Contribution to Collective Harms and Responsibility

Ethical Perspectives 19 (4):733-764 (2012)
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In this paper, I discuss the claim, endorsed by a number of authors, that contributing to a collective harm is the ground for special responsibilities to the victims of that harm. Contributors should, between them, cover the costs of the harms they have inflicted, at least if those harms would otherwise be rights-violating. I raise some doubts about the generality of this principle before moving on to sketch a framework for thinking about liability for the costs of harms in general. This framework uses a contractualist framework to build an account of how to think about liability for costs on the basis of the presumably attractive thought that individual agents should have as much control over their liabilities as is compatible with others having like control. I then use that framework to suggest that liability on the basis of contribution should be restricted to cases where the contributors could have avoided their contribution relatively costlessly, where meeting the liability is not crippling for them, and where such a liability would not have chilling effects, either on them or on third parties. This account of the grounds for contributory liability also has the advantage of avoiding a number of awkward questions about what counts as a contribution by shifting the issue away from often unanswerable questions about the precise causal genesis of some harm or other. Instead, control over conduct which plausibly has some relation to the harm because crucial. On the basis of this account, I then investigate whether a number of uses of the contributory principle. I argue that contributory liability is not appropriate for cases of collective harms committed by coordinated groups in the way that, for example, Iris Marion Young and Thomas Pogge have suggested and that further investigation of how members of such groups may be liable will be needed.

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Robert Jubb
University of Reading


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