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The Autonomy Dilemma

The Autonomy Dilemma is an objection to the claim that team reasoning can be used to construct a correct account of shared intention.

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This an optional section that may move to a later lecture. It’s here now because I might use it in response to a question.

The Dilemma

If team-reasoning-based accounts of shared intention require aggregate subjects whose preferences are autonomous from their components agents’ preferences, then they cannot account for small-scale, spontaneous joint action with near strangers

If team-reasoning-based accounts of shared intention do not require aggregate subjects whose preferences are autonomous, then they merely capture self-interested optimism which is insufficient for shared intention.

Significance of the Dilemma

The dilemma is an obstacle to using team reasoning to provide a theory of shared intention (see From Team Reasoning to Shared Intention).

The idea that team reasoning can be used to construct an theory of shared intention requires that team reasoning is a feature of all forms of joint action (Gold & Sugden, 2007); or, if not, then at least of the simplest everyday cases of joint action (Pacherie, 2013).

But small-scale, spontaneous joint action with near strangers is a familiar and common feature of everyday life. Accepting the first horn is therefore untennable.

A Qualification

Sugden himself would disagree with the view about what preferences are that is assumed in this section. (This view about preferences was introduced in What Are Preferences?). Sugden rejects that view on the grounds that:

‘On some revealed-preference accounts, preference is nothing more than a disposition that a person may come to have, for whatever reason or for none, which prompts her to choose actions of one kind rather than actions of another. However, such an interpretation of preference seems not to acknowledge the sense in which the theory of rational choice is a theory of reasoning.[1] It would be more faithful to the practice of rational choice theory to say that a person's preferences are whatever she takes to be choice-relevant reasons, all things considered.’ (Sugden, 2000, p. 197)

This requires that we, as researchers, have a shared understanding of preference as ‘taking something to be a choice relevant reason’, that this understanding is not anchored by decision theory, and that aggregate subjects are capable of having preferences so understood.

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aggregate subject : A subject whose proper parts are themselves subjects. A paradigm example would be a Portuguese man o' war (Physalia physalis), which is an animal that can swim and eat and whose swimming and eating is not simply a matter of the swimming or eating of its constituent animals. Distinct from, but sometimes confused with, a plural subject.
anchor : A theory, fact or other thing that is used by a group of researchers to ensure that they have a shared understanding of a phenomenon. An anchor is needed when it is unclear whether different researchers are offering incompatible claims about a single phenomenon or compatible claims about distinct phenomena. For example, we might take decision theory to anchor a shared understanding of belief and desire.
decision theory : I use ‘decision theory’ for the theory elaborated by Jeffrey (1983). Variants are variously called ‘expected utility theory’ (Hargreaves-Heap & Varoufakis, 2004), ‘revealed preference theory’ (Sen, 1973) and ‘the theory of rational choice’ (Sugden, 1991). As the differences between variants are not important for our purposes, the term can be used for any of core formal parts of the standard approaches based on Ramsey (1931) and Savage (1972).
joint action : Many of the things we do are, or could be, done with others. Mundane examples favoured by philosophers include painting a house together (Bratman, 1992), lifting a heavy sofa together (Velleman, 1997), preparing a hollandaise sauce together (Searle, 1990), going to Chicago together (Kutz, 2000), and walking together (Gilbert, 1990). These examples are supposed to be paradigm cases of a class of phenomena we shall call ‘joint actions’.
Researchers have used a variety of labels including ‘joint action’ (Brooks, 1981; Sebanz, Bekkering, & Knoblich, 2006; Knoblich, Butterfill, & Sebanz, 2011; Tollefsen, 2005; Pettit & Schweikard, 2006; Carpenter, 2009; Pacherie, 2010; Brownell, 2011; Sacheli, Arcangeli, & Paulesu, 2018; Meyer, Wel, & Hunnius, 2013), ‘social action’ (Tuomela & Miller, 1985), ‘collective action’ (Searle, 1990; Gilbert, 2010), ‘joint activity’ (Baier, 1997), ‘acting together’ (Tuomela, 2000), ‘shared intentional activity’ (Bratman, 1997), ‘plural action’ (Schmid, 2008), ‘joint agency’ (Pacherie, 2013), ‘small scale shared agency’ (Bratman, 2014), ‘intentional joint action’ (Blomberg, 2016), ‘collective intentional behavior’ (Ludwig, 2016), and ‘collective activity’ (Longworth, 2019).
We leave open whether these are all labels for a single phenomenon or whether different researchers are targeting different things. As we use ‘joint action’, the term applies to everything any of these labels applies to.
model : A model is a way some part or aspect of the world could be.
shared intention : An attitude that stands to joint action as ordinary, individual intention stands to ordinary, individual action. It is hard to find consensus on what shared intention is, but most agree that it is neither shared nor intention. (Variously called ‘collective’, ‘we-’ and ‘joint’ intention.)
team reasoning : ‘somebody team reasons if she works out the best possible feasible combination of actions for all the members of her team, then does her part in it’ (Bacharach, 2006, p. 121).


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  1. Is decision theory (‘the theory of rational choice’) a theory of reasoning? Arguably it is a model which can be applied to various projects including understanding processes that might be called reasoning (see Are Objections to Decision Theory also Objections to the Dual Process Theory of Action?) as well as to things that are probably not reasoning (for example, motor control; see Trommershäuser, Maloney, & Landy, 2009; Wolpert & Landy, 2012). As reflection on these applications shows, to say that preference is a construct of decision theory does not imply that ‘preference is nothing more than a disposition ... to choose actions’. ↩︎