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  • Writer's pictureMaria Cahill

Societās Project Hosts "Exploring Associational Life" workshop

Interdisciplinary Workshop featuring Lawyers and Philosophers expert in Social Ontology

By creating a space for novel interdisciplinary connections between philosophy and law, the workshop “Exploring Associational Life: From Social Ontology to Law and Back Again” was a successful opportunity for groundbreaking discussions on associational life and freedom – a topic that is conspicuously of concern to both disciplines and yet remains largely underdeveloped on both sides. An inspiring alternation of philosophical reflections and legal considerations presented to a hybrid audience warmed up the conversation and raised relevant questions to be addressed. The workshop format also included a moot court activity, in which participants were asked to take on the role of lawyers in simulated legal disputes. A round table discussion concluded the event. 

All this took place in the Law School of the University College Cork on 25-26 April 2024 as part of the Societās project on the nature and potential of freedom of association. The event was organised by Dr Giulia Lasagni and Prof. Maria Cahill (PI). It was supported by an Irish Research Council Laureate Award and a National University of Ireland Grant.  

A vibrant group of twenty scholars, including experienced and established academics as well as early career researchers in philosophy and law, participated in the event, offering insightful reflections and raising stimulating disciplinary and interdisciplinary questions for debate.  

In particular, from a philosophical perspective, associational life was explored from different angles, each inspired by current research in social ontology, a philosophical debate that examines the nature and properties of the social world.   

Part of the discussion revolved around ontological questions about the distinctive properties and structure of associations. It was noted that associative practice can be classified into different activities, such as forming a new association, joining an existing association, and leaving an association. And then, moving from associative activities to associations, relevant topics of discussion were the nature of associations and how they differ from other social groups such as social movements or corporations. In understanding the characteristics that make a group of people an association, the theoretical frameworks of contemporary debates on group agency and collective intentionality were seen as potentially helpful.  

Another strand of the discussion concerned the relationship between associational experience and society. It was argued that while associational life is partly based on the social and cooperative nature of human beings, including the sense of familiarity that binds people together with shared habits, most of our complex societies require elementary forms of association to flourish. This led to a discussion of the role of associations in society in relation to their specific purpose, and to a debate on freedom of association and the balance between the protection of such a fundamental right and other principles such as social security. This delicate balance was also examined from a historical perspective, which, by considering legal reflections on society and social order, traced back to the origins of social ontology as a discipline. 

All this culminated in normative questions about the moral integrity and responsibility of associations and the people within them. It was suggested that one criterion for preventing the unconditional formation of any association is to assess the potential harm that an association could cause to society. Another level of moral analysis was found in the question of whether associations have rights and duties and, if so, whether and under what conditions these rights and duties are irreducible or could rather be distributed among the participants. 

From a legal perspective, the workshop was enriched by inspiring reflections from a variety of jurisdictions, including China, Nigeria, the United Nations, the Council of Europe, Ireland, and in contexts such as company law and religious freedom. Such a diversity of perspectives enabled recognition of and reflection on the extent to which history, culture, custom, ideology and politics can influence the way in which associational life is experienced, valued, protected and regulated. Indeed, as the ongoing comparative study of the Societās project has shown, the nature and potential of freedom of association is a complex and largely unexplored issue that needs to be further investigated, not least its relationship to other moral values, legal principles, and socio-political concerns. An important point that emerged from the cross-cultural discussion was the need to critically assess the Western individualistic approach to freedom of association as a right of the individual, taking into account the community-based approaches that prevail in other parts of the world. 

Another point of concern was the lack of a precise and rigorous definition in different jurisdictions, if not inconsistencies between jurisdictions, of what constitutes a legal association, with different requirements such as a minimum number of members and a formal act of registration. This was an interesting point of debate between philosophers and lawyers and was also at the centre of the first moot court, where the dispute in question concerned a group of friends who were not yet registered as a charity but had been acting as one for some time. In this case, the group of friends was asked to register the group or face prosecution for illegal activity. The defence argued that those people were not causing any harm to society and that they had never presented themselves as a charity but as friends helping friends. Significantly, registration would have imposed formalities and financial burdens which, despite regulating the activities of the association, were likely to cause these people to cease providing the care and support they were offering. The argument was found to be persuasive. 

The second moot court scenario concerned a highly controversial philosophical and legal issue, namely how to deal with the tension between the organisational autonomy of associations, including their right to decide on their membership policy and who they associate with, and the right of individuals to associate with them and not to be discriminated against. The case involved a woman who wanted to join a golf club with a nomination-based membership policy which, although not formally discriminatory, in practice excluded women. The case sparked a lively debate, reflecting the philosophical complexity of the issue, the messiness of real-life cases, the state of the art in the legal field and the current situation in the courts. 

At the end of the workshop, a roundtable discussion focused on the methodological potentials and challenges that emerged from the interdisciplinary exchange. How can a dialogue between philosophers and lawyers on freedom of association be established and pursued? What’s the role of language in this, and how necessary is it to make disciplinary meanings explicit in the search for a common terminology? To what extent can philosophical reflection be useful for lawyers and vice versa? Do philosophers of law have a role to play between social ontology and law? Despite some scepticism, it was observed that a general philosophical articulation and taxonomy of the characteristics and different forms of associational life would be valuable for law, in order to enrich legal reflection on the subject and then to formulate refined principles to better manage and define the content and specificity of this still little explored right. Faced with a fundamental human right that protects human sociality, philosophers had also recognised the importance of reflecting on such a legal fact, which could shed new light and provide new inputs and examples for further critical study of human life in groups. It was noted that it would be important for the two disciplines to consider the possibility of common research questions and to work on them by looking at associative life in action, so as not to theorise and speculate by departing from de facto social reality.  

Overall, the workshop embarked on a largely unexplored journey. A challenge that the participants took up proactively and that will be further explored under the auspices of the Societās project. 


Virginia Presi (University of Milan)

Giulia Lasagni (University College Cork)


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