Who We Are and What We Do: Ethnicity and Moral Agency

Dissertation, City University of New York (2001)
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Abstract

An array of pressing but conceptually perplexing questions in ethics---questions concerning group rights, collective responsibility, and the ethics of nationalism---would seem to require for their resolution answers to the no less perplexing questions of what social groups are and what membership in them amounts to. In this dissertation, I offer an analysis of the concept of what I call an 'ethnic identity group' and argue that questions about ethics and ethnicity or nationality are best understood as questions about such groups and their agency. The main argument for the analysis involves showing its usefulness for understanding how group membership might be involved in personal moral identity and individual agency. ;The analysis I offer makes use of Max Weber's idea that the concept of a social group is analyzable in terms of the possibility that certain kinds of social action will be performed. A Weberian analysis of a kind of social group involves a characterization of the types of social action that are possible in relation to groups of that kind. After responding to Margaret Gilbert's arguments against Weberian analyses of social groups and related phenomena, I suggest that one central social concept is that of a group defined in terms of the availability for group members of standing in a particular relation to an idea of the group, where that idea is, more specifically, an idea of a collective agent. This is the concept of an identity group. What distinguishes members of an identity group from nonmembers is the availability for the former of standing to the group in a relation I call 'moral alignment'. Roughly, an individual aligns herself with a group to the extent that she sees the group's agency as an extension of her own. This concept of moral alignment is a development of Aristotle's view that through shared deliberation and action, friends in a perfect friendship become "other selves" for each other. A group member is socially placed so as to have access to the idea that other members may act for her and she for them. If she aligns herself with the group, the group becomes another self for her, and she may act as a member of the group. An ethnic identity group is a collection of individuals, each of whom may align himself with an idea of the group---where that idea is an idea of a particular collective agent, whose collectivity rests on the shared ancestry of the collected individuals---and each of whom may, therefore, act and respond emotionally as a member of the group.

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