Cohen on responsibility

Notes for September 10

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 thinks these points lead to 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 without letting anyone die. Thus, it is possible to fail to give to famine aid, knowing that giving would save lives, without violating the duty not to let people die.

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 our way of thinking about responsibility: the perverse incentives argument, the argument from responsibility, and the fairness argument. After laying out Cohen’s position we discussed each of these arguments in turn.

Perverse incentives

The perverse incentives argument maintains that it is undesirable to have a principle like Singer’s. It gives people a perverse incentive not to give to famine aid, knowing that others will pick up the slack.

I think Jeremy had a good point in saying that Cohen assumed there was not a parallel problem with his own principle. It’s true that people will sometimes slack off if they think that others will do their part. It’s also true that people will sometimes refuse to do their fair share if they see that others are not doing their part. When comparing the two views, we need to be careful not to assume that the one operates in an ideal world where people are better than they actually are while the other has to work in the real one, with all of our psychological quirks.

In any event, Singer would say that the most this sort of argument shows is that it is undesirable for people to believe that his principle is true; it doesn’t show that his principle is not, in fact, true. I think that raises a variety of interesting questions. But I also think that Cohen and Singer have a more fundamental disagreement about what we’re responsible for even in an ideal world where everyone follows the rules. So I tried to move on to that fundamental issue rather than pursuing these questions in depth.

The argument from responsibility

Cohen uses examples such as the one involving the engineer and the helmsman to argue that one person’s responsibilities don’t automatically fall on someone else: the engineer isn’t responsible for the ship’s being off course even if the engineer lets the helmsman steer the ship the wrong way by not interfering with the helmsman (p. 74).

I think that’s sometimes right and sometimes wrong. It’s right where responsibilities are clearly defined, as they are between the helmsman and the engineer. But sometimes, we think there are redundant responsibilities. If there are five people around the pond and one drowning child, they’re all responsible for saving the child who is drowning. If one fails, the others have to act.

Singer’s contention is that famine aid is like that: we’re all responsible for saving as many starving people as we can. Cohen disagrees. He thinks it matters that the task of saving the drowning child is not divisible while the task of reliving famine is divisible (p. 76). I’m not sure if that’s an answer to Singer. But that’s the issue. Which model of responsibility applies to the famine case: the one where responsibilities are divided or the one where they are redundant? There is not one general view of responsibility that settles the matter for all cases.

The fairness argument

It is not fair that some people have to do others people’s share of a common task. This is obviously true. Cohen also grants it is true that sometimes you have to do more than your fair share anyway: that’s the lesson of the two drowning children with two rescuers, one of whom runs away (p. 77).

Singer thinks that this lesson should be repeated with every famine victim: their lives outweigh fairness on up to the point where saving them would impose a morally significant sacrifice.

As Cyrus correctly noted, Cohen disagrees. He does not think that there is an “open-ended duty to do more than one’s fair share in order to make up for the deficiencies of others” (p. 79). Cohen’s idea is that we start with being responsible for doing our fair share and then admit exceptions. He thinks that is very different from starting with a general duty to prevent suffering and death with exceptions for personal or moral sacrifices.

Singer, on the other hand, believes that there is no stopping point short of a general duty to prevent suffering and death.

Fairness vs. sacrifice

Franklin made an excellent point at the outset. Cohen is claiming to address two different problems with Singer’s principle: it appears to demand too much sacrifice and it appears to demand unfair sacrifice.

The thought was that solving the latter would solve the former as the burden of doing our share alone would be tolerable.

But that wouldn’t necessarily be so. If there are a lot of people in need and only a few who can give aid, the burden that falls on the few could be quite significant, even if it is fairly shared among them.

Key concepts

  1. The difference between Cohen and Singer.
  2. How Cohen handles the case where there are two drowning children, two potential rescuers, and one rescuer fails.

For your information

It really was the helmsman’s fault.

That’s what the captain of the Contra Concordia thinks, at least.

This page was written by Michael Green for Problems of Philosophy, Philosophy 1, Fall 2013. It was posted September 10, 2013.
Problems of Philosophy