Kantian Group Agency


Although much work has been done on Kant’s theory of moral agency, little explored is the possibility of a Kantian account of the moral agency of groups or collectives that comprise individual human beings. The aim of this paper is to offer a Kantian account of collective moral agency that can explain how organized collectives can perform moral (or immoral) actions and be held morally responsible for their actions. Drawing on Kant’s view that agents act by incorporating an incentive into their maxims, it is argued that groups of agents can engage in practical deliberation in much the same way individual agents can, resulting in the formulation of a distinctive “group maxim” for which the group, as such, can be morally responsible.

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  1. 1.

    Special thanks to Norman E. Bowie and two anonymous reviewers who all provided insightful feedback on a draft of this paper. Thanks also to the members of the Department of Religion and Philosophy at High Point University for their helpful contributions to this ongoing project.

    Quotations from Kant’s texts cited parenthetically come from the following translations:

    AP: Anthropologie in pragmatischer Hinsicht (1798), trans. Robert B. Louden, Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

    G: Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten (1785), trans. Mary K. Gregor, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals in Immanuel Kant: Practical Philosophy, ed. Allen Wood (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

    KpV: Kritik der praktischen Vernunft (1788), trans. Mary K. Gregor, Critique of Practical Reason in Immanuel Kant: Practical Philosophy, ed. Allen Wood (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

    KrV: Kritik der reinen Vernunft ([A] Edition: 1781/ [B] Edition: 1787), trans. Allen Wood & Paul Guyer, Critique of Pure Reason (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

    LE: Lectures on Ethics (1764–1794), trans. Peter Heath, ed. J.B. Schneewind & Peter Heath (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

    MS: Die Metaphysik der Sitten (1797), trans. Mary K. Gregor, Metaphysics of Morals in Immanuel Kant: Practical Philosophy, ed. Allen Wood (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

    R: Die Religion innerhalb der Grenzen der bloßen Vernunft (1793), trans. Allen Wood & George Di Giovanni (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

    ZeF: Zum ewigen Frieden (1795), trans. Mary K. Gregor, Toward Perpetual Peace in Immanuel Kant: Practical Philosophy, ed. Allen Wood (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

    Unless otherwise noted, I will cite from what is known as the Academy Edition of Kant’s Gesammelte Schriften (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter & Co., 1902), included in the margin of the Cambridge University Press translations of Kant.

  2. 2.

    Kant intends much of what he says to apply to any rational agent, not simply human beings. Given his projects in the works subsequent to the Groundwork (in which his first and most complete account of moral agency occurs), including the Metaphysics of Morals, Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View, and Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason, there can be no doubt that his ultimate concern is with human agency.

  3. 3.

    My appreciation to an anonymous reviewer for clarifying the project in this way.

  4. 4.

    For the purposes of this paper, “group agency” and “collective agency” are synonymous.

  5. 5.

    An ambitious recent account of robust agency holism has been offered by List and Petit (2011). In their thorough and convincing book, List and Petit argue for a view of corporations as ontological moral persons, with full-fledged moral rights and obligations. In addition to the views that are considered holist or individualist, the views of some theorists may be taken to fall in the middle. Kendy Hess, herself a holist, takes Margaret Gilbert and Seamus Miller to hold quasi-individualist accounts of collective agency (Hess 2013, p. 321 n. 6).

  6. 6.

    Norman E. Bowie is in many ways responsible for pioneering the application of Kant’s ethical theory to business. Though he provides a brief argument for regarding corporations as Kantian agents (as well as themselves kingdoms of ends), his work on the subject has proceeded largely on the assumption that the corporation is a moral agent with moral duties and rights (Bowie 1999, pp. 83–84). More recently, Scharding (2015) has treated the corporation unproblematically as an agent in her Kantian account of the distinction between immoral and merely imprudent corporate investment practices.

  7. 7.

    Altman expands his critique (in the Kantian sense) of the application of Kant’s ethical theory in Kant and Applied Ethics: The Uses and Limits of Kant’s Practical Philosophy (2011).

  8. 8.

    See Isaacs (2006).

  9. 9.

    Kant defines “maxim” in many places, but a standard one is the following: “A rule that the agent himself makes his principle on subjective grounds is called his maxim; hence different agents can have very different maxims with regard to the same law” (MS 6:225).

  10. 10.

    This point, which Kant makes in the Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason, has come to be known as Kant’s “Incorporation Thesis” (see Allison 1990):

    …freedom of the power of choice has the characteristic, entirely peculiar to it, that it cannot be determined to action through any incentive except so far as the human being has incorporated it into his maxim (has made it a universal rule for himself, according to which he wills to conduct himself); only in this way can an incentive, whatever it may be, coexist with the absolute spontaneity of the power of choice (of freedom). (R 6:23–24)

  11. 11.

    See also Hill (2002).

  12. 12.

    G 4:408: “[U]nless we want to deny to the concept of morality any truth and any relation to some possible object, we cannot dispute that its law is so extensive in its importance that it must hold not only for human beings but for all rational beings as such….”

  13. 13.

    According to O’Neil (1999, pp. 71–72), “Kant always sets the case of human agency in the framework of a wider spectrum of possible types of agency. This spectrum includes at least the following: animals or other nonrational agents; finite rational wills in general, among whom human willing is the familiar case; and at the far end of the spectrum the even more special, and puzzling, case of the holy will.”

  14. 14.

    As Stern (2015) points, out, although Kant considers God to be a moral agent, he vacillates in his view about whether God can (or does) act on the basis of maxims and engages in practical reasoning. The important point for the purpose of this section is to see how the set of possible agents for Kant extends beyond the individual human being to include other beings who are capable of acting on a maxim. Even if God does not fall into this category, Kant’s remarks about non-human rational beings show that moral agency is not restricted to human beings. Given Kant’s remarks regarding the personality of the state, including his claim that the state can adopt maxims, there is reason to think that Kant’s set of agents is not restricted to individuals, either. My appreciations to an anonymous reviewer for raising this point.

  15. 15.

    See AP 7:331 and 332, where Kant entertains the existence of “rational beings on other planets” which might include “rational beings who could not think in any other way but aloud….” Unlike us, such beings would not find any reason to engage in deception since they would be unable to hide their thoughts from others. A duty to refrain from such deception would thus be unnecessary for these kinds of beings.

  16. 16.

    Admittedly, there are significant differences between the political and the moral spheres for Kant. The concept of right is necessarily more narrow than the concept of virtue. Though they are unified in sharing the categorical imperative as their governing principle, the principles of right concern outer freedom (which may be constrained externally) while the principles of virtue concern inner freedom (which is constrained only by the will of the subject). As the enforcer of right with a monopoly on the use of legitimate force, the state may constrain an individual’s outer freedom in accordance with the principles of right. This makes the state a unique kind of group agent, whose similarities to and differences with other group agents is a topic requiring further exploration, which space does not permit here.

  17. 17.

    At MS 6:354–355, Kant says we have a duty to act in conformity with the Idea of the end of perpetual peace among nations: “And even if the complete realization of this objective always remains a pious wish, still we are certainly not deceiving ourselves in adopting the maxim of working incessantly toward it. For this is our duty….” (emphasis added)

  18. 18.

    As equally parts of Kant’s practical philosophy, both the Doctrine of Right and the Doctrine of Virtue assume the categorical imperative as the supreme principle of morality. As an example of how this applies to the state, in the case of punishment Kant states that the state is not permitted to treat the criminal “as a means to promote some other good for the criminal himself or for civil society…. For a man can never be treated merely as a means to the purposes of another or be put among the objects of rights to things: His innate personality protects him from this….” (MS 6:331). In this case, the Formula of Humanity specifies the conditions regarding how a state can treat an individual.

  19. 19.

    States can also transgress duties and do wrong to one another (ZeF 8:380); make promises to one another (ZeF 8:383); and formulate maxims of political prudence as well as of right (ZeF 8:384).

  20. 20.

    Rosen (1993) describes the duty of benevolence towards its own citizens as a duty of the state, which the rulers “take over” from the people. Rosen finds the support for this duty in a passage from the Doctrine of Right: “Indirectly, inasmuch as he takes over the duty of the people, the supreme commander possesses the right to levy taxes on them for their own preservation, in particular, for the relief of the poor, foundling hospitals, and churches….” (MS 6:325–326, emphasis added). This duty of benevolence towards the poor is a duty of the people of the state considered as a whole, apart from the duties of benevolence that each individual has towards others (since no one else can relieve an individual of the duties imposed on her by the categorical imperative). Rosen concludes from this that “if this text is to be understood as consistent with Kant’s ethical theory, we must interpret Kant as claiming that the ruler’s duty of benevolence is derived from, without reducing or eliminating, private citizens’ duties of benevolence” (Rosen 1993, p. 179). For another view that maintains the state is not a mere aggregate of individual wills but a “multitude of wills unified into one will under a sovereign head,” see Flikschuh (2010).

  21. 21.

    Their reasoning about what the department has reason to do certainly has implications for what each of them, as a member of the department, has reason to do. For example, if they collectively decide that the department will issue a formal objection, then each of them has a reason not to disavow it when members of the administration ask them about it. In other words, in addition to being the product of the deliberative process engaged in by the members of the group, the group maxim shapes and specifies the maxims of the individuals when they act as members of the group.

  22. 22.

    This is the sense in which formal groups like this can be understood to have interests. Kant describes an interest as “an incentive of the will insofar as it is represented by reason…. [T]he moral interest is a pure sense-free interest of practical reason alone. On the concept of an interest is based that of a maxim” (KpV 5:79). Finite rational agents always have an interest in the moral law, which they can (and ought to) make the basis of their maxims. The other source of their interests is the incentive of self-love which in individual human beings arises from their particular sensible nature.

  23. 23.

    Obviously there are conditions that must be met in order for this process to result in a maxim that reflects a unified group will and is freely adopted by the group itself. These conditions include (at least) the requirement that the individual members of the group have freely consented to membership in the group as well as to the decision process by which choices are made, and that the deliberative proceedings are transparent so that members know what they are choosing to do when deciding on behalf of the group.

  24. 24.

    Due to the nature of group deliberation, with regard to nearly any decision a group makes, the incentives to action will almost always be mixed. This is not an objection to the account, however, since Kant believes that this is also the case for individuals (see G 4:407).

  25. 25.

    One familiar model of such a structure is French’s (1979) Corporate Internal Decision (CID) procedure. Mailik (2009) offers a thorough account of Kant’s view of agency exercised through representatives.

  26. 26.

    See also Isaacs (2011).

  27. 27.

    Hill’s model of Kantian deliberation occurs on pp. 151–163. Hill makes clear that his aim is to reconstruct a Kantian position rather than to show how it is drawn from Kant’s texts, though he finds support for it in Kant’s main works on practical philosophy.

  28. 28.

    One might argue that groups can perform the functions of deliberation better than any single individual, since deliberation in groups requires the adoption of a unified standpoint that compels individual members to reason beyond their own particular standpoints, where the reasons that they propose must be justifiable to other members of the group. Of course, there are dangers in the other direction, too, where reasoning in a group may shut down deliberation and encourage members to take a limited rather than expansive viewpoint about what the group has reasons to do (resulting in a kind of groupthink).

  29. 29.

    In their defense of collective agency focusing on corporations, Miller and Makela (2005) state, “[T]here is nothing spooky or mysterious about any of this. There’s no corporate entity ‘floating around out there.’ The corporate entity is simply an agent.” This is a view developed by Hess as well (2014).

  30. 30.

    At KrV B431 Kant states that we cannot cognize the persistent unified self through the categories (of substance, cause, etc.), though “I would still be warranted in applying these concepts in regard to their practical use, which is always directed to objects of experience….”

  31. 31.

    It should also be noted that the possession of a sensible nature is not what makes one a moral agent (or a rational being). God, for example, is a moral agent who does not possess a sensible nature.

  32. 32.

    Timmermann (2000) makes a similar point.

  33. 33.

    Such reflection may be facilitated in a corporate setting by the implementation of feedback mechanisms to enable various stakeholders to bring the actions of the group to the attention of those who are responsible for making decisions on the group’s behalf (e.g., the Board of Directors).

  34. 34.

    In contrast, although they do not provide a specifically Kantian account of corporate agency, List and Petit (2011) regard corporations as persons having both moral obligations and moral rights.

  35. 35.

    Kant identifies the duty to avoid drunkenness and gluttony at MS 6:427, where he classifies it as a duty to oneself as an animal being. Altman objects that attributing duties to corporations entails that they have a duty to avoid suicide, which he maintains is implausible since there is nothing morally wrong with a corporation deciding to dissolve itself (the corporate equivalent of suicide). Note, however, that the duty prohibiting suicide is a duty (along with the duties that prohibit defiling oneself by lust and engaging in drunkenness and gluttony) that human beings have towards themselves as animal beings (as opposed to moral beings). On the account provided here, Kantian group agents are not animal beings (though they are finite and rational), so it should be expected that these duties would not apply to them.


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Correspondence to Amy L. MacArthur.

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MacArthur, A.L. Kantian Group Agency. J Bus Ethics 154, 917–927 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-018-3891-5

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  • Collective agency
  • Corporate agency
  • Group agency
  • Group deliberation
  • Group maxim
  • Kant
  • Kantian business ethics