Cohen outline Notes for September 6–8

Note on what is assigned

While all of Cohen’s article is included in the reader, only the third section (pp 72-81) was assigned. The previous sections run through arguments very much like those that Singer made. They’re worth reading, but we won’t discuss them.

Outline of part III

Main claim: we are responsible for preventing suffering, but this doesn’t commit us to the strong version of Singer’s principle because we are only responsible for doing our share. If there are still people dying after I have done my share, that’s not my responsibility, it’s the responsibility of those who haven’t done their share. Illustrated with example of two communities.

  1. Argument: alternative rules for assigning responsibility have perverse incentives. (73-74)
  2. Illustration: who is responsible for the ship being off course? (74-75)
  3. Qualifications:
    1. supererogatory vs. required acts (75)
    2. collective vs. distributive conception of duty or responsibility (76).
  4. Another argument: it’s unfair to make some take on additional burdens just because others have failed to do their share.
  5. Objection: the bystander who won’t do his share to … yes, save the drowning child. Reply: criticism of the alternative; attempt to blur the line — people should do a bit more than their fair share, sometimes, but they shouldn’t accept an open-ended commitment to do so. (76-78)
  6. Application to famine relief. (79-81)


Cohen uses a few terms that might not be familiar. The ideas are, however.

1. ceteris paribus = other things being the same. In context, on p 75, what he’s saying is that his argument assumes that those who do their share are in the same moral position as those who don’t: no one has an acceptable excuse for not doing his share, and so on.

2. supererogatory = beyond the call of duty. In context, on p 75, what he’s saying is that it might be a good thing if some did more than their fair share but that no one is morally required to do so.

3. Begging the question = giving an argument that simply assumes one’s opponent is wrong. In context, on pp 77-8, what he’s saying is that Singer, for example, could claim that Cohen’s orphanage example simply assumes that Singer is wrong. More precisely, Singer could object that Cohen is relying on provoking a reaction to this example — that there is a limit to the number of starving children one must feed short of reducing oneself to starvation levels — that simply assumes all of Singer’s arguments are ineffective. Needless to say, that’s not a persuasive way to refute Singer’s arguments.

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