Cohen and Responsibility

Class notes for 6 April

Main points

Singer decides what we are responsible for doing by comparing benefits with sacrifices. We are required to prevent suffering and death unless doing so would involve making a kind of moral sacrifice.

Cohen thinks there is at least one other consideration to take into account: what one’s share is. Each of us is responsible for doing his or her share. If I have done mine and you haven’t done yours, you are responsible for the deaths that happen as a result of insufficient aid, not me.

Cohen faces a dilemma. He can either stick with what he calls the “clear cut” solution, in which case he seems to be committed to saying something unpalatable about the case where two children are drowning in the pond and one rescuer does not do his part. Or he can say, as he does, that we are sometimes required to do more than our fair share to prevent death and suffering. In that case, he has to explain where one draws the line, short of Singer’s principle.

As with Singer, it seems to me that Cohen has made a good point. Nonetheless, the failure to draw lines between what we are and what we are not required to do is an important ambiguity. The Utilitarians, who we will read next, were motivated by a desire to clean up ambiguities like these.


There was far too much on the board for me to summarize here. What a remarkable discussion!

One point does deserve repetition, though, because I ran through it too quickly. This is Cohen’s claim that “letting” is not a transitive relation. What does that mean?

Well, “greater than (>)” is a transitive relation. Therefore:

  1. If A > B
  2. and B > C
  3. then A > C

3. follows as a logical consequence from 1. and 2.

By contrast, according to Cohen, “letting” is not a transitive relation. Consider the following question.

  1. If D lets E do X
  2. and E lets F do Y
  3. did D let F do Y?

Cohen’s answer is “not necessarily”. If the engineer lets the helmsman neglect his job and the helmsman lets the ship drift off course, it does not follow that the engineer lets the ship drift off course. The helmsman is the one who did that.

He might also look at a case in which X and Y are clearly unrelated. Suppose the captain lets the mate use his spyglass and the mate lets the cook work on his scrimshaw. It obviously doesn’t follow from the captain’s letting the mate look through his spyglass that the captain let the cook work on the mate’s scrimshaw.