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Are There Joint Commitments?

Gilbert: joint commitment is irreducible to personal commitment

Compare blocking.

Sometimes when trying to sprint through an airport there is one sizeable individual blocking your way, while at other times it is several people ambling side-by-side who hold you up. If the several’s blocking your way is not a matter of each individually blocking your way, then they are *collectively* blocking your way. As this illustrates, some properties permit both singular and plural, collective predication.
Is collective blocking reducible to individual actions? Of course, collective blocking is ultimately a matter of the individual people and their interactions. But we can recognise this while remaining neutral on whether any kind of informative reduction is possible.
I propose a stronger thesis
joint commitment is irreducible
If you’ve read Bratman (chapter 4 on Gilbert), you’ll know he thinks this is terrible because uninformative. But I think that lots of collective phenomena (including non social phenomena in biology and elsewhere) may turn out not to have informative reductions. And there’s plenty of informative things to say about joint commitment without reducing it to something else.
So I don’t think irreducibility is a big deal.

Are there joint commitments?

So far I have been suggesting that a joint commitment is simply a commitment. But when we talk about joint commitments we mean a commitment that two or more people have collectively. Is this possible?

For us to collectively lift the table

For Ahura to be personally committed

Are there collective infections?

- collective addictions?

- collective deaths?

- collective feelings?

- ...

Just because it is theoretically coherent doesn’t mean that it is empirically motivated.
As far as I understand her, Gilbert’s most convincing attempt to show that there are joint commitments is an attempt to show how they come into being ...

‘what is needed, to put it abstractly, is expressions of readiness on everyone’s part to be jointly committed [...]. Common knowledge of these expressions completes the picture.’


Gilbert (2013, p. 253)

‘In order to \emph{create} a new joint commitment each of the would-be parties must openly express to the others his readiness together with the others to commit them all in the pertinent way. Once these expressions are common knowledge between the parties, the joint commitment is in place—as they understand’ \citep[p.~311]{gilbert:2014_book}

‘this is pretty much the whole story’

Gilbert (2013, p. 48)

‘[i]t is not clear that there is any very helpful way of breaking down the notion of expressing one’s readiness to be jointly committed’ \citep[p.~48]{gilbert:2014_book}
‘this is pretty much the whole story regarding the creation of a basic case of … joint commitment’ \citep[p.~48]{gilbert:2014_book}.

Not: I’m ready if you are.

(Because this would get us back into Roth’s problem that the readiess is conditional on itself.)
Compare: For us to collectively lift the table,

what is needed is expressions on everyone’s part of readiness to lift the table.

No, we also have to actually lift it.
Why think that,

what is needed is an expression of readiness on Ahura’s part to be committed.

Does it work for the individual case? I don’t think so. Ahura can be ready to commit and can express his readiness without actually getting around to committing.
If Ahura’s readiness does constitue a commitment on his part, it is surely readiness to act or something rather than readiness to commit.
Another attempt on how joint commitments get established...

Are there joint commitments?

‘Jessica says, “Shall we meet at six?” and Joe says, “Sure.”’

This is the phenomenon Gilbert is analysing. She says it amounts to expressions of readiness. But put that aside. Is it plausible that this could explain how joint commitments are formed?

Joint or merely symmetric contralateral commitments?

Here I think it is unobvious that the commitments are joint rather than merely contralateral commitments. (Recall that Jessica and Joe have contralateral commitments if each has a personal commitment to the other.)
So are there joint commitments?


Gilbert hasn’t shown that there are.

Even so, I want to continue to explore Gilbert’s view. If joint commitments can solve our problems, then we could look harder for reasons to suppose that they exist.
What are the problems that joint commitments might solve for us? Here’s the first ...
So where have we got to? I claim that claims 1 and 2 are inconsistent, as are claims 1 and 3.

1. A joint commitment is a commitment we have collectively.

(So joint commitment is a commitment.)

2. Gilbert shows joint commitments exist.

3. Joint commitments ground contralateral commitments.

I have no idea which claims we should reject.
Unless we reject 2 and 3, Gilbert is so catastrophically wrong that it seems we must have misunderstood her.
Further some philosophers and some psychologists accept Gilbert’s view; e.g.:
‘We agree with Gilbert that joint action goes, intuitively, with the sort of joint commitment that she describes.’ \citep[p.~32]{pettit:2006_joint}
On the other hand, you could take a completely different view. You might say Gilbert is not radical enough and that joint commitments allow us to make sense of plural subjects in a more robust sense than interests her. You might say, the point of joint commitments isn’t to allow us to make sense of the contralateral commitments, but to allow us to make sense of the idea that commitments and mental states can be had by collectives.
But if we don’t reject 2 and 3, it seems we must reject 1, and without this it seems we have no idea what joint commitments could be. This is also implausible; surely Gilbert has explained this.
To be honest I suspect that I am missing something. But I have no idea what it is.
In any case, I want to finsih with a quick look at how Gilbert applies her account of joint commitment. If the applications seem illuminating, that would motivate further consideration of her research.