Margaret Gilbert (UC Irvine)

I’m really thrilled that we can present you this week with the answers are of Prof Margaret Gilbert. Prof Gilbert is the Abraham I. Melden Chair in Moral Philosophy at University of California Irvine. Her work includes the widely read On Social Facts and A Theory of Political Obligation. She published this year Rights and Demands: A Foundational Inquiry. Enjoy!


1. How did you first become interested in Philosophy of Action?


I should first clarity that insofar as I have focused my attention on philosophy of action it has been on the sub- or adjacent field that focuses on two or more people acting together. My interest in this started with a general interest in the nature of social phenomena---on the nature of the specifically "social" realm. In 1978 I completed an Oxford D. Phil. thesis on the topic, with the title On Social Facts. In 1989 I published a book with the same title that incorporated a new idea. In relation to acting together it is this: those who act together pool their wills in the service of particular goal. In terms that I now prefer, they jointly commit themselves to espouse as a body a particular goal, and their acting together is their severally acting in order to conform to this commitment, coordinating the actions of one with that of the other or others as needed in the service of the goal.


2. What are you working on at the moment?


I have just finished a book, Rights and Demands: A Foundational Inquiry, which links closely to my work on acting together. When people act together, they thereby accrue rights against and obligations towards each other. This is something those acting together understand. Though I made this point in my book On Social Facts, I did not there attempt to explore in what sense and how acting together involves rights and obligations. Rights and Demands focuses on the kind of right that is at issue---which I call a "demand-right". X has such a right against Y if X has the standing to demand some action of Y, where the standing in question is a matter of authority. It argues, centrally, that joint commitment is one ground of such rights and it may be their only ground, at least when X and Y are different people. The book should be accessible to those with no prior knowledge of contemporary rights theory, and can serve as an introduction to it. Current projects include further work on the topic of collective moral responsibility and related matters.


3. What is your 5-15 sentence account of what an action is?


As far as a case of acting together is concerned I would start with what I said earlier. For two or more people to act together is for them to be jointly committed to espouse as a body a certain goal, and for each to be acting in order to conform to this commitment, meshing the actions of one with that of the other or others in the service of the goal. I believe that this account fits the way people understand acting together in their everyday lives---without articulating this understanding. Given a few more sentences I would say something about joint commitment: what it is and how it comes to be. A useful way into this is to start with a personal decision. As I see it, when I decide to do something, I place upon myself a peremptory normative constraint. As long as the decision stands, I would be making a mistake, all else being equal, should I act contrary to the decision, and my having inclinations to the contrary does not mean that all else is not equal. Those who jointly commit one another in some way impose upon each of them a normative constraint of this kind. This joint commitment comes about by means of each party's expression of readiness jointly to commit them all, in conditions of common knowledge.


4. In your view, what were the three most important recent developments in philosophy of action?


An important landmark in the theory of acting together was the recent publication of Michael Bratman's book Shared Agency, which reflects decades of thinking on the topic. Michael and I have been debating the nature of acting together, collective action---or, in his terms, shared agency---since the early 1990s. At this point Michael has added many clauses to his original account of shared intention, which is the core of his account of shared agency. In large part he aims for an account of shared agency whose core is the intentions of the individuals involved---their personal intentions. He would rather not invoke something like my notion of joint commitment. It is not clear to me, however, that personal intentions are even part of the constitution of a shared intention, as I've discussed in various places.


Other important recent and not-so-recent developments include an explosion of interest in acting together and related phenomena in fields outside philosophy such as social psychology and robotics. Some practitioners in these scientific fields have taken a strong interest in what philosophers have been saying on the subject. One is primatologist and developmental psychologist Michael Tomasello. Joint commitment as I understand it figures prominently in his recent book A History of Human Morality: he sees it as the crucial step in that history. A recent issue of Philosophical Psychology contains a set of essays responding to his book by philosophers, including myself, among others.


5. What direction would you like to see the field go in?


I'd like everyone to end up agreeing with me. Smiley face here. Actually---if I'm going to say something along those lines---I'd like everyone to end up understanding and representing my work accurately, since often it is represented in ways that aren't accurate. I'm happy for people to disagree with me or to show that I'm wrong in one or another way but being misrepresented is hard. Sometimes people pick up on a phrase---in my case "plural subject" which I have used to refer to those who are jointly committed in some way---and misinterpret it, suggesting that I think that above and beyond the subjective states of those individuals who are acting together there's a subjective state that belongs to no one of these. Some prominent writers on acting together---I have in mind seminal articles by Michael Bratman and John Searle in the early 1990s---have prefaced their accounts by saying its important not to posit a "group mind" or "super-mind" when offering an account of such action. They don't make it particularly clear what they wish to avoid, but I'm pretty sure I avoid it in my own work. I realize that I've not answered your question properly. I think the field will find its own way as it should. I would definitely like the marriage of philosophical and empirical work on acting together to continue. Thank you for your time.


Many thanks to Prof Gilbert for her answers!

2018 November 10


Hope to see you all again next weekend with a new mini-interview