Whenever collective action is required we are confronted with a choice, whether to use the coercive power of society or whether to preserve freedom by encouraging voluntary participation. What is called for is a criterion that would help us distinguish which tactic is best suited to the task. To start this examination, we’ll look at Iris Young’s examination of just what social responsibility asks of us in her book Responsibility for Justice. To help us understand the interplay of individuals in a social matrix we’ll examine Mancur Olson’s book The Logic of Collective Action, where he describes how and why individuals form groups and the mechanisms necessary to keep those groups providing optimal amounts of the goods they formed to obtain. Additionally, I consider two empirical accounts analyzing the interests of corporate directors in making socially responsible decisions. Altogether these draw a portrait of human beings as social animals imprisoned in unique subjective perspectives. These perspectives lead to patterns of behavior or norms that, if widespread enough, confront individuals as though they were forces of nature. Despite their presentation, these norms remain contingent and can be changed through sustained organized group action. Achieving this group action, I show, requires the use of coercion whenever the group is so large that the normative structure of group interaction cannot be managed by trust.
In her book, Responsibility for Justice, Iris Marion Young gives her account of how individuals should be responsible for the social condition of justice. Her book elaborates a “social connection model” of responsibility for justice. In this model social connection links every individual in any position within a social structure that is linked to injustice as equally responsible for the injustice (Young, 2011, p. 104). Mere membership in the structure is cause for responsibility. That said, Young disassociates responsibility in this sense from blame and guilt, which she feels should be reserved for questions of punishing infractions inside an established system by isolating individual rule-breakers from the innocent (2011, p. 105). Questions of justice, which involve the normative background conditions of moral and legal judgments (Young, 2011, p. 106), in the social connection model are “forward-looking”, in that they are more concerned with setting the rules right, rather than punishing rule-breakers (Young, 2011, p. 108). Essentially, the questions her model are concerned with are ones where everyone in the structure are already responsible for both its good and bad aspects. This makes responsibility for justice a shared condition of every participant, no matter how tangentially involved or positively/negatively affected (Young, 2011, p. 109), and as such it can only be affected through collective action (Young, 2011, p. 111).
Young is concerned primarily with the consequences of activity. Social ills are implicitly assumed to be synonymous with bad outcomes. How we assess such outcomes is left untreated by Young. Assuming utilitarianism then–for the sake of argument–would allow us to say that if an outcome does not lead to the greatest happiness of the greatest number then it is a social ill. Everyone involved in the structure that allows for the social ill is, under Young’s model, equally responsible for it doing something about it. Although the individual actions one must undertake in order to discharge their individual responsibility is unique to the position they occupy in the structure itself, according to Young (2011, p. 142). The particular actions Young leaves up to the deliberators themselves, since she holds no philosophy could possibly prescribe them (2011, p. 124); however, she maintains that responsibility for justice can only be discharged through the use of collective action (2011, p. 111). Young means civil or social action by collective action, not individual action. In this model, ethics is reserved for individuals but justice is a property of collectives and only as a collective agent, acting to modify the whole collective can one discharge their responsibility. For example, you might spend a day picking up litter from a park, and that is ethically right, but it is not a collective action and does not discharge your social responsibilities. To do that you would need to work with others to remedy the litter problem in the park. This could take several forms, such as organizing regular cleanings, outlawing the sale of non-biodegradable packaging in your town, or petitioning to add to the number of waste collection bins in the park, etc. The point is that the action must be collective in order to resolve our responsibility for justice.
Young’s model then leaves us perpetually facing the challenge of ascertaining when to use coercive force or supra-incentives and when to allow individual freedom and hope to align individual interests with social goals through practical incentives and adherence to a mere ethical ideology.
Young hopes philosophy can assist us, by setting out some “parameters of reasoning” (2011, p. 142). These parameters helps us to assess our position in the structure and so our particular relationship with a perceived injustice. From a sound appraisal of our role, she assumes we will be able to assess our unique obligations and discharge them in concert with others. She names four such parameters: “power, privilege, interest, and collective ability”, (2011, p. 144). The most relevant to our discussion is interest. What is essential in this parameter is that there is almost always–in any sustained injustice–an individual or set of individuals to whom the injustice is beneficial and equally another to whom it is detrimental. Those who benefit by perpetuating the injustice will have a difficult–if not impossible–time coming to understand how their actions should be voluntarily changed, despite the adversity to their own interests. In other words, given the current social norms that permit this injustice, these beneficiaries are unlikely to change their behavior in the name of justice (or any other ideal) because doing so directly harms them. Young writes, “Aligning interest with responsibility is not a problem; indeed, one way of looking at what taking political responsibility means is to figure out how to align one’s own interests with those of agents that suffer injustice” (2011, p. 146). Still, the choice remains whether coercion or supra-incentives are necessary to align the interests of beneficiaries of injustice with those of the sufferers of injustice.
Young has provided us with the impetus to act socially to cure structural injustice, but she has not provided us with an apparatus for doing so. Power and privilege are always protected by an interest in preserving them, and the collective ability to act can be mobilized as readily to protect and extend those interests that perpetuate injustice as it can to thwart them. The question is how do the weak, the underprivileged, and the unorganized sufferers of injustice create systemic change against the overwhelming adversity of those total and partial beneficiaries? Against libertarian doctrine, does Young’s theory advocate or allow political action to limit the freedoms of the privileged and powerful in order to carve a place for themselves in the society?
The tragedy of Young’s account is that those most in need of structural change are generally the same ones in the worst position to go about organizing collective action to change it. Typically these victims of injustice are limited to merely being vocal about their plight, hoping others might join them and create change. This leaves them very vulnerable to being ignored. Young lists four rationalizations of those who would rather avoid social responsibility: reification, denying connection, immediacy, and displacing responsibility (2011, p. 154). For the sake of time, I’ll only describe the first, reification, since it is the most relevant to our discussion. Reification, put simply is the making natural of that which is contingent. External forces may be either controllable or uncontrollable, and reification is the mistaking of the former for the latter kind. Typically these are contingent social norms that are either reified as human nature or mistaken as some natural or formal law. A reified norm is believed to be immutable and so must be worked around rather than confronted, changed, or denied. The powerful may easily reify the plight of those less fortunate than themselves. This may be both unethical and unjust but, assuming a libertarian sentiment of non-interference, this is the best that we might expect.
To see why, we must turn to the mechanisms for effecting collective change. But at this point our earlier assumption of utilitarianism becomes untenable. Either we have to prove that utilitarianism is an acceptable justification for any or all coercive or supra-incentivized political actions or else discard it in favor of some other criterion. Assuming that we want a libertarian (as opposed to a totalitarian) government–by which I mean only that we want a government that intends to leave its citizens free except where there has been established a justified social need to delimit their freedom–we need a methodology for determining when a structural injustice is neither natural, nor self-correcting, nor inherently unstable, nor likely to be remedied by education or an appeal to an ideal. In other words, we need to answer the question: when would it be justifiable to coerce free people?
In The Logic of Collective Action, Mancur Olson theorizes about why individuals organize into groups and how those groups function internally. Specifically, he is interested in the way public goods, which he defines as good that even when consumed cannot feasibly be withheld from the other members of the group (e.g. security or freedom of expression), create, sustain, and define group activity (Olson, 1965, p. 14). Olson (1965, p. 7) reasons that groups organize around particular member interests that cannot be met at all or as well individually. Public goods are necessarily interests of this type. The problem that sometimes arises, according to Olson (1965, p. 21) is that “[t]hough all of the members of the group… have a common interest in obtaining this collective benefit, they have no common interest in paying the cost of providing that collective good.” Left at this point, it is easy to conclude that coercion of the members to get each to contribute their share is a necessary conclusion of all public goods. However, group interplay yields different results at different scales. Olson finds (1965, p. 33) that “small groups can provide themselves with collective goods without relying on coercion or any positive inducements apart from the collective good itself”. Although, he finds, they are unlikely to do so optimally (Olson, 1965, p. 34) and that “the larger the group, the father it will fall short of providing an optimal amount of a collective good” (Olson, 1965, p. 35). The result of this situation, according to Olson, is that “the larger the group, the less it will further its common interests” (1965, p. 36).
This analysis, prima facie, seems to preclude the possibility of very large groups. But Olson (1965, p. 37) goes on to show that groups act either inclusively or exclusively regarding the movement of members in and out of the group. Inclusive group members benefit proportionally with the greater the number of members in the group, while exclusive group members benefit proportionally to the lower the number of members in the group. Olson notes (1965, p. 39) that groups can act simultaneously as inclusive or exclusive depending on the type of goods the group is seeking. For example, a franchise might act exclusively to protect its share of the consumer-base by seeking to limit the number of other franchises operating in the vicinity. On the other hand, the same franchise might act inclusively, by joining with as many other franchises (or even other companies) as possible, in seeking changes to government policy respecting their industry. When the goods in question are not public, there is an interest in exclusivity, but when the goods are public the groups tend to be inclusive. Inclusive groups grow large because the need for bargaining and the strategic actions of individual members towards self-interest is greatly reduced, making “group-oriented action more likely” (Olson, 1965, p. 42).
The drawback is that group size affects efficiency because of the limited perceptibility of individual efforts. Olson writes (1965, p. 44) “in a large group in which no single individual’s contribution makes a perceptible difference to the group as whole, or the burden or benefit of any single member of the group, it is certain that a collective good will not be provided unless there is coercion or some outside inducements that will lead the members of the large group to act in their common interest.” The limit of perceptibility here provides us with the dividing line, separating the large group who–left to its own devices–will fail to provide public goods, and “the oligopoly-sized group which may provide itself with a collective good” (Olson, 1965, p. 45). The difference “depends upon whether any two or more members of the group have a perceptible interdependence,” Olson says (1965, p. 45); that is it depends “on whether the contribution or lack of contribution of any one individual in the group will have a perceptible effect on the burdens or benefits of any other individual or individuals in the group.”
Olson elaborates three key factors that keep larger groups from furthering their own collective interests:
First, the larger the group, the smaller the fraction of the total group benefit any person acting in the group interest receives [relative to costs], and the less adequate the reward for any group-oriented action, and the farther the group falls short of getting an optimal supply of the collective good, even if it should get some. Second, since the larger the group, the smaller the share of the total benefit going to any individual, or to any (absolutely) small subset of member of the group, the less the likelihood that any small subset of the group, much less any single individual, will gain enough from getting the collective good to bear the burden of providing even a small amount of it; in other words, the larger the group the smaller the likelihood of oligopolistic interaction that might help obtain the good. Third, the larger the number of members in the group the greater the organizational costs, and thus the higher the hurdle that must be jumped before any of the collective good at all can be obtained. (Olson, 1965, p. 48)
The takeaway here is that larger groups, beyond a perceptibility threshold, simply cannot maintain provide optimal amounts of public goods without coercion. Without the optimal amounts of public goods group cohesion breaks down, since groups are only formed around the receipt of these goods. We might conclude from this that large-scale groups that do not break down do so by the use of coercion; whether that coercion is by force or supra-incentive. Thus the libertarian assumption of freedom is already questionable beyond the perceptibility threshold.
Olson summarizes his conclusions this way:
The smallest type of group–the group in which one or more members get such a large fraction of the total benefit that they find it worthwhile to see that the collective good is provided, even if they have to pay the entire cost–may get along without any group agreement or organization… In any group larger than this, on the other hand, no collective good can be obtained without some group agreement, coordination, or organization. In the intermediate or oligopoly-sized group, where two or more members must act simultaneously before a collective good can be obtained, there must be at least tacit coordination or organization. Moreover, the larger a group is, the more agreement and organization it will need. (1965, p. 46)
By coordination and organization Olson means the use of political force to coerce people into behaviors that allow for the provision of the optimal amounts of public goods. In effect then, Olson is saying that the larger the group, the more political force must be applied to achieve the same goods as the small group can achieve without any force at all. Recalling that the benefit of the large group is the reduction of individual costs to achieve a good, a trade-off must be struck between where a public good is still beneficial despite increases in organizational costs to achieve it. We should expect to see different scales of political activity, pursuing different public goods, and that is what we do see.
Problematically, Olson’s theory assumes a good deal of individualism; he presupposes individuals as atomic and fully-formed units prior to the inception of any and every group. This is a state that has never existed and limits the applicability of some of Olson’s conclusions. However, the ability to remain or leave or otherwise alter the composition of some specific groups of which an individual member, would enable one to see his or herself as an atomic whole relative to the group. In this sense, Olson’s theory does help us to understand the movements and actions of groups as they struggle to maintain themselves in a turbulent social environment. For our purposes, Olson provides us with a minimal guide to where coercion or supra-incentives become necessary in order to provide public goods or discharge our responsibility for justice. As a group exceeds the limit where individual contributions are perceptible group cohesion breaks down, requiring the application of external action in order to retain unity while obtaining the optimal amount of any public good at grand scales.
It is too simple to argue that groups over a certain manageable size (e.g. a hundred members) should apply rules to bind individuals in order to obtain public goods. We must also inquire about the particularities of the public benefits and their necessity. It might be a public good that everyone abstains from cigarettes in a society, it is another thing to demand that all do so. We might think of Olson’s theory as providing the borderline where we should expect coercion or supra-incentives to become necessary, and optimal at some scale. Looked at this way, we should not have to spend effort on enforcing participation from small groups because they will largely monitor themselves and achieve the public goods in question, without any sort of external force. It is only as a large, disorganized group that the need for such external compulsions arise in the first place. So we have our first criterion.
In questioning whether or not to limit individual freedom, we should examine the structure inside of which the actions in question take place. To do this we cannot rely on courts or existing laws. Instead we must debate the action from all angles in political deliberation. The reason for this is that–viewed structurally–every action is connected to other people. These sets of relations carry their own interests, so that it is possible–prima facie–to have conflicts between one’s social interests and one’s individual interests. The problem is epistemological. One’s social interests are difficult to ascertain (because they rely on relationships to others including others relationships to even further removed others and so on) whereas one’s individual interests are often immediately perceptible. As we saw perceptibility is key. It should be obvious that one’s social interests, if recognized are in fact one’s individual interests. Thus without the epistemological gap there could be no conflict between one’s social and one’s individual interests. Societies then have a vested interest in keeping the peace, and reducing the epistemological gap would greatly facilitate social understanding, mutual respect, and a comprehension of one’s shared responsibility.
To explore this issue in greater detail, let’s turn now to a couple of empirical examinations before trying to generalize our conclusion. The first is an article by Sally Simpson and others which explores “the extent to which decisions by managers to violate environmental laws are affected by command-and-control or self-regulation prevention-and-control strategies” (2013, p. 234). In essence what is being measured here are the “intentions to act illegally” of decision-makers in corporate business organizations (Simpson, 2013, p. 250). Similarly with the second article, Jacob Rose details his study of the decision making processes of those who primarily determine the social responsibility of corporate behavior: the corporate directors. Simpson et. al’s study is complementary with Rose’s, since both examine similar situations. The relevant difference for us is that Simpson looks primarily at strategy to curtail illicit corporate behavior while Rose focuses more on why individual directors are likely stray without regards to any strategy. The findings together propose a picture of individual human interests inside and a part of a matrix of social interests, as we saw in Olson.
Sally Simpson et. al. contends that “scholars and policymakers know very little about “what works, what doesn’t, and what’s promising regarding corporate crime-control strategies” (2013, p. 234). One reason for this is the general complexity of controlling the behavior of multiple agents by multiple agents. “Regulatory instruments and institutions are interconnected…” so that any talk of so-called strategies is purely conceptual to begin with. However, the authors find they are useful heuristics for comparing “particular instruments” especially in light of the way context and interaction may affect their results (2013, p. 235). In statistically analyzing the results, the authors combined different relevant factors in six different models showing, for example, the changes of the effective deterrence of informal sanctions alone versus when combined with formal sanctions (Simpson, 2013, p. 258).
The two basic “strategies” discussed in this paper are command-and-control and self-regulatory. “In command-and-control strategies, legal authorities dictate the terms of compliance, relying on the threat of formal legal sanctions to achieve compliance with those terms” (2013, p. 236). In simple terms, this approach involves outlawing certain behaviors and then policing corporate activity and punishing violations, in other words what we’ve been calling coercive actions. “Self-regulatory approaches (typically offered as a complementary strategy in conjunction with government-enforced regulation) presume that prosocial norms and values coupled with effective internal compliance systems (e.g., clear accountability, communication of expectations, effective monitoring, and appropriate reprimands when violations occur) will secure compliance” (2013, p. 238). In this strategy, the hope is that companies will come to adopt certain norms proscribing the unwanted behaviors, this will lead to self-policing and internal punishment for violations. This sort of internal regulation is what saw was achievable for small groups in Olson, but not large ones. Additionally, the authors examine informal sanctions that are associated with both strategies, such as bad publicity.
Simpson et. al. draw several particular conclusions from their data.
For each unit increase in the respondent’s estimate that the behavior will advance the manager’s career, the odds that the respondent would be willing to violate environmental regulations increase by almost 26%. For every unit increase in perceived thrills, the odds of being willing to offend increased by about 53%… For every unit increase in perceived business-related informal costs, the odds of being willing to offend decrease by 62%. (2013, p. 261)
None of the self-regulation variables significantly affect offending intentions, nor do they mitigate the effect of the individual- and firm-level risk factors… A one-unit increase in the formal sanctions costs scale decreases the probability that the respondent is willing to violate environmental regulations by about 54%. (2013, p. 262).
More generally, the authors conclude that “our results suggest that both formal legal and informal… sanction threats can inhibit environmental noncompliance” (2013, 263). Additionally, they stress that “none of the interventions appears to substantially lessen the powerful influence of career benefits on offending intentions” (2013, p. 263). The authors continue,
This implies that when a person perceives a large career benefit, she is less likely to consider informal sanctions before deciding to offend. The perceived benefit of illegal behavior for this group appears to trump any anticipated loss of respect and future harm to job prospects associated with the informal discovery that promotes crime inhibition for others in the sample” (2013, p. 264).
This conclusion suggests that if corporate decision-makers have an individual incentive in violating the law then they are significantly more likely to do so and that neither formal or informal social sanctions seems to affect that decision.
The findings themselves merely “reinforce what sociologists have emphasized since Durkheim—social norms influence how we behave” (Simpson et. al., 2013, p. 266). The authors conclude, “[w]hen norms fail, the government must be ready and willing to intervene” (Simpson, 2013, p. 267). More importantly, the findings imply that individual incentives play a marked role in neglecting social responsibility. In light of Young’s and Olson’s contributions, this evidence seems to suggest that individuals will excuse themselves from social responsibility despite easy recognition and full knowledge of what they are doing and even in the face of public shaming, if and only if that there is an individual reward for doing so.
Jacob Rose suggests a structural reason why this is the case. His study of corporate director’s decision making processes finds that directors sometimes sacrifice personal ethics and social responsibility in favor of legally defensible actions. They do this, Rose claims, in full knowledge of the implications of their decisions. They act in such an unethical and socially irresponsible manner because they believe the law, requires them to maximize shareholder value, demands they take such actions, (Rose, 2007, p. 319). Rose suggests that, “additional ethics education will have little influence on the decisions of many business leaders because their decisions are driven by corporate law, rather than personal ethics” (2007, p. 319). To some extent then, Rose’s findings confirm Simpson et. al.’s findings that individual incentives can influence moral decisions and that it is the normative field that is the greatest influence. But what Rose draws out is that the normative field also influences the motives behind the individual incentives.
The specific findings of Rose’s study are succinctly summarized by the author,
The results of the experiment indicate that: (1) directors that have duties to shareholders consistently give up corporate social responsibility for increased shareholder value, even when their personal morals and ethical standards suggest alternative courses of action; (2) directors making decisions from the perspective of a business owner, rather than a director, do not consistently trade ethical standards or social responsibility for wealth maximization; (3) directors recognize the ethical implications of decisions that affect social welfare; and (4) directors favor shareholder value over personal ethical beliefs and social good because they believe that current corporate law requires them to pursue legal courses of action that maximize shareholder value. Taken together, the findings indicate that our corporate leaders make decisions that emphasize legal defensibility, rather than ethics or social responsibility. The results also suggest that additional ethics education may have little influence on the decisions of most business leaders because their decisions are driven by existing law, rather than personal ethics. (Rose, 2007, p. 319-320)
The formal law is rightly seen by these directors as overpowering normative ethical concerns. In other words, the coercive spirit of the law is a norm itself or a supra-normative norm. We are prepared to follow the law even as it leads us into unethical and unjust action. Specifically then, when the law dictates the maximization of profit for shareholders in all situations that it does not otherwise forbid, the directors feel they have no choice but to follow the law, even when it drives them to act unethically and socially irresponsibly. This is most obviously demonstrated by Rose’s second finding; where the decision-maker was also the owner, they were much less likely to violate their own ethics and act irresponsibly. In this latter case, the law leaves them free to choose. The major implication here is that the social structure of capitalism that pushes businesses to maximize shareholder value drives the decisions of directors that lead to socially undesirable results. We might be inclined to forgive the directors for this clear double bind. However, this commonly held belief of the directors is actually only a reified norm; the law does not in fact require them to maximize shareholder value (Stout, 2015). Following Young, we would see their actions as the excuse of reifying the demand to maximize the shareholder value. They are simply justifying their actions by absolving their own responsibility. That said, the common belief is likely reflecting a very real norm in the economic world: that is if directors do not maximize shareholder value, they will be replaced with someone who will. This fierce competition for the job requires then a certain amount of ruthlessness in anyone ambitious to attain it. In other words, while the law does not require directors to maximize shareholder value, the structure of capitalism most certainly does and that confronts these directors with all the coercive force of the law. Interestingly then, it is the supra-normative belief that the law is rightfully coercive that does all the work of keeping behavior inline and so providing public goods or preserving structural injustices, without regards to written law at all.
One possible objection to my connection between Rose and Simpson et. al. is that what they are comparing is not precisely the same. Simpson et. al. is analyzing the tendency to knowingly violate a real law, while Rose is analyzing the tendency to choose a belief in the law over personal ethics. In the specifics these are not the same things at all. However, we are concerned primarily with the fact that individuals making larger social decisions do so exclusively in light of their individual perceptions. These perceptions shape both their individual and social interests. Viewed this way, Rose and Simpson et. al. both find that decision-makers act in their own best interests first and their social interests second, if they may. The conclusion we wish to draw from Rose and Simpson et. al. is simply that individuals view themselves subjectively, and so have a tendency to see themselves first.
From this we can draw the conclusion that individuals can be expected to do what is socially right if and only if what is right is aligned with their individual interests. They may be compelled to do what is socially right by bringing the individual’s interest into alignment with social interests. This can only be done through some kind of threat of coercion, either a punishment which reduces the individual’s interests in committing the offending behavior (if they’re caught) or through a reward that entices them to obey.
While we do not find fully formed atomistic agents, we do find socially-constructed agents doomed to view themselves as atomistic agents. The normative structures these agents are fully in control of, nevertheless confront those same agents as external forces beyond their control. The coercive power of an organization is one such force. Organization is thus required to harness the control of these structures and make them either more beneficial or less harmful. This organization necessarily limits individual freedoms, but does so to provide optimal amounts of public goods, when scaled appropriately. Logically then, the large structures, such as nations, states, cities, corporations, and collectives, must threaten some coercive means upon its membership whenever it is confronted by a structural problem. The criteria for whether or not to apply coercive means is based partially on the scale of the group in question, specifically concerning the perceptibility of individual contributions, and partially whether or not the act is the result of structurally patterned behavior which incentivize individual norms to supercede collective ones.
This makes Young’s theory something of a communitarian theory. In order to require that we discharge our social responsibilities, those responsibilities have to be superior to our individual interests in all cases. Libertarianism is only consistent with the entirely isolated individual. Inside a society, communitarianism is the background assumption. Thus we might hold each other accountable for not discharging our social responsibilities.
Olson, M. (1965). The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Rose. J. M. (2006). Corporate directors and social responsibility: ethics versus shareholder
value. Journal of Business Ethics, 73, 319-331.
Simpson, S. S., Gibbs, C., Rorie, M., Slocum, L. A., Cohen, M. A., & Vandenbergh, M. (2013).
An empirical assessment of corporate environmental crime-control strategies. The Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology, 103(1), 231-278.
Stout, L. (2015, April 16). Corporations Don’t Have to Maximize Profits. The New York Times. Retrieved from
Young, I. M. (2011). Responsibility for Justice. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.