Sunday, December 7, 2014

Defining Group Agents

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While other projects have come up this fall, I thought I'd return to my ongoing challenge supporting the theory that western institutionalized education functions as an adaptive group.

My muse has been strong work in the science of religion by folks such as Atran, Norenzayan and Wilson.  My background in this project has been informed by generalized complexity theory (Prigione, Kauffman, etc.) and social network analysis (Cross & Parker, etc.).  The initial, formal, trajectory was via biology / evolution / multi-level selection theory (Wilson, Okasha, etc.).  Since summer, I've ben trying to rationalize/compare this initial trajectory with social science work, particularly Sawyer's excellent summary work.  I'm finally getting around to the economics perspective via List & Pettit's Group Agency work.

List & Pettit's book excels due to the purposeful transparency of their logical arguments.  Theory frame-work with a philosopher co-author!  They're coming at the group agent question from a joint intention path.  As can be seen below (List, Pettit, 2011), they take some remarkably different approaches from the biology crowd:

But while cultural evolution may plausibly shape existing group agents, just as competition shapes commercial corporations, we are not aware of any examples of new group agents coming into existence among human beings this way.  It is hard to see how individuals, each with his or her own beliefs and desires, could be organized without any joint intention, or continuing intervention, so as to sustain and enact group-level beliefs and desires distinct from their individual ones.

Their conditions for jointly intentioned groups (i.e. their "group-level") are:
  • Shared goal 
  • Individual contribution
  • Interdependence
  • Common awareness.
As an off-the-cuff exercise, let's see how institutionalized education stacks up...

Condition Definition Ed's Fit Reason
Shared Goal They each intend that they, the members of a more or less alien collection, together promote the given goal
Salient goals vacillate between social equality and academic actualization. (note: vocational education straddles my binary).
Individual contribution
They each intend to do their allowed part in a more or less salient plan for achieving that goal.

Teaching is based on extremely high intrinsic motivation. "Doing it for the kids" is a quasi-religious-like mantra
They each form these intentions at least partly because of believing that the others form such intentions too.
2/5 to 5/5

Lot's of uncertainty here.  The disdain of for-profit colleges and private k-12's is telling.  Most educators believe students come first. The degree to which socialization influences intentions vs. self-selection of intentions is uncertain.
Common awareness
Each believing that the first three conditions are met, each believing that others believe this, and so on.

Education is remarkably monolithic in purpose (increase abilities) despite huge differences in goals (equal abilities vs. actualized abilities) and paths (public-private, content knowledge-critical thinking, etc.)

Overall, I'd say education looks like it should fare pretty well in List and Pettit's group agent framework.  While I'm still working my way through the book, I'd say education's crux is liable to be the condition of idea rationalization.

The third front on which a group must organize itself...[is] that whatever beliefs and desires it comes to hold, say on the basis of its members' beliefs and desires, form a coherent whole. (pp. 37)

Now, I'm not too sure why List and Pettit took this road.  People seem quite good at non-rationalization of belief.  In fact the rise of Haidt's social-intuitionist model (and various others), seem  to suggest too much focus on rationalization is a red-herring.  And maybe it's my recent biological bias, but it seems like hard rationality is much harder to defend that an adaptive level of rationality.  But then, I guess it's easy to excuse a philosopher's rational bias when they make theory so clean....


List, C. & Pettit, P. (2011).  Group Agency: The Possibility, Design, and Status of Corporate Agents. Oxford University Press

1 comment:

  1. I should add, List and Pettit explicitly state that they consider schools, churches and universities to exemplify their definition of group agents. Whether or not they would consider the superordinate structure of the institution of education to be a group agent is uncertain. However, because the institution of education has fairly clear goals which are generally rationalized through organizational hierarchy, it would be hard to imagine it not counting as a group agent.