Allow me to just stipulate. By political individualism, as distinct from individualism simpliciter, I shall mean the view that what justifies the coercive power of the state are the interests of its constituent members. By contrast, for the collectivist it’s the interests of the collective. The individualist doesn’t deny that there is such a thing as a collective. She simply denies that a collective is the kind of thing that can have an interest. Interests are the kinds of things that can be had by, and only by, individual bags of skin like you and me. 

To think otherwise, she claims, is to make the same mistake made by people who talk about the opposable thumb having been ‘designed’. More often than not assigning intentionality to mindless processes, like natural selection, is just a harmless facon de parler. But assigning mental states to a collective courts a conceptual confusion that can be, at the very least, deeply annoying. For example, I have no doubt the Prime Minister can express his condolences to the families of the victims of 9/11 on behalf of some Canadians. Perhaps even on behalf of most. But to express his condolences on behalf of all Canadians is to speak falsely. And to express his condolences on behalf of something called Canada is to speak nonsensically.

But hang on. Each cell in my body is doing its own thing, utterly oblivious and indifferent to anything I might want. So how is the bag of skin that individualists want to privilege as the sole repository of intentionality any less a collective than, say, Canada?

The answer – and I think it’s the right one – has been afforded us by Daniel Dennett. Dennett argues that what it is for something to have a mental state is to be assigned it by someone for whom that assignment affords better prediction and control. I’m playing a chess computer. Ah, I say to myself, the little bugger’s trying to fork my rook and king. That’s something I wouldn’t say to myself if I had a complete read-out of its programming. But I don’t. 

Does that mean I know it’s not really trying to fork my rook and king? To which Dennett’s answer is, What’s the force of this word ‘really’? Is there some deep further fact about intentionality beyond the instrumentality of predicating it? And if so, what kind of fact could that be?

Accordingly we can now ask, Is it ever instrumentally efficacious to assign intentions to a collective? Well, Peter French thinks so, and I’m inclined to agree. Personhood, noted John Locke, is a forensic concept, i.e. having to do with praise and blame. If Canada is judged to be duty bound to a treaty signed with its indigenous peoples, notwithstanding not a single person who signed that treaty is alive today, Canada must be a jural agent, and jural agency requires mens rea. So quod erat demonstrandum, collectives can have interests, and therefore interests in which they can take an interest, at least in this Dennettian sense of taking an interest.

Let it be granted, then, that Canada can take an interest in the events of 9/11. And if it can take an interest, likewise can it express an interest. But can it express a condolence? I want to argue it cannot. Expressions of condolence, as in “Our hearts go out to ..,” are notoriously disingenuous. All the more so if it’s a country’s heart. At a country having a heart, even if only metaphorically, is where I draw the line!

Why? Because my condoling, when I do, is far too intimate an act to be advertised by another. A fortiori when it’s false. As it happens I do not share the pain with the victims of 9/11. To presume that I do deprives me of my moral autonomy.

If this be doubted, imagine I announced to the world on your behalf that you too took 9/11 as cause for great rejoicing. It’s not because you’re worried the world might believe me. It’s because you’d be overwhelmed by a compulsion to set the record straight. It’s as if being misrepresented is an assault. Why? Because being misrepresented is assault.   

Categories: Everything You Wanted to Know About What's Going On in the World But Were Afraid to Ask

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