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Research Graduate School of Philosophy PhD ceremonies

Group character

a study of collective virtue and vice
PhD ceremony:Mr B.C. (Barend) de Rooij
When:October 13, 2022
Supervisors:prof. dr. B.P. (Boudewijn) de Bruin, prof. dr. M. Fricker
Where:Academy building RUG
Group character

From group polarization to institutional injustice and negligent corporations, in recent years there has been growing concern over how group dynamics can go wrong. We often express this concern by evaluating the conduct of groups and organizations in terms of their character, or their disposition to act in particular (morally good or bad) ways. We say that a police force can be racist, for example, or that a big corporation can be led astray by greed. But what does it mean to attribute such stereotypically human qualities to collectives?

On one understanding, attributing the vice of racism to an organization involves the claim that its members are, in some sense, committed to racist values, procedures, or ways of behavior. I argue that this view falls short: it is possible for groups to realize collective character traits independently of the attitudes and commitments of its individual members, purely in virtue of how the group functions at the collective level. This is largely determined by the group’s structure: how it is set up to achieve particular goals, process information, and make decisions. 

In philosophy, the notion of character is primarily studied within the fields of virtue ethics and epistemology. Using recent insights from these disciplines, I develop an account not just of how an organization’s character may be lacking, but also of the steps it can take to promote virtuous character traits instead. I test this account by way of a case study of the conditions at Boeing prior to the crashes of two of its 737 MAX jets.