Cohen on responsibility Notes for September 9

Main points

Cohen agrees with Singer that we have a duty to prevent suffering and death. But he thinks Singer has made a mistake about responsibility. We are not responsible for doing whatever we can to prevent suffering and death. Rather, we are only responsible for doing our fair share.

Setting up the argument

I spent a lot of time laboring over the two paragraphs on pages 72–3 (reproduced on the class handout). I was pretty picky, especially about the first paragraph. The formulations of his argument I was getting paid too much attention to qualifications at the expense of the key phrases. Here’s how I would formulate the points in that paragraph.

  1. Each person has a moral duty to prevent suffering and not to let other people die. (First sentence)
  2. But it is not true that someone who spends money on inessentials rather than famine relief fails to prevent suffering or lets others die. This is so even if the money would, in fact, prevent suffering and death if given to famine relief. (Third sentence)
  3. Therefore, it is not true that each person has a moral duty to give up spending money on inessentials and send the money to famine aid. (Second sentence)

Note two things about this.

First, I left out half of the first sentence. There is nothing about foreseeing anything in my summary because this qualification plays little role in the argument of the paragraph. It’s a perfectly fine point, but it distracted us from seeing the structure of the argument.

Second, I elaborated on the second point. I did so in order to emphasize just how paradoxical Cohen’s claim is.

Three arguments

We certainly can see responsibility as Cohen presents it. He gives us three reasons for thinking that we should see it this way: the perverse incentives argument, the responsibility argument, and the fairness argument. In my opinion, the fairness argument is the most fundamental.

Christina pointed out the problem with the fairness argument: it isn’t hard to find cases where people are required to do more than their fair share. In these cases, it isn’t enough to say that it was someone else who let the victim die.

In response, Cohen relaxes what he calls the “clear cut solution” by allowing that people might be responsible for more than their fair share. That certainly seems reasonable to me. But the cost of doing that is that we no longer have a clear cut answer to the question of what we’re responsible for doing.

Perversity revisited

I made a point about the perverse incentives argument that I don’t think I explained very well. So I would like to revisit it.

The perverse incentives argument goes like this. “If we followed Singer’s principles, people would have an incentive to do nothing to relieve famine since they would know that others would pick up the slack. That would be counterproductive for the purposes of relieving famine and unfair to those who pick up the slack. Therefore, we should not follow Singer’s principles.”

One of the things I said about this is that it makes some debatable assumptions about human psychology. Specifically, it presumes that there are a lot of people who care about relieving famine, and would act to do so, but who do not care much about doing their fair share. These are the people who would act on their perverse incentives. They are ones who would do something to relieve famine without the perverse incentives, but, thanks to those incentives, do not do so. Instead, they gladly allow others to do all the moral work even though that is unfair. That’s what I mean in saying that they care about relieving famine but not about being fair.

Of course, these are not the only kinds of people. Some won’t contribute to famine aid unless they are forced to do so. Others would contribute even if they weren’t required. The ‘perverse incentives’ don’t affect their behavior, however: the first class wouldn’t give anyway, so the incentives don’t move them away from famine aid that they would otherwise give, and the second class will give regardless of the incentives.

Now, let me return to the people who are affected by the perverse incentives. They care about preventing suffering and death but not about fairness. I opined that there are far more people with the opposite motivations: people who care about fairness more than they care about preventing suffering and death.

I don’t know that this would have drastic implications for Cohen’s argument even if it were shown to be true. But it struck me as interesting.

This page was written by Michael Green for Problems of Philosophy, Philosophy 1, Fall 2009. It was posted September 9, 2009.
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