Document Type


Date of Degree

Summer 2012

Degree Name

PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Degree In


First Advisor

Jeske, Diane

First Committee Member

Fumerton, Richard

Second Committee Member

Stern, David

Third Committee Member

Hasan, Ali

Fourth Committee Member

Fales, Evan


We commonly attribute to states and other institutional organizations moral duties and obligations. For example, it is widely held that the state has a moral duty to protect its citizens from external threats and (more contentiously) it is claimed that it ought to positively promote the welfare of its members. When we focus on the surface grammar of such institutional duty-claims, we see that they seem to differ from individual duty-claims only with respect to the subject of the claim. Whereas an institutional duty-claim asserts that an institution (e.g., the state) has a duty to do some action a, an individual duty-claim asserts that a particular individual person has a duty to a. For example, we might claim that parents ought to protect their children, or that a particular person, Doe, ought to take better care of his child. Many scholars have argued or at least assumed that institutions are ultimately just collections of individuals, and hence institutional duty-claims can be analyzed in terms of claims about individuals' duties and obligations. Other scholars have rejected this reductive approach to institutional duty-claims as well as the individualist assumption upon which it is premised--viz., that institutions are nothing "over and above" individuals. Instead, it is argued that at least some institutional organizations are moral agents in their own right which have duties and obligations that are uniquely their own. According to this antireductive holist approach, at least some institutional duty-claims resist being analyzed into claims about individuals' duties and obligations. My aim in this dissertation is to clarify what is meant when we assert that the state (or some other institutional organization) has moral duties, and I do so by entering into dialogue with both the reductive individualist and antireductive holist views.

In Chapter One I situate and motivate my project by reference to two well-known debates in which claims about the state's duties play an inescapably central role; viz., the debate concerning the propriety of using so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques" in the War on Terror and the debate surrounding the most recent reforms to the health care system here in the United States. Since my aim is to shed light on the meaning of and truth-makers for institutional duty-claims, I devote Chapter Two to the task of clarifying what we mean and imply when we advance duty-claims in what we may assume to be paradigmatic circumstances: namely, those circumstances in which an individual is said to have a duty to do something or another. I then frame the further investigation into the meaning and significance of institutional duty-claims as one which has the aim of revealing whether the phrase 'has a duty' has a univocal, analogous, or equivocal signification across institutional and individual contexts.

In Chapter Three I take up the task of characterizing and distinguishing the relevant reductive individualist and antireductive holist viewpoints, considering both historically significant and contemporary versions of each. In Chapter Four I present and critically evaluate a rather influential argument in favor of institutional moral agency, which, if true, would vindicate the antireductive holist approach. I conclude that chapter by arguing that, contrary to the claims made by those who defend institutional agency, we are unjustified in believing that institutions possess those properties requisite for moral agency. Having set aside what I take to be a "best-case" for an antireductive holism, I turn, in Chapter Five, to the task of making plausible the reductive individualist approach. In doing so, I propose that some institutional duty-claims actually resist reduction to claims about individuals' duties and that such claims are thus better understood as claims about the extrinsic value of an institutional arrangement.


vii, 170 pages


Includes bibliographical references (pages 162-171).


Copyright 2012 Christoffer Spencer Lammer-Heindel

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