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When are we responsible for addressing the acute deprivations of others beyond state borders? One widely held view is that we are responsible for addressing or preventing acute deprivations insofar as we have contributed to them or are contributing to bringing them about. But how should agents who endorse this “contribution principle” of allocating responsibility yet are uncertain whether or how much they have contributed to some problem conceive of their responsibilities with respect to it? Legal systems adopt formal norms that set the burden of proof, the standard of proof, and the constraints on admissible evidence, which help courts to apply liability rules in cases where there are significant evidential uncertainties. Applying principles for determining ethical responsibilities, too, require such norms. Their content, however, should be much different from that found in criminal and even civil legal settings, where the moral costs of falsely holding those responsible for bringing about some harm are more worrisome. Instead of demanding that an agent be shown to have contributed to some deprivation “beyond a reasonable doubt,” we should express a willingness to err in favor of the acutely deprived subjects, demanding that even those agents who merely suspect that they may have substantially contributed to these deprivations undertake efforts to address them.

Keywords: acute deprivation; burden of proof; contribution; responsibility; standard of proof

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: Ethics & International Affairs, 170 E. 64th Street, New York, New York 10021, USA , Email:

Publication date: January 1, 2005

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