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Sci Eng Ethics. 2012 Mar;18(1):49-67. doi: 10.1007/s11948-011-9276-0. Epub 2011 May 1.

The problem of many hands: climate change as an example.

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Department of Technology, Policy and Management, Technical University Delft, P.O. Box 5015, 2600 GA Delft, The Netherlands.


In some situations in which undesirable collective effects occur, it is very hard, if not impossible, to hold any individual reasonably responsible. Such a situation may be referred to as the problem of many hands. In this paper we investigate how the problem of many hands can best be understood and why, and when, it exactly constitutes a problem. After analyzing climate change as an example, we propose to define the problem of many hands as the occurrence of a gap in the distribution of responsibility that may be considered morally problematic. Whether a gap is morally problematic, we suggest, depends on the reasons why responsibility is distributed. This, in turn, depends, at least in part, on the sense of responsibility employed, a main distinction being that between backward-looking and forward-looking responsibility.

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