Ethical Theory Spring 2021

Shared Responsibility


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, taken together, lead to the conclusion that it is our duty to give famine aid until we are in or near poverty ourselves. This is where Cohen disagrees. He maintains that it is possible to fail to prevent deaths without letting anyone die. That means 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. Failing to do what you could to save someone’s life sounds like the same thing as letting that person die. Cohen claims that this is not so in a special kind of case. He thinks that 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.

Here’s another way to look at it. Singer’s principle asserts two things:

  1. A reason why you have duties: you have duties to prevent suffering and death because suffering and death are bad.

  2. Exceptions: you do not have duties to prevent suffering and death when doing so would send you to the brink of suffering and death yourself, for example.

Cohen largely accepts the first part of Singer’s argument but he has a very different understanding of the second part. He thinks your duties end when you have done your share to prevent suffering and death.

Cohen’s Arguments

Cohen gives three arguments. Here is what I call them: (i) the perverse incentives argument, (ii) the argument from the general conception of responsibility, and (iii) the fairness argument.

The idea of the perverse incentives argument is that if Singer’s principle were true, each of us would know that the others are bound to do all they can to alleviate famine and poverty. Given that, I might slack off myself because I would know that someone else would make up for my failure to act and no one would suffer as a result. So a very demanding moral principle perversely encourages inaction.

How do you think Singer would respond to that?

The argument from the general conception of responsibility turns on the assertion that “letting” is not a transitive relationship. “Greater than” is a transitive relationship: if A is greater than B and B is greater than C, then A is greater than C. By contrast, “is a friend of” is not a transitive relationship: if D is a friend of E and E is a friend of F it does not follow that D is a friend of F. (D might be F’s friend, but the point is that this does not have to be so. By contrast, A must be greater than C in the other example.)

Cohen uses an example to show that “letting” is not transitive. The engineer lets the helmsman steer the ship and the helmsman lets the ship go off course but it does not follow that the engineer lets the ship go off course. The helmsman did. Similarly, if it’s my job to save this group of people, you let me do my job, and I let those people die, it doesn’t follow that you let them die, according to Cohen,

The argument from fairness is similar to the one about responsibility. It maintains that it’s unfair to hold people responsible for doing more than their share. That seems right, but, at the same time, we sometimes do that. That’s the lesson of the two kids in the fountain. If I run away without saving my kid, you have to do more than your share. That’s unfair, but you can’t really refuse.

Cohen agrees. This is important because it introduces a qualification of his main point.

Cohen thinks we should not stick to what he calls the “clear cut” rule that you are only responsible for doing your share. His point is that we should start with our shares and allow responsibilities to ratchet up from there. That is very different from Singer’s position that we should start with the responsibility to do whatever it costs to prevent suffering and death, even if that means spending ourselves into poverty.

The question, of course, is whether you can stop short of Singer’s position once you concede that some departures from the clear cut rule make sense. That’s what we will have to talk about.

Guide to Cohen’s Essay

We will only discuss the third section of Cohen’s essay: pages 72-81. The previous sections run through arguments very much like those that Singer made. They’re worth reading, but we will not discuss them.

Here is how I see the third part breaking down.

  1. Argument: alternative rules for assigning responsibility have perverse incentives. (pp. 73-74)

  2. Illustration: who is responsible for the ship being off course? (pp. 74-75)

  3. Qualifications: (a) supererogatory vs. required acts (75). (b) 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 save a drowning child. Replies: first, criticism of the alternative with the example of the orphanage and then attempt to blur the line by holding that people should do a bit more than their fair share, sometimes, but they shouldn’t accept an open-ended commitment to do so. (pp. 76-78)

  6. Application to famine relief. (79-81)

Here are three terms that are important for his essay but may not be familiar to you.

  1. Ceteris paribus means ‘other things being the same.’ In context, on page 75, what he is saying is that his argument assumes that those who do their share are in the same moral position as those who do not: no one has an acceptable excuse for not doing their share that others do not have, there are no significant differences in their capabilities to help, and so on.

  2. Supererogatory means ‘beyond the call of duty.’ In context, on page 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 means ‘giving an argument that assumes the conclusion rather than proving it.’ In context, on pages 77-78, he is saying 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, namely, 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 is not a persuasive way to refute Singer’s arguments.

    Be aware that “begs the question” is often used in common speech to mean “raises a question.” It’s not that this usage is wrong: words mean what people use them to mean. It’s just different.

Key Points

  1. Cohen’s three arguments.

  2. Cohen’s example of the island.

  3. Cohen’s example of the engineer and the helmsman and the intransitivity of “letting”.

  4. The problem of the two drowning children and the runaway rescuer.