Cohen on Responsibility Notes for September 6–8

Main points

Cohen agrees with Singer that we are morally responsible for preventing suffering and death due to famine and similar causes.

But he disagrees with a feature of both the strong and the moderate versions of Singer’s moral principle: it is insensitive to what others should do.

Both versions of Singer’s principle hold that we are responsible for preventing suffering and death until doing so would involve making a major sacrifice. In one version, the sacrifice is of something morally comparable to suffering and death; in the other, it is of something morally significant.

Cohen maintains that we are responsible for doing our fair share, even if that falls short of doing everything we can without making a major sacrifice.

As Mike and Ragib correctly noted, Cohen does not spell out exactly what fair shares would be. However, his primary aim lies in showing that one need not accept Singer’s principles even if one accepts his contention that we are morally obliged to prevent suffering and death by famine. His advocacy of fairness covers a class of possible ways of defining fair shares. Exactly which one is the correct one can be taken up at a later point.

Cohen’s arguments

I said that I thought Cohen has three arguments, the perverse incentives, responsibility, and fairness arguments. I also said that I thought the fairness argument was the fundamental one.

The problem with the fairness argument is that it seems to have brutal implications. If two people can save two drowning children, but one of them fails to do his part, is the second one off the hook? We don’t just need to garner reactions to a story here. Consistency comes into play too. Anyone who has gotten this far has already conceded that a bystander is required to save a drowning child. That’s one lesson of the first half of Cohen’s article.

So someone might be willing to take up the position that Barrett suggested: saving the child is a nice thing to do, but not a requirement. But such a person wouldn’t worry about drawing the line at fair shares and no more. That line would have been draw at saving even one child. So let’s leave that position aside for the purposes of talking about Cohen. Which isn’t to say that it should be ignored, just that it seems irrelevant to the dispute between Singer and Cohen. If we accepted it, we would reject both of their positions.


John identified Cohen’s conclusion: the philosophers have drawn exaggerated conclusions about our from the drowning child case. I agree with Cohen about that.

But, at the same time, I think there’s a puzzle. If we accept that Tom is required to save the second child, as Cohen thinks we should, why stop there? Why not say that Tom is required to alleviate suffering and death whenever he can? After all, there is a third child somewhere who is at risk of dying from famine.

This page was written by Michael Green for Problems of Philosophy, Philosophy 1, Fall 2006.
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