top of page

Review of Bhaskarjit Neog's Book

Abhishek Anant Nowbagh

Assistant Professor, Department of Philosophy, Jadavpur University

May 16, 2024

Book review of Bhaskarjit Neog’s book What Responsibility? Whose Responsibility? Intention, Agency, Emotions of Collective Entities (Routledge 2024).

The author, Bhaskarjit Neog, in the prologue of this book, provides instances of collective wrongdoing, along with the observation that "one of the reasons behind the disappearance of moral resentment from public memory is the fact that we do not always have a clear understanding of the simple question - who is responsible when a group or collective is held responsible?" (Neog, 2024, p. xiii). The author brings forth the difference between the idea of attributing moral properties to groups and collectives in general everyday moral vocabulary, easily understood in general terms, and the analytical understanding of collective responsibility, which poses serious conceptual problems. When the philosophical analysis of collective responsibility is attempted through the concept of individual moral responsibility, the idea of collective responsibility begins to emerge as a concept that needs extensive discourse. It is this discourse that the author initiates. The book has seven sections: a prologue, five chapters, and an epilogue. The sections take us through an extensive discussion related to collectivizing responsibility through collective intentions, collective agency, and collective emotions.

In the first chapter, the author looks into how the structure of moral responsibility, based on the actor’s knowledge and control in individual acts, can be ascribed to collective contexts. Analysing the concept of collectives, he argues that both structured and unstructured collectives can be brought under the concept of moral responsibility. He searches for wider criteria for moral agential status for the collective beyond the argument that does not ascribe moral status to a collective.

The second chapter brings forth two approaches to collective responsibility. The first is the collectivist position, which is committed to the reality of collective responsibility. The second is an individualist position that is somewhat non-committal concerning collective responsibility. The author then draws our attention to two specific issues that need to be addressed further: first, concerning the distribution of responsibility among the members of the collective and second, the relationship between individual responsibility on the one hand and the responsibility of collectives on the other. Here, the author proposes an account that "argues for a space where one is required to see things from the collective's point of view without thereby neglecting how things appear for the individuals within the collective concerned" (Neog, 2024, p. 35). He refers to this account which is neither fully collectivistic nor fully individualistic as a quasi-collectivist or non-individualist account. The author then elaborates on the justification of the proposed quasi-collectivist account from three perspectives concerning a collective: intention, agency, and guilt, which leads us to the next three chapters.

The third chapter deliberates upon the intentional make-up of collectives. The author discusses the viewpoints of John Searle, Micahel Bratman, Raimo Tuomela, and Margaret Gilbert who have approached collective intentions without any metaphysical entity in their explanation; he expresses his apprehension whether such a view can encompass the understanding of collective moral action or collective moral responsibility. Firstly, he elaborates on the common-sense views about collective intentionality. Secondly, he asks the pertinent question: where does this collective intention, which drives collective action, reside? He addresses this issue by identifying two ways of approaching this concern: taking individuals as a group or taking them as a group of individuals. The author acknowledges that this is a contentious issue that has no easy answers. Thus, he analyses the views of Bratman, Searle, Tuomela, and Gilbert to draw a comprehensive picture of collective intentionality. In this context, the author takes into consideration collectivity, which he terms as the "essence that makes a particular intentional state inherently collective" (Neog, 2024, p. 59), further contemplating upon interrelationality and the collectivity of collective intentions. He argues that genuine collective intentions shall firstly not be overpowered by an authority that takes control over individuals. Secondly, collective intentions shall not completely be dissociated from the individual’s intentions that constitute that collective. This leads to the quasi-collectivist account of collective responsibility. The author explains collective intentions as the intentions of the collective. He argues for collective responsibility as "an independent normative fact with its own sui generic character, and not just an aggregation of the responsibility of the participating individuals", moving towards justifying collective responsibility as the responsibility of collectives.

The fourth chapter concerns itself with collectives with an agency of their own. In the previous chapter, he points out that with regard to an individual it is the individual agency that precedes individual intention, but with regard to the collective it is the other way round. Collective agency has been looked through the prism of moral responsibility as being a collective self-being primarily responsible for its actions or outcomes. The author argues for formulating such a collective agency in this chapter. He makes a detailed analysis of the philosophical discourses concerning agency, individual and collective. In his book he argues for a collective agency that is different from the shared agency, which is a single agential unit consisting of multiple individual agents. The author further explains that shared agency is a concept of unity with diversity, but collective agency is unity in diversity. He further connects the normative point raised in the previous chapter with collective agency. This collective agency, the author claims, is crucial for recognizing collective responsibility as the responsibility of the collective per se. The author also considers emotional attitude, with respect to sharing the moral burden, of the collective agency that shall bring forth the complete moral character. This forms the basis of the next chapter.

The fifth chapter emphasizes the relationship between morality and emotion. The dominant view in early philosophy was that morality concerns itself with reason, and emotion has no role to play in it. However, recent discussions in philosophy have pointed towards a more intimate relationship between morality and emotion. The author focuses on the emotion of guilt in this chapter to understand how guilt affects moral collective responsibility. There are philosophical approaches that argue that there is no strong connection between an individual’s guilt and her ability to be moral. Another argument categorizes guilt as a negative emotion that has no positive role in shaping morality. The author disagrees with such approaches, stating that "the nature of guilt and its proximity to our moral conscience needs to be understood in a wider context" (Neog, 2024, p. 105), and not based on individual instances. Further, Neog examines the feeling of collective guilt and compares and clarifies its distinction with collective shame: shame is driven by agent-centric reconstruction, but guilt is driven by action-centric reconstruction.

Confusion of guilt with regret may occur when we consider collective wrongdoing, but for Neog, regret is a feeling that can occur beyond the direct involvement of an agent in the wrongdoing. He observes that the three approaches to collective guilt feeling, (i) a summation of individual guilt feelings, (ii) a feeling of membership guilt , and  (iii) collective feeling of guilt, are not adequate. He offers a fourth alternative to collective guilt that takes into consideration the singularity of agency and the plurality of the experiencing subjects and tries to reconcile these two. It is such an endeavor where collective guilt is, in the singularity context, a feeling of guilt for wrongdoing committed in the name of the collective, and on the other hand, in the plurality context, it is the plurality of the individual members experiencing guilt as contributors to the collective. He terms it as positional guilt feeling that "on the one hand, retains the phenomenological elements in its constitution, on the other, recognizes the importance of collectivity by maintaining a distinction between the singularity of the agency of wrongdoing and the plurality of the experiencing subjects" (Neog, 2024, pp. 117-118). Neog finally argues that when we consider the collective agency, as discussed in the previous chapter, we can very well locate a collective moral agency, with respect to positional guilt feeling. This account of positional guilt feeling helps us understand collective responsibility.

The epilogue of the book touches upon a possible assumption on the part of critics that he is subscribing to a conceptual isomorphism between individual wrongdoing and collective wrongdoing. He responds to this criticism by arguing that there can be collective wrongdoings without there being any collective intention. For him an affirmative claim can be made that collective responsibility can be understood through collective intention: given his take on collective intentionality recognises the significance of individuating the phenomena of collectivity so that keeping it away from being an overarching metaphysical superstructure and also tagging along individual intentional attitudes of the members of the collective. This leads the collective to an internal evaluation towards executing a common goal, which results in the collective agency. This collective agency is able to form emotional responses, as articulated by the discussion on guilt. As he puts it, collective guilt is "an emotional state where the referred agent behind the collective wrongdoing is the collective agent itself, although the subjects of such a feeling are the individual members" (Neog, 2024, p. 128).

Neog does consider that there may be certain cases where collective wrongdoing does not have a collective intention, such as the problem of global warming. But this does not stop us from taking a retrospective stand on such issues. The book also considers instances where there is no pre-existing collective agent. The example cited is that  random strangers helping a person in trouble. For Neog, in such cases, the moral demand for coordinated action can help in forming collective intentional agency, which develops through an internal evaluative perspective that develops a normative standpoint. He claims that philosophical discourse has laid forth the complexity of collective responsibility and his book attempts to "handle some of the knots and tangles of the yarn" (Neog, 2024, p. 132).

Collective agency and collective responsibility are issues of utmost significance to philosophers and social scientists, since human existence as a social animal depends upon intricacies related to them, this book deliberates upon issues that matter in the perspective of understanding human co-existence. The extensive detail in which the author has looked into philosophical literature concerning responsibility, intention, agency, and guilt both in the context of the individual and the collective makes this a comprehensive account that is a must-read for everyone interested in individual-collective discourse. The quasi-collectivist account proposed in the book takes this discourse a step further. The wide-ranging use of anecdotes and instances from movies and literature about every pressing issue that this book concerns itself with helps us form a clear understanding of the complex philosophical debates in the backdrop. In this respect, this book can be considered a starting point for unversed readers in the individual-collective debate.

bottom of page