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Gian Paolo Terravecchia

Social Stances and Rational Decision Making. A Phenomenology of Social Stances

1. Introduction ^

The paper deals with the ethics of the collective agents, assuming that collective agents operate according to morally relevant rules and perform morally relevant actions.1 It may seem that rational decision making for organisation consists in applying what will be here called the utilitarian golden rule (UGR). It prescribes organisation achieving goals with the minimum effort, regardless of the moral consequences, with the only limit not to act in such a way that the addressee of your act would shift from the social stance of suffering to that of rebelling. Consistently, it seems rational to achieve the organisation’s goal by letting the people involved to suffer the decisions taken. This paper challenges such a conclusion from the perspective of an ethics of cooperation. To that aim, it will sketch a phenomenological analysis of social stances (on the line of Reinach, 1917 and von Hildebrand, 1975, but going further). The paper will discuss the normativity of collective social action, and more precisely the categorical imperative of social cooperative action (SCA) which states: act in such a way to let the addressee of your act seeing his grounded reasons at least to accept your action. It may work at a first normative level (i.e. regarding the agent’s actions) or at a second one (i.e. regarding the agent’s acceptance of norms).

2. The notion of social stance ^

A stance can be explained as a disposition x such that the social agent a acts and behaves according to x. Examples of a stance, within the field of psychology, are depression and grumpiness. The way of thinking of the agent is “coloured” by the stance, depending on it. In the case of a depressed agent, actions and thoughts are to a significant extent determined by the tone of the agent’s emotion. They depend on something deeper, something rooted in the agent. The term “stance” is preferable than “attitude”, which is however often used as a synonym. In fact, it helps to understand that what is at stake here is not just an exterior manifestation, rather an inner disposition. In other words, “stance” signals that we are dealing with both an interior disposition and an exterior manifestation. They are connected and related.

A social stance is a disposition through which a social agent a manifests his interior position x to a social agent b (on social agency see Terravecchia, 2012: 89-108). If such manifestation fails to reach b, we are not dealing with a social stance, rather with a personal disposition, maybe with an intention. This means that it is required for the social stance to be manifested and to be perceived. It is by far less important that agent b understands what is really happening. In fact, it is in principle possible, and it may in fact happen, that b does not fully or well understand the situation. For example, someone requested to go for a walk could answer that he would love to, even if he deeply dislikes the idea (Gilbert, 2014; Terravecchia, 2015). This contributes to make social life so tricky and the poker face so intriguing and troublesome.

A social stance is a kind of “yes”, or “no”, or a neutral attitude, which can determine the agent’s decisions, acts and further stances. It consists of an interior attitude and an exterior manifestation, each with three possible values: negative (to say “no”), neutral (not to say “no”, which is not yet saying “yes”) and positive (to say “yes”). There are many social stances. This paper focuses on the discussion of four of them: to refuse (or rebel against), to suffer (or to be subject to), to accept and to assent. In so doing it will be presented a phenomenology of these cases (see also Terravecchia, 2015; Terravecchia, 2016).

3. From rebellion to assent ^

Refusal is a social stance by which the agent manifests his “no” (through words or deeds) and means “no”. It is not a strategic, perhaps polite, “no”. In this text it will be qualified “strategic” that act which, roughly speaking, has an ulterior motive. There is, indeed, a social stance in which the agent says “no”, with an interior attitude of a “yes”: the strategic denial. It is useful to understand refusal by contrast with this case. The strategic denial explains e.g. the reasons for insistence in polite actions (e.g. a: “Would you like a biscuit”; b: “No, thank you. But they look good” – here assuming b would like to eat the biscuits; a: “Let me insist, I baked these for you yesterday afternoon”; b: “Good, then I will have one”). Strategic denial, say the scholars of donation, allows the offering to be fully free and shows that the addressee of the donation is not greedy (Godbout, & Caillé, 2000; Godbout, 1996). It is not therefore a simple refusal, but it leaves open the possibility of insistence and, eventually, of acceptance. Clearly, strategic denial (whose values are negative – on the exterior side – and positive – on the interior) is different from refusal (whose values are negative – exterior side – and negative – interior side).

Suffering has the opposite values (exterior – positive, interior – negative) of strategic denial (exterior – negative, interior – positive). It is not refusing, since the social agent manifests a “yes”, but it is not accepting either, since the agent who suffers something does not really want what he or she has to suffer. The social agent is obliged to take a stance where the intimate disposition contrasts the exterior manifestation. As John Searle (2010) points out, the authority has deontic powers, which means that it can give desire-independent reasons for action. The consequence is that in organisations the exercise of the authority can give reasons to suffer what the agent does not intimately accept. This stance is typically present in servants, slaves and, sometimes and less dramatically, it may be present in employees.

Acceptance is the social stance typical of the agent who does not have reasons to refuse what has been addressed to him. The agent’s interior disposition is neutral (not a “yes”, nor a “no”) and it is typically expressed by a “why not?”. Here the agent gives a positive exterior manifestation, generated e.g. by curiosity or boredom, or by social obligations. In natural language, the term is used to express assent too, but in this context it is used in a narrower, more technical meaning. It is interesting to observe that, since acceptance lacks an interior definite position, such social stance tends to be volatile.

Finally, assent is social stance characterized by a positive interior attitude and a positive exterior manifestation. The agent cooperates, is proactive, and does not act just for external or merely contingent reasons, as in the case of mere acceptance.

4. The rational decision of the organisation ^

Organisations have goals. According to John Ladd, “a decision is organizationally rational if it is oriented to the organisation’s goals” (Ladd, 1970, p. 497). As to morality, Ladd states that “moral considerations are not relevant to the decision” (Ladd, 1970, p. 499). Ladd in fact thinks that, for organisations, the rationality of the action is measured by its capacity to achieve the goals, regardless of the morality of the means. Independently from Ladd’s being right or wrong, it may easily be the case that at least some organisations follow this perspective in their practice. This however poses some problems, since they perform actions which have moral value or at least are morally relevant for their impact on the environment or on the people.

It is disputed whether and to what extent corporations or, to use a wider term, organisations have moral responsibility (see the recent contributions such as Constantinescu, & Kaptein, 2015; Dubbink, & Smith, 2011; Hasnas, 2012; Sepinwall, 2016). The corporate moral responsibility problem is interesting from many points of view, such as those of metaphysics of society, ethics, anthropology and it is still an open issue. It is commonly recognized, however, that organisations perform actions (here it does not matter whether the act is performed by the organisation itself or by its delegates) that can be and sometimes are morally relevant. This means that there is a collective interest that such entities (in themselves or through their delegates, or both) choose a standard of action that is guided by some rules of ethics. However, before discussing such moral rules, let us consider the consequences of the rational decision process when it is applied to the social stances to better understand the consequences for an organisation’s action, when the organisation is guided by goals blind to moral reasons.

5. Consequences for the social stances ^

If the goal is to get compliance, it may seem to be practically preferable to make people suffer the decision taken, rather than let them to accept it. This because such a way may be easier or cheaper or more effective and the organisation may find it rational to achieve the goal with minimum effort. Therefore, the organisation may consider its best choice to make the people involved suffer its initiative. However, the consequences are negative for those who do not intimately accept what was in fact imposed and are unable to refute the decisions taken. As one can see, this leads to ethical problems.

History records the case of many ancient, modern and contemporary societies in which it was and is considered normal by the government (an instance of organisation) to rule by using tools such as fear and even violence. For this reason, people had to suffer the government’s decision. The motto attributed to Caligula: “Oderint dum metuant”, “let they hate (me), as long as they are afraid (of me)”, expresses this point. Even hate of the subjects is acceptable up to the point in which it triggers a rebellion, which means up to the point in which fear is not anymore effective. Searching for examples in industrialized societies, before the creation of trade unions, a typical method of the industrial system was to oblige the workers to suffer the decisions taken on matters relating to topics such as salary, number of working hours and the like. Here it is interesting to notice that trade unions could obtain some results through methods of organised rebellion.

The UGR, in Ladd’s perspective, prescribes organisations to achieve goals with the minimum effort, regardless of the moral consequences, but not to act so that the addressee of the action would shift from the social stance of suffering to that of rebelling (a variant of the social stance of refusal). Not to trigger rebellion is then essential to preserve the very existence of the organisation (Machiavelli, 1532). Following the UGR is enough for the organisation to achieve its goals without dealing with undesired costs. However, things considered from the perspective of the social agent affected by such decisions, as soon as rebellion is possible, the agent has good reasons to fight back against such impositions. Here the “not to trigger” ought leaves open the “give reasons for”, so that to let the addressee of the act suffering the act, as such, gives him reasons for a rebellion.

6. An unconditioned rule for the society as a whole ^

From a purely utilitarian point of view, making people complying with a decision by letting them suffer it seems to be the rational choice. Using the language of game theory, it seems to be the dominant strategy. Generally speaking, in so doing the organisation is achieving its goals at the minimum cost, since obtaining acceptance or assent usually requires some extra effort and costs on the part of the organisation. This line of conduct seems in fact rational from the point of view of the organisation, as it maximizes results while minimizing costs. What seems rational for the single organisation, considering its goals, may however be not rational as a shared rule of the society to which the organisation belongs. The psychological or existential costs, if not the physical ones, paid by the agents obliged to comply may be very high, if not extreme, and are paid within society as a whole. Apart from the utilitarian reasons, also from a deontic point of view it is clear that the rational choice of the organisation, when applied to persons, uses them as a means to an end, and not as ends in themselves. This is a result which is clearly morally unacceptable. The axiological approach comes to similar results: in normal cases, a society in which people at least accept what is required by the authorities is more valuable than a society in which people are forced to comply.

For all these reasons, there is the need for the organisations to follow a moral rule to avoid the undesired results sketched above. Such a rule, however, cannot be conceived as a partial or contingent application of the UGR: indeed, one could argue that in many instances it may be useful (and therefore rational) to get someone’s acceptance or assent to increase the organisation’s reputation or general compliance, and to prevent rebellion. While even under the UGR, it makes sense to strategically seek for people’s acceptance of something, the moral rule defended in the following paragraph is absolute and unconditioned.

7. The categorical imperative of social cooperative action ^

The formula of the categorical imperative of social cooperative action (SCA) is the following: act in such a way to let the addressee of your act seeing his grounded reasons at least to accept your action. The SCA imperative says much more (and also less, as we will see in the next section) than the moral principle stating that an agent should not be forced to perform an action against her will (Allwood, Traum, & Jokinen, 2000). Let us consider the essential values protected and promoted by the SCA imperative: respect, freedom, agency recognition and motivation, all important to give the action its full meaning otherwise reduced in the perspective of UGR.

Without the SCA imperative and from the perspective of the UGR, the addressee is just a means. With the categorical imperative of SCA, on the other hand, the addressee of the act is a relevant agent, called to see the reasons at least to accept what was performed. The imperative leads to a form of respect for the addressee of the act not anymore considered as a mere means to an end.

The SCA imperative promotes cooperation for at least two reasons: it avoids the use of methods of open or subtle coercion and it promotes respectful persuasion. The “at least to accept” formula leaves open the possibility of stronger consent from the addressee and it allows a stronger form of cooperation. Indeed, the act is not simply imposed and, after all, it still remains possible that the addressee will refuse it. Even in that case, refusal as such is not necessarily a dead point of cooperation. It is rather a sign that the cooperation has to change somehow. It is then clear that the addressee is free and is respected and treated as a free agent.

The expression “grounded reasons” means, as far as the content is concern, that such reasons are not futile or superficial, and regarding the modality that they are not generated through any form of manipulation. The reasons for acceptance must be depending on the situation and on the interests of all parts involved in action, especially the addressee ones. The SCA imperative requires that the reasons for acting are shared also by the addressee of the act, moving him at least to accept what it is proposed. In so doing the addressee of the action, as social agent, must be recognized and his perspective understood and respected. Agency recognition and motivation in the addressee of the action are then appealed through the action.

One final note. The agent is not obliged by the SCA imperative to make his reasons explicit. For example, his reasons may be evident from the situation itself, or they may have been already clarified in the past, or they may be part of common knowledge. On the other hand, it may be required that the addressee signs an informed consent form. In any case, in order to comply with the SCA imperative, it is enough for the organisation to grant that the addressee is aware of his reasons at least to accept.

8. Democracies and the categorical imperative of SCA ^

There is at least one important reason to introduce the categorical imperative of SCA and not just to forbid actions that cause the social stances of suffering. It is impossible even for the best human society to completely eliminate situations in which people find themselves in the social stance of suffering. Indeed, governments impose taxes and military service, police officers stop drivers that are late to work, teachers impose homework and the minority, after the election, may have to suffer the decisions of the majority. The social stance of suffering is subjectively unpleasant, but it is not necessarily to be avoided, all things considered.

Society needs to find forms of compromise and SCA imperative can create some essential basis for cooperation, allowing the people, even when it fails, to suffer what it is imposed, while accepting at higher level such impositions. In fact, applying SCA imperative might generate a situation such that, even though the addressee may still suffer for the imposition (e.g. to be ruled by the majority), he may recognize the higher level shareable reasons for it (e.g. democracy rules). A second level acceptance is very strong in building free cooperation too.

9. Conclusion ^

A rational decision making process developed through the UGR may be efficient and still may produce undesired results. This happens when the decision taken obliges people to the social stance of suffering. The presented Phenomenology of Social Stances helped to get a more aware understanding on ethical matters and helped to find solutions to the discussed issue of rational decision making process. It is in fact important for the organisation to find reasons for action in such a way to implement fundamental values as respect, freedom, agency recognition and motivation.

SCA imperative is a tool for a better approach to the issue of cooperative action. The paper tries to show how the imperative protects and promotes the aforementioned important values. The deontic perspective, can and should be followed by the organisations which act, performing morally relevant activities so that the addressee has reasons to accept the act or, at least, the situation.

Copyright © 2017 Gian Paolo Terravecchia

Gian Paolo Terravecchia. «Social Stances and Rational Decision Making. A Phenomenology of Social Stances». Dialegesthai. Rivista telematica di filosofia [in linea], anno 19 (2017) [inserito il 30 giugno 2017], disponibile su World Wide Web: <>, [23 KB], ISSN 1128-5478.


  1. The author is indebted to Jan F. Jacko and Enrico Furlan for their helpful comments on earlier drafts of the paper. <

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