The climate change example suggests that it is sometimes very difficult, if not impossible, to hold anyone responsible for a collective harm. It, therefore, seems a typical example of the problem of many hands. Of course, the arguments provided by Sinnott-Armstrong and Johnson, and others, who argue to the same effect, are not uncontroversial and have indeed been criticised (e.g. Braham and van Hees 2010). But, rather than engaging in a discussion about the exact worth of these arguments, we will, for the moment, accept statement 5 above. As we have seen, statement 5 might be true even if Sinnott-Armstrong and Johnson are wrong. We now want to ask what the case of climate change can teach us about the problem of many hands more generally. To do so, we will consider the three different dimensions of the problem of many hands that Bovens (1998: 46–49) refers to: the practical, the normative and the preventive dimension. Our focus in this section will be on responsibility-as-blameworthiness. In the next section, we will discuss the other senses of responsibility in relation to the problem of many hands.
First, the problem of many hands can be conceived as a practical problem. It is often difficult in collective settings to identify and prove who was responsible for what. Especially for outsiders, it is usually very difficult, if not impossible, to know who contributed to, or could have prevented, a certain action, who knew or could have known what, et cetera. So conceived, the problem of many hands is primarily an epistemological problem because the problem of identifying who is responsible for what arises from a lack of knowledge.
This epistemological dimension does not appear to play a large role in the case of climate change. Of course, if we needed to find out how much each citizen in the world contributed causally to global warming, that would be very difficult if not impossible. However, the reasons discussed in the climate change case for why no individual can reasonably be held responsible seem to be of a much more principled nature. This can be seen as follows. Suppose that someone, say an independent observer, had perfect knowledge of who causally contributed to what, could have known what et cetera. If statement 5 is true, as we are assuming, even for this observer it would be impossible to identify someone who was responsible-as-blameworthy for climate change.
We might, of course, conclude that this means that simply nobody is responsible. However, the problem of many hands typically seems to refer to those situations in which individual responsibility is obscured, but one feels that this is inappropriate or wrong. This brings us to the second dimension of the problem of many hands, the normative or moral dimension. As Bovens says this dimension “raises the question whether the responsibility of the collectivity, the organisation, can be reduced to the individual responsibilities of discrete functionaries not just in practical but also in moral regard” (Bovens 1998: 47). Bovens suggests that the collective might sometimes be responsible while none of the individuals is responsible. His suggestion is thus that the problem of many hands occurs in the situation in which the collective is responsible but in which, nevertheless, none of the individuals that together constitute the collective is responsible.
The notion of collective responsibility that Bovens is referring to here may be termed ‘non-reductive collective responsibility,’ i.e. collective responsibility that cannot be reduced to the individual responsibilities of the members of the collective. Several philosophers have indeed argued for the possibility of such non-reductive collective responsibility (e.g. Pettit 2007; Copp 2007; French 1984), although there are also philosophers who believe that collective responsibility is always reductive (e.g. Miller 2010).
Sinnott-Armstrong also seems to rely on the assumption of non-reductive collective responsibility. He argues that “even if individuals have no moral obligation not to waste gas by taking unnecessary Sunday drives just for fun, governments still have moral obligations to fight global warming” (Sinnott-Armstrong 2005: 304). He also maintains that “individual moral obligations do not always follow directly from collective moral obligations” (Sinnott-Armstrong 2005: 287). If we look at responsibility-as-blameworthiness, the sense of responsibility that is most discussed in relation to the problem of many hands, we have seen that it might well be possible that no individual can be properly blamed for climate change. It may, however, be possible that at the same time the government can be properly blamed if it were proper to blame collectives rather than their members.
It appears, however, that it is not necessary to take a position in the debate about collective responsibility to understand the problem of many hands. A closer look at Bovens’ arguments reveals that we do not need the idea of collective responsibility to understand why a gap in the distribution of individual responsibility might sometimes be problematic. To do so, we need to look at the third dimension discussed by Bovens: the preventive or control dimension.
According to Bovens, the problem of many hands “frustrates the need for compensation and retribution on the part of victims” (Bovens 1998: 49). Moreover, the “fact that no one can be meaningfully called to account after the event also means … that no one need feel responsible beforehand” (Bovens 1998: 49), so that future harm cannot be prevented. Both arguments, the lack of retribution and the absence of someone feeling forward-looking responsible, indicate why the occurrence of the problem of many hands is undesirable, but neither of them requires that the collective is responsible while none of the individuals is responsible, as we will see below.
With respect to the first argument, it indeed seems true that if nobody can be properly blamed, retribution is impossible. However, if the collective can properly be held responsible in the case of a problem of many hands, as Bovens suggests, the collective could be properly blamed, and retribution would be possible. Of course, it could be argued that collectives cannot be a proper target of blame, for example because they have no feelings,Footnote 12 but in that case Bovens’ suggestion that the collective can be responsible seems be false in the first place. Either way, retribution only seems impossible if neither any individual nor the collective can be properly held responsible-as-blameworthy. This makes Bovens’ earlier suggestion that the problem of many hands typically occurs in cases in which the collective is responsible but none of the individuals problematic. Rather than requiring that the collective is responsible, Bovens’ first argument about the lack of retribution seems to require that the collective is not responsible.
Bovens’ second argument about the lack of forward-looking responsibility seems equally dubious when we consider the climate change case. If we accept Sinnott-Armstrong’s and Johnson’s arguments, individuals cannot be reasonably held backward-looking responsible for climate change, as we have seen. Still, on their accounts, individuals have a forward-looking responsibility to strive for collective agreements that would effectively abate climate change. Lack of individual backward-looking responsibility therefore does not entail the absence of individual forward-looking responsibility. A somewhat similar argument has been made by one of us in relation to environmental problems more generally: even if some individual citizens are not backward-looking responsible for certain environmental problems, they may still be forward-looking responsible (Nihlén Fahlquist 2009a). This does not imply that we can always be sure that someone will be forward-looking responsible for any problem and, of course, if a gap occurs with respect to forward-looking responsibility this might be considered a problem. The point only is that it should not be assumed that such problems necessarily occur if there is a gap in the distribution of backward-looking responsibility.