Skip to main content

Collective Virtue

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.


  1. One might think that this fact alone provides prima facie evidence that there are collective virtues. Some writers working on collective responsibility have maintained the similar point that the sheer fact that we ascribe blame to groups as well as to individuals speaks in favor of the existence of collective responsibility. Cf. David Cooper, “Collective Responsibility,” Philosophy 43 (1968): 258–268 and Deborah Tollefsen, “The Rationality of Collective Guilt,” Midwest Studies in Philosophy 30 (2006): 222–239.

  2. E.g. Reza Larhroodi, “Collective Epistemic Virtues,” Social Epistemology 21 (2007): 281–297 and Miranda Fricker, “Can there be Institutional Virtues?” in T. Szabo Gendler & J. Hawthorne (ed.), Oxford Studies in Epistemology 3 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), pp. 235–252.

  3. Ibid.

  4. Fricker, “Institutional Virtues?”.

  5. See Margaret Gilbert, On Social Facts (New York: Routledge, 1989) and “Belief and Acceptance as Features of Groups,” Protosociology 16 (2002): 35–69 and “Collective Epistemology,” Episteme 1 (2004): 95–107.

  6. A term borrowed from Christine M. Korsgaard, The Sources of Normativity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

  7. Fricker, op. cit., 238–239.

  8. Ibid., 247.

  9. Ibid.

  10. Larhroodi, “Collective Epistemic Virtues” and Per Sandin, “Collective Military Virtues,” Journal of Military Ethics 6(4) (2007): 303–314.

  11. Cf. also Michael Bratman, “Dynamics of Sociality,” Midwest Studies in Philosophy 30 (2006): 1–15.

  12. C.f., e.g., Christian List and Philip Pettit, Group Agency: The Possibility, Design, and Status of Corporate Agents (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).

  13. We won’t offer a precise account of the realization relation here, as this remains a matter of considerable controversy. For discussion, see Carl Gillett, “The Metaphysics of Realization, Multiple Realization and the Special Sciences,” Journal of Philosophy 100 (2003): 591–603.

  14. For discussion, see Nicholas Sturgeon, “Contents and Causes: A Reply to Blackburn,” Philosophical Studies 61 (1991): 19–37 and Brad Majors, “Moral Explanation,” Philosophy Compass 2(1) (2007): 1–15. As these authors note, one worry about counterfactual tests for explanatoriness is that they do not apply to cases where there is explanatory overdetermination (hence the ceteris paribus clause). Well aware of this concern, these authors continue to employ such tests in cases where explanatory overdetermination is absent. It is instructive to note, in particular, that these authors employ the test in conditions paralleling those of this paper—cases where realized entities (moral properties) perform better on the test than their (non-moral) realizers.

  15. For classical examples, see Hilary Putnam, “Psychological Predicates,” in W. H. Capitan and D. D. Merrill (ed.), Art, Mind, and Religion (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1967), pp. 37–48 and Jerry Fodor, “Special Sciences: Or the Disunity of Science as a Working Hypothesis,” Synthese 28 (1974): 97–115. For more recent examples, see Kenneth Aizawa and Carl Gillet, “The Autonomy of Psychology in the Age of Neuroscience,” in P. M. Illari, F. Russo, and J. Williamson (ed.), Causality in the Science (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), pp. 203–223.

  16. Fricker, op. cit.

  17. Ibid., 241.

  18. Ibid., 241–242.

  19. Ibid., 242.

  20. Julia Annas, “The Structure of Virtue,” in Linda Zagzebski and Michael DePaul (ed.), Intellectual Virtue: Perspectives from Ethics and Epistemology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), pp. 15–33.

  21. Fricker, op. cit., 243.

  22. Cf. Rosalind Hursthouse, “Virtue Ethics,” in Edward N. Zalta (ed.), Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Available online at:, 2012).

  23. Anita Konzelmann Ziv, “Institutional Virtue: How Consensus Matters,” Philosophical Studies 161 (2012): 87–96.

  24. Ziv (op. cit.) also argues that if virtues are dispositions to perform supererogatory acts, then there cannot be collective virtues.

  25. First, we disagree with Ziv’s view that the existence of institutions is dependent on their fulfilling duties. An institution can exist and have as its telos or unique function the fulfillment of some duty without that institution succeeding in fulfilling it, just as, on an Aristotelian conception, the same can be true of an individual. Second, we disagree that one cannot offer legitimate praise to those who are doing what is expected of them by nature. If this were true, one could only praise virtuous conduct when it is performed by those who have not yet obtained to virtue, since once one has attained to virtue, one’s performing virtuous conduct is “second nature”. Third, we think Ziv confuses what we should expect an institution to do qua particular institution with a particular design with what we should expect an institution to do qua institution simpliciter. On a conception of virtue like Foot’s discussed in the text, a trait’s being a virtue depends upon its relation to what is difficult for members of a kind in general, rather than on its relation to what is difficult for some particular member of a kind. It may then be that some institutions, like some individuals, find certain virtuous conduct comes easily, but nonetheless because such conduct is difficult for individuals or institutions more generally, it is still appropriate to consider such conduct virtuous.

  26. Cf. Jason Baehr, The Inquiring Mind: On Intellectual Virtues and Virtue Epistemology (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2011).

  27. Cf. Philippa Foot, “Virtues and Vices,” in Roger Crisp and Michael Slote (ed.), Virtue Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), pp. 163–177.

  28. Larhroodi, op. cit., 284.

  29. Cf. David Sosa, “What is It Like to Be a Group?,” Social Philosophy and Policy 26(1) (2009): 212–226.

  30. See discussion in Hursthouse (op. cit.).

  31. Mark Johnston, “How to Speak of the Colors,” Philosophical Studies 68 (1992): 221–263.

  32. Lorraine Code, Epistemic Responsibility (Hanover: University Press of New England and Brown University Press, 1987) and James Montmarquet, Epistemic Virtue and Doxastic Responsibility (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1993) and “An ‘Internalist’ Conception of Epistemic Virtue,” in Guy Axtell (ed.), Knowledge, Belief, and Character: Readings in Virtue Epistemology (Lanham, MD: Rowman &Littlefield Publishers, 2000), pp. 135–148.

  33. The idea that dispositions come in varying degrees of strength is defended in Timothy O’Connor, “Agent-Causal Power,” in Toby Handfield (ed.), Dispositions and Causes (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), pp. 189–214.

  34. Hursthouse, op. cit.

  35. Sandin (op. cit.) stresses this feature of virtues, making it a key part of his defense of collective virtue.

  36. Robert C. Roberts and W. Jay Wood, Intellectual Virtues: An Essay in Regulative Epistemology (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2007), p. 261.

  37. An excellent recent example is Kevin Timpe and Craig Boyd, eds., Virtues and Their Vices (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).

  38. Note also that overviews of virtue ethics typically say nothing about collective virtue. See, e.g., Hursthouse (op. cit.).

  39. Peter French, Collective and Corporate Responsibility (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984).

  40. Predicating self-regulation of an individual, then, would be a kind of category mistake, akin to saying that an individual “disbanded” or “elected a President.” Cf. Peter French, Individual and Collective Responsibility (Rochester, VT: Schenkman, 1998).

  41. E.g. Joel Feinberg, “Collective Responsibility,” Journal of Philosophy 65 (1968): 674–688.

  42. E.g. Raimo Tuomela, Social Ontology: Collective Intentionality and Group Agents (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to T. Ryan Byerly.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Byerly, T.R., Byerly, M. Collective Virtue. J Value Inquiry 50, 33–50 (2016).

Download citation

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:


  • Virtue Ethicist
  • Collective Responsibility
  • Virtue Epistemology
  • Joint Commitment
  • Collective Entity