Reviewed by Peter Amato
The publication of G.A. Cohen’s compendious Rescuing Justice and Equality (RJE), and slight Why Not Socialism? (WNS), shortly before his death in 2009 provides a welcome occasion to reflect upon the challenges and gifts he has left us with. The former book features the full measure of Cohen’s exceptional argumentative powers as an extended conversation with John Rawls and political liberalism unfolds. In the latter, Cohen’s skills are gathered and brought to bear in illuminating the overarching issue of his career in broader but no less clarifying light. Cohen locates the earliest origin of his debate with Rawls in his desire to distinguish “the sensible” from “the just” in terms of convictions he characterizes as both “non-liberal, socialist/anarchist,” and in some sense “left Rawlsian,” (RJE xv, 1, 12). Cohen never gave up his desire to advance the struggle for “the socialist ideal,” a struggle with which his works will always remain engaged (WNS 80).
In RJE Cohen rehearses, extends and defends his project to re-envision political philosophy with the concepts of equality (Part I) and justice (Part II) at its core. Although four of the book’s eight chapters were previously published, numerous interjections, footnotes and appendices have been added along with copious replies to real and imagined objections and opponents. WNS, a version of which originally appeared in 2001, could be regarded as RJE’s missing ninth chapter, in which the upshot of the preceding rigorous disagreements with Philosophers is cashed-out in clearer and more accessible terms.
Cohen begins RJE by rescuing equality from Rawls’ “incentives argument,” that, in light of the difference principle, inequalities stemming from incentives are justified because they encourage the better-off to maintain high productivity to benefit the worse-off. But, according to Cohen, although incentives may mitigate suffering, they cannot manufacture justice. This is because such a scheme, “presupposes a model of society as a non-community, in which relations among human beings are construed as strategic, with people taking one another into account as so many opportunities for, and obstacles to, gain, rather than as fellow citizens by whom they can be asked to justify the way they live.” (RJE 15) There is a fundamental inconsistency at the heart of the Rawlsian justice machine, between the fratricidal ethos it takes for granted and the fraternizing principles even Rawls believes are required of its citizens: “[C]ommunity, or as Rawls denominates it, fraternity, is an important value for Rawls, and one that he claims to be not only consistent with but illustrated by the incentive rationale that I criticize…[T]he manner in which Rawls applies the difference principle, in his endorsement of incentives inequality, represents abandonment of that very principle.” (RJE 15)
Cohen generalizes this argument and poses it on deeper levels as RJE unfolds. In Chapters 2 and 3, he rescues equality from Pareto-style and other defenses of Rawlsian inequality. These err by omission of either dilemma-busting possibilities of equality left undreamt, or of the relevant content of distributive justice. The “Basic Structure Objection,” for example, attempts to defend inequality by limiting the scope of justice to society’s coercive core. But this fails first on the basis of things Rawls himself says to contradict it. Second, even if Rawls weren’t ambivalent on the issue, Cohen claims that no reasonable account of distributive justice can go through on the assumption that justice pertains only to political structures narrowly conceived because it necessarily involves the conduct of persons in relation to one another in the family and in the full ethical dimensions of life (RJE 132, 150).
In Chapters 4 and 5, Cohen extends the argument to take on the difference principle itself, rejecting its claim to be a feature of a just society on grounds that it is marked by the same “fault line” to which the incentives argument had earlier drawn his attention. The Rawlsian case for the difference principle “includes an affirmation of relational egalitarianism [which is] sensitive to comparisons between people,” but also a content which must be blind to them (RJE 151). On the one hand, Rawlsian justice over-rides entitlement, desert, specificity and need, but on the other hand, what kind of “justice” will have been produced that must be blind to the things that make us persons? Cohen replies only a “justice” that is not justice, but merely a compromise in the light of its continuing absence (RJE, 155, 159). Here, at the end of Part I, Cohen also extends his critique of Pareto arguments that have or could be mounted in defense of the difference principle. Building on what he argued in Chapter 2, Cohen sees Pareto-style arguments as relying on the arbitrary limitation of conceivable options resulting from excluding equality as a basic principle in advance.
Part II of RJE adds meta-ethical depth to the arguments of the first part by focusing on justice directly. Rawlsian constructivism explicitly sees itself as grounded ultimately in the facts of our human situation. But normative principles finally rely on a wider normativity, not a set of facts. What “justice” means cannot be identified with any particular factual constraints but must be general enough to avoid becoming arbitrary, ideological, or circular. “It is with principles as it is with preferences. For reasons of economy of reflection, and poverty of imagination, preferences are formed over … the feasible set, but the preferences so formed presuppose feasibility-independent ultimate preferences.” (RJE 272) The values ‘left out’ are the very things which, although essential to justice, kept disappearing from view in Part I, taking equality along with them. Rescuing justice “from the facts” means refusing to accept a conception of justice, like that of Rawls, that requires it to be “fact-sensitive” on the wrong level of analysis.
Cohen takes a Platonist line on what the “fact-insensitivity” of normative principles means for Rawls, but it is he who appears to be the realist: “[I]n believing that justice must be so crafted as to be bottom-line feasible, [the Rawlsians] believe that it is possible to achieve justice, and I am not so sanguine. It follows from my position that justice is an unachievable (although a nevertheless governing) ideal.” (RJE 254, 291) Rawls’ “fundamental error” is to conflate fundamental principles of justice with the regulatory rules of society. This leads him to “misidentif[y] the question “What is justice?” with the question “What principles should we adopt to regulate our affairs?”” (RJE 269) at the heart of his project. The result is a theory of justice in which justice can be had only as a compromise with facts of inequity and injustice it takes for granted as basic and irremediable. What is missing from Rawlsian liberalism as a philosophy is a broader ethical vision of fundamental values that just social life as such could be regarded as consistently aiming for, even while refusing to compromise away the unrealized and perhaps unrealizable content of its ideal. Instead of making a virtue, (called “justice”), out of what Rawls takes to be necessity, Cohen argues for the necessity or “centrality” of a broader conception of ethics in political philosophy and in society (RJE 195).
The task of sounding out and situating that conception historically is Cohen’s aim in WNS, a slight volume which, in some ways, could have been a fitting chapter with which to conclude RJE. In this book, however, Cohen is not arguing with philosophers so much as conversing with himself and with society at large. Most people are socialists when it comes to camping trips or smaller-scale mutual endeavors. On small scale and more intimate levels, an ethos of egalitarianism and community that transcends and conflicts with the “predatory” and reductive ethos of the market naturally tends to flourish unreflectively among people. But although the feasibility and desirability of socialism on the level of a camping trip or a local community activity is beyond question, the question with which the book is entitled applies to large-scale modern mass societies, upon which level a case needs to be made.
Cohen argues that the desirability of socialism on the broader level is clear and would be endorsed by most people if given the chance, even if only after scrutinizing carefully and dismissing some supposed objections. For example, it appears to some that even on the level of “camping trip values,” personal free choice tends be overridden by socialism, which would be a reason not to desire it. But, as Cohen points out, this reasoning both overlooks the degree to which broad constraints can freely be chosen under socialism, and assumes that in actual fact the personal choices of all are really better protected under a market scheme.
The case for the feasibility of socialism on the mass society level is more complicated. Common, (and Rawlsian, see RJE), arguments against socialism grounded in putative facts about human nature notwithstanding, Cohen grants that serious open questions do exist concerning what the “social technology” of a successful socialism would look like (WNS 53). “Social technology” refers to the organizational and institutional practices that would foster and maintain the conditions required by justice while assuring the functioning of an economy adequate to social needs. Cohen finally concludes that while socialism is feasible in principle, a compelling and detailed picture of its social technology remains elusive. He identifies and discusses the market socialism proposals of Joseph Carens and John Roemer as suitable places from which humanity may begin to envision and implement a path that would likely take us in the right direction toward the socialist ideal.
In both books here reviewed, Cohen achieves moments of inspired lucidity. But his meticulous focus on the implications of sometimes excessively qualified arguments will sometimes appear to the non-analytic reader to amount to hair-splitting—unfruitful at any time, but, considering the subject matter, especially at a time when the world so urgently needs an extreme make-over. But to dismiss Cohen’s rigorous style of argumentation in this way would be both costly to philosophy and unfair to Cohen. The non-analytic reader who persists through the sometimes tangled braids of Cohen’s arguments will find here far more than an essay in illiberal scholasticism.
In considering Cohen’s position against Rawls, it is helpful to recall that the book at which the arguments of RJE are mainly directed is after all entitled A Theory of Justice and not “a theory of ethics.” It is certainly true, as Cohen claims, that talking about justice and ignoring the content of personal choices and forms of life is ludicrous, as Cohen knows Marx and other great philosophers have insisted ever since and including Plato. But the fact that Rawls makes that mistake, despite various cryptic comments and famous retractions otherwise, is not as surprising as Cohen suggests, given that the kind of problem Rawls is trying to solve stems from administering rather than trying to end capitalism. The stature of Rawls’ theoretical accomplishment no doubt reflects its resonance with the ideological expectations of professional Philosophy in its era. This point is, of course, not lost on Cohen, (see RJE 195, 199 for example), but it suggests that some of his arguments against Rawls are moot.
Cohen’s criticisms do not have to overlook the politics of Rawls’ position in order to have the effect of requiring the reader to bracket them, or hold them at bay. When politics is taken seriously, Rawls appears in a less flattering light, but some of Cohen’s arguments also become less interesting and relevant. Seen from this perspective, the compromises and injustices Rawls tolerates are necessary because at no time relevant to the functioning of the Rawlsian justice machine are we dealing with a non-capitalist society. Rawlsville lies within the limits of Capitalburg, so that any implementation of the difference principle takes the ethos of capitalism for granted at any moment in the negotiation of justice Rawls is talking about. In this sense it doesn’t matter what individuals think they are doing in considering incentives offered to sustain their productivity—the ethos of their society has to be that of the market so long as market-guided activity is “normal practice” (RJE 144). If it weren’t, the difference principle would be moot, knocking out Cohen’s complaint against the incentives argument that it assumes the persistence of an unjust ethos in the midst of the just society.
Were the ethical principles and attitudes of persons in Rawlsville the mere reflection of normal practices, there would be no conflict between ought and is, and no purpose in pursuing justice except in order to describe life in Rawlsville. But ethical principles and attitudes as such are more than the mere reflection of normal circumstances—they are not merely ethos, but are reflective and therefore potentially critical, thanks to the gap between what we actually find ourselves doing and what some of us might believe we ought to do. The only way to have an ethos such as Cohen requires correspond with the difference principle would be dependent on the end of capitalism, which Rawls isn’t interested in, and RJE doesn’t discuss. Cohen fails to take seriously what it means that Rawlsian “justice” would continue within the ethos of capitalism while socialism continued its (perhaps interminable) gestation inside the womb of the predatory market society. But revolutionary hope exists because it is possible to deliberately and actively oppose the ethos of capitalism in part by adopting an ethics that is hostile to the prevailing capitalist form of life.
In short, when we consider Cohen’s arguments as set against a realistic picture of a society in transition and conflict, rather than idealized hypothetical scenarios, it should be clear that the ethos of capitalism has to exist in conflict and tension with the ethical beliefs and ideas of all those who are inspired to resist and oppose the prevailing organizing principles and practices of their society and time. To fight against actual inequality and injustice is the only way to fight against the ethos that is implicit within the institutions and practices of the predatory capitalist market. This requires practical struggle that may or may not include ethical–critical dialogue and discussion about our values, aims, hopes and intentions. As a result, thinking about justice while keeping in mind the complex ways a diminishing or dying capitalist society could conceivably undergo change under the influence of a resurgent and revolutionary egalitarianism, ironically, makes Rawls’ manner of discussing justice under the assumption of a departure from within capitalism sound more realistic than Cohen’s, and at least not entirely as unreasonable or inconsistent as Cohen argues it must be.
28 May 2010