TOP Q 4: What Obligations Is Someone Prominent Under When She Is Perceived To Speak For A Group?

Prominent leaders of political, social, religious, and even anti-religious organizations, movements, governments, etc. should not simply echo back what their “constituencies” already think and want to hear—otherwise they would not be leaders at all. But to a certain extent, once it becomes clear that a great many people do associate their views closely with certain leading voices of their collective grouping, does that put an onus on those leaders who in the public mind come to stand for a larger group of people to actually represent them when they wade into controversial issues?  Of course, there are natural checks and balances that keep this accurate.  If a given leader stops adequately representing those she leads, she will lose her support and the influence that comes with it.

But to what extent should leaders take extra care to distinguish when they are representing an existing consensus among their rank and file and when they are trying to influence their rank and file on a point where there is not settled opinion?  To what extent do intellectual, social, political, etc. leaders lose their rights to speak their own minds because doing so would be interpreted as actually communicating the minds of other people and would do so in a misleading way.  In other words, if you are perceived to communicate on behalf of others, does what you say not effectively communicate on behalf of others regardless of your intention, and if you are aware of this perception in advance, is it not incumbent on you to assure that such misrepresentations do not occur?  If I say something knowing how it will be taken, even if I do not intend that response, aren’t I still responsible for it if I choose to allow it to happen?

Could this even mean in some circumstances that you have to go so far as to curb your own free expression because you realize that no number of protestations will dissuade the general public (or your opponents) not to take what you say to represent your group or movement, etc. itself?

Or, on the other hand, is it unfair to ask leaders to abandon one of their strongest methods of creating consensus that agrees with them, which is precisely by implicitly trading off the perception that they already speak for the group  to gain extra persuasive power over members of the group?  Often leaders lead quite naturally, and without even expressly trying to be manipulative, by advancing their interpretation as though it were obviously what everyone in the group thinks and the natural persuasive power of their leadership role opens up other members of the group to be more prejudicially in favor of their views and to conform to them.

Is this an immoral or excessively irrational part of persuasion that moral leaders should avoid?  Or is it an inevitable and/or morally justifiable part of persuasion, at least in some or most contexts where other factors of one’s leadership are morally approvable?  In short,  today’s open philosophical question is “What obligations is someone under when she is perceived to speak for a group?”

Your Thoughts?

TOP Qs:

1st TOP Q: “How, If At All, Can People’s Claims To Simply Intuit That There Is A God Be Rationally Refuted Or Supported?”

2nd Top Q: “Is It Unfair To Call All Religions ‘Scams’?”

3rd TOP Q: Can Virtues Conflict Or Must Every Truly Virtuous Action Be Approvable According To Every Other Virtue As Well?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Megan

    I love this topic. My husband is in the Navy, so it is one that we both talk about a lot. When an individual represents a group and speaks, it doesn’t matter if he or she is specifically speaking FOR that group, he or she still is. That’s why the military is so weird about stuff. When my atheist group did a funny counter protest of the WBC in my town, my husband decided it was probably best he not go. Because as soon as something happens with any sailor or soldier, the papers ALWAYS have to say SAILOR (insert horrific headline).Right now, my husband is a recruiter. Same issue. He has to be really careful going out and meeting people. A lot of people our age have younger siblings, the same kids that my husband recruits during the day. So he’s always got to maintain an image. As soon as a sailor fucks up, suddenly he quits being an individual and speaks for the entire Navy.
    I know I’m branching off the topic a bit here, but I think a person is under a tremendous amount of pressure when speaking for a group. You have to be careful what you say, how you say it, and try to be a decent speaker. You want to get a certain point across but you are up for constant scrutiny from any other group that is opposed to you. Logically, if a leader of a group does something, I cannot attach that action to the group itself, unless it was done in the name of the group. But most people don’t think quite that logically. Say a group of people protest against a horse (i’m just using something completely random here). The leader gets completely drunk one night, takes a horse out for a ride (because he knows he cant drive) and injures it. Next day, people are shouting that the group hurts horses on purpose. Had the leader NOT been in a group, people would just be saying how terrible it is that a drunk man injured a horse by accident. The fact that someone is part of a group changes everything.

  • Daniel Fincke

    Thanks, Megan!

    What you say is really true and also I think really depressing. As much as in principle I am sympathetic to the idea of treating responsibly the way that you implicitly have effects of representing others whether you want to or not, I wonder how many especially conscientious people like your husband who would otherwise be politically or socially active and contribute a valuable voice to the public discourse silence themselves, and how much we all lose for that.


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