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.]



Dan 01.30.09 at 9:57 pm

I’m not sure if Cohen treats the issue fully in the ‘Justice’ half of the book because I haven’t got that far yet, but I wonder how well his luck egalitarian views (where, roughly, inequalities are justified iff they are the result of choices individuals are responsible for) cohere with his official view of justice in RJAE (where, apparently, justice means that it is incumbent on everyone to promote and adhere to an ethos of equality). Surely the choices made by the talented as to whether or not they want to work extra hard for extra pay are paradigmatic examples of choices that they are responsible for; and as such, isn’t Cohen committed to saying that justice allows them to take the resulting unequal reward with a clean conscience (with respect to the justice of their actions, at any rate)?

One response, I suppose, would be to deny that people are truly responsible for any of their choices of this kind (along Rawlsian ‘moral arbitrariness’ lines) but this would seem to fatally undermine Cohen’s aim (stated elsewhere, I believe) of deploying the standardly ‘Right-wing’ concept of responsibility toward egalitarian ends.

Unless I’m missing something obvious, of course.


Yarrow 01.30.09 at 11:52 pm

Surely the choices made by the talented as to whether or not they want to work extra hard for extra pay … [should allow] them to take the resulting unequal reward with a clean conscience …?

Cohen would be fine with extra pay commensurate with the extra effort. He says, for instance, that when “the work of the talented … is sufficiently more arduous than that of the untalented … paying everybody [the same wage] would be unfair, from an egalitarian point of view: in [that] case the talented carry a special burden that any reasonable egalitarian must think should be compensated.” (Pages 102-103 of Chapter 2) In fact all of sections 4, 5, and 6 (The Argument Rejected, Labor Burden in the Metric of Equality, and Inconsitent Metrics, pp 101-109) address this issue.

What Cohen argues against is compensating the talented for their talents: for the fact that they are, say, capable of producing 10 times as many widgets per hour as the untalented.


quesaisje 01.31.09 at 3:22 am

Cohen also appears to be arguing against the incentives to compensate for the free choice of use of talent. If I have the talent to heal the sick, but decide not to exercise it because I prefer another profession, Cohen is seeming to say that there is no just unequal distribution of social goods that might make me decide differently. Clearly, society would be better off if I practiced my talent, but shifting the distribution to make me more likely to decide to use my talent is unjust in Cohen’s view. I was thrilled to see at the conclusion of this chapter that he will be addressing this ‘trillema’ in Chapter 5.

Comments on this entry are closed.