‘On the Currency of Egalitarian Justice, and Other Essays in Political Philosophy’ reviewed by Peter Stone

On the Currency of Egalitarian Justice, and Other Essays in Political Philosophy

Edited by Michael Otsuka, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2011. 288pp., $24.95 / £16.95 pb
ISBN 9780691148717

Reviewed by Peter Stone

About the reviewer

Peter Stone is Ussher Lecturer in Political Science (Political Theory) at Trinity College Dublin. …


Luck matters. Few people, Marxist or non-Marxist, would deny this. But if you entertain any doubts, consider this. The Marxist world was very lucky to count G.A. Cohen in its ranks. And its luck ran out all too soon in August 2009, with Cohen’s untimely death at the age of 68.

As a political philosopher and an avowed socialist, Cohen spent his career exploring a variety of topics of interest to Marxists, including the nature of historical materialism, the relationship between capitalism and freedom, and the contribution of theory to practice. But more than any other topic, it was distributive justice that occupied his attention. On the Currency of Egalitarian Justice, and Other Essays in Political Philosophy reflects this. It is the first of three projected volumes intended to collect together Cohen’s best papers not yet collected into anthologies. And while its second and third sections are entitled ‘Freedom and Property’ and ‘Ideal Theory and Political Practice,’ respectively, it is the first section, on distributive justice, which constitutes the book’s clear center of gravity. For this reason, I shall focus my attention here on Cohen’s views on justice, as presented in this book.

A just society, Cohen assumes, ensures that everyone has the right amount of certain things. A satisfactory conception of justice, then, must specify 1) just what sort of things are to be distributed in accordance with justice, and 2) how ought those things be distributed. This is the distinction (drawn by Susan Hurley) between the currency of distribution and the pattern of distribution (92, n. 13). For Cohen, the proper currency of distribution is something he calls advantage. Advantage is, frankly, a bit of a grab bag. It concerns both physical goods (including money) and mental states (such as happiness or preference satisfaction), as well as what Cohen calls midfare—what goods do for a person, ‘what he gets out of then, apart from his mental reaction to or personal evaluation of that service’ (45). Cohen admits that he ‘cannot say, in a pleasingly systematic way, exactly what counts as an advantage’ (18), but he believes that any less complicated answer will generate unacceptable conclusions about justice.

Cohen has more to say regarding the pattern of distribution—how advantage (however defined) ought to be distributed. Cohen famously developed the theory of justice known as luck egalitarianism. ‘On the Currency of Egalitarian Justice’ (chapter 1) presents the first systematic exposition of this theory. It holds that the goal of egalitarianism ‘is to eliminate involuntary disadvantage, by which I (stipulatively) mean disadvantage for which the sufferer cannot be held responsible’ (Cohen’s emphasis; 13). Luck egalitarians would thus permit economic inequalities whenever those inequalities reflect choices for which people can be held responsible, and not simply facts about the physical or social differences between individuals. Many liberal egalitarians, Cohen argues, accept this position regarding compensation for work; they seem to recognize that people may deserve to earn more because they work harder, not because they were lucky enough to possess natural talents and abilities that other people value. But those same liberal egalitarians fail to apply this logic to the problem of consumption. I might deserve to enjoy more consumption because I am a careful shopper and clip coupons, but not because I am lucky enough to be born with tastes that can be cheaply satisfied. The equality embraced by luck egalitarians can thus be described as equality of access to advantage, with the term ‘access’ meant to reflect an ability to acquire advantage dependent upon choice but not luck.

The line between luck and choice is notoriously difficult to draw in practice. This does not concern Cohen; all that matters to him is the principled distinction between the two. ‘The idea motivating equality of access to advantage does not even imply that there actually is such a thing as genuine choice. Instead, it implies that if there is no such thing—because, for example, “hard determinism” is true—then all differential advantage is unjust’ (60).

Luck egalitarianism is clearly an egalitarian theory. While it licenses any number of inequalities, those inequalities would surely be much smaller than any prevailing in modern capitalist societies. But in the years since ‘On the Currency of Egalitarian Justice’ first appeared, Cohen moved yet further in egalitarian directions. In chapter 4 (‘Expensive Taste Rides Again’), he argues that ‘I no longer think that the mere fact that people chose to develop and/or could now school themselves out of an expensive judgmental taste means that they should pick up the tab for it, and that is precisely because they did and do identify with it, and therefore cannot reasonably be expected to have not developed it or to rid themselves of it’ (Cohen’s emphasis; 88). If a person chooses to develop expensive tastes, and those tastes involve not a brute desire but a value judgment that those tastes constitute an essential part of a good life, then those tastes should not be held against that person when it comes to obtaining advantage. This would surely preclude much of the inequality that luck egalitarianism was supposed to admit.

In chapter 6 (‘Fairness and Legitimacy in Justice, and: Does Option Luck Ever Preserve Justice?’), Cohen expresses further reluctance to permit choice-based inequalities. Cohen seems here to recognize, more clearly than before, just how closely related markets and inequality really are. After all, if two people compete to sell the same good, each may adopt a different strategy, and the result may be a huge profit for the first and bankruptcy for the second. But even if both adopt the same strategy, luck will invariably influence their fortunes. ‘Choices both to give and to buy have the property that it is accidental who is favored by them: we both offer a commodity at £10, and it is an accident from whom a purchaser decides to buy, even in the most ‘perfect’ of markets. The underlying point,’ Cohen concludes, ‘might be that a luck egalitarian can’t allow any transactions. Sure, she can allow transactions that preserve absence of luck in distribution, but that won’t confer much choice’ (Cohen’s emphasis; 143). There may still be a sense in which market-based decisions are ‘just,’ but it is a sense closely related to the term ‘legitimate;’ perhaps nobody has any ground to complain if they take a gamble on the marketplace and lose, but this does not mean an egalitarian must be happy with the outcome.

At times, then, Cohen endeavors to modify luck egalitarianism so as to admit fewer inequalities. At other times, however, he seems to go much further in an egalitarian direction than even luck egalitarianism can admit. In chapter 10 (‘Back to Socialist Basics’) Cohen critiques the very idea of linking effort to reward:

[A]sk, now, why the effortful person who is supposed to be handsomely rewarded expended the effort that she did. Did she do so in order to enrich herself? If so, then why should her special effort command a high reward? Or did she work hard in order to benefit others? If so, then it contradicts her own aim to reward her with extra resources that others would otherwise have, as opposed to with a salute and handshake and a sense of gratitude (Cohen’s emphasis; 222).

Cohen further avows his support of the classic Marxist position on communist equality:

The market, any market, contradicts the principle which not only Marx but his socialist predecessors proclaimed for the good society, the principle embodied in the slogan ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.’ One might ask what it means for each to give according to his ability, and what it means for each to get according to his needs. But for the present purposes, the unambiguous message of the slogan is that what you get is not a function of what you give, that contribution and benefit are separate matters. Here the relationship between people is not the instrumental one in which I give because I get, but the wholly noninstrumental one in which I give because you need (Cohen’s emphasis; 219-20).

For luck egalitarians, however, what you get is very much a function of what you give. True, markets pose serious (perhaps irresolvable) problems as vehicles for measuring how much you give and how much you should get; they are, after all, unable to distinguish between contributions based upon choice and those based upon luck. But reward is clearly meant to relate to effort; those who choose to do more to help society, or find personal satisfaction in ways that demand less of society, should be entitled to find themselves in a better position than others. Cohen’s blanket denial of this claim seems hard to square with luck egalitarianism.

Why should Cohen be so reluctant to admit even the greatly reduced inequalities that luck egalitarianism permits? Perhaps because he sometimes finds it difficult to admit that fully just agents would ever seek more than their compatriots. Cohen accepts the idea of a ‘legitimate personal prerogative,’ one that ‘grants each person the right to be something other than an engine for the welfare of other people: we are not nothing but slaves to social justice’ (250). But he seems to regard this personal prerogative as a partial permission to ignore the demands of justice. When we are thinking of ourselves, we are doing something different from, and inextricably opposed to, justice. To the extent that we are advancing the cause of justice, we are indeed merely engines for the welfare of other people.

It is unfortunate to imagine Cohen embracing such a position given his longstanding intellectual dialogue with John Rawls. Fundamental to Rawls’ thought is the claim that we must respect the difference between persons. The failure to do so, Rawls argues, is the most serious flaw in utilitarianism. But Cohen’s more extreme egalitarian statements sit uneasily with such respect. Cohen seems to think that, to the extent I am dedicated to justice, I shall not treat my own advantage as having any more bearing than that of anyone else. If I accept this conclusion, how can I resist the further claim that my advantage should be sacrificed (perhaps dramatically) for the advantage of others, that their gain must somehow justify my loss? The utilitarian problem seems to resurface naturally if one presses so hard for egalitarianism in this manner.

Perhaps there is a way to reconcile respect for the difference between persons with an understanding of justice that leaves no room for self-advancement. If there is, no one would have been more likely to find it than Cohen. His death is thus a terrible piece of bad luck for the world of political philosophy, one that it surely does not deserve.

1 September 2011


  1. Surely there is a world of difference between the radical egalitarianism you attribute to Cohen and utilitarianism, because radical egalitarians have no obligation to make themselves any worse off than anyone else, which is precisely what the charge of having to sacrifice oneself for the sake of others is about. To be sure, radical egalitarianism requires people to ‘sacrifice’ their interests to the extent that they are not permitted to be any better off than others, but I can’t see how that constitutes a violation of the separateness of persons. Each of us is still entitled to apply our just share of resources to our own ends rather than subordinating those ends to those of others.

  2. It is certainly true that Cohen would never countenance the kind of sacrifice that utilitarianism might require. The similarity I see is at a different level. Cohen seems to believe that, to the extent that we are behaving justly, we can never assert a demand for more than anyone else (where “more” is defined in terms of access to advantage). He recognizes that people have always and will always make such demands, and up to a point he sees nothing wrong with that. This is because he doesn’t expect us to be saints; up to a point, we can legitimately ignore the demands of justice. But again, to the extent we are behaving justly, we are paying no attention to ourselves, and paying sole attention to the overall pattern of social goods. And this is very similar to utilitarianism; the perfect utilitarian pays no attention to herself, and pays sole attention to the overall quantity of social utility. Whether this should disturb us or not depends upon how we view Rawls’ objection to utilitarianism, I guess.

  3. >>to the extent we are behaving justly, we are paying no attention to ourselves, and paying sole attention to the overall pattern of social goods…

    I’m not sure whether I don’t understand that, or just think that it’s false. Abstracting from the ‘personal prerogative’, radical egalitarians, in Cohen’s terms, behave justly by ensuring that they do not enjoy more than an equal share of whatever constitutes access to advantage. How does that count as ‘paying no attention to ourselves’, since we could not know if were were doing it without attending to the advantages we ourselves enjoy?

  4. Well, technically, it would be more accurate to say ‘paying no more attention to ourselves than we pay to anyone else.’ The utilitarian, after all, doesn’t neglect his/her own utility; s/he simply assigns it no more value than that of anyone else. Cohen’s perfectly just agent seems to do the same thing when it comes to access to advantage.

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