The Nature of Intentional Joint Action: Coordination, Responsibility and Participant ́s Knowledge

Project: Research

Research areas and keywords

UKÄ subject classification

  • Philosophy

Keywords

  • joint action, shared intention, collective responsibility, agent's knowledge, cooperation

Description

1. Purpose and aims
Many of the things humans do intentionally, they do together with others. We walk, talk and play together, lift heavy objects together, dance and write academic papers together, rob banks together, and so on. Such activities are not merely sets of individual intentional actions that are reciprocally coordinated. Two friends who jointly and intentionally go for a walk together are not like two strangers who happen to walk in parallel, each trying to avoid colliding with the other (Gilbert 1990; Bratman 2009). In light of contrasting cases like these, philosophers have attempted to articulate what it is that makes the former cases—cases of intentional joint action, which involve collective agency—distinct from merely interdependent individual actions.
The phenomenon of intentional joint action is an important topic of reflection and theorising for several reasons: First, the ability to join forces and act collectively has been a powerful force in the biological and cultural evolution of our species (Sterelny 2012; Tomasello 2014), as well as in the socio-cognitive ontogeny of individuals (Rakoczy 2006; Butterfill 2012). We want to understand what this force is. Secondly, we want to get a better grasp of agency in general. Analytical action theory has arguably been subject to an individualistic bias, but by focusing on joint action, we may gain new insights about individual agency too (Knoblich and Sebanz 2006). Third, many philosophers argue that intentional joint agency ground attributions of collective responsibility. To understand under what circumstances it is appropriate to hold collectives responsible for actions and outcomes, we thus first need a better grasp on intentional joint action (Petersson 2010; 2013; Kutz 2000a). If this is right, then understanding intentional joint action will be of great practical importance, with the potential to inform moral and legal practice. Finally, some philosophers claim that an account of intentional joint action is required for understanding the nature of institutional facts and social reality (Searle 1995; Andersson 2007).
Unfortunately, philosophers writing about joint agency are not always clear on what the source of their interest in this phenomenon is. This makes it difficult to compare the strengths and weaknesses of different accounts of intentional joint action. Indeed, it is rarely clear whether two accounts are actually competing accounts of one and the same phenomenon, or just accounts of different kinds of cases. However, a common assumption in the philosophy of joint action and social ontology is that a clear distinction can be drawn between joint actions and mere sets of interdependent actions. While worries are occasionally raised that perhaps there is no one phenomenon of intentional joint action, such worries are typically quickly dismissed (Kutz 2000b, 4; Ernst and Chant 2007, 417–8; Paternotte 2013).
The purpose of this project is to get a better understanding of intentional joint agency and its relation to both individual intentional agency and collective responsibility. This will be done by pursuing three subprojects (1-3) in parallel, each focused on one aspect of joint agency: coordination toward a common goal, collective responsibility, and agent’s knowledge in joint action contexts (what we might call “participant’s knowledge”). In an additional overarching subproject (4), we (Blomberg and Petersson) will consider whether intentional joint action is one phenomenon or a range of phenomena or whether we should be pluralists and take intentional joint action to be a label that captures a range of phenomena that are merely connected by various family resemblances.

2. Survey of the field

Philosophers of action and philosophers of social science have made various attempts to pinpoint a strong sense in which a dyad or group of agents intentionally do something together (Bratman 2014; Gilbert 2009; Tuomela and Miller 1988; Pettit and Schweikard 2006; Alonso 2009). According to all these accounts, a combination of actions is jointly intentional in virtue of a being the outcome of a “shared intention”—a shared plan that distributes roles and tasks to the participants. The joint actions that are performed by participants inherit, so to speak, their jointness from the shared intention. Most of these accounts are “reductive” in the sense that their building blocks are ordinary individual intentions and beliefs that are interrelated in certain ways. Reductive accounts are often presented in opposition to non-reductive account that take joint action to involve a sui generis kind of mental state (Searle 1990) or the construction of a plural subject or agent (Helm 2008).
According to most “shared intention” accounts, part of the jointness comes from a condition that participants each conceive of what they are doing as contributing to a collective activity: For several agents to intentionally jointly J, each must intend “that they J” or “to perform his or her part of our J-ing” (Kutz 2000b; Tuomela 2007; Pacherie 2013a; Petersson 2007). Usually, these intentions must also be directed to the same (token) goal; the J-ing that each intends must be one and the same activity. Finally, participants must according to most accounts also have reflexive “common knowledge” (Lewis 1969) that they have a shared intention in order to have shared intention (Bratman 1993; Pettit and Schweikard 2006; Tuomela and Miller 1988; Tuomela 2007; Miller 2001; Carpenter 2009).
These accounts have been focused on articulating what is distinctive of joint action as opposed to merely interdependent action. There is another stream of philosophical literature on collective action which is less focused on throwing light on such contrasting types of cases, and instead being more focused on showing how collective responsibility is possible. Here, the intuitive idea is that for collective responsibility to be possible, the collective must be capable of acting intentionally. If there is a such a thing as collective responsibility, then it is the responsibility of a collective as a collective. Even if all the individual responsibility has been accounted for in a collective responsibility case, there must be some residual responsibility left that is the collective’s. Or at least, there must be meaningful ways of assigning responsibility to the collective, which cannot be captured by just summing up sets of assignments of individual responsibility (Tollefsen 2003; Isaacs 2006). This can be contrasted with what I will call ‘shared responsibility’. If two agents have shared responsibility over a joint activity such as their robbing of a bank, then each of them is individually responsible for this whole joint activity and its outcome. Despite these connections between joint action and collective responsibility, the philosophical discussions about these two topics typically proceed without much contact (but see Kutz 2000b; Tuomela 2007; French and Wettstein 2006).
When it comes to the philosophy of individual intention and action, some philosophers have focused on the role intentions play in putting agents in a special authoritative epistemic relation to their own conduct (Velleman 2007; Grünbaum 2009; 2011; 2012). An agent’s knowledge of what she is doing is arguably different in kind from her knowledge of what other’s are doing and of events that occur in her surroundings. Indeed, some claim that such agent’s knowledge is constitutive of an action being intentional (Anscombe 1969). However, this approach to action and intention has been almost completely absent within the philosophy of joint action and shared intention (Laurence 2011 is an exception). A novel feature of the current project will be to explore the topic of joint action from this epistemological angle.


3. Project description
The main parts of the project will be carried out as three subprojects focused on (joint) action coordination, (collective) responsibility and (first-person plural) agent’s knowledge. The fourth subproject, which is concerned with pluralism about intentional joint action, will draw on the findings of the research carried out in the first three subprojects.

3.1 Subproject 1: Coordination toward a common goal
It is often beneficial for several agents who each wants to bring about a single outcome to try to bring it about together. They may then achieve things that none of them could achieve on their own and as a group, they will typically be at an advantage compared with groups of agents who lack the capacity or motivation required for such coordination. Much of the philosophical and scientific research focused on joint action and cooperation has been motivated by such considerations. According to virtually all accounts, joint action is (at least) inter-agential coordination with respect to a common goal (Bratman 1993; 2009; 2014; Butterfill 2012; Tuomela 2007; Paternotte 2013; Boesch and Boesch 1989). However, the question of what it is for several agents (or several actions) to have a common goal has remarkably received very little attention in the philosophical literature, as have the question of what the significance is of such goal commonality. In subproject 1, I (Olle Blomberg) will pursue the following three foundational questions to rectify the situation:

3.1.1 Why must agents act toward a common goal for their actions to constitute a joint action?


To see the force of this question, consider Bratman’s influential account of shared intention. According to Bratman (1993; 2009; 2014), a shared intention is an interpersonal pattern of mental states that allows agents to coordinate their actions and plans with respect to a common goal and which help them to structure relevant bargaining regarding the pursuit of that goal. Given this functional role, it is far from obvious whether there is any deep motivation (within Bratman’s account) for claiming that joint action must involve a common goal (see Butterfill ms). Even without a common goal, social life requires that we coordinate our plans and intentional actions as well as bargain about how best to make our actions and plans mesh (in order for us to achieve our distinct goals). However, pre-theoretical considerations suggest that the existence of a common goal is significant: One idea I want to pursue is that for several actions to compose a more complex action, whether this is a joint action or a complex temporally extended individual activity, they must all be directed toward a common overarching goal. Another idea is simply that in joint action, I care about the realisation of your goal because it is also my goal, and vice versa for you and my goal. 


3.1.2 What does it take for the agents to perform actions with the “same goal”?

Most accounts of joint action don’t put any constraint on under what aspect agents can represent the outcome that their joint action is directed to (Butterfill 2012; Bratman 1993, 2009). However, this runs into trouble in cases such as the following: You and I both represent the goal of my actions as “that the prey that rustles the leaves is caught” and you and I both represent the goal of your actions as “that the prey that casts the shadow is caught”. However, each falsely believes that these are distinct outcomes (that is, that there are two prey). Here, the fact that our actions are directed toward a common goal cannot play a role in facilitating coordination. Should we then require or assume that participants represent the common goal under (more or less) the same aspect? (This is required by Miller 2001, 58; and assumed by Bratman 2014, 42.) This clearly too strong. Suppose you and I know that we are pursuing the same prey. It would then be odd if the fact that we represent our common goal differently would undermine the claim that our actions constitute an intentional joint action. I will argue for a solution that avoids the two horns of this dilemma.


3.1.3 Must the common goal of a joint action be some kind of “joint goal”? 


A long-running debate in the philosophy of action concerns how intention and intentional action is related (e.g. Bratman 1984; Adams 1986; McCann 1991; Knobe 2004; Nucci 2009). According to the so-called Simple View, one does something intentionally only if one intends to do it (it is not sufficient that it is, say, a foreseen side-effect of what one does intentionally). Many philosophers, including Bratman (1984), reject this view. However, an analogue of the Simple View is widely accepted regarding the relation between participants’ intentions and their ensuing actions constituting an intentional joint action: For several agents J-ing to be jointly intentional, their J-ing must be outcome of their intentions “that they J”. Is this Joint Simple View correct? If the answer is affirmative to this question, then only agents who have some concept of collective activity will be able to participate in intentional joint action (where collective activity must be weaker than intentional joint action to a vicious analytical circularity, see Petersson 2007). The question is thus important for identifying continuities and discontinuities in the phylogeny and ontogeny of capacities for joint agency. 


3.2 Subproject 2: Intentional joint action and collective responsibility


Ideally, an account of intentional (joint) action should inform our best account of (collective) moral responsibility, as well as inform moral and legal practice. In this second subproject, we (Blomberg and Petersson) will clarify what the relation is between intentional joint action and collective and shared responsibility. This will be done by answering the following three questions:

3.2.1 If agents intentionally jointly J, do they have collective/shared responsibility over their J-ing?

A desideratum on an account of intentional joint action should arguably be that it helps us make sense of collective and/or shared responsibility. (More controversially, perhaps we should let our practice of assigning collective responsibility inform our account intentional joint action (as suggested by Sadler 2006; Isaacs 2006; see also Tollefsen 2003).) Isaacs (2006, p. 68) argues that a reductive account of shared intention such as Bratman’s can provide the basis for an account of substantive collective responsibility, but arguably, it is not clear whether it can provide anything beyond shared responsibility. Bratman (1999, 171; 2014, 71) does not explicitly claim this it grounds anything more than shared responsibility, and we will argue that an account of intentional joint action that grounds collective responsibility requires more than merely intentional interpersonal coordination with respect to a common goal.


3.2.2 Can agents have collective/shared responsibility over J without intentionally jointly J-ing?


It is often taken for granted that collective/shared responsibility requires at least the potential for intentional joint agency. However, reflection suggest that this is not obviously the case. Shared responsibility can arguably be grounded in social interrelations and that lack many of the alleged core features of intentional joint action, such as the agents having a common goal with collective content, common knowledge, etc. (see Sadler, 2006). In other words, it is not obvious that the distinction between joint action and merely interdependent action matter for shared responsibility. In some circumstances, shared responsibility over a collective outcome of a set of individual actions can arguably occur without the individuals participating in a shared intention or without them even being aware of each other’s existence (Björnsson 2011). Some have even argued that sets of such unrelated individuals can even be collectively responsible for outcomes (Tännsjö 2007; but see Petersson 2013).

3.2.3 Must participants take a group-perspective to be co-responsible for a collective outcome?

Petersson (2007) argues that what is needed for collective responsibility is that the members of the collective each takes a group-perspective by intending that a ‘collective activity’ is brought about, (where this concept is irreducibly collective, in contrast to Bratman’s notion of “that we J”) (Mathiesen 2006; Tuomela 2007). It is still not clear whether such a group-perspective could give us collective and not merely shared responsibility though. Here, we will try to articulate clearly why and how a group-perspective could provide us with an understanding of collective responsibility. Given that an account of intentional joint action should be informed by our understanding of collective responsibility, this could provide an argument for the Joint Simple View mentioned in section 3.1.3.


3.3 Subproject 3: First-person plural agent’s knowledge—or “participant’s knowledge”

On the face of it, an agent has a special kind of direct awareness of what she is doing intentionally, an awareness that she does not have when it comes to what others do intentionally or what she herself does unintentionally. Following Anscombe (1969), it is widely believed that such awareness is constitutive of an action being an intentional action. Is some version of this claim may be true regarding intentional joint action (“participant’s knowledge”, as it were)? However, almost all accounts of intentional joint action take participants’ common knowledge of each other’s relevant intentions and beliefs to be constitutive of such action. This common knowledge condition is almost never explicitly motivated, but simply taken for granted. Blomberg (under review ) has argued that, given the starting point and commitments of a certain type of reductive account of intentional joint action (e.g. Bratman 1993; Pettit and Schweikard 2006; Alonso 2009), a necessary CK-condition cannot be motivated (see also Presti 2013). However, the common knowledge condition remains intuitive plausible. Arguably, this has its roots in considerations regarding “agent’s knowledge”. Plausibly, an agent cannot participate in an intentional joint action unless she knows (or at least believes) that she isn’t participating in such an action. If this is right, then the failure of reductive accounts to motivate the condition would suggest that they fail as accounts of genuine intentional joint action. 
The idea of a special kind of “participant’s knowledge” may seem wild and radical, but arguably, this is partly due to an individualistic bias that ought to be corrected in both philosophical theorising and empirical research on agency. Contemporary research in cognitive psychology and cognitive neuroscience suggest that our perceptual and agential capacities have evolved and been shaped for participation in joint action (see Knoblich and Sebanz 2006; Knoblich, Butterfill, and Sebanz 2011). 
In the third subproject, I will look at what would make it possible for there to be such a thing as participant’s knowledge, given an approach to intentional joint action that is broadly reductive in spirit.


3.3.1 What would a plausible account of “participant’s knowledge” look like?


Most contemporary attempts to make sense of agent’s knowledge restrict it to concern basic actions. One way in which an account of agent’s knowledge could make room for intentional joint action would thus go by way of an argument that joint actions can be basic. By appeal to the phenomenology of skilful joint action, I have argued (Blomberg 2011) that a joint action can be a directly intended basic action. Based on this idea, and existing accounts of agent’s knowledge (e.g. O’Brien 2003; Peacocke 2003; Grünbaum 2009), I will develop on account of “participant’s knowledge” that draws on empirical work on interpersonal “coordinative structures” in intra- and interpersonal bodily coordination and control (e.g. Kelso 1995; Richardson et al. 2007; Shockley, Richardson, and Dale 2009) as well as work on the sense of joint agency (Pacherie 2013b).
According to other accounts, agent’s knowledge is a distinctive kind of practical perceptual knowledge, which is importantly different from observational-theoretical perceptual knowledge (Roessler 2003; Grünbaum 2011; 2012). One idea I will pursue is to conceive of participant’s knowledge in terms of affordance perception of processes that are under agents’ (in plural) control (this is inspired by the account of singular intentional action and agent's knowledge sketched by Roessler, 2003). I will try to make sense of the kind of joint control that would be required for a dyad/group member to perceive their movements to afford such joint process control.


3.4 Subproject 4: Intentional joint action—phenomenon or phenomena?


In the final subproject, we (Blomberg and Petersson) will take stock of the findings from the other subprojects and consider whether what philosophers label ‘intentional joint action’ is one phenomenon or several phenomena tied together by various family resemblances. One reason for suspecting that the latter is the case is simply the lack of a common core in the plethora of joint action accounts that have been proposed. Many accounts of take intentional joint action to involve some kind of joint goals (e.g. Kutz 2000b; Bratman 2009; Pacherie 2013a; Petersson 2007), but not all of them (Miller 2001, 2; Sadler 2006); almost all take common goal to be required, but not quite all (Kutz 2000b; Sadler 2006); many take it to involve mutual responsiveness and non-accidental coordination (e.g. Tuomela and Miller 1988; 2009; Butterfill 2012; Paternotte 2013), but again, not everyone does (Kutz 2000b; Ludwig 2007; Pacherie 2013a); some take intentional joint action to be inherently cooperative (Searle 1990), whereas others do not (Bratman 2014); some take it to involve collective responsibility (Isaacs 2006), but others think it only involves shared responsibility (Sadler 2006). Some of these differences are probably inherited from different conceptions of intentional individual action (see Cova, Dupoux, and Jacob 2012), but it seems that there is even less agreement on what the phenomenon is supposed to be in the case of intentional joint action.
By approaching the notion of intentional joint action with three different foci—coordination, responsibility and agent’s knowledge—we will clarify and disentangle different claims and philosophical targets that tend to be conflated in the philosophical literature (as well as consider the role of joint action in the construction of institutional facts, see Searle 1995; Andersson 2007). Our provisional working hypothesis is that we can find a conception of intentional joint action grounded in the idea of inter-agential coordination with respect to a common goal, which can help illuminate questions both about shared/collective responsibility and participant’s knowledge.


3.5 Method and project organisation


I, the project leader, will carry out most of the research myself, but Dr. Björn Petersson at Lund University will be involved as a co-worker at 20% of fulltime on subproject 2 and 4, starting in January 2016. Thor Grünbaum at the University of Copenhagen, who has done important work on agent’s knowledge (2009; 2011; 2012), will be an informal consultant on subproject 3.
Subproject 1 continues to develop an independent research track that I initiated during my PhD research at the University of Edinburgh. The dual focus of my PhD thesis Joint Action Without and Beyond Planning was, first, cooperation and coordination among relatively cognitively unsophisticated agents and, secondly, coordination of joint action during the unfolding of action. One paper directly based on this work as been published (Blomberg 2011), one is forthcoming and two other paper have been submitted and are currently under review.
Dr. Petersson has done important work on both joint action (2007) and collective responsibility (2004; 2010; 2013). In addition, his research project Intentional agency and agent perspectives deal with some issues that are related to subproject 1, in particular the issue of whether participants in joint action must have intentions with collective content.
The methods of the project will be those of analytical philosophy: conceptual analysis and concept formation, argumentation analysis, and to some extent, meta-analysis of empirical research (this is in particular relevant for subproject 3). The research seeks to be theoretically as well as empirically informed.

4. Significance

The project is significant in several ways:
•Practically, the results of subproject 2 are of great potential moral and legal importance. If the potential for intentional joint action is a condition for collective responsibility, then our results may give some guidance to when it is appropriate to hold groups of agents responsible for joint actions or collective outcomes.
•Scientifically, the results of subproject 1 and 4 is of importance for empirical research on joint action within, for example, developmental and comparative psychology (Tomasello 2014; Boesch 2005; Brinck and Gärdenfors 2003; Brownell 2011). This work has been mainly informed by “shared intention”-accounts from action theory, but these are decidedly unsuitable for making sense of the joint cooperative action of, say, young children or non-human primates. All require of participants that they possess sophisticated capacities for communication, planning and Theory of Mind (for discussion, see Tollefsen 2005; Blomberg 2011; Butterfill 2012). By separating issues of coordination from questions about responsibility into our two subproject, I expect the work pursued in subproject 1 (especially 3.1.2 and 3.1.3) to be potentially useful empirical researchers interested in joint action. The research carried out in section 4 will provide a novel framing of existing empirical research (Knoblich and Sebanz 2006; Knoblich, Butterfill, and Sebanz 2011).
•Theoretically, the project as a whole will help clarify and disentangle different claims (about coordination, responsibility and knowledge) that tend to be conflated in debates about the nature of intentional joint action. This will be important for making progress in these philosophical debates, by separating merely terminological issues from substantial theoretical disagreements.

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Layman's description

Many of the things humans do intentionally, they do together with others. We talk and play together, write papers together, rob banks together, etc. Such activities are not mere sets of coordinated individual actions. Two friends going for a walk together are not like two strangers walking in parallel, each trying to avoid colliding with the other. In light of such contrasting cases, various philosophical accounts of the nature of intentional joint action have been proposed. Unfortunately, philosophers rarely explain what the deeper motivation for these accounts are. Consequently, it is not always clear whether different accounts actually are about the same target phenomenon. The purpose of this project is to improve our understanding of intentional joint action by focusing on three different but related aspects of joint agency: coordination with respect to a common goal, collective responsibility, and the (possibly) distinct kind of knowledge that participants (but not observers) have of what they are doing intentionally. Beyond improving our understanding of human agency, the project will provide theoretical tools for empirical research on joint action. Finally, it can inform moral and legal practice. If the potential for intentional joint action is a condition for collective responsibility (as we will argue), then our results may give some guidance to when it is appropriate to hold groups of agents responsible for their joint actions and the outcomes of these actions.
StatusFinished
Effective start/end date2015/01/012018/12/31

Participants

Related research output

Olle Blomberg & Hindriks, F., 2019, (Accepted/In press) The Routledge Handbook of Collective Responsibility. Bazargan-Forward, S. & Tollefsen, D. (eds.). Routledge

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingBook chapter

Olle Blomberg, 2019, (Accepted/In press) In : Mind & Language.

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

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Related activities

Blomberg, O. (Organiser), Niels de Haan (Organiser)
2019 Sep 92019 Sep 11

Activity: Participating in or organising an eventOrganisation of workshop/ seminar/ course

Blomberg, O. (Invited speaker)
2018 Sep 20

Activity: Talk or presentationInvited talk

Blomberg, O. (Invited speaker)
2018 Jun 252018 Jun 26

Activity: Talk or presentationInvited talk

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