This is a short discussion of how collective action can be understood despite people not acting together for shared reasons. Sadly, it can’t reverse, though it might explain something of, badly mistaken referenda.

‘Institutional reality’ is a way of labelling the sort of formal structure of public life. It is a context that offers types of reasons to act one way or another, or not to act at all. Institutional directives, for example, can compel human actions as they offer reasons that can form the basis of action: the law says don’t take what’s not yours, so I’ll leave the running car where I find it.

Reasons like these, from sources other than desires, are required for action to be coordinated among diverse groups if individuals, who can’t all be thought of as having the same views on the world. In fact, these are pretty important kinds of reasons, as if we didn’t have them it would be hard to distinguish action from mere appetite-fulfilment, as if we were simply commanded to do something by this or that passing whim. Action, in a sophisticated sense, needs to be based in reasons to be distinguishable from zombie-like acting out.

Law, to stick with that example, differs from mere command in that legal reasoning can be seen as stemming from legal discourse; debate in courts, legal precedent and statute. Statute itself, in a recognisably democratic manifestation, represents the outcome of discourse as played out in legislative bodies composed of representatives of those over whom the law will be exercised. As such, the law is an abstracted form of the kind of freedom any reasonably able adult has; it is an institutionally manifested mulling over of things. As such, it is an abstraction from personal autonomy as a kind of self-control. It is compelling because it is reasonable. It’s supposed to give ‘us’ a set of reasons to act beyond what we might individually desire so that ‘we’ can act in a co-ordinated way.

Given this, to what extent are group actions explained? For instance, it would widely be considered a genuine phenomenon that groups act in societies according to rules: elections are one prominent example here. On this conception of action, however, actions are differentiated on the basis of the reasons that prompt them. So even if you and I perform the same act as observed externally, if we are nonetheless acting on different reasons, we are performing different actions.

If you pay for beers because the law demands you do (you don’t want to be penalised), whereas I pay because I know the bar manager and don’t wish to see him destitute thanks to his business failing, and if yet a third drinker pays because they wish to demonstrate to their date that they are affluent, we have all taken part in the social institution of ‘paying for goods obtained’, but have on this account performed different actions.

The idea that there is a background of reasonability lying behind all this (like the way law was described above) that somehow provides a basic backdrop to any action is tempting, but not wholly satisfying. If any of the three above had access to Gyges ring, that is, they could become invisible for instance, we could easily imagine them shirking the broad conventions of society on the sure basis that they could turn the bevel inward and get away with it. What is harder to imagine would be their shirking their own reasons, most certainly in the second and last cases.

Institutional reality, then, can provide sufficient reasons to act a certain way. These reasons, however, are not necessary conditions for acting in society. This means that while they can prompt action, they don’t have to prompt that action. On a rough and ready conception of institutional reality based upon these considerations then, it might be supposed that social reality is best conceived of as a space of reasons. This account could then be extended to include certain established institutional acts, but not necessarily actual social actions.

Certain reasons will generally hold good and so the acts they prescribe will be generally worth pursuing. So paying for goods obtained is an established social act, but in that you and I may pay for different reasons, each act of paying is keyed to our own choices and represents an individual action.

In terms of an account of collective action, an important and central object of scrutiny in the context of institutional reality and social understanding, this could tell against a strong sense of ‘working together’. Rather this account might subtend a view that privileges individual action in a broad scheme of recognition of various forms of reasons, all of which can provide potential grounds for action.

Groups on such an account would be constituted of collected rather than collective will. Does this imperil togetherness?

Getting togetherness back

Given a certain self-conscious awareness of their divergent and conflicting backgrounds (coming as they do from various histories and cultures) it seems not unreasonable to expect from people in general, not a uniformity of reasons to act, but reasonable accommodation. The human mind seems broad enough to bear a plurality of visions of the world – As far back at least as Aristotle it was noted that it was a common ability to hold in mind an idea without believing it.

One might adhere to a particular view that lends itself  to favour certain reasons to act. This doesn’t mean you can’t imagine another, different view. Indeed, even within the same individual values can compete at any given moment, and across time, so the possibility of indecision proves the breadth of mind required for empathising with others. The seeming problem of untogetherness above boils down to the attempt to create a synoptic vision of all life and experience via shared reasons.

Given an empathetic ability to bear in mind the view of another, however, it seems possible that parties in disagreement can nonetheless see the legitimacy of each other‘s perspective. In terms of argumentative reason, this might seem a contradiction. But rather than being forced to submit to a paradox, we can simply realise a broader sense of reason.

Reasonable discussion does not require agreement on every detail. We needn’t choose sides. Instead it seems reasonable that reason is broad enough to accommodate mutual respect of differences within social deliberation. Given this as a background, we could expect individuals to consent to laws and public principles they regard as in certain senses unwarranted. This would be plausible owing to a general sense in which the political arrangements had legitimacy as representative of the pluralistic nature of the many. Collected will can therefore stand as a true expression of the will of the people in a structural sense, if not in a comprehensive account of the details.

Sometimes, however, it can be portrayed as the collective will of the people, ignoring all such nuance as this.


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