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We the People: Is the Polity the State?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  22 February 2021



When a liberal-democratic state signs a treaty or wages a war, does its whole polity do those things? In this article, we approach this question via the recent social ontological literature on collective agency. We provide arguments that it does and that it does not. The arguments are presented via three considerations: the polity's control over what the state does; the polity's unity; and the influence of individual polity members. We suggest that the answer to our question differs for different liberal-democratic states and depends on two underlying considerations: (1) the amount of discretion held by the state's officeholders; (2) the extent to which the democratic procedure is deliberative rather than aggregative.

Copyright © American Philosophical Association 2021

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We are grateful to audiences at Århus University, Umeå University, Edinburgh University, the University of Warwick, the University of Melbourne, the Australian National University, the London School of Economics, Monash University, the Society for Applied Philosophy's 2017 conference, the European Network for Social Ontology's 2017 conference, the Open University, the 2017 Mancept Workshops in Political Theory, the 2017 meeting of the New Zealand Association for Philosophy at the University of Otago, and the Dianoia Institute of Philosophy at the Australian Catholic University. For comments on written versions, we thank Bob Goodin, Christine Hobden, Daniel Muñoz, Ben Sachs, Anselm Spindler, and the research group on the normative and moral foundations of group agency at the University of Vienna. Stephanie Collins worked on this article while she was a visiting research professor at the University of Vienna, for which it received funding from the European Research Council under the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation program (grant agreement No. 740922). Other parts of her work on this article received financial support under the Australian Research Council's Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (project no. DE200101413).


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