Cohen on rescuing justice from the difference principle (ch. 4)

by Chris Bertram on March 4, 2009

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.

In the present chapter, Cohen radicalizes this critique. Suppose now that the talented really do need the extra cash to get them to perform, that they literally couldn’t do their valuable stuff without a supplement. Surely this inequality would be in accordance with justice? Well not exactly, for the following reason: if we compare distribution A where the talented _strictly need_ extra cash to supply their labour to the requisite degree with (more equal) distribution B where (perhaps because of some magical transformation in their dispositions) they do not. _Ex hypothesi_ (sorry that’s the second time I’ve said that!), both distributions satisfy the difference principle, so, if the difference principle were entirely sufficient as a principle of distributive justice, we would be indifferent between A and B. But if we think that B is superior, from the point of view of distributive justice, then the difference principle cannot be the whole story. Rather, an unqualified egalitarianism is our real underlying principle. In fact, that’s Cohen’s view: that distributive justice really requires the eradication of non-arbitrary differences in condition. An arbitrary difference is a difference that is caused by something that is morally arbritrary, such as the fact that some people are born with a better genetic endowment than another. A non-arbitrary difference is a difference that results from the free choice of individuals. The whole luck-egalitarian package, in other words.

That, I think, expresses the nub of the position he articulates in this chapter. Much of the rest of it consists in a more or less forensic examination of Rawls’s writings on the matter, and, in particular, of the tensions that exist between two different formulations of the difference principle. There’s the official version which directs that the expectations of the least advantaged be maximized (but which allows the expectations of others to be maximized subject to that constraint) and the version that is often expressed by Rawls that says that that inequalities are only justified if they are required to improve the absolute position of the least advantaged. Clearly the two are inconsistent, with the first (official, definitive) version permitting more inequality than the second formulation does. Cohen supposes that Rawls’s attachment to the inequality-constraining formulation is best explained by a baseline commitment to the idea that it is wrong for distributive shares to be determined by morally arbitrary factors. In Cohen’s view, Rawls should have stuck to that commitment whilst regretfully conceding that imperfections in human will or constitution make it prudent to adopt rules of regulation that make society more unjust than it (hypothetically) could be.

Finally, a brief comment on some of the stuff that’s come up in earlier comment threads. Some people (yes, you Matt Lister) seem very attached to the idea that principles of justice have to be “action guiding”, whatever that means, exactly. There’s a sense in which it seems obvious to me that Cohen’s view about what justice consists in is indeed action-guiding: it gives agents _pro tanto_ reasons which enter into their practical deliberation. There’s a lot more we can then say about whether agents who fail to act on such reasons act unjustly, how far they can be blamed, etc. (And Cohen has some discussion of this.) But the focus on justice as action guiding seems to me to neglect another interest we have: namely, in evaluation. If I judge a society in the past to be unjust, or to be less unjust that another society and more than a third (or if I’m evaluating the society I live in compared to another one overseas) then I need criteria to do so. One question I can ask is how far distributive shares are or were determined by morally arbitrary factors. Very much so in medieval Europe, maybe less so in the modern United States, probably even less in Sweden circa 1970. Principles of justice have more than one job to do.

[Remember the rules: If you haven’t read the chapter, resist the temptation to comment anyway.]



mpowell 03.04.09 at 3:49 pm

I am still confused by the argument Cohen is making. Following along in what might be the same vein as Matt Lister, how is this an action guiding distinction? Specifically, how would this recommend constructing social insitutions differently than what Rawls difference principle would recommend? Until Cohen is willing to argue that equality is more important than maximally aiding the least advantaged, his philosophy would not recommend any change for constructing social institutions. Additionally, if you believe the requirement of justice extend to individuals in the same manner as they do to institutions, there is still no distinction from Rawl’s society. If you end up getting paid a lot more, you should then be willing to donate your money to the least advantaged under either Rawls conception of the most just society or Cohen’s.

And the step where Cohen radicalizes his critique just appears to highlight this problem to me. If you are trying to compare the situation where more talented individuals need compensation to continue their hard work versus one where they don’t, you are positing a basic change in human nature that, by assumption, you cannot influence through social institutions.

The result is that it sounds like all Cohen can add to Rawls description of justice is something along the lines of: “Well following Rawls guidelines would result in the most just society we could actually achieve based on what human nature is. But wouldn’t it be nice if human nature was different, and here is this nice criterion that we could use to evaluate what kind of human nature would result in a more just society.” There are two problems here. First, as Lister and others suggest, this is not very interesting as it is not action guiding. Secondly, can this even be regarded as a critique of Rawls? Couldn’t a Rawlsian just grant Cohen’s argument and say, “well we’re just interested in what we can actually do to achieve the most just society possible, and your theories don’t actually have anything to contribute to that project”?


Chris Bertram 03.04.09 at 4:40 pm

_this is not very interesting as it is not action guiding_

Well even if it were true that there are no practical differences between Cohen and Rawls (obviously it isn’t true, because a Cohen just state might devote a lot of resources to cultivating an egalitarian ethos whereas a Rawlsian state would not), I’m amazed at your impoverished sense of what is and isn’t interesting.

Cohen’s point is that Rawls seriously misdescribes the moral landscape and deforms our thinking about justice. Even if that made no difference to what we ought to do, it surely ought to interest a philosopher who is trying to get clear about the area in question. Would you say to someone working in the philosophy of mind or the philosophy of language that, because their view on some contested area had no (obvious) implications what what we ought to _do_ it was therefore devoid of interest?

Besides, on your (highly contestable) account, your claim is not that Cohen’s views have no practical recommendations, but, rather, that such practical recommendations that they do have are the same as Rawls’s. It would be a rather odd claim that just because two theories concur about the right thing to do, that there is no interesting difference between them.


john holbo 03.04.09 at 4:58 pm

I hereby certify that I have read chapter 4.

“The key shock of this chapter is Cohen’s rejection of the difference principle itself as a basic principle of justice.”

Minor point probably, but I don’t feel the ‘shock’. (But I really don’t mean to start a useless argument about what should and shouldn’t be a ‘shock’.) The rejection of the difference principle as a basic principle of justice seems explicit in chapters 1-3, or at least unmissably implied. 4 seemed to me to go over the same ground from a somewhat different angle. As you say, it involves more forensic combing over different formulations in Rawls text.


mpowell 03.04.09 at 5:19 pm

obviously it isn’t true, because a Cohen just state might devote a lot of resources to cultivating an egalitarian ethos whereas a Rawlsian state would not

I don’t really see this as necessarily true. If the amount of resources that has to be dedicated to this purpose does not exceed the benefit as far as the least advantaged is concerned, then Rawls difference principle recommends that course of action. If pursuing this course costs enough resources that it leaves the least advantaged worse off, is Cohen willing to recommend it? If so, he is offering a substantive difference in practice from his view and Rawls’. But if not, I don’t think your claim is correct. Its not as if Rawls doesn’t spend a significant amount of energy (the last third or so his book) trying to answer questions about to what extent his ideal society would be able to sustain itself through the morality of its members. So I think his theory of justice is quite fairly very concerned with the egalitarianism of its members.

Regarding how interesting Cohen’s theory is- that is not the language I should have used. Cohen is advertising his argument (perhaps I am wrong about this, but it is my impression), as a critique of Rawls and that does not seem to be the case so far, depending on what you think about the argument of yours that I quoted above.

Regarding whether Rawls has misdescribed the moral landscape and corrupted our thinking about what justice requires, this could be a legitimate critique of Rawls approach. But if you’re going to take this approach in a critique, I think its reasonable for someone to defend Rawls’ position by saying, “no, the most important question in justice is how we shape our social institutions and until you can show how the theory actually gives bad results, I’m going to stick with it”


Yarrow 03.04.09 at 6:28 pm

My partner Marsha spent the last five or six year of her life in a nursing home. (She had multiple sclerosis.) I spent about half my non-work, non-sleep time being a support for her: psychologically, bringing her food she liked, maintaining a Rube Goldberg computer/TV/music setup on an over-the-bed hospital table, and so forth.

I calibrated the time I spent for Marsha to be the maximum I could manage — any more (in my sincere but of course hopelessly biased opinion) would have degraded my performance enough that it would have been worse for Marsha. You might say that without having heard of Rawls, I’d rediscovered the difference principle.

Three points:

(1) It was not Rawls’ difference principle I rediscovered but Cohen’s. From descriptions of Rawls I take it to be Rawls’ view that I might have had a duty under justice to agitate for better conditions for nursing home residents, but that my work for Marsha did nothing for justice; while on Cohen’s view it did.

(2) Clearly I myself can have no confidence that in fact I did as much as I could; how much less so anyone else? And yet (and despite John Quiggan’s post about complaining about the difficulties of such measurements) clearly I did more than I’d have done had I not been trying to do my best.

(3) It was not just. It was not just. Even granting that I did do my best, it was not just that one of us was cut off from the world while the other went to his pleasant job, visited with friends, had a fairly normal life.

Had I thought it was just, would I have done as much for Marsha?


Jon Mandle 03.04.09 at 7:20 pm

Cohen thinks that Rawls affirms “the moral arbitrariness claim” (“none should fare worse than others through no fault of their own”) but also “feels and wields the force of the Pareto principle, which welcomes inequality that benefits everyone whatever, including sheer accident, may be its cause.” (p.156) Cohen rightly points out that these conflict. But I find his textual evidence that Rawls holds the moral arbitrariness claim – i.e., that he is a luck egalitarian – to be weak. Yes, some passages do seem to suggest this view, although none explicitly. And other passages pretty explicitly reject it. For example: the “principle of redress” holds that “undeserved inequalities call for redress… The idea is to redress the bias of contingences in the direction of equality… Now the difference principle is not of course the principle of redress. It does not require society to try to even out handicaps as if all were expected to compete on a fair basis in the same race.” (TJ, rev.ed., p.86) If this is right – if Rawls is not best understood as a luck egalitarian – then I find it pretty remarkable that he and Cohen wind up as close to each other as they do.


Pete 03.04.09 at 8:10 pm

Cohen develops his argument that Rawls’ own commitment to egalitarianism, exhibited in Rawls’ claim that equality should be the benchmark when applying the difference principle, is inconsistent with the endorsement of the difference principle (section 6 of Cohen’s chapter 4, pp 166-8). Cohen interprets Rawls as holding that it is the moral arbitrariness of differences in natural endowment and social position that justify starting with equality, but considers a counter-interpretation:

“Some say that it is a misinterpretation of Rawls to attribute to him the view that distribution ought not to be sensitive to talent-explained differences in productivity. They think that the texts that might appear to say so in fact merely deny that distribution ought to be sensitive to talent” (Cohen 166).

I’m one of those people. While Rawls’ texts are not always as clear as I would like, on this point he is explicit. Cohen cites a passage in Rawls that he takes to be in tension with the above counter-interpretation, and the payoff phrase is that the liberal conception of the two principles is deficient because“…it still permits the distribution of wealth and income to be determined by the natural distribution of abilities and talents” (Theory 63-4 (I’ll just stick to the Revised edition), Cohen 166).

He neglects to point out that this is followed just a sentence later by: “There is no more reason to permit the distribution of income and wealth to be settled by the distribution of natural assets than by historical and social fortune” (Theory 64). But now it is clear that Rawls is not denying that distribution of natural talents should play some role, he’s denying that this distribution should settle the distribution of shares of primary goods. Rawls is even more explicit later: “No one deserves his greater natural capacity or merits a more favorable starting place in society. But, of course, this is no reason to ignore, much less to eliminate these distinctions”; and just down the same page, “The natural distribution is neither just nor unjust” (both quotes, Theory 87). So this initial distribution is not unjust, and there is no reason to ignore or even eliminate inequalities in it, given, of course, that this unequal distribution can be harnessed for the good of all (and to the maximal benefit of the least well off).

So, I think Cohen is just flat wrong in his interpretation of the justification for equality as the staring point for application of the dp. But this means I must face the second part of his argument in this section. He says, “…[I]f Rawls did not hold that talent differences shouldn’t determine distribution, he would have no argument for the proposition that we are to begin with the equal distribution, D1. For it does not justify beginning with equality that talent differences do not justify inequality” (Cohen 167). The second sentence is clearly correct, but the first is not. Rawls’ argument for beginning with equality is so straightforward and obvious, not to mention quick, that I think it must be easy to miss entirely.

Rawls says, “Now consider the point of view of anyone in the original position. There is no way for him to win special advantages for himself. Nor, on the other hand, are there grounds for acquiescing in special disadvantages. Since it is not reasonable for him to expect more than an equal share in the division or primary goods, and since it is not rational for him to agree to less, the sensible thing is to acknowledge as the first step a principle of justice requiring an equal distribution” (Theory 130). That’s it. That’s the argument. No mention at all of desert, or morally arbitrary factors, or anything like that. Of course, Rawls go on to say that is rational for the parties to accept inequalities that work to maximize the benefit to the least well off, but this is in no way in tension with the initial argument for equality.

(Apologies for all of the textual citation.)


Pete 03.04.09 at 8:23 pm

A question, completely unrelated to my above post: I’m mystified by an argument given by Cohen in footnote 12 on p. 157. Cohen says, “…Rawls himself says (Theory, pp. 80/69) that equality plays no essential role in the application of the difference principle. But he is wrong about that: equality is a sufficient condition of satisfaction of the principle, in its uncanonical form.” The uncanonical form (as opposed to the lexical difference principle) implies that an inequality is justified only if it benefits the least well off.

Now, this argument looks to me to be claiming that because equality satisfies the uncanonical difference principle, it plays an essential role in applying it. But how does this follow? Any particular set of institutions that allows only inequalities that benefit the least well off also satisfies the uncanonical difference principle, but it certainly doesn’t follow that any particular set of institutions, or any particular distribution, is required to apply the principle. I’m sure I’m missing something here, can someone help me?


marcus 03.04.09 at 9:02 pm

Hey, everyone,

I have been reading along as an outsider, a grumpy epistemologist and Aristotle reader a little frustrated with Cohen’s level of clarity and rigor. But I think I am coming around.

I don’t understand how a guide for action is separate from a standard of judgment, at least insofar as we desire of actions to be just as opposed to efficacious. This distinction Lister and Mpowell are pointing to seems to be relevant iff we desire the most efficaciously just social structure that is possible given the fixed circumstance and their is only one possible circumstance.

But is it not the case that the critique here is the same as those who would argue that true belief and knowledge are the same with respect to their usefullness, so who cares about knowledge? Bill has traveled the road to Larissa many times. He has even guided many tourists to Larissa on the same road with complete success. If we ever wanted someone to write a guidebook for getting to Larissa from here, then he is our man; it will be the most efficacious guidebook to correct road taking to Larissa around. Yet, Bill is not a cartographer or is he capable of dealing with the complextities of directionality and such (i.e. a compass). Shelly on the other hand is a cartographer and she could give you the directions based upon some absolute standards, which give her a stability and security in the conviction of her directions, but her directions will have the same result as bill’s. Potentially, she could also give you many other particular directions. She has the universal knowledge that allows her to do this that Bill doesn’t. Now, it seems to me that we would all prefer to let shelly write our GPS system.

However, now let’s imagine a scenario in which there is only one road; the road to Larissa. Who would we choose? Would it matter? Probably not, if all we care about is getting to Larissa, having a person guide our actions.

This seems to be the critique offered by Lister and Mpowell. They are suggesting that there is only one “road”, i.e. one road of action that forwards justice, and Rawls does a good job at pointing us there as any. If that is what we are interested in, then Cohen doesn’t help, because his theory doesn’t point the way down a road that seems to have better results or the results shown by Rawls are as good as any.

But is that really all we are interested in? I doubt it. My doubts don’t center on the fact that our ideals of justice should entail more than the greastes quality of justice that can be achieved in our actions (i.e. super human justice). Rather, I want to know my actions to be just, and the only way to be clear on that is in terms other than examining the quality of the results, which of course get their qualitative power from my understanding of justice simpliciter. At the end of the road, I want to know that I am in Larissa and not houston. But without an understanding of justice as justice, if Rawls really corrupted the concept, we are searching for a black dog in the night. This being the case, and if Cohen really has shown a corruption of the concept of Justice in the hands of Rawls, then we are literally helpless with respect to knowing whether this distributive model is the best result or not. We just don’t know.

Next, there is no reason to assume that the admission of human suckitude should keep us from pressing forward to a more robust conception of justice that pushes for better and actual distributive models with an emphasis on equality, unless you think this suckitude is a necessary condition so grave that we can’t do anything more than what Rawls pushed for. But this is ridiculous. I mean, if you want to bring in conditions, such as “human nature”, that block a conceptual exploration of justice as justice, rendering it irrelevant, then that would demand a certain level of effort concerning the various possibilities and impossibilities of human behavior, and, next, telling me that any judgments I make from mine or Cohen’s conceptual structure are irrelevant to the actual realm of possible action. Again, if my elucidation of justice enumerates principles that cannot be true in any possible world much less ours, then that would render my theory irrelevant. Fair enough. But in order to make that argument against Cohen one would be required to offer a level of analysis, a metaphysical, political and psychological one, so large that I don’t think a critique from this perspective is credible without the analysis in place. And just saying that Cohen’s theory is off the mark because it cannot enumerated or has not enumerated a distributive scenario that has better results than Rawls’ fails because: 1) we cannot know what even good results and actions would mean without a correct evaluative standard and conceptual clarity (see above) and/or 2) this critique assumes a position about the realm of human action and the justice found there within that properly delineates all possible and impossible modes and manners of actual distributions.


dsquared 03.04.09 at 9:50 pm

(I hereby complete my Sarbanes-Oxley certification that I have, albeit rather hastily, read the chapter, as my wife was out this evening. I read it while drinking a couple of scotches – I presume I’ll be allowed nevertheless to comment while sober).

In answer to mpowell’s initial question on “action-guiding”ness:

Specifically, how would this recommend constructing social insitutions differently than what Rawls difference principle would recommend?

and reply to Chris’s #2:


a Cohen just state might devote a lot of resources to cultivating an egalitarian ethos whereas a Rawlsian state would not

If the amount of resources that has to be dedicated to this purpose does not exceed the benefit as far as the least advantaged is concerned, then Rawls difference principle recommends that course of action. If pursuing this course costs enough resources that it leaves the least advantaged worse off, is Cohen willing to recommend it?

I don’t think this works though, does it. Say that the social institution in question is an Office Of The Moral Conscience and Nagger-General, who comes around to the desks of the talented at knocking-off time, saying “come on, lads, fair go, what about the least well off? I think it’s pretty sleazy and selfish of you to just put in enough effort to reach your personal maximum utility given the system of incentives in this society, how about doing a bit more?”

In Rawls-world, this is all just a bit of fun – it might depend on everyone believing the Nagger-General to be right about justice, and everyone might be brought up from birth to believe that, but actually it’s not true; the Nagger-General is just another one of the institutions agreed on in the original position, by rational risk-averse anonymous selves, along with the rate of income tax.

In Cohen-world, the Nagger-General does actually mean what he’s saying; at the moment when he delivers the daily lecture, he’s giving the actual verdict of what’s true about justice.

I am spotting Rawlsians the proposition that it would actually be possible for the rational risk-averse anonymous selves to agree to systematically deceive themselves when they leave the original position and become actual beings – this seems a bit odd to me but I guess it can be argued either way. But the meaning of what the Nagger-General is saying is definitely different in the two cases. It’s like the distinction between what a pure utilitarian thinks about what we do when we execute a murderer and what the victim’s vengeful brother thinks. The utilitarian and (the other one) motives for punishment are also not necessarily an action-guiding distinction, but there is a distinction none the less.


John Quiggin 03.05.09 at 12:04 am

I’ll piggy back on DD’s certification and look for some factual clarification on the action question, which still hasn’t become clear to me following the one chapter at a time approach, instead of skipping to find out the ending

Reading the post and comments above it seems as if
(i) Rawls recommends that public policy should be based on the difference principle and asserts that the result will be just, while
(ii) Cohen agrees that public policy should be based on the difference principle, but says the result will be unjust because (among many other things, I’d say, though this is the only example so far) the talented are holding society as a whole to ransom by refusing to work harder unless they get paid more.

Is this interpretation (or something like it) correct, or does Cohen conclude something substantially different, for example that public policy should promote equality in wages even if everyone is worse off as a result?


Yarrow 03.05.09 at 12:05 am

Pete: Rawls says, “Now consider the point of view of anyone in the original position.” … That’s it. That’s the argument. No mention at all of desert, or morally arbitrary factors, or anything like that.

No mention of a reason to suppose that the outcome agreed to by those in the original position is a just one, either.

To me the original position argument seems a way of pushing the libertarian stance as far as possible toward justice (at least the stance of libertarians who admit that past and present societies are each some variant of kleptocracy, however mitigated, and therefore claims of entitlement are hopelessly fouled in practice, however appealing they may find them in theory.). It’s a very interesting demonstration, but it doesn’t tell us much about justice itself.


Yarrow 03.05.09 at 12:28 am

John Quiggin: [Does Cohen agree] that public policy should be based on the difference principle, but [that] the result will be unjust … . or does Cohen conclude something substantially different, for example that public policy should promote equality in wages even if everyone is worse off as a result?

Cohen ain’t sayin’: “Luck egalitarians are interested in the very nature of distributive justice, not in that 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.” (p. 301, italics in original)

Certainly he holds open the possibility that we might choose a course of action that increases equality in a Pareto sub-optimal fashion because to some extent our concern for distributive justice outweighs other concerns; but he’s not going to let us know anything more specific than that. I wish he would; those are interesting questions. (He does speak with some warmth, short of endorsement, of Joseph Carens’ Equality, Moral Incentives, and the Market. See pp. 189-192.)


John Quiggin 03.05.09 at 12:45 am

That is disappointing. I got as far as the discussion of Carens’ book, and then thought I would ask here. Maybe I should read Carens.


Chris Bertram 03.05.09 at 7:28 am

John Q writes:

_Cohen agrees that public policy should be based on the difference principle, but says the result will be unjust because (among many other things, I’d say, though this is the only example so far) the talented are holding society as a whole to ransom by refusing to work harder unless they get paid more._

But that isn’t the only example so far, because Cohen goes on, in this chapter to argue that a society where the talented are _literally unable to work harder_ unless they get paid more is inferior, with respect to justice, that a society where that are so able and do work harder.


Chris Bertram 03.05.09 at 7:43 am

John Q further writes:

_does Cohen conclude something substantially different, for example that public policy should promote equality in wages even if everyone is worse off as a result?_

To which the answer is, I think, that justice is one value among many and that in the practical business of deciding what to do, it should have play an important part in our deliberations, but what we should actually do, all things considered, will depend on the people in our society, their motivations, the other fundamental values in play etc.

I can see that “practical men” (as Kieran said, quoting Keynes in another thread, said yesterday) are going to find all this frustrating. But Cohen is going to say that unless we are clear about the nature of justice then we won’t be able to have it inform our practical deliberations anyway.


John Quiggin 03.05.09 at 10:07 am

#15 What I meant in the passage you cite, Chris, was that the unwillingness/inability of the talented to work harder is not the only problem that might be considered when we are thinking about the achievement (or even the definition) of equality and justice.

For example, there’s the issue we discussed not long ago of parental efforts on behalf of their children. And we haven’t yet said anything about gender.


mpowell 03.05.09 at 10:12 am

10: It took me a minute to understand what a nagger-general was supposed to be. I think I’ve got the idea now. I’m not sure, though, that people’s attitude towards the office need to be different. This is because I’ve been persuaded here that Cohen’s project of understanding what constitutes justice in a more general sense (in the way that marcus describes) is worthwhile. If Cohen is right, but he does not actually generate conflict with Rawls, I don’t see a reason why in our ideal society litte Johnny isn’t taught that he pays taxes to fullfill Rawls’ difference principle and that he should also share what he has based on what Cohen has to say. There is no deception intended in Rawls’ society. You use the veil of ignorance to think about what kind of society would be a just one, but once you enter society it is still hoped that you will behave in a just fashion even if it is not in your self interest.


Chris Bertram 03.05.09 at 11:53 am

#17 Yes, I think that’s right John. Given what Cohen himself says about gender, I’m sure he’d agree with you.


Pete 03.05.09 at 1:04 pm

To Chris @ #16

“[J[ustice is one value among many and…in the practical business of deciding what to do, it should have play an important part in our deliberations, but what we should actually do, all things considered, will depend on the people in our society, their motivations, the other fundamental values in play etc.”

I’ve seen you say this before, about justice being one value among many, and it occurs to me that this highlights a major point of disagreement between Cohen and Rawls about the role of justice. For Rawls (and for Kant), justice is a higher-order value: its role is to regulate our pursuit of all other values, in such a way as to maintain our freedom consistent with the equal freedom of others. So, distributive justice is a matter of pure procedural justice, and it is not just one value to be balanced among others. On the other hand, since Cohen identifies justice with a distribution that can be specified independently of the procedure needed to bring it about, he can balance the value of that state of affairs against the value of other ends.


Chris Bertram 03.05.09 at 1:35 pm

#20 Thanks Pete, that is indeed Cohen’s view (the _Introduction_ is pretty clear about that). On the other hand, I’m not clear why according to Rawls and Kant (according to you) distributive justice as a matter of pure procedural justice is an _implication_ of its higher-order status. That looks like a separate point to me.


dsquared 03.05.09 at 1:45 pm

18: it wasn’t very clear, was it? On the train back from the dentist, I just realised it would make a lot more sense and be more realistic if we took a case where the propaganda effort was directed at the least well-off rather than the talented.

So, one of the things that’s bad about being at the bottom of an unequal society is the knowledge that you’re at the bottom, and the feelings of inferiority and unfairness. Therefore, it might be the case that one could make an improvement in the lot of the least well-off by redistributing some resources away from them to reduce the rate of income tax, then using the extra surplus produced by “the talented” to pay for a program of propaganda and psychopharmaceutical drugs to keep them more content about it.

Ex hypothesi, to coin a phrase, it would be subjectively nicer to be an peasant in an “opiate of the people” society than a peasant in the previous society, but it stretches the meaning of “justice” a bit far to say that the course of action I’m suggesting would be the just thing to do. Cohen could presumably take or leave the tax-cuts-n-drugs option in terms of a policy recommendation (if they were really fantastic drugs that couldn’t be produced without the tax cut, he might say that justice wasn’t the only virtue), but he’d surely be right to say that the difference principle gives an answer about justice here that doesn’t look right.

(Apologies if this is a really undergraduate textbook objection by the way; I suspect it might be given the similarity to the plot of Brave New World)


Pete 03.05.09 at 2:59 pm

To Chris @ #21

Thanks for pushing me to make this more clear. I don’t mean to say, quite, that justice’s status as a higher-order value implies pure procedural justice; instead I am redescribing what it is to be a regulative value of this sort (although strictly speaking, of course, that a thing is a chair implies that it is also a place to sit, but the idea is that this is a redescription of the thing). So, justice is concerned with how we pursue other values – one way to think about this is that it sets limits on permissible means that we may use to pursue our ends, whatever our ends are – as opposed to being concerned with producing some particular, independently specifiable state of affairs. This is to say that justice is a procedural value: it is a value concerned first with correct procedure (“first” because we still can evaluate outcomes, but only as the outcome of some procedure), rather than with evaluating the procedure in terms of some independently correct outcome.

So, my claim (for better or worse) is that when we understand what it means for justice to be a higher order, regulative value, we see that this is for it to be a matter of pure procedural justice.


Perezoso 03.05.09 at 3:08 pm

Rawls is similar to Kant in so far that history and existing social-political relations don’t figure in his speculations. He’s rather unlike Kant in that he still views justice as desire-based (per Hobbes, utilitarians, etc): you make a choice for your particular model of Justiceville. The OP does make that choice a bit disinterested, but it’s still done from perspective of the subject (and in a sense raises empirical issue: wouldn’t many humans gamble and choose say a monarchy, if not even totalitarianism? Then, with no binding power, who cares).

A Rawlsian procedure might work on a small scale–say, like how the comrades divy up the duties out at Hog Hemp Farm (I ain’t cleaning out the turkey coop, again, Chawlie)–and there’s a slight Kropotkin-esque quality to the TOJ. Rawls does not seem workable, or even applicable on a macro scale, say in regards to existing property relationships: the Peoples of Carmel will not be divying up their chateaus merely because some Harvard egghead said they have some obligation to do so.

Rawls TOJ thus turns into just another species of prudential reformist policy-speak. Raise taxes, create programs, etc. It’s understandable why both rightist-libertarians and the marxistas object to it.


Jeff 03.05.09 at 4:21 pm

I certify that I have just finished reading Cohen’s book. I am not a philosopher, so I find the exchanges on this site between people who are helpful in formulating my thoughts on it – Chris and Pete’s exchanges in particular. What is at issue, as they point out, is the scope of justice. While I find it pretty difficult to contest Cohen’s restricted version of justice’s scope , let alone his (‘luck-egalitarian’ ) view of what justice is (which I find quite congenial), I am left feeling uncomfortable with what this means for real world issues….Cohen talks a lot about rules of regulation, but when it comes down to it, there don’t seen to be any in his view of things; instead, there’s a fact-insensitive principle of distributive justice and then there are all the messy facts of the real world, and that’s about it….if there are enough egalitarians around, practical outcomes will be acceptably just, if not..well you have to swallow your principles and, for instance, send your kids to private schools…..(which is more or less the conclusion of ‘If You’re An Egalitarian..). I prefer the view of the late Soviet philosopher Alexander Zinoviev, as expounded in The Yawning Heights, who says a single individual can by his/her words and example, raise the whole moral atmosphere in society (he has in mind Solzhenitsyn). And here I am bound to say that viewed from this angle, Rawls, in virtue of Part III of ‘A Theory…’ alone, trumps Cohen, who says a lot about ethos, but next to nothing about social relations…which when you think of it are surely where justice is, or is not, to be found.

Now I have got that off my chest, I promise to relate my thoughts more rigorously in future contributions to the actual arguments of Professor Cohen’s formidable book.


Yarrow 03.05.09 at 5:46 pm

Pete @ 23: People in the original position might well, were it possible, accept William James’ lottery: “a world in which Messrs. Fourier’s and Bellamy’s and Morris’s utopias should all be outdone, and millions kept permanently happy on the one simple condition that a certain lost soul on the far-off edge of things should lead a life of lonely torture” — for each of those self-interested people, the chances are billions-to-one for happiness and against torture. It’s an argument against Rawls’ procedure that it might reach that outcome — and the only counterarguments I can imagine for the procedure are arguments that it couldn’t, after all, reach the outcome.

So I’d say that at least some outcomes are so unjust that no procedure capable of reaching them could be a just one. If that’s the case, then (to that extent at least) outcome trumps procedure. (Cohen, in one light, argues against Rawls the complementary position that there are some procedures so unjust that no outcome, no matter how felicitous, can make them just; but he does so because the outcomes they recommend as just are not, in his view, actually so.)


Pete 03.05.09 at 9:26 pm

Yarrow @ #26

In your first paragraph, you worry that parties in the original position might choose to accept a lottery whereby one person will be exploited for the benefit of a great many. Rawls’ argument from maximin (or, better, by analogy with maximin) is I think pretty decisive against concerns like that. It’s important to recognize that the parties in the OP aren’t considering specific sets of institutions, like a particular lottery system, but rather principles to evaluate systems of institutions, and have no information whatsoever about the probabilities of occupying one social over another in the society well-ordered by the conception of justice they come to – they don’t even know what the social positions are, since these are defined by the as-yet-unselected institutions.

Your second paragraph raises an interesting point. There are some outcomes that cannot be accepted, even if they come as a consequence of a just procedure. I agree with this, and I believe that Rawls does, too. No system of institutions is perfect, and even an otherwise just democracy can pass an unjust law. But note that for Rawls, this outcome will be judged unjust according to principles that were themselves selected through a constructivist procedure, on the basis of what we can accept as reasonable and rational persons, and not on the basis of some standard selected or determined independently of such a procedure.


harry b 03.05.09 at 9:58 pm

Yes: it is impossible for anything like the outcome yarrow worries about to come out of the OP, precisely because of the decision rule imposed on the parties. I’m not sure the decision rule is internally well-motivated, but the alternative (basically a satismin rule) that does seem internally well-motivated also guarantees against yarrow’s worry.


Yarrow 03.05.09 at 11:39 pm

Pete and harry b: Let me see if I understand. It’s not that the people in the OP are taking their chances as to the position they will occupy in the resulting society (or in a society resulting from the application of the rules they choose). Instead, they are making a game-theoretic move — they choose the rules by which a society will be chosen, then their game-theoretic opponent chooses their place in a possible resulting society. Assuming the opponent wishes them great harm, that will be the worst possible place out in the worst possible society allowed. Thus each person in the original position will choose rules that disallow the William James society, because otherwise the opponent will make them the torturee.

That makes more sense. It doesn’t make more sense (to me!) than appeals to the heart, but it makes more sense of Rawls’ position than I’d had before.


Chris Bertram 03.06.09 at 8:33 am

_For Rawls (and for Kant), justice is a higher-order value: its role is to regulate our pursuit of all other values, in such a way as to maintain our freedom consistent with the equal freedom of others._

Wrote Pete, above.

I should have picked up on this before, but reporting that Kant and Rawls use “justice” in this way (if it is true that they consistently and exclusively do so) is not, of course, an argument for anything. Moreover, since it is manifestly the case that many deployments of “justice” (or equity, or fairness) as a value are not playing this role, there remains the issue of dealing with the value of justice and related values (in the non-Rawlsian sense) within any higher-order exercise. One might even think that when Rawls tells us that only his general (and not his special) conception of justice applies to societies in general, so that the lexical priority of the first principle gets discarded for very poor, underdeveloped societies, he is engaged in an pluralistic trade-off exercise of just the same kind that Cohen is.


Pete 03.07.09 at 2:45 pm


I just wanted to note that you’re right that I’ve not been arguing that (my understanding of) Rawls’ and Kant’s stance on the concept of justice is the right one, or better than Cohen’s. I’m trying for now to get as clear as I can on the fundamental disagreement(s) between them, which clearly run much deeper than a conflict over the difference principle. I do hope to consider some arguments as this reading group continues, and some have already been made (such as some previous commenters’ position that Cohen’s concept of justice is incoherent, which even if correct wouldn’t show that Rawls is right).

I don’t think that the relationship between the general and special conceptions is a way of making justice one value among others. If some particular society, for historical and cultural reasons, cannot support a liberal constitution, then Rawls allows that it may restrict liberties in ways not permissible in a liberal society. But it is allowed by justice to do so only for the purpose of moving that society towards a just liberalism, including especially a guarantee of the priority of the basic liberties.

Finally, while Kant, especially in the Groundwork, really does seem to think that justice is to regulate the pursuit of all other values (I see this as following from his metaphysical account of the source of value – the good will), I think that with respect to Rawls I’m only justified in making this claim about social justice. It might be that with respect to other social roles, other values can trump justice. Perhaps, on some comprehensive moral view, it is more important for me to be loyal to my family than to ensure a “proper balance of competing claims”1 for everyone in my community. And, a separate point, even in cases where we might think that justice (of some kind other than social, distributive justice) is the most important value, it is not the case that Rawls always claims that it must be purely procedural. His example of a criminal trial shows this. The procedure of trying a criminal case must aim at an independently specifiable outcome: finding the innocent to be innocent, and the guilty to be guilty. I want to emphasize, though, that this is not a form of distributive social justice.

1. This is what Rawls identifies as his concept of justice on Theory, Revised p. 9.


mc 03.07.09 at 6:44 pm

I agree with Jon Holbo that this is not a shock. It seems like the same argument Cohen was expounding in his graduate seminars 15 years ago (complete with the vague nod to Carens). I wish he’d applied his gifts to a wider range of subjects over his career.

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