The Commonwealth as Agent: Group Action, the Common Good, and the General Will

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The Commonwealth as Agent: Group Action, the Common Good, and the General Will

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Title: The Commonwealth as Agent: Group Action, the Common Good, and the General Will
Author: Schofield, Paul C.
Citation: Schofield, Paul C. 2013. The Commonwealth as Agent: Group Action, the Common Good, and the General Will. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University.
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Abstract: In this dissertation, I argue for a Rousseauvian vision of an ideal society: one in which the people constitute a group agent, unified under a collective will, willing action that constitutes the common good. Most have tended to believe that the contrasts between an individual agent and an entire people are stark, and so accounts of the commonwealth that appeal to group agency at all usually emphasize the differences between them. I will argue, however, that members of a society collectively constitute an agent that resembles an individual agent more closely than is normally supposed. Specifically, I will argue that a society is under normative pressure to engage in projects and activities that are good or worthwhile, that it may permissibly impose burdens on some members as it attempts to realize the common good, and that when properly constituted it possesses a collective will that has authority over its members. I begin in Chapter 1 by giving an account of what it means for a group to engage in action. Then, in Chapter 2, I argue that the people of a region naturally constitute a rational group agent, and that state institutions that function properly help to facilitate collective action that is generally worthwhile or good. In Chapter 3, I argue that an individual has duties to herself similar to those that a commonwealth has to its members. For this reason, I suggest that investigating individual agency has the potential to shed light on what the commonwealth may or may not permissibly do. In Chapter 4, I draw a parallel between an individual agent pursuing her own good while trying to avoid wronging herself, and an entire commonwealth pursuing its overall good while trying to avoid wronging its members. There I conclude that by realizing the common good, the commonwealth compensates members who are burdened in its pursuit. In Chapter 5, I consider how a commonwealth, understood as a group agent, can choose its action, arguing that democratic institutions possess authority over the commonwealth, and thus constitute the society’s General Will. Finally in Chapter 6, I consider whether philosophers in the liberal-republican tradition have given sufficient reason for us to reject the Rousseauvian view that I argue for in the first five chapters.
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