Graham's treatment of the topic (66-77) is relatively cursory. He argues that when collective action is at issue I do what I do "as a member of a certain kind of collective entity, and this entity is itself an agent" (67). For instance, I express certain views as a member of a jury, which itself is something that deliberates, comes to a verdict, and so on.

According to Graham's definition, a number of individuals form a collectivity only if they Pact in ways whose significance can be adequately captured only by an ineliminable reference to some corporate body as part of which they are acting" (68). As he understands it, this allows for the said individuals to constitute a collectivity without intending to and without being aware that they do.

In support of this feature of his definition Graham alludes to cliques (72-75). He suggests that the members of a clique might collectively freeze a nonmember out, though the individuals in question "might be mortified to discover this is what they had been doing" (73). The possibility of such mortification, however, does not close the case with respect to the possibility of "unwitting collectives," if one allows that there are different levels or types of awareness.

The discussion of cliques and of the role of consciousness in collective agency could usefully have been expanded. Given its significance for Graham's argument, more discussion of what it is to act "as a member" would also have been helpful. A degree of clarification would have helped some other discussions in the book, though it is largely very clear and enlivened with concrete examples and apposite quotations.

Quite a number of Graham's points on collective agency in this and later chapters appear in at least approximately similar form in the prior literature. What distinguishes his discussion is his focus on the moral qualities of collectives and their actions. He importantly emphasizes that to ascribe moral qualities to collectives--to see them as wicked, virtuous, craven, brave, and so on--is not to see them as having some kind of moral priority over individuals. To ignore their moral qualities is to court terrible danger.


(1) Margaret Gilbert, Living Together: Rationality, Sociality, and Obligation (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1996), 393. See also Margaret Gilbert, On Social Facts (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 19893, 198 and elsewhere.


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Author:Gilbert, Margaret
Publication:The Philosophical Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2004
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