Group Virtues: No Great Leap Forward with Collectivism

Cordell, Sean (2017). Group Virtues: No Great Leap Forward with Collectivism. Res Publica, 23(1) pp. 43–59.



A body of work in ethics and epistemology has advanced a collectivist view of virtues. Collectivism holds that some social groups can be subjects in themselves which can possess attributes such as agency or responsibility. Collectivism about virtues holds that virtues (and vices) are among those attributes. By focusing on two different accounts, I argue that the collectivist virtue project has limited prospects. On one such interpretation of institutional virtues, virtue-like features of the social collective are explained by particular group-oriented features of individual role-bearers that are elicited by institutional structures or goals. On another account of groups as moral agents unbound by formal institutional constraints, to the extent that group characteristics meet the collectivist requirement, they fail to stand up as virtues in the substantive sense of a character trait. These two positions’ respective drawbacks and insights support a non-collectivist conclusion: Where there is a substantive virtue of some social group, it consists only in certain group-specific attitudes and motives of individuals qua members of that group. I end by outlining some risks in adopting collectivism about virtues as an explanatory or normative doctrine, and suggesting that we can abandon it without embracing an equally undesirable individualism in virtue theory.

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