Edwin Hartman, a philosopher specialised in business ethics, argues that trust, trustworthiness and cooperativeness “are crucial to success in many organizations” (1). Intuition probably leads us to agree with this statement, which could be extended to other “collective persons,” such as governments. However, it presupposes that the reality of the existence of “collective virtues” – i.e. intrinsic properties of an organisation (the equivalent of character traits) that it needs to develop (2) – can be demonstrated. In this paper, we evaluate an argument for the existence of such virtues.
Hartman justifies his argument by stating that “trust and trustworthiness in particular are of vital importance in most organizations, and [that] they generate internal goods not unlike those of friendship” (3). This justification of the reality of collective virtues is based on their consequences. They are supposed to benefit not only the organisations themselves (the realisation of “internal goods” such as work well done), but also their stakeholders.
This property has been discussed by philosopher Philippa Foot in relation to virtue about the “individual” person, who is the usual subject of virtues (4). She has proposed other characteristics, which we present in section 2. But it is useful, in order to set the scene, to say something about works that have sought to define the conditions of possibility of collective virtues.
For example, T. Ryan Byerly and Meghan Byerly have proposed an account inspired by the work of philosophers of the social sciences, according to which it is possible to attribute beliefs and intentions to a human group as one does to a singular person. For these authors, as for others, it would also be possible to attribute virtues – “collective” virtues (5).
This hypothesis can be verified in two ways. The first one considers that, in order to affirm that a human group possesses a virtue, it is necessary that all or most of its members possess and exercise this virtue. This view stems from the so-called “summative account” of group beliefs. According to the philosopher Margaret Gilbert:
“A group believes that p [p denoting any proposition] if and only if most members of the group believe that p” (6).
This definition can be transposed to virtues by establishing a conceptual link between belief and virtue (7). A summative conception of virtues imposes more significant constraints on the attribution of virtues to a community the larger the number of its members. On the other hand, it can theoretically be applied to small homogeneous groups or to large human collectivities with a centralised decision-making process and influenced by the figure of their leaders. On the latter point, Per Sandin noted that when virtue ethics is invoked to explain the virtuous conduct of a company facing a major crisis, the so-called virtues of the company can be confused with the virtues of its leaders (8).
According to the opposite, so-called “nonsummative” view – which is defended by Gilbert in particular with regard to beliefs –, attributing a virtue to a human group presupposes that this group possesses properties that its members do not. Byerly and Byerly observe that “if antisummativist views about collective virtue predications are correct, then there are collective virtues.”
Arguments supporting the non-summative account are based on the fact that members of an organisation act as members of that organization and are jointly committed to achieving the ends and values that are addressed by these virtues. For example, the virtue of patience achieves certain goals by ensuring an adequate pace in the common work and by allowing other virtues and skills to be expressed within the group, for example critical thinking or creativity (9).
Philippa Foot’s characteristics of virtue
The historian Per Sandin also defends the thesis that “it is possible and reasonable to ascribe collective virtues at least to some collectives” (10). These collectivities are “agglomerate collectivities,” i.e. “organizations [that] may persist over time, even though membership changes” (11). His argument is based on the distinctions proposed by Philippa Foot.
Foot makes three claims about individual virtues:
(a) virtues are beneficial and vices are harmful;
(b) the will is necessary for the exercise of moral virtues;
(c) virtues are corrective in the sense that their function is to fight against temptations.
(a) We pointed out in the first section that the virtues benefit the well-being of those who exercise them, as well as others whom they may concern. The same is true of vices: pride, vanity and greed are harmful to the person who possesses them as well as to those with whom they are related.
“It is possible and reasonable to ascribe collective virtues at least to some collectives.”
Foot puts it explicitly:
“It seems clear that virtues are, in some general way, beneficial. Human beings do not get on well without them. Nobody can get on well if he lacks courage, and does not have some measure of temperance and wisdom, while communities where justice and charity are lacking are apt to be wretched places to live, as Russia was under the Stalinist terror, or Sicily under the Mafia.”
However, this characteristic is not enough to define a virtue. Indeed, other qualities of human beings, such as health, intellectual capacity and physical strength, are also beneficial and their lack, harmful.
(b) “Virtues belong to the will,” Philippa Foot says. This is because the will, conceived as a mental event that precedes and determines action, is necessary for the exercise of moral virtues. To actually possess a virtue, one must act intentionally. It is not enough to intend to be courageous or generous: one must actually be courageous or generous. This also applies to prudence, although it is often described as an intellectual virtue, separate from the sphere of the will.
Foot points out that, unlike a skill, a virtue is not “a mere capacity: it must actually engage the will.” A piano teacher may deliberately play a wrong note to show her pupil what not to do. This act does not call into question her competence as a pianist. But a person cannot also voluntarily lack courage in a given situation. If they did, this act would call into question their disposition to be courageous. This distinction illustrates, according to Foot, the intrinsic link between virtue and will.
(c) The moral virtues also have the function of repelling temptation. It is in this sense that they are “corrective”, according to Foot. For example, temperance is in some way activated when an immoderate desire arises. Its role is then to “correct” that desire. Fear plays the same role in the activation of courage.
It is not enough to intend to be courageous or generous: one must actually
be courageous or generous.
From this, Philippa Foot draws a conclusion about the purpose of virtues:
“It is only because fear and the desire for pleasure often operate as temptations that courage and temperance exist as virtues at all,”
which she extends to human nature:
“If human nature had been different there would have been no need of a corrective disposition in either place, as fear and pleasure would have been good guides to conduct throughout life.”
Some virtues are not intended to correct temptations. This is the case of benevolence. But it does play a corrective role insofar as it corrects a failure to care for others, just as justice corrects a failure to consider the rights of others.
Application to collective virtue
Per Sandin takes up Philippa Foot’s conception to justify the existence of collective virtues (12). For him, they are applicable not only to individual persons, but also to collective persons – it “does not presuppose that humans are the only type of object to which virtues can be ascribed.” His definition of virtue follows almost strictly that of Foot:
“A virtue is a characteristic of an agent which (a) is beneficial to the agent itself and to moral patients, (b) engages the will and is thus not a skill, and (c) is corrective.”
Sandin does not reduce his argument to simply checking that Foot’s criteria apply to a community. He offers two preliminary observations that support the existence of collective virtues. First, it is a fact of ordinary language that beliefs, desires, intentions and virtues are frequently attributed to organisations. We pretend that they have the same power to act and the same constitution as human beings. But this as if may be more than just a convenience of language. Second, some organisations are stable over time. Sandin believes that “stability is a prerequisite for virtue.” It allows an analogy to be drawn between the “constitutive structures” of an organisation and the “character” of a person, which includes virtues. (13)
Corporate trustworthiness is a collective virtue
To show that Foot’s criteria can be applied to collectivities, Sandin offers the example of the virtue of trustworthiness. According to him, this virtue easily fulfils conditions (a) and (c). Indeed, a company’s trustworthiness benefits it and its stakeholders, and it helps to avoid (or correct) the worst temptations (Sandin offers the example of the temptation not to recall defective products).
But condition (b is more difficult to satisfy since it requires a precise definition of the equivalent of a company’s will. Applying Foot’s assertion that virtue “must actually engage the will” to a company requires that all terms (virtue, will and the connection between the two) be specified.
Sandin does not undertake this work. He merely takes Foot’s distinction between virtue and competence and applies it to trustworthiness. Suppose a company makes “misleading statements about the safety of their products,” thereby seemingly violating its virtue of trustworthiness. Could we conclude that this company would nevertheless be trustworthy, just as our piano teacher remained competent after deliberately making false notes? No, and this confirms, according to Sandin, the idea that trustworthiness is a collective virtue.
The conclusion is interesting. It has the merit, as the example of trustworthiness shows, of distinguishing, within the qualities of an organisation, between what are capacities independent of its “character” (or culture, identity or other such terms) and what are “virtues,” which are dependent on “character.” It also has the merit of being based on a pragmatic and “operational” definition of virtue. But it does not capture the psychological complexity of individual virtue and is confused with the notion of value, which is so popular in the organisational world. These are problematic objections, at least if we want to keep the word “virtue” to describe certain collective properties of organisations.
(1) E. Hartman, “The virtue approach to business ethics,” inD. C. Russell (ed.), The Cambridge companion to virtue ethics, Cambridge University Press, 2013.
(2) According to Rosalind Hursthouse’s definition of an individual virtue (“Virtue theory and abortion,” Philosophy and Public Affairs, 20, 1991, pp. 223-246).
(3) Ibid. Internal goods should be understood as goods specific to a practice; they reflect, as it were, the raison d’être of a company.
(4) P. Foot, “Virtues and vices,” in R. Crisp & M. Slote (eds), Virtue ethics, Oxford University Press, 1997.
(5) T. R. Byerly & M. Byerly, “Collective virtue,” The Journal of Value Inquiry, 50, 2015.
(6) This is the simple summative account. M. Gilbert, “Durkheim and social facts,” in H. Martins & W. Pickering (eds), Routledge,1994.
(7) Byerly and Byerly propose this by associating attributions of virtues to an organisation with the dispositions of its members to believe and act as members. By way of illustration, they propose the case of a cautious researcher who, because of his or her virtue of prudence, will tend to believe the thesis that provides the strongest explanation of a phenomenon.
(8) Per Sandin thus criticises the spectacular examples (notably the famous case of Aaron Feueurstein) used by some authors of ethical (virtue-based) responses to major crises (“Approaches to ethics for corporate crisis management,” Journal of Business Ethics, 87, 2009, pp. 109-116).
(9) I am greatly simplifying the concepts of Margaret Gilbert (“Modelling collective belief,” Synthese, 73(1), 1987, pp. 185-204) and of T. Ryan Byerly & Meghan Byerly.
(10) P. Sandin, “Collective military virtues,” Journal of Military Ethics, 6(4), pp. 303-314, 2007.
(11) Per Sandin takes up Peter French’s distinction between aggregate collectivity and conglomerate collectivity. An aggregate collectivity is simply a collection of people (for example, people who are there after a traffic accident); its identity is simply the aggregation of the identities of the people concerned (P. A. French, Collective and corporate responsibility, Columbia University Press, 1984).
(12) “Collective military virtues,” op. cit.
(13) Sandin offers a third, pragmatic observation, but it is somewhat unclear. He seems to note that the attribution of virtues to an organisation can foster the development of virtues in its members, insofar as “properties of corporations influence the behaviour and beliefs of individuals.”