Who or what is constrained by the Library Bill of Rights?

A theoretical analysis of intentionality and collective action for library and information science


Date: January 19, 2012

Note: This paper was presented at the 2012 ALISE Annual Conference in Dallas, TX.


When we attend to the Library Bill of Rights (LBR), we often attend to its ethical content—censorship, free expression, free access, no discrimination, and so forth— and what that ethical content implies. This paper differs in its focus. Rather than the content of the LBR, we are inspired by its grammar. Specifically, we focus on the grammatical subject of these policies, and in the LBR, this is primarily the term ‘libraries,’ and what it means for this kind of subject to do something, its action. Although we are not sure that the conventional term ‘libraries’ and its use in the LBR has the appropriate signifying capability, the subject and its action does motivate our study. In the preamble, the term ‘libraries’ is used to signify a place with a function— "libraries are forums for information and ideas"— and in the specific policies, the term ‘libraries’ is used to signify a moral agent— "libraries…should provide," "should challenge," "should cooperate" and so forth. Libraries are conceived of as moral agents, with special obligations and with the ability to form intentions and to act on those intentions. Our later purpose will be to question this usage, but presently it motivates a study of moral agency, specifically of intentionality and action, and because the term ‘libraries’ is in the plural, in that it signifies either libraries or librarians as collective entities, it motivates a study of libraries or librarians as collective moral agents.

So this paper is not about practical reasoning—reasoning about ethical matters in order to devise a course of action. Practical reasoning about ethical content in LIS is well covered ground, and since the field is rife with significant ethical dilemmas (Fallis, 2007), such as how to provide equitable information service, there is good reason to cover this ground in this way. For example, Robert Wengert (2001) notes the predominant attention to rights and corresponding responsibilities in library and information science, and we see this in important ethical discussions that utilize various ethical theories, such as deontology (Elgesem, 2008), social contract theory (Frické, Mathiesen, & Fallis, 2000), utilitarianism (Doyle, 2002), and discourse ethics (Budd, 2006).

Instead, our focus is on the theoretical aspect of action, and this means shifting the discussion toward explanations of action. Essentially, some of the ethical dilemmas faced by library and informational professionals cannot easily be solved through practical reasoning alone. Questions that make ethical judgments possible, such as those about moral agency, intentionality, and action, need to be addressed. Someone who appeals to rights, for example, makes several assumptions about action and responsibility: that actions are performed by individual rights-bearers who are in contact with other individual rights-bearers, that actions have effects on people’s rights, and that moral agents are personally responsible for their effects on others. Such assumptions are not self-evidently true. Theoretical reasoning about action can help us to evaluate these claims, to see whether this is the correct understanding of the moral community— for example, whether we should adopt the rights tradition’s atomistic conception of moral agents and moral values, or whether we should accept the communitarian’s appeal to mutually transforming agents who are committed to a shared conception of the good. How we answer this question will have implications for what we decide to do and whom we ought to consider.

Therefore, this paper asks the following research questions: What does action mean? What are the issues between individual and collective action? Is there justification for collective action, or collective moral agents, in librarianship?

The Need for Corporate Responsibility

A number of philosophers have attempted to justify our ascription of agency to collective entities such as corporations, nations, clubs, and other organized groups. The apparent need for collective responsibility as an explanatory concept arises because of the diffusion of responsibility in bureaucratic organizations (Luban et al., 1992). Often groups take actions that cannot be attributed to any one member of the group, which means that either no one is responsible, which seems counterintuitive, or the group as a whole is responsible. In many circumstances, the business as a whole seems to be responsible for whatever happens: the business controls the earnings and is liable for any damages. It, and not individual employees, takes on the benefits and the burdens. Of course, malicious or negligent employees may be responsible in addition to or instead of the company as a whole. However, individuals cannot be identified in every case, and this necessitates the concept of collective responsibility.

The ascription of agency to collective entities has both linguistic and legal warrants. It seems natural to us to talk about a company’s obligations to its employees and its customers. And if a corporation has a morally objectionable policy, we blame the company as a whole rather than particular employees. The policies remain even if the entire board of directors changes. So, consumers may boycott the company rather than getting angry at the executives themselves, or the particular managers who make investment and hiring decisions. The same is true under the law. Companies own property and pay taxes. They have rights, including (according to a recent Supreme Court decision) First Amendment rights to engage in political speech. They can be sued, and this does not necessarily involve suing the employees personally. Companies can be held legally responsible if their products harm consumers, if they damage the environment, or if they violate their employees’ right to organize.

If corporations can be held legally responsible, then it seems that they must be capable of moral agency as well. Even if there were no laws to minimize harms to the environment or ensure the proper treatment of workers, the company could still coerce its employees or poison the local water supply, and doing so would be morally wrong despite the lack of legal regulations. Richard De George (1983) claims, responsibility in both senses, legally and morally, amounts to the same thing. However, corporations do not have all of the characteristics that typical moral agents have. De George mentions moral feelings, but they also lack other psychological “events” such as desires, and they certainly have no Cartesian soul that gives rise to physical behavior. But they perform actions, and since, in the legal context, we trace those actions to collective entities that perform them, we ought to be able to do the same thing in the moral context.

To be morally and legally responsible, however, a collective entity must not only act but must also have the characteristics that are typically attributed to individual agents, according to which their actions are attributed to them. First of all, an agent’s actions must result from his or her intentions1. When this connection is absent, the person is neither praised nor blamed. For a collective entity to be an agent, the intentions of the particular individuals must be united somehow such that the corporation has a collective intention that causes it to act. That is, there must be a decision procedure in place that people follow as members of the group in order for their individual decisions to result in a corporate action. In a business setting, Peter French (1979 and 1984) calls this organizing principle a corporate internal decision (CID) structure. Employees’ intentions and actions are absorbed by the organization, which can then be said to decide and act as a collective agent, resulting in a corporate decision (see also Donaldson, 1982, pp. 30-32). Without such a unifying decision procedure, there is no collective intention.

For the purposes of this paper, however, we set aside the question of whether collective responsibility is possible in any general case. Here we are interested in whether a library meets the requirements that have been established by defenders of collective responsibility —that is, whether it is more like a corporation with a unifying decision procedure, or whether it is a loose collection of agents whose individual intentions are not organized into a group decision. The course of that analysis involves an examination of what it means to be a professional, which severely complicates the possibility of collective responsibility.

Intentionality and Action

Although the concept of collective responsibility has been widely accepted and used by business ethicists, other philosophers have expressed reservations about the idea because the nature of intentionality complicates the "individuation of actions" (Chant, 2006, p. 422).

First, if an agent is to be held responsible for what he or she does, then we need an explanatory causal link between intention and action. Donald Davidson’s (1980) analysis shows that such explanations make actions intelligible and differentiate them from events. Simply put, an action requires a proper and reasonable explanation via its intention. This is accomplished via logical causation, as opposed to some empirical cause, which would have a predictive, material relation.

Scholarship in library ethics employs this distinction in analyzing decisions made by librarians. For example, in the seminal article "Not Censorship But Selection," Lester Asheim (1953) shows that although selection and censorship may both result in the same outcome— namely, the non-inclusion of some work for the collection— the intent (or motive) differs in the two cases, and thus we must assess them differently.

Intentionality, then, seems to be a key component in explaining and assessing actions, but it leads to the individual and collective action problem. If we require intent from an agent to say that the agent acted, then we face the problem of describing how groups of agents could share intentions in collective action cases (see Copp, 2007; and Ludwig, 2007). If individual agents can share intentions in some way, then they may be able to act as a collective. Consequently, we could assign blame or praise to the collective for its action. However, if agents cannot share intentions, then we must find an explanation that traces responsibility to particular agents within the collective.

One popular response to this problem is the summative account of collective intentions, according to which "add up" to individual intentions of group members to determine the group intention. On this view, if the individuals have the same intention and (in some accounts) know they have the same intention, and each of the group members acts on that intention, then they constitute a collective agent. John Searle (1990) illustrates how an appeal to collective intentions, in this way, is unnecessary and misleading: Suppose a class of students have just received their master's degrees from Library School X, where they learned about the important values of the profession, such as the freedom to read, and each student intends to defend those values because they believe that such values lead to the good life, in all its ethical understanding, or a good society. Searle argues that we can reduce their supposedly collective intention to a series of I-intentions with beliefs added and therefore they do not form true collective intentionality. That is, each of the graduates intends to advance the values of the profession, but all of the graduates together do not have one unified intention, understood as a collective mental state giving rise to action (even if we could make sense of what that means).

Following the work of Kenneth Arrow (1950) and of Christian List and Philip Pettit (2004), Sara Chant (2010) illustrates an additional collective intentionality dilemma, which we can also modify to suit a library example. The example highlights the tension between individual and collective intentions, the diffusion of responsibility, and it raises questions about the mesh between individual and collective intentionality and rationality. Imagine that a book containing X material is challenged by a group in a particular library’s community. In response, the library board must decide whether the book should be removed or kept. To make this decision, they must vote on the case’s propositions, which are:

  1. Library books that contain X material should be removed.
  2. Book A contains X material.
  3. Book A should be removed.

The propositions set up a rationality constraint so that if (1) and (2) are accepted, then (3) must be accepted since it logically follows. Suppose the board members have discussed the case and outlined their judgments in the following, individually rational way:

Board member Amy agrees with the first two propositions and so agrees with the last proposition, that Book A should be removed. Board member Ben agrees that Book A contains X material, but he does not agree that such books should be removed and so does not agree that Book A should be removed. Board member Cindy agrees that books that contain X material should be removed, but she does not agree that Book A contains X material and so does not agree that Book A should be removed. All three of these sets of beliefs are internally consistent and rational.

In such a case, it would be perfectly realistic for the board to vote on each proposition in what may be called a "‘premise-centered’ approach to judgment aggregation" (Chant, 2010, p. 13). First, board members Amy, Ben, and Cindy consider the first proposition and conclude in a 2-1 vote in favor of proposition (1), that "Library books that contain X material should be removed." Likewise, the board members arrive at the same conclusion for proposition (2), that "Book A contains X material." However, when they consider proposition (3), they vote 2-1 against removing Book A, even though as a board they voted for the first two propositions. Given that (3) follows logically from (1) and (2), it seems that the board should collectively come to the conclusion that Book A should be removed, even though they in fact conclude that it should not be removed (Table 1).

Board Members (1) (2) (3)
Amy Agree Agree Agree Valid
Ben Not Agree Agree Not Agree Valid
Cindy Agree Not Agree Not Agree Valid
Tally Agree Agree Not Agree Invalid

Note. Amy, Ben, and Cindy’s tally of votes. Read from left column to right column, the premise-centered method of tallying votes is irrational.

Ethics and Agency

Taking all of the above into consideration, we find in librarianship two ways to view (potential) collective entities as responsible agents, but neither of which is ultimately defensible. What makes the issue problematic is professional status, which creates a tension between individual and collective identity.

First, we may want to hold a library responsible for some action. For example, if Public Library X succumbs to pressure to remove a controversial book, then we might want to blame Public Library X as a whole for such an action, rather than some individual librarian or board member. Second, since librarians as a profession oppose censorship, and yet if some librarians censor, we may want to fault something about the profession—the profession has failed in some way.

Collective responsibility in the first case depends on the organizational structure of a library. In the second case, it depends on its professional status (described by Abbott, 1998; Goode, 1957), or what unites a group of people who are engaged in the same type of activity. There are insurmountable conceptual difficulties with attributing responsibility either to libraries or to librarians as a whole. First, because of the professional status of librarians, libraries do not have the unifying structure that would make them collectively responsible organizational units; and second, there is a tension between independence/autonomy and collectivity that both unites and divides people who are pursuing a common profession.

The previous two approaches are interdependent, but there is also a tension between holding a collective entity such as a library responsible and blaming a profession rather than (or in addition to) a member of that profession. In fact, the expertise that someone has by being a professional seems to undermine the attribution of collective agency to libraries (in fact, it may even have a causal effect on the organizational structure of libraries). For example, we may be justified in blaming a specific librarian for removing a controversial book from the shelves, rather than blaming the library as a whole (including the staff and the library’s governing board), because we consider him or her to be a qualified person to make the decision (and thus more responsible for it), and because of that qualification, would be able to formulate a proper explanation of her action. For example, we may be justified for holding morally responsible a specific medical doctor, rather than all doctors at a particular office, for a particular kind of malpractice because we consider that specific doctor a professional and because of the organizational structure of that doctor’s office (more horizontal than top-down). This makes the status of being a "professional," or profession-hood, problematic for assigning collective responsibility— because being a professional means having increased responsibility in general for the skills and attitudes of what it means to be a professional—that is, it entails a level of independence. At the same time, one is a professional in a profession. That is, profession-hood is bestowed (authorized, legitimized) by the professional collective; becoming a professional is a collective act and so implies a collective identity. José Ortega y Gasset (1961) articulates how this is so in his paper on "The Mission of the Librarian," which defines a profession as that which is a collective necessity (see pp. 136-138). Doctors are doctors because they undergo a certain kind of education and training, and because they receive the attitudes and identity of the profession in this process. If one doctor retires, the profession continues; yet if all doctors retire, the profession expires. Such an extreme constrains this individual and collective issue.


In this presentation, I have explained the seeming need for collective responsibility in library ethics, but I have also pointed out some of the conceptual difficulties that we face in trying to make sense of it. In a larger version of this paper, my coauthor and I grapple with these issues—that is, we try to figure out if library ethicists can construe libraries and librarians in such a way that documents such as the Library Bill of Rights apply to them. We are doubtful that this can be accomplished, and so we conclude that the LBR needs to be revised to apply to specific moral agents rather than collectives. There is a lot of work to be done here, and I know that this presentation has only begun the inquiry. But I welcome your questions and suggestions as we continue to explore this topic.


Abbott, A. (1998). Professionalism and the future of librarianship. Library Trends, 46, 430-443.

Arrow, K. J. (1950). A difficulty in the concept of social welfare. The Journal of Political Economy 58(4), 328-346.

Asheim, L. (1953). Not censorship but selection. Wilson Library Bulletin 28 (September 1953), 63-67. Available at https://www.ala.org/advocacy/intfreedom/NotCensorshipButSelection

Bratman, M. (1984). Two faces of intention. The Philosophical Review, 93, 375-405.

Budd, J. M. (2006). Toward a practical and normative ethics for librarianship. The Library Quarterly, 76, 251-269. doi:10.1086/511140

Chant, S. R. (2006). The special composition question in action. Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, 87, 422-441. doi:10.1111/j.1468-0114.2006.00270.x

Chant, S. R. (2010). The SANE approach to real collective responsibility. University of Basel, Collective Intentionality VII (unpublished).

Copp, D. (2007). The collective moral autonomy thesis. Journal of Social Philosophy, 38, 369-388. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9833.2007.00386.x

Davidson, D. (1980). Essays on Actions & Events New York: Oxford University Press.

De George, R. T. (1983). Can corporations have moral responsibility? In T. L. Beauchamp and N. E. Bowie (Eds.), Ethical Theory and Business 2nd ed., pp. 57-67. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall.

Donaldson, T. (1982). Corporations and Morality. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

Doyle, T. (2002). A critical discussion of "The ethical presuppositions behind the Library Bill of Rights." The Library Quarterly, 72, 275-293.

Elgesem, D. (2008). Search engines and the public use of reason. Ethics and Information Technology, 10, 233-242. doi:10.1007/s10676-008-9177-3.

Fallis, D. (2007). Information ethics for twenty-first century library professionals. Library Hi Tech, 25(1), 23-36. doi:10.1108/07378830710735830

French, P. (1979). The corporation as a moral person. American Philosophical Quarterly 16, pp. 207-15.

French, P. (1984). Collective and Corporate Responsibility New York: Columbia University Press.

Frické, M., Mathiesen, K., & Fallis, D. (2000). The ethical presuppositions of the Library Bill of Rights. The Library Quarterly, 70, 468-491.

Goode, W. J. (1957). Community within a community: The professions. American Sociological Review, 22, 194-200.

List, C., & Pettit, P. (2004). Aggregating sets of judgments: Two impossibility results compared. Synthese 140, 207-235.

Luban, D., Strudler, A., & Wasserman, D. (1992) Moral responsibility in the age of bureaucracy. Michigan Law Review, 90, 2348-2392.

Ludwig, K. (2007). The argument from normative autonomy for collective agents. Journal of Social Philosophy, 38, 410-427. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9833.2007.00388.x

McKenna, M. (2006). Collective responsibility and an agent meaning theory. In P. A. French, & H. K. Wettstein (Eds.), Shared Intentions and Collective Responsibility, (pp. 16-34). Boston: Blackwell Publishing.

Searle, J. (1990). Collective intentions and actions. In Intentions in Communication, P. Cohen, J. Morgan, and M. E. Pollack (eds). Cambridge, MA: Bradford Books, MIT Press.

Wengert, R. G. (2001). Some ethical aspects of being an information professional. Library Trends, 49, 486-509.

  1. Here we set aside the question of what causes the intentions: whether they must be uncaused and spontaneous (the libertarian view) or caused by one’s character or other determined, psychological causes (the compatibilist view).↩︎