Photo by Min An.

Can groups of people hold beliefs collectively? Our everyday conversations imply they do: it’s not unusual to hear something like ‘Scientists believe X’, ‘Americans think Y’, or ‘The newspaper is Z-phobic’. The idea feels unintuitive since common sense has it that one belief belongs to one mind. However, in recent years philosophers have gone from focusing just on the beliefs of individuals to the beliefs of groups as well.

Morally, the answer matters. For example, we might want to hold a government, a business, or a church to account for its potentially discriminating decision on a sensitive matter. Equally, we might want to applaud a charity, a think tank, or a university for its declaration of an inclusive position. In such cases the body is treated as a belief-forming group, not merely a set of individuals; else ascribing moral responsibility to the body doesn’t make sense.

The point of contention for philosophers is how autonomous a group’s belief is from its members’ beliefs. Summativists think (as a group 😉) that the belief of a group is a function of its members’ beliefs. The belief may be drawn by majority vote, the similar reasons given by its members, or the shared causes of their beliefs. Non-summativists disagree altogether.

A joint commitment between members of a group can give rise to group beliefs which no member possesses. For instance, a vote may end in a course of action which none of the members had as their first choice.

Dismissing the notion of group belief should be done cautiously: problematic views may be allowed to take refuge behind a denial. Take systemic problems within a group (e.g., sexism within law-enforcement; institutional racism within the press; a lack of environmental concern within a company). Though very few of the group’s members (politicians; journalists; directors) may hold the exact belief in question, a problematic group belief arguably is there; and we might not be able to deal with the problem properly if we deny its existence.

What do you think?