In each edition of Thinking Twice two Stanford scholars explore the same issue from their uniquely informed point of view.
|FORUM QUESTION:||Is an individual solely responsible for his or her actions?|
Complicity and Shared Agency
by Michael E. Bratman
by Greg Walton
When we think about complicity our thoughts turn to issues of accountability, of holding to account: because you and I act together in certain ways I am complicit in these activities and I am justly held morally and/or legally accountable for that. But in the background is the more general phenomenon of acting together.
Forms of acting together — of shared activity — matter to us a great deal, both intrinsically — think of friendship and love, singing duets, and the joys of conversation — and instrumentally — think of how we frequently manage to work together to achieve complex goals. A human life that was not significantly embedded in such shared agency would probably be unrecognizable, and certainly be impoverished. The very phenomenon of language is tied in fundamental ways to shared activities of communication.
Some (such as Michael Tomasello) have conjectured that our capacities for shared activity set us apart as a species. And some (such as Josiah Ober, Scott Shapiro, and Anna Stilz) have argued that reflection on this phenomenon helps us think about larger scale cases, such as law and/or democracy.
A curious fact about people is that we almost always go to the movies with others. A movie would seem to be ideal entertainment for a person with a free evening alone. You just sit there and take in the show. It shouldn’t matter if a friend sits with you or not.
But the last time I went to a movie alone was 8 years ago — Cast Away, starring Tom Hanks — and I still remember it. Surely there are many reasons movie going is a social endeavor. Norms probably play a role. But an important reason may be that seeing a movie by yourself is just a different activity. You have no one to share the experience with and so it’s less fun. It’s not just movies. Consider bowling — why else would you roll a heavy ball down a narrow floor (and enjoy it) except because it is a social activity?
Humans are incredibly social creatures. Research in social and developmental psychology shows that both children and adults do things more, and enjoy them more, when they can do them with others. This basic tendency is an important part of what makes us tick, and it carries big implications for important outcomes…