Abilities and Obligations: Lessons from Non-agentive Groups
Philosophers often talk as though each ability is held by exactly one agent. This paper begins by arguing that abilities can be held by groups of agents, where the group is not an agent. I provide a new argument for—and a new analysis of—non-agentive groups’ abilities. I then provide a new argument that, surprisingly, obligations are different: non-agentive groups cannot bear obligations, at least not if those groups are large-scale such as ‘humanity’ or ‘carbon emitters.’ This pair of conclusions is important, since philosophers who endorse large-scale non-agentive groups’ abilities almost universally endorse their obligations. More importantly, the twin arguments (one for abilities, one against obligations) make the following novel contribution: abilities imply agency-involving explanations, while obligations imply action-guidance. This general conclusion should be of interest beyond social ontology.
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