Cohen on Justice and Equality reading group (1)

by Chris Bertram on January 22, 2009

As promised, this is the first in a series of weekly postings on G.A. Cohen’s new Rescuing Justice and Equality. I say “new”, but much of the book isn’t all that new at all and consists of the republication of older material with which the political philosophy community is already familiar. I should also mention that there’s a conference on the book in Oxford on Friday and Saturday, which I’ll be attending, so my contribution in future weeks will, no doubt, be enriched by that. But for now it has not been.

Cohen’s first chapter, “The Incentives Argument” has strong autobiographical echoes for me, in two respects. The first is, that he starts with a historical event that I remember well, the Lawson tax cut of 1988. I was so angered by the Thatcher government’s tax give-away to the very rich at a time when so many had been thrown into unemployment and poverty by her policies, that the following morning I walked past my bus stop in Stoke Newington and, thinking that brisk walking would cause my emotional state to pass carried on at a fast pace. I didn’t get the bus at the next stop either, or the one after that, and ended up walking all the way to the LSE, a distance, I see now thanks to Google Maps, of just under five miles. The second is that I remember going to see Jerry, at about the same time, and telling him that I had come to the conclusion that Rawls’s difference principle is not a principle of justice, properly speaking, but merely a compromise with injustice that we sometimes have to make. He replied, “that’s what I think too” and told me about the work that he was undertaking and which first issued in the Tanner Lecture that is (essentially) reprinted in the present book. (My own, different and somewhat inferior argument is contained in my “Principles of Distributive Justice, Counterfactuals and History”, Journal of Political Philosophy, 1:3 (1995)—sorry to blow my own trumpet, but as Jerry quotes Hillel as saying – at p.11 of RJ&E – “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me?)”

OK, so on to the work at hand. “The Incentives Argument” addresses the idea that inequalities that benefit the more advantaged are justified because the incentives they give advantaged people to work harder, longer, or better, end up making the least advantaged better-off than they otherwise would be. That is what our focus should be here. There are many other justifications for inequality, of course. One other species of argument is based on desert, another on entitlement. They are not relevant here. Also outside our scope should be the general principle that inequalities are justified when they improve the position of the worst-off or least advantaged. For there may be ways in which such inequalities help the least advantaged that are not objectionable in the way that matters here (I don’t say that there are any unobjectionable ways). Rather, Cohen’s attention is on one particular way in which it gets to be the case that inequalities achieve that beneficial effect. That way is when the already advantaged choose to put in the efforts necessary to benefit the worst off only if they are paid at a higher rather than a lower level. In Cohen’s example, they will work harder, thereby benefiting the least advantaged, at 40 per cent marginal tax rates than they would at 60 per cent marginal tax rates.

If this fact is presented as a merely neutral finding of social science, as an objective or quasi-objective fact about the world, then, Cohen concedes the least advantaged have good reason to accept such inequalities. Similarly, someone whose answer to William Graham Sumner’s question about what social classes owe to each other is, “bugger all”, will think that the poor would do well to knuckle-down and be grateful (forgive me my careless formulations here). But in a liberal egalitarian society, he thinks, where citizens owe one another a certain obligation of interpersonal justification, things are different. Where people are in a relationship of “community” with one another (where they, to quote Rawls, enjoy “ties of civic friendship” [see RJ&E 45]) then there is an incoherence in the advantaged saying to the least advantaged, something like what Cohen has highly-paid managers saying to the less well-off at p.59 of RJ&E, namely

Public policy should make the worst off people (in this case, as it happens, you) better off.
If the top tax goes up to 60 per cent, we shall work less hard, and, as a result, the position of the poor (your position) will be worse.
So the top tax on our income should not be raised to 60 per cent.

Such an argument, according to Cohen, essentially amounts to a piece of blackmail and cannot be uttered in good faith by those who maintain that they are in community with others. To use his expression, such arguments fail the test of “comprehensive justification”.

A couple of qualifications and caveats need to be mentioned. First, not all apparently unequalizing payments are genuinely unequalizing. This is because some of them may be necessary to compensate high earners for costs and risks associated with their jobs. A highly paid diver on a North Sea oil rig may get more money that his cousin ashore, but that is not necessarily something that an egalitarian need worry about given the unpleasantness of the work. By contrast, of course, those who are rewarded with high incentive-justified differentials often already enjoy a quality of life far better than that of the least advantaged. Second, Cohen does not deny an agent-centred prerogative allowing people to advantage themselves to a certain degree, he merely says that whatever that degree is, it is vastly exceeded by the inequalities that typically exist in capitalist societies.

Since there’s a whole book ahead, much of which will be concerned with Rawls and Rawlsiana, I don’t want to dwell too much on the Rawls-specific aspects of this chapter. But I anticipate that one reaction that many Rawlsians will have will be to say that the relationship in which people stand to one another in a well-ordered society, isn’t one in which the test of comprehensive justification, in Rawls’s sense, applies. Cohen is going to say, in response, that (among other things) that is in tension (and maybe in contradiction) with many things that Rawls has to say about the commitments of citizens to the principles of justice.

Many people will also have a worry about the way in which Cohen thinks about the attitude of the wealthy advantaged towards their poorer co-citizens. He represents them as having a kind of schizophrenic attitude to their own motivations: on the one hand there’s a first person perspective in which I am justifying a certain kind of behaviour and conditional attitude to others, on the other there’s a representation of the facts in an impersonal detached way. But where we are dealing not with a small face-to-face community but with a large and complex society, comprising many millions of people, it doesn’t seem obviously wrong to for individuals to present social scientific findings about effort, reward, incentives etc as external facts that escape their own control. Of course, no-one is forcing them to benefit from that external structure (they could, as individuals just choose to work as hard for less) but in a society where others similarly placed to themselves were earning high rewards it might be too much to ask that talented individuals make large sacrifices. The trouble, in turn, with that thought (Cohen might respond) is that it starts by taking the attitudes and motivations of others as a given, but, if we are doing ideal theory here, it isn’t clear that those attitudes can be taken to include the kind of maximizing that the incentives argument presupposes.

Sort of relatedly, Cohen raises questions about the scope of principles of distributive justice. If the demand for comprehensive justification arises among people who are in “community” with one another, then the breadth of that community is important. There’s also the troubling case of people who might belong, or have the choice to belong to more than one such group. He discusses academics who might be tempted to leave an egalitarian society to earn higher wages in, say, the North American system. Assuming it to be true that the loss of their contribution would have a damaging effect on the least advantaged such that it would make prudential sense for the poor to bribe them to stay, is it wrong of the academics to demand the higher wages? The question of why I have an obligation to stay here and work for a lower wage than I could get is going to be pressing. Suppose the other society where I could earn the higher wages is (internally) governed by the difference principle, do I do wrong to confront my fellow citizens with the fact of what I could earn there? I’m not entirely sure what I think.

OK, so those are intended as ruminations to get us going. I had intended to limit the lead post in these discussions to 1000 words max and I’m over 1500, so time to stop. Remember the rules: comments are limited to people who have read the text – others please keep out!

{ 30 comments }

1

Matt Steinglass 01.22.09 at 7:49 am

I am as outraged at financial malfeasance and tax cuts for the rich as the next guy. Nonetheless, this:

If the top tax goes up to 60 per cent, we shall work less hard, and, as a result, the position of the poor (your position) will be worse.
So the top tax on our income should not be raised to 60 per cent.
Such an argument, according to Cohen, essentially amounts to a piece of blackmail

…strikes me as ridiculous. People are not in simple rational volitional control of their future behavior, and a class of people cannot be ascribed the kind of simple discrete rational volition that an individual can. A recovering alcoholic who asks his wife not to keep wine in the house because he will end up drinking it is not engaging in blackmail. A factory worker who observes that rising inequality is likely to lead to social strife is not engaging in blackmail. For that matter, a ticket seller who tells you that unless you buy a ticket, you will not be allowed into the movie theater, is not engaging in blackmail.
You nod to the second point further down, when you say that “where we are dealing not with a small face-to-face community but with a large and complex society, comprising many millions of people, it doesn’t seem obviously wrong to for individuals to present social scientific findings about effort, reward, incentives etc as external facts that escape their own control.” That is exactly right. You then go on, however, to say that such a claim “starts by taking the attitudes and motivations of others as a given, but, if we are doing ideal theory here, it isn’t clear that those attitudes can be taken to include the kind of maximizing that the incentives argument presupposes.”
This seems to me to place the grounds of the ideal theorizing at such a Himalayan altitude that it is of no relevance to the affairs of we mortals. What is being proposed? That one might hike taxes on the rich, but tell them to go on investing and working just as before, for the good of society, and that they would obey, and wave off the notion of economic incentives for performance? Look. Taxes are a disincentive to investment. They just are. It is not blackmail to say so. The reason why the arguments made by wealthy conservatives for the past 30 years are wrong is that taxes are not anywhere near as great a disincentive as they claim, that the rewards to the poor of greater economic activity by the rich are much less than they claim, and that incentives are malleable depending on conditions and social norms, so that the disincentivizing effects of taxes can be minimized to the point where they are outweighed by the benefits of greater equality. Dutch executives are compensated far worse than Americans, but Dutch firms perform just as well. But these are empirical points; they don’t just emerge from abstract moral theorizing.

2

Christian Hiebaum 01.22.09 at 9:28 am

Matt, you have some points. But Chris is not that inconsistant. The ideal-theory-argument against taking attitudes and motivations as simply given is an argument he attributes to Cohen.
Still, this is important: Cohen seems to boil down relections on distributive justice to a quite narrowly conceived conceptual analysis. For example, on page 301 he states: “Luck egalitarians are interested in the very nature of distributive justice, not in the different question as to what principles, to be influenced by distributive justice but also by other things, a society should adopt as its basic ones.“ This reduction together with an unplausibly narrow understanding of distributive (or social) justice is also evident in his acknowledgement of personal prerogatives, in particular when he says that “we are not nothing but slaves to social justice” (p. 10). As if a conception of social (or distributive) justice which turns us into engines for the welfare of other people could be coherent, i.e. as if personal prerogatives were mere side-constraints, not essential parts of social justice.

3

Chris Bertram 01.22.09 at 9:45 am

I think the simple answer to what you’re saying Matt is that tax breaks to the rich might be (under certain empirical assumptions) the right policy to adopt, but that we shouldn’t allow that the incentive-based-difference-principle (or a similar principle) is a principle of _justice_. Rather it is a compromise between justice and other values. One of Cohen’s complaints against Rawls is that by taking “justice” to refer to optimal principles of social regulation, Rawls obscures from view the fact that optimal principles of social regulation are a compromise between different basic values (justice, efficiency, etc).

4

Chris Armstrong 01.22.09 at 10:29 am

I’ve been re-reading Nagel’s Equality and Partiality recently, and been struck by the overlap between the concerns the two authors have about these issues. But they come out quite differently in Nagel; there is no question of bad faith, or blackmail. We have an impersonal perspective, which allows us to see that the incentives Cohen bemoans are inegalitarian and morally highly suspect. But we also have a personal perspective which is more concerned with material rewards for ourselves and our families, which means that in capitalist societies we will seek such incentives. This means that ‘it is difficult to combine, in a morally coherent outlook, the attitude toward inequalities due to talent which generates support for an egalitarian system with the attitude toward the employment of their own talent appropriate for individuals operating within it. The first attitude is that such inequalities are unfair and morally suspect, whereas the second attitude is that one is entitled to try to get as much out of the system as one can.’

The difference is that for Nagel, the incoherence does not amount to bad faith. The personal perspective is inevitable and not, he seems to think, regrettable. As egalitarians the most we can hope is that over time, and with the appropriate institutions, the wealthy might come to experience moral queasiness in asking for the greater salaries, and consuming ostentatiously. But if they do not, it is not clear whether they are acting unjustly. The personal perspective is much more like a fact of nature we need to contend with than it is in Cohen. But the difference may turn out to be very slight: all that happens is that Cohen rules such incentive-seeking as an example of bad faith, but concedes that once we’ve worked out what is just, an individual might THEN exercise some degree of self-serving rent-seeking. Without his specifying what degree of agent-centred prerogative we’re talking about, it’s simply not clear. Whether hypocrisy is involved is merely dependent on what stage of the process we think it appropriate for agent-centred prerogatives to come in. Nagel thinks we’re not hypocrites because the personal perspective has a valid place at the table of justice; Cohen thinks we’re hypocrites, but sometimes permissibly so.

5

Chris Bertram 01.22.09 at 11:31 am

Chris, is the quote at the end of your first para from Nagel? I can’t see (and cf Cohen’s discussion of this at sec. 5 of the introduction) any reason to believe that the “attitude toward the employment of their own talent appropriate for individuals” is “that one is entitled _to try to get as much out of the system as one can_ ” [emphasis added]. As Cohen there observes, that extreme conclusion doesn’t follow from Nagel’s division between standpoints nor from other observations that he makes such as that the state doesn’t have its own life to lead whereas individuals do.

6

Chris Armstrong 01.22.09 at 12:02 pm

Hi- yes, the quote is from Nagel, page 117. I agree that it doesn’t follow!

7

Matt Steinglass 01.22.09 at 1:17 pm

Chris, that makes sense. But I think what I find objectionable, though I wander from the point due to a lack of philosophical discipline, is Cohen’s apparent description of what John Holbo in his post calls a form of Moore’s Dilemma as “blackmail”. Blackmail requires a kind of intentionality that doesn’t make sense when you’re talking about an individual making a prediction about the long-term behavior of a class of which he is a member. I come back again to whether it is blackmail when a worker observes that, say, low wages discourage workers from working harder. Or, since the issue at hand is justice, how about when an African-American chants “No justice, no peace”? The force of that syllogism comes from the point that people who maintain unjust social arrangements have themselves to blame for the ensuing predictable violence. But it seems Cohen would contend that since the chanter has the power to refrain from violence, the chant is just blackmail. I really think that to describe things this way you would have to believe that human beings have the power to collectively transform their own future behavior patterns by sheer force of will. And it doesn’t seem entirely coincidental that we then end up in a familiar terrain where an egalitarianism achievable by simple will is set against an incentive-based vision predicated on an understanding of human nature, if you see what I mean.

8

Chris Bertram 01.22.09 at 2:28 pm

#7 Matt, I don’t think that Cohen has, or needs to have, any implausible ideas about how much of our behaviour is subject to the will. In cases where the talented literally cannot produce the extra effort without the extra pay then he would agree that it is not unjust that they should receive it. (See especially sec.7 of the current chapter and also sec.12 concerning strict and lax readings of the DP.)

9

Sean Aas 01.22.09 at 5:50 pm

Thanks a lot for the review and comments, Chris (may I call you Chris?). Reading the chapter and your commentary, I had a few thoughts on Cohen’s notions of ‘comprehensive justification’ and ‘justificatory community’:

First, suppose that we know that a certain policy will achieve its aims only if a certain subset of the population react to it in a way that all take to be, though not wrong, then at least somewhat distasteful (suppose, say, that we live in a society with a vegetarian ethos but cannot achieve a sensible food policy unless some covertly eat meat), and that some people will indeed react to it in this way. But the behavior in question is considered by all to be quite distasteful (if not by any to be wrong), and so those who will perform it cannot justify doing so without embarassment. Is this an objection to the policy? It’s not clear to me that it is.

Second, I take it that one upshot of Cohen’s discussion here is supposed to be that the incentives argument- though perhaps perfectly good for policy-making- does not get at what justice requires, since justice requires that people not seek (perogative-exceeding) incentives. But what he actually shows, at most, is that the prima facie distinct value of justificatory community cannot be realized in the presence of incentive-demanding behavior. To draw the broader conclusion, we’d need something like the linking premise that justificatory community is a requirement of justice. But this isn’t obviously true; and I suspect many liberals, motivated by a concern for privacy to limit the ambit of considerations of justice, would be inclined to deny it. In any case; one would like an argument for it, and Cohen doesn’t here provide one, so far as I can see (or have I missed something?).

10

Yarrow 01.22.09 at 6:14 pm

Matt @ 7, Cohen has a long discussion of these points in If You’re an Egalitarian, How Come You’re So Rich? — and in one of the footnotes acknowledges that he himself could be asked “If you’re the egalitarian who wrote If You’re an Egalitarian, How Come You’re So Rich?, how come you’re so rich?”

He’s well aware that we all can fall short of truly just action. His philosophical point is that this doesn’t make a difference to what justice is. His practical point is that in a society with an ethos of justice, the advantaged are in fact more likely to practice personal justice than in a society whose prevailing ethos is nous sommes pauvre, je suis riche — or even in a society whose prevailing ethos is that justice is what totally self-interested people would arrive at, were they in Rawls’ original position.

When the disadvantaged chant “No justice, no peace” they may be implying “If you give us no justice, we will give you no peace” and still be consistent. Cohen would argue that a Rawlsian liberal is not consistent who says “I am for justice, which is the arrangement we’d all have hit upon in the original position, and which (now) allows me to extract as much as the traffic will bear from the advantages I find myself possessing.”

11

Jon Mandle 01.22.09 at 7:11 pm

Chris alludes to Cohen’s idea of a “community” in which members owe each other justification for their behavior. This is a helpful way for Cohen to put the point, but I don’t think modern liberal democracies are communities in the relevant sense (nor should they be). Within very broad constraints, I don’t (and shouldn’t) have to justify my religious practices publicly to everyone’s satisfaction – “that’s just what I believe” is good enough. Perhaps I do need to justify myself to the other members of my church when they accuse me of heresy – to them, “that’s just what I believe” isn’t good enough. But this is precisely because we are members of a particular religious community that is not shared throughout the society. Similarly, I think I have an obligation to justify my choices between time spent working and family time to my wife, but not to my fellow-citizens generally – “that’s just what I want” isn’t good enough when she and I discuss it, but it’s none of your business.

Two asides. First, apparently Cohen is going to argue later that “publicity” is not an appropriate constraint on justification. This strikes me as quite odd given his emphasis here on “comprehensive justification.” To whom is such a justification offered? I’m guessing this will come up again in later chapters. Second, I think the empirical facts of trade-offs between income (for work) and leisure (non-work) are very murky here. (This is being discussed in the comments to John’s post.) Although I can easily imagine myself in a position where I would not work as hard if my income were less, I can also easily imagine myself in a position where raising my tax rate would lead me to work more – or harder – in order to maintain the same income level that I had with the lower rate – I have a mortgage to pay, after all.

Back to the religion case. Suppose someone says to me that I should change my religion to that of the majority because this will save social resources – fewer churches will have to be built and fewer priests hired, say. The savings will work to everyone’s advantage and will help the least-advantaged in particular. I have nothing to say in defense of my particular religion – nothing convincing to members of another faith, certainly – beyond “that’s what I sincerely believe.” I’m unable to offer a comprehensive justification of my claim that I may justly spend money to worship in my own way. Is my maintaining my minority faith unjust?

As Chris mentions, Cohen allows a “personal prerogative” that may allow me to spend the money on my church. (Cohen does not explore this prerogative, so I speculate that this would fall within it.) But the important point is that when this prerogative is invoked, it allows me to do what is unjust in the name of some other value – religious liberty, for example. In other words, for Cohen, my position really is unjust, but not such a serious injustice that we should sacrifice religious liberty for it. This strikes me as mistaken – there is no injustice here, big or small. And this is because I don’t owe (as a matter of justice) a justification of my faith to people who are not members of my religious community (even though, notice, they are affected negatively by my maintaining my faith).

I think that my trade-off of income and leisure is like that. Members of my society are not (in general) members of the community to whom I owe a justification of how I balance these. On the other hand, I think we do have an obligation to justify in terms others can accept the design of the tax system. So here we come to the question of whether there are grounds for singling out the basic structure as somehow special from the point of view of justice. No doubt, we’ll come back to this (many times) in future discussions.

I have one more comment that I’ll put up separately for the sake of clarity.

12

Jon Mandle 01.22.09 at 7:13 pm

As Chris explains Cohen’s position, “A highly paid diver on a North Sea oil rig may get more money that his cousin ashore, but that is not necessarily something that an egalitarian need worry about given the unpleasantness of the work.” Cohen gives another (and to me much more surprising) example: “Think of those harried and haggard yuppies or overworked surgeons who really would lead miserable lives if the massive amount of work they do were not compensated by the massive amount of income that leads them to choose to work that hard.” (p.55) In these cases, the additional income don’t really “produce an inequality, all things considered … where work is specially arduous or stressful, higher remuneration is a counterbalancing equalizer on a sensible view of how to judge whether or not things are equal.” (p.56)

This seems to me to be something of a cheat. Almost all of the discussion is conducted in terms of inequalities in income with Cohen arguing that essentially no inequality is justified. Now, when it seems intuitively that an inequality in income might (might!) be justified, he holds onto his radical equality by denying he was talking about income. A “sensible view” will incorporate other factors such as the difficulty of the work. But really, it seems, it will incorporate how “harried and haggard” a person is. In other words, it is dependent on subjective satisfaction – perhaps on other things as well, and perhaps complicated by opportunities for subjective satisfaction. But this changes the character of Cohen’s position very dramatically from what it appears to be in most of his discussion. In any event, the details of this aren’t spelled out, at least not yet. And without these details, it strikes me as cheating because he can accommodate any case of intuitively justified inequality simply by denying that they involve any inequality “on a sensible view.”

13

Chris Bertram 01.22.09 at 7:35 pm

Only time for two brief comments Jon, then I’m done here until Sunday ….

On your #10, your observation that we don’t owe one another justifications of religious behaviour is surely right. But it doesn’t seem obviously relevant to the case at hand, which concerns the distribution of the benefits and burdens of co-operation. (Also a right/good thing here I think.)

On your #11, I found your remarks a little odd and uncharitable. Sure, he puts most of the argument in terms of income, but that’s basically just expository. A sophisticated egalitarian is always going to look at the broader picture. The idea that he’s “cheating” when he takes account of how unpleasant a person finds an activity seems strange to me. If you were dividing tasks among family members, say, you wouldn’t have any great difficulty (I suspect) taking account of such interpersonal differences. In fact, I bet you think of it as a requirement of fairness to do so. Perhaps the explanation for your reaction is because you are thinking of operationalizing a public standard?

14

Jon Mandle 01.22.09 at 8:13 pm

Chris –
1. I tried to present a case where my religious behavior has distributive implications. The example may be implausible or grossly simplified in details, but surely religious behavior does influence distribution and therefore, for Cohen, should be subject to evaluation from the point of view of justice.
2. I’ll withdraw the “cheating” charge if Cohen does, in fact, present an account of the metric that justice equalizes. I haven’t finished the book, but as I look at the index, I see that he does discuss this at several points. (This doesn’t mean I’ll agree with him, of course!)
Yes, of course when dividing tasks in my family I take subjective attitudes into account (as best I can). This is another example of how different kinds of justifications are owed to people who share different kinds of relationships and communities. One difference between family and society concerns the difficulties of operationalizing a standard. But it’s not the only difference relevant to the different kinds of justification appropriate to each. I think exploring this issue will take us directly to the differences between how Rawls and Cohen conceive of the concept (not their conceptions) of justice.
I look forward to resuming on Sunday.

15

Christian Hiebaum 01.22.09 at 9:50 pm

Sorry for repeating myself: Whatever the precise relation between justification and (distributive) justice, Cohen’s concept of the latter, though containing some truth, seems much too narrow.
Cohen’s egalitarian reasoning is surely sophisticated, in fact breathtakingly sophisticated, but it is not broad. Nor can it be made significantly broader. For once egalitarians have identified social equality as some luck-insensitive distribution, they find themselves doing nothing else than balancing equality and a host of other values. This way equality loses its character as a quite comprehensive and complex political ideal most egalitarians inside and outside of the academy take it to be.

16

Christian Hiebaum 01.22.09 at 10:01 pm

I forgot: That is not to say that Rawls’s conception, especially the DP, is fully satisfying from an egalitarian point of view.

17

Christian Hiebaum 01.23.09 at 6:59 am

#14 “Yes, of course when dividing tasks in my family I take subjective attitudes into account (as best I can). This is another example of how different kinds of justifications are owed to people who share different kinds of relationships and communities.”

Exactly. And the point is that the concept of distributive justice also applies to the distribution of entitlements to, and duties of, justification, on the societal level as well as on the level of different sub-communities. (This is not just about operationalizing a public standard, contrary to what luck-egalitarians seem to believe.) Such distribution together with the distribution of other goods such as income may or may not constitute overall social equality.
But may I’m just a bit too holistically minded to grasp the strictness of the distinction between concept and conception, or between political philosophy and political theory.

18

dsquared 01.23.09 at 8:12 am

Chris responds via mobile device:

Daniel, typing this from my phone and (as I said in one of the threads
not near a proper computer until Sunday – but you are welcom to plug this into either thread with attribution). You (and Jon M) seem to have problems with the distinction between incentives and compensation. I suspect that the reason for your difficulties lies in
your propensity to try to translate things into your preferred model/format. But the distinction between the two ideas is actually pretty deep. One is basically prospective and looks to influence
reasons for acting, the other is essentially retrospective and looks to remedy some defecit that a person has suffered. Granted, we might sometimes look to compensate for an expected defecit, but compensation can be owed even where there is no possibility of influencing future behaviour – so where the idea of incentive has no application.

19

Jon Mandle 01.23.09 at 4:20 pm

Sorry for the jargon. By a “conception of justice” I mean the specific principles that someone affirms (for example, one involving the difference principle). By the “concept of justice” I mean what this virtue (justice) is all about – its point, the problem that it is supposed to respond to, what distinguishes it from other virtues. So two people can share the same concept of justice – assumptions about its role and purpose – but disagree about which conception is best. This is how Cohen presents his disagreement with Rawls. But I’m not convinced. I think they are talking about very different virtues – they have very different points. For Cohen, justice is a response to “inequality [that] cannot be vindicated by some choice or fault or desert on the part of (some of) the relevant affected agents” (p.7) This is his “luck egalitarianism”. But for Rawls, justice is a response to the need for people holding diverse beliefs and values to share basic institutions. I’m guessing this will become more important later.

20

Russell Arben Fox 01.23.09 at 5:56 pm

If the demand for comprehensive justification arises among people who are in “community” with one another, then the breadth of that community is important. There’s also the troubling case of people who might belong, or have the choice to belong to more than one such group.

My apologies for not having read Chris’s post until now; in rasising these questions I see that Chris has noted the same general issue which John highlighted at the end of his post, and which Jon has elaborated upon both here and there. Maybe threads could be combined somehow…

21

Christian Hiebaum 01.23.09 at 6:14 pm

Jon, I take your comment as referring to my “confession” that maybe I just do not grasp the strictness of the concept/conception-distinction because of my holistic disposition.

I’m familiar with your “jargon”, and I’ve absolutely no problem with it. In fact, the distinction between concept and conception makes perfect sense to me. I just think that concepts are not independent of conceptions and that Cohen’s concept of distributive justice relies on a conception that seems appropriate to some social contexts (to some social goods) but not to others (to other social goods). This is why I said that it is too narrow.
“For Cohen, justice is a response to “inequality [that] cannot be vindicated by some choice or fault or desert on the part of (some of) the relevant affected agents” (p.7).” That’s true. My objection to Cohen would be that (distributive) justice is not just about the elimination of luck-based inequality. As Elizabeth Anderson, Samuel Scheffler and others have pointed out, sometimes it’s also about the elimination of choice-/fault-/desert-based inequality. And sometimes, one might add, luck is perfectly ok.
Cohen’s methodology resembles that of Nozick in that both develop their criticism of Rawls by heavily drawing on microcontext-examples. Not that I am buying all of Rawls’s arguments, but this kind of criticism seems to be doomed to (partial) failure.

22

ingrid robeyns 01.23.09 at 9:38 pm

Two things struck me most when reading the introduction and chapter 1. For the sake of clarity I’ll also seperate them as two seperate comments.
The first is the emphasis that Cohen puts on his focus on what ‘pure’ justice is, and his complaint that what the Rawlsian method delivers is something else – a combination of justice with other values, or ‘principles of optimal regulation. Somehow I am not feeling comfortable with this. I think Cohen helpfully explains that often (in Rawls’s and post-Rawlsian work on justice) what is called justice is not ‘pure’ justice, but then I think we need a more finegrained typology of different types of justice, not just ‘pure justice’, ‘justice and other values like efficiency’, and ‘principles of optimal regulation’. I think what many Rawlsians are after is a sort of justice, not ‘pure justice’, but justice taking some types of “facts” into account which Cohen thinks we should not take into account when we study justice. I have nothing to offer here in terms of terminology or typology – but it is unclear to me what other (moral? non-moral?) values are mixed with this ‘pure justice’ (certainly not just efficiency), and I also think this is not ‘principles of optimal regulation’ — there is a whole sea in between notions of ‘pure justice’ and ‘principles of optimal regulation’, and Cohen puts everything that is not ‘pure justice’ immediately into the other camp of ‘principles of optimal regulation’. In any case, this will come back in other chapters, but in the introducation he did formulate his view lucidely, so this was one of the things that I noted down as something that interests me.

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ingrid robeyns 01.23.09 at 10:01 pm

The second thing that struck me was the role community plays in Cohen’s work, and in the first instance I was inclined to argue along the lines as Jon Mandle (@10) does. Yet one of Jon’s examples made me doubt. Jon writes:
Similarly, I think I have an obligation to justify my choices between time spent working and family time to my wife, but not to my fellow-citizens generally – “that’s just what I want” isn’t good enough when she and I discuss it, but it’s none of your business.
I disagree. If we live in a society with public goods (like parks, roadways, national defence, …) and (partially) publically funded semi-public goods (like educational systems, health care systems, etc.), then if one is able to contribute to the tax revenues, and doesn’t contribute anything at all, then one should (ideal theoretically) think about justifying this to one’s fellow citizens. If a non-negligable percentage of the population does nothing that is generating an income that is taxable (and thus are therefore not contributing to the collective kitty), and neither are they doing anything that is unpaid yet socially useful (like caring for frail old people or volunteer work for homeless), and still they are making use of those public goods and subsidized public goods, then they should justify to those of us who are paying for those public goods why they don’t want to contribute their fair share. I’m here giving the extreme example of someone not contributing anything at all, but the argument can easily be extended to someone working but just not enough to do their fair share (all this under the assumption of course that this person is able to contribute). Hence, if Jon and his wife live in a country with many public goods and with many merit goods subsidized through taxation, which they value and which they make use of, then I would argue that they should feel morally obliged to justify to other citizens why they feel that they do not have to contribute to the cost of these collective and semi-collective goods (which is what you would in effect do if you shift your work/leisure balance radically to the leisure side).

In fact, I was suspicious of Cohen’s use of ‘community’ in his argument, but after seeing my reaction to Jon’s reaction, I need to go back to the text and see what, if anything, is left of my suspicion of Cohen’s use of ‘community’.

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Jon Mandle 01.23.09 at 10:36 pm

Perhaps you’re right, Ingrid. Perhaps if my preferences were so extreme that I chose not to contribute anything at all but relied on public provisions, I would owe a public justification. In my religion example, I included the qualifier “Within very broad constraints…” I neglected that qualifier in the balance of work and family example, but I should have included it. But the question isn’t whether we ever need to give a public justification of these preferences, the question is whether we always do. For Cohen – for this part of his argument – I have a general obligation to justify to my community any preference that is relevant to the design of a public policy.

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engels 01.23.09 at 11:23 pm

For Cohen… I have a general obligation to justify to my community any preference that is relevant to the design of a public policy

Is this really what Cohen thinks? Suppose we live in a command economy and I like to have butter on my bread. So do most other people, despite the fact that marmalade is slightly cheaper to produce. Do we really have to rationally justify our preference for butter to the marmalade eaters? Doesn’t that seem a little bit — I don’t know — petty, mean-spirited and bean-counterish to the point of obsession? Assuming that we are all feeling relatively fraternal (and this is an ideal world, right?) why shouldn’t they just say: “It’s okay, you don’t need to explain yourselves to us. Have butter if that’s what you prefer”?

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Yarrow 01.24.09 at 1:56 am

Cohen says (first sentence of Chapter 5, p. 181) “Egalitarians like me think that justice is fully served only if people’s access to desirable conditions of life is equal, within the constraint of a reasonable personal prerogative, deference to which informs the whole of the following discussion.” (Italics in original.)

So I think he’d disagree with Jon’s remark about his position that “… the important point is that when this prerogative is invoked, it allows me to do what is unjust in the name of some other value – religious liberty, for example.” I agree he’s vague about how far personal prerogative goes — perhaps so vague that it could be argued he might as well be making the argument Jon describes. But that’s not the argument he claims to be making.

Jon also says “I’ll withdraw the ‘cheating’ charge if Cohen does, in fact, present an account of the metric that justice equalizes.” On p. 368 Cohen says “… ‘fulfilling’ here concatenates high scores on a number of relevant metrics, including degree of psychological satisfaction and extent of realization and exercise of creative powers. That which is fulfilling provides and/or sustains a high degree of well-being, in a comprehensive sense of the that term.” Now that’s not nearly as precise a metric as income — but income’s a terrible metric if what we’re really interested in is psychological satisfaction and exercise of creative powers. And I think we should be.

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quesaisje 01.24.09 at 5:49 pm

I may be muddling things up, but it seems to me that the difference principle is more than a compromise to ensure that the least off are better off, it is also a compromise in support of individual freedom of choice in the face of societal demands. It would be unjust to force someone to maximize their talents in support of society in violation of their individual principles (Jon Mandle’s argument I think). The compromise is to provide incentives that would induce people to re-balance their priorities. There can be many just orderings of principles among individuals that are in conflict with each other and would fail the interpersonal test. When it comes to governance, we are forced to develop an overlapping consensus regarding just policy, but that just policy cannot force a uniform ordering of principles for individuals, it can at best create incentives for one. Of course, pure greed would not be an acceptable principle and just governance would seek to avoid incentives that prioritize greed. It appears that Cohen would not consider it a just society if incentives designed to induce people to re-order their priorities would also play into the hands of those already motivated by greed. It seems to me that his view requires everyone to prioritize equality among their principles and he seems to think that Rawl’s theory would demand this as well. Based on one chapter of Cohen’s book, I am not convinced of the former and I have to go back and brush up on my Theory of Justice before I concede the latter.

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Chris Bertram 01.25.09 at 10:03 am

Jon Mandle wrote:

_For Cohen, justice is a response to “inequality [that] cannot be vindicated by some choice or fault or desert on the part of (some of) the relevant affected agents” (p.7) This is his “luck egalitarianism”. But for Rawls, justice is a response to the need for people holding diverse beliefs and values to share basic institutions. I’m guessing this will become more important later._

You many be right to say that Cohen and Rawls disagree about the concept of justice, but I don’t think your remarks here express what either is committed to at the right level of generality. Where Cohen addresses the question of what justice _is_ in the Introduction, he uses the ancient formula of giving each person their due. Then, further, it is clear elsewhere what when he gets on to the question of what justice _requires_ (what everyone’s due is) some form of equality is what’s at stake. Your formula concerning Rawls also strikes me as defective because too tied to the specific problem of a pluralistic society. To be sure, such a society is the object of most of Rawls’s work, but he does (in TJ) set of a “general” view of which the “special” view is an application, namely, that all social primary goods should be distributed equally unless an unequal distribution is to the benefit of the least advantaged. (Since I don’t have TJ with me, please forgive any inexactitutes in formulation). That general conception answers to a concept of justice which has a function, to provide principles to distribute the benefits and burdens of social co-operation. The location of the Cohen-Rawls (“gap”) as to concept lies surely between giving each person their due on the one hand, and distributing the benefits and burdens of social co-operation on the other, and the general form of Cohen’s complaint is that Rawls allows the latter to be influenced by values other than justice (such as freedom and efficiency).

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Chris Bertram 01.25.09 at 10:09 am

And just to add to that, Cohen is going to agree with Rawlsians that the best all-things-considered thing to do (morally speaking) when fixing rules to govern society will involve taking account of freedom, efficiency, etc. and, also that we will need to take account of facts in setting those rules (including facts about the – sometimes bad – dispositions and preferences people have). It is just that, if we call the result of such procedures “justice” then we obscure from view the importance of justice as an original basic value. Hence the need to rescue justice from Rawls.

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Lynette Reid 01.25.09 at 2:49 pm

To follow up on 10, 13, and 14, I don’t see any reason to consider religion and the expenses to maintain its infrastructure a choice with an impact on public policy, in the relevant sense, hence to be justified to the community as Cohen describes in 1.I.5. (So I’m repeating what Chris says at 13, in order to expand on it.)

To justify that assertion: it’s clear that Cohen has no objection to discretionary expenditures according to personal preference; but he thinks there is no such absolute right of justice to such discretionary expenditures. The point is not argued here but of course in his extensive criticism of Nozick, where he argues that Chamberlain-style rewards could enable (in a non-egalitarian society) some to amass wealth and power that it may be unjust for them to have, or (in an egalitarian society) threaten an egalitarian ethos, which that society may well want to protect in the spirit of justice.

Two ways that my religious preferences could have an impact on public policy in the relevant sense might be the following. 1) I claim that my religion requires gold domes and a storehouse of vast quantities of almost unimaginable wealth, and therefore you have no right to tax me such that I cannot achieve this. 2) My religion involves sharing personal ties, wealth, and (access to) power such that our role in society effectively excludes atheists or women or… from public goods and power, beyond simply excluding them from participation in the private club that is my religion. Fill in your favourite example of contemporary churches and democracies of which one or the other of these points may be true. In such cases it seems to me entirely reasonable that the practice be answerable to community in terms of their implications for social justice.

This is to call on ideas in a previous work to answer the question whether his conception of community as presented in 1.I.5. would require public justification of this or that practice. The idea of community and its relationship to justifications owed seems to me to be very briefly developed so far, and I don’t know how much one can get out of it yet, or how much Cohen is really justified in taking from it.

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