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Rescuing Justice and Equality

Like Chris, I don’t find a lot in Chapter 2 of Cohen’s book that I didn’t already find in Chapter 1. It seems an attempt to make the basic argument more sharp and technical, without actually making it more plausible or clear. No harm done, I suppose.

So let me try to make a different sort of connection, ripped from the headlines. Cohen is concerned that a certain sort of ‘kidnap’ case makes trouble for Rawls. Basically, the trouble is this: you might describe a policy of paying off kidnappers as prudent – wise, rational – but you wouldn’t call it just or fair. There is a problem using actual kidnap cases to illustrate, because they tend to get lurid in irrelevant ways. And it may seem tendentious to port conclusions about kidnap cases directly over to the tax and social policy system. It invites the question: are you just assuming that capitalism amounts to mass kidnapping? It occurs to me that our contemporary bailout worries provide better and clearer illustrations of what Cohen is really getting at. So here goes. [click to continue…]

Disclaimer: oddly, given my interests, I’ve never read much G.A. Cohen before picking up Rescuing Justice and Equality for this little event. (I understand his friends call him ‘Gerry’, but I won’t presume, on such slight acquaintance.) This matters only because my reading of the book is still preliminary and a bit scattershot. I’m not sure I get it. Also, I typed this post out like a maniac, just for the exercise of it. Also, I’m writing this post without access to my Rawls books, which I forgot to bring home, so I can’t quote. Well, I’m sorry about that. So stuff I say that is just plain wrong should be corrected in comments, without anger if you please. And we’ll just do our best, shall we? Also, I’m about to go on vacation for a few days, but I promised to participate. Also, I’m about to embark on an internet-free weekend getaway. Hence will not be very helpful in comments myself. Best I can do.) [click to continue…]

Rescuing Cohen for iTunes

by Harry on June 14, 2009

Those who enjoyed our reading group on Rescuing Justice and Equality can now listen to the Center for the Study of Social Justice conference honouring G.A. Cohen on your ipods, courtesy of Oxford University podcasts (scroll about half way down the page to the Department of Politics and International Relations—if someone can find a handier way to link to them, please tell me). Speakers include John Roemer, Seana Shiffrin, Michael Otsuka, Cecile Fabre, Paula Casal, David Miller, David Estlund and Andrew Williams. The audio quality is a bit rough in places, but mostly good, and always good enough. (You can also get there on iTunes, but I can’t figure out how to link to that. In the iTunes store just search for CSSJ. As a bonus, if you search for Hartry Field, you get to his 2008 John Locke Lectures). As a bonus, you can hear Roemer explain why he came to believe that all philosophers are idiots.

I know, everyone read the New York Magazine piece with everyone singing Poor, Poor Pitiful Masters of the Universe. That was so a week ago. Thankfully, everything is back to normal. But let’s revisit ancient history. The following bit was especially wondered at (by Kevin Drum, for example): [click to continue…]

Cohen on Rescuing Justice from the Facts (ch.6)

by Jon Mandle on March 19, 2009

Part I of Rescuing Justice and Equality consisted in a series of chapters designed to rescue equality from the arguments of Rawlsians who sought to dilute an underlying egalitarian commitment with the incentives argument, the Pareto argument, the restricted focus on the basic structure, and then the difference principle itself. In each case, the structure of the argument was a kind of imminent critique. As far as I recall, Cohen nowhere directly defended the egalitarian commitment itself. Rather, he pointed to alleged tensions in the Rawlsian edifice and submitted that they should be resolved in the direction of greater egalitarianism than Rawls’s position recommends.

Part II aims to rescue the concept of justice itself, and the argument is structured very differently. The critique does not proceed from tensions within Rawls’s work. Rather, we get an argument in defense of a certain meta-ethical position. Cohen remarks that “the meta-ethical literature says very little about the question pursued in the present chapter. But a notable exception is the work of John Rawls, who argued that fundamental principles of justice and, indeed, ‘first principles’ in general, are a response to the facts of the human condition” – which is exactly the position that Cohen rejects. (pp.258-259) Rawls is simply mistaken, Cohen thinks, because he confuses “the first principles of justice with the principles that we should adopt to regulate society.” (p.265)
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Lewd and Prude, the Scalpel or the Hoe

by John Holbo on March 13, 2009

It’s time to discuss chapter 5 of Cohen’s Rescuing Justice and Equality. This is the chapter in which Lewd and Prude make their walk-on appearance on the stage of the main argument. Let me start with a few afterthought about that. [click to continue…]

First of all, sorry that this has taken so long. What follows are some reflections on ch. 4 of G.A. Cohen’s Rescuing Justice and Equality. I think I’ve got the basic argument right, but I’d welcome corrections and clarifications.

The key shock of this chapter is Cohen’s rejection of the difference principle itself as a basic principle of justice. In the earlier chapters, Cohen focused on the fact that the inequalities supposedly justified by the difference principle might often be the result of more talented people holding out for higher pay, despite the fact that they could perfectly well supply their labour for less. To act thus, is, according to Cohen inconsistent in people who affirm a commitment to the difference principle (as ex hypothesesi all citizens of the well-ordered society do). Contra Rawls and most Rawlsians then, Cohen there argued that the difference principle ought to mandate a more equal society than is commonly supposed, because most applications of the standard incentives argument ought to fail. It isn’t that we must pay the talented more because otherwise they won’t be able to supply the labour that benefits the least advantaged; it is that they choose not to supply it unless they are bribed. But a person sincerely committed to maximizing the expectations of the least advantaged wouldn’t need to be bribed.

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Cohen on Justice and Equality reading group (3)

by Ingrid Robeyns on February 10, 2009

So we’ve finally arrived at Chapter 3 in Cohen’s Rescuing Justice and Equality. In Chapter 3, ‘The Basic Structure Objection’, he aims to show that principles of distributive justice apply to people’s legally unconstrained choices. Rawls, whose theory of justice is his main target in this book, has famously argued that the primary subject of justice is what he calls ‘the basic structure of society’, being “the way in which the major social institutions distribute fundamental rights and duties and determine the division of advantages from social cooperation” (TJ Rev Ed p. 6). Cohen’s critique on Rawls is that the principles of justice should also apply to choices which are left open by the rules of those institutions.

As with other chapters in this book, this chapter is also more or less a reprint, from his 1997 article ‘Where the Action is: on the site of distributive justice’. So the claims Cohen makes here are not new, and have already been debated. So let me just pick up a few points (hopefully not too idiosyncratic) that either struck me or particularly interested me. [click to continue…]

Lewd and Prude

by John Holbo on February 9, 2009

We aren’t up to Part II of Cohen’s Rescuing Justice and Equality, but I’m going to jump the gun. There’s this bit about something from Amartya Sen – ‘his celebrated Prude/Lewd example’ – which I had never heard tell of. I’ll quote Cohen’s narration of the case:

There exists a pornographic book that might be read by one or other, or neither (but not both), of Prude and Lewd.

Let’s pause to admire that sentence. I think that is a great first sentence for a novel, or at least a Donald Barthelme story. (But I’m getting ahead of the story.) [click to continue…]

Cohen on Justice and Equality reading group (2)

by Chris Bertram on January 30, 2009

Chapter 2 of G.A. Cohen’s new Rescuing Justice and Equality addresses an argument in favour of the difference principle put by Brian Barry (as a reconstruction of Rawls) in his Theories of Justice. The argument has two stages: in the first, an equal distribution is established as the only prima facie just distribution; in the second, a move away from equality is licensed, so long as it is a move to a Pareto superior distribution. Barry’s argument for the first stage is essentially that there is no cause of an unequal distribution that would justify its inequality: so there is, at a fundamental (i.e. pre-institutional) level, no argument based on desert or entitlement that would provide a justifying explanation of an unequal distribution. Such inequalities, are therefore, so this argument claims, morally arbitrary. The argument for the second stage is consequentialist: it would be irrational to insist on an equal distribution if it were possible to move from it to a distribution where some people were better off and none were worse off. (Insisting on equality in these circumstances looks like a levelling-down.)

From the point of view of Cohen’s engagement with Rawls, it is hard (for me) to see that this chapter adds much to the previous one. Cohen invites us to imagine an initially equal distribution D1 and a Pareto superior distribution D2. It looks as if we should prefer D2 to D1, because some people do better and no-one does worse. But, he says, let’s imagine another equal distribution, D3 which is Pareto superior to D1. Why couldn’t we move from D1 to D3 (rather than D2)? He canvasses various explanations, but the central point, as before is that the naturally-talented are only willing to put the additional (worst-off improving) effort in under conditions of inequality (D2) rather than under the equal net reward available under D3. There isn’t, therefore, an objective barrier to the feasibility of equality at the D3 level, just a justice-denying choice on the part of the already talented.

The real interest of the chapter lies, I think, elsewhere and is hinted at by Cohen in his reference to Nozick at p.90 fn. 11. It is the assumption, which Barry clearly shares, that the removal of the morally arbitrary causes of the holdings that people have ought to privilege equality as the just initial distribution. Why isn’t equality just as morally arbitrary as an initial starting-point as inequality? This, of course, is the point pressed by my late colleague Susan Hurley in her Justice, Luck and Knowledge (esp. ch. 6). The right response to that worry is to provide a positive argument for equality as a morally privileged starting-point rather than relying on it being some default position after the removal of morally unequalizing arbitrary factors.

[Remember the rules: no commenting unless you’ve read the book.]

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.

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Top political philosophy books of the noughties

by Chris Bertram on December 17, 2009

Jacob Levy is asking his Facebook friends to nominate their tips for the best political philosophy books (best, most enduring, most interesting) of the decade that Brits are now referring to as “the noughties”. Global justice has obviously been the defining topic, but, whist there have been some good books on the issue, I can’t bring myself to think that any of them will be thought of as essential reading in 20 years or so, in the way that some of the offerings of the 1970s and 1980s still are today. I can’t really think beyond If You’re an Egalitarian, How Come You’re So Rich? (2000) and Rescuing Justice and Equality (2008). But then, as a former Jerry Cohen pupil, I’m biased. Nominations?

Cohen on Constructivism (Chapter 7)

by Jon Mandle on April 25, 2009

Continuing the discussion of G. A. Cohen’s Rescuing Justice and Equality – sorry about the delay – chapter 7 is on “Constructivism.” Cohen argues against the view that fundamental principles of social justice can be identified by considering a selection procedure that addresses the question, “What rules of governance are to be adopted for our common social life?” (p.275) The selection of principles from the original position is his primary target, although the specific features of that choice situation are not at issue. The main objection that he presses is familiar from chapter 6: constructivism mistakenly identifies the principles of justice with all things considered judgment concerning rules of social regulation. This must be a mistake, for Cohen, because the all things considered perspective encompasses considerations other than justice (including other virtues), and asks how best, given certain circumstances, to achieve the optimal balance of these various considerations.
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Cohen online reading group at Crooked Timber

by Chris Bertram on January 15, 2009

A month ago I proposed an online reading group for G.A. Cohen’s Rescuing Justice and Equality. (US Amazon , UK Amazon ) It is time to get started. I’ll kick-off a week from today with a post covering the introduction and chapter 1, “Rescuing Equality from ….The Incentives Argument”. We’ll then cover a chapter a week (plus the general appendix) with, I hope, other people sometimes taking the lead. Remember the rules: a condition of commenting is that you’ve actually read the text under discussion (violators will be deleted).

Reading Cohen

by Chris Bertram on November 17, 2008

I’ve suggested to some of the other CTers that we should have an online reading group on G.A. Cohen’s Rescuing Justice and Equality (Amazon , They can’t do it until January, so this is a heads-up. When we get started we’ll cover a chapter a week, with maybe different people taking the lead (Harry, Ingrid, Jon? …) and then comments will be open. But a condition of commenting is that you’ve actually read the text under discussion (violators will be deleted). So if you want to take part you need to get the book, and you need to get reading and thinking.