Cohen on responsibility Notes for September 8

Main points

Cohen agrees with Singer on two points:

  1. We have a duty not to let people die.
  2. We can prevent deaths by giving famine aid until we are in or near poverty ourselves.

Singer draws the conclusion that it is our duty to give famine aid until we are in or near poverty ourselves. Cohen disagrees. He maintains that it is possible to fail to prevent deaths while not letting anyone die and, thus, not violating the duty.

That sounds paradoxical. Isn’t failing to do what you could to save someone’s life the same thing as letting that person die? Cohen claims that this is not so in a special kind of case: those who have done their fair share to prevent deaths are not responsible for any deaths that come about because others have not done their share. The slackers are the ones who let the people die; the people who did their parts did not let anyone die despite the fact that they could have prevented the deaths.

Singer could agree that this is how we think about responsibility as a matter of fact while denying that it is how we should think about it. Cohen gave three arguments in defense of this way of thinking about responsibility: the perverse incentives argument, the argument from responsibility, and the fairness argument. After laying out Cohen’s position, in all its apparently paradoxical glory, we discussed each of these arguments in turn

This page was written by Michael Green for Problems of Philosophy, Philosophy 1, Fall 2010. It was posted September 9, 2010.
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