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. First, I notice you can download Amartya Sen’s original paper, “The Impossibility of a Paretian Liberal” here (PDF), along with (same link) a certain amount of debate about whether Sen’s definition of liberalism is a good one. It seems to me it clearly is not, but it’s still interesting. As Cohen says, in his discussion of it, it’s just a case of people using their liberal rights in somewhat odd ways – a result that liberalism not only allows but predicts. In comments to that first post I quote J.S. Mill, from “On Liberty”. His thesis statement, in that rather famous book, anticipates the contours of these cases: you are allowed to reason, plead, remonstrate, etc. But not coerce. And, predictably, many people will use their liberal rights stupidly. But, we hope, not too many. So, in short, Mill would no more regard Lewd and Prude as a problem for liberalism than a scientist would regard ‘some experiments fail’ as an argument against empirical science.

There is another way to make the argument, which is to imagine – in place of the absurd Lewd and Prude – somewhat more realistic players. You and I are friends. We both care deeply about art but you think ‘It’s the Hudson River School or it’s crap’. I care only for the likes of Damien Hirst. We argue about this and, occasionally, get in fights which, predictably, go nowhere. But we are still friends (for whatever reasons). We care what each other think. Now: I have a ticket to go see a Damien Hirst show. It will mean a lot to me, but it would mean even more to me if you were to give it a try. (I think you will admit that proselytic zeal is not uncommon in such cases. People who desperately want you to try so-and-so’s new CD, so forth.) I hope against hope that you will finally get that this is not just crass, cynical commercialized pseudo-art but in fact genius. If you could only see the skull with the diamonds or the gold-covered calf preserved in formaldyhyde, etc. You on the other hand, maintain that all this stuff is actually corrupting my appreciation of the Good Old Stuff. So when I offer my ticket, you accept. Probably you even anticipate a grim pleasure in contemplating the worthlessness of this trash. Maybe you offer me, in exchange, your ticket to that exhibition of Hudson River landscapes you were so looking forward to seeing.

We are both, I trust, aware of the hilarious irony of this (Pareto optimal!) Gift of the Magi arrangement. We aren’t totally lacking in self-reflection. There is no way such an arrangement would be entered into in anything but a (somewhat) whimsical spirit. And we don’t do anything stupid like try to make the arrangement legally binding. It’s just an informal arrangement between friends. There’s an oddly respectful disrespect to the whole business, but that’s not so unusual when friends agree to disagree.

You can imagine variants on this: a bookclub for creationists and Darwinists, who agree to read each others books, in exchange for not reading their own. Silly, but you can almost imagine people doing this sort of thing.

Now, not only would such arranges not be incompatible with liberalism, they seem positive expressions of its spirit (in almost all active senses of liberalism – the seminar room senses and also the op-ed page sense). Convincing people, if you can’t coerce them, usually fails, and often involves rather laborious attempts to meet the other side half-way. It also involves ritual invocations of fallibilistic ‘I might be wrong, so I should try new things’ sentiment. There is an elaborate respectfulness for people’s autonomy. So forth.

Finally, if we imagine that the characters involved in the exchange are actually radically anti-liberal – Prude is a pure, censorious throwback to Calvin’s Geneva; Lewd a true counter-example to Socrates’ suggestion that no one really wants what is bad – even so, the liberal would hope that the ridiculous book exchange, conducted in scrupulously liberal terms, might act as a mini-education in the virtues of liberalism. From a liberal perspective, there is no better way to manage the lives of such characters, and there is a small chance such activities will eventually make good liberals of them; so the fact that this is how it would go is no embarrassment to liberalism, in its own terms.

Now, on to Chapter 5 proper. The feature of the Lewd and Prude case that attracts Cohen is that there are two things that may not go together: roughly, a sort of liberal perfectionism and a sort of liberal permissiveness. The Millian hope is that permissiveness will lead to perfection – progress, at any rate. There is, obviously, no guarantee this will be the case. And that’s pretty much your answer right there. It is not a conceptual truth that Millian liberalism is conducive to the production of ideal, Millian liberal personalities. But Mill thinks it’s a good plan, and he at least hopes to get both. (See also: Isaiah Berlin, “Two Concepts of Liberty”, on this tension in Mill’s view.)

Cohen, too, has two things – or rather, three things – that may not go together: egalitarianism, freedom, and pareto-optimal results. I’m not going to rehearse the argument for how these might not go together, because I think you can probably fill in the details for yourself. Cohen’s solution is, basically, but they might well go together. So it’s not incoherent to try and definitely not incoherent to say: if possible, this is the best thing. Adding a bit more: he makes the (surely quite sound) point that one standard sketch of why these things will fall apart won’t do. Namely, if I am obliged to be egalitarian, that is automatically a grave affront to liberty. My economic range of action is severely curtailed. No, Cohen says, equality is only automatically an affront to freedom if you are not an egalitarian. (If you think you have a duty to help little old ladies across the road, the fact that there is a candidate little old lady there, in need, is not an affront to your freedom. You will freely help her cross the road because that’s what you believe you should do. Our own moral beliefs are not shackles on our freedom.) Now, you may not be an egalitarian. Fine. But you can’t take ‘egalitarianism is wrong’ as a premise in an argument against egalitarianism, and expect an egalitarian to buy it. That’s the short version, and I’ll leave it at that in this post, because I want to consider, briefly, Cohen’s case – very broadly analogous to Lewd and Prude – of the person who must choose whether to be a doctor or a gardener.

Here’s the situation. She has the skill to be either a gardener or a doctor. She would rather be a gardener than a doctor to the following extent. In order to get her to switch from gardening to doctoring, you have to raise her salary from 20,000 to 50,000 pounds. But she would do a great deal more good for society as a doctor. Cohen’s idea is ultimately going to be that, so long as she doesn’t really hate doctoring – so long as it would be good life for her, although not a great one – she should be willing to doctor for 20,000. That is the right thing for her to do. She shouldn’t need the extra financial inducement. And, in fact, if she takes the money that gives the lie to any narrative about ‘self-fulfillment’ she was going to tell. (If you are willing to screw the people who need your doctoring, to fulfill your love of hoeing and planting, then you shouldn’t be willing to sell out that self-fulfillment for a lousy 30,000 pounds.)

Cohen isn’t proposing to force her to doctor, if push comes to shove. But he does say it would be right for her to be a doctor, at the lower wage. If she doesn’t do it, she has done something morally discreditable. Why not force her to do the right thing, if you are so sure this is it? Cohen admits that his ideas here are a bit inchoate and unsatisfactory. Mostly the problems are practical: there would be all sorts of predictable bad effects of such a regime. People afraid to study biology, lest they be drafted as doctors. Sullen doctors. Government called upon to figure out all sorts of ineffable subjective stuff about how much someone really wants to be a gardener and doesn’t want to be a doctor.

I’m oversimplifying quite a bit, so let me make a Chris Bertram-like request. Don’t criticize my sketch of Cohen’s argument if you haven’t read the argument itself. There’s no point in you trying to say what’s wrong with it if you don’t know what it is. (If this post makes it sound interesting, you might check it out.) [UPDATE: to clarify, feel free to criticize my simple argument, but don’t just assume that if there’s a problem with it, that necessarily it’s Cohen’s problem. Unless you’ve actually read Cohen.]

But I’m going to make a criticism. The case of the would-be gardener/doctor is underdescribed. It might be one way, might be another, and it matters a great deal which is which.

Case 1: the bombs are falling, people are wounded and dying. There aren’t enough doctors. Should you – a skilled doctor, spend your time trimming the roses, until you are offered that extra 30,000 pounds that the war office can’t spare at the present time? No. You must ‘do your bit’. Cohen invokes this war-time phrase himself. I think everyone (except a few libertarians) is with Cohen on this one. But that is because they take this sort of case to be the exception, not the rule.

Case 2: it’s peacetime and society and the economy are humming along, but there aren’t enough doctors because the government has put wage-controls in place. You can’t get paid more than 20,000 pounds and no one wants to do it for that amount. (Medical school is hard.) They wouldn’t hate it, but too many people just prefer to do something else. People are sick and injured and dying and not enough hands to fix them up. Now: should you, a potential doctor, heroically engage in Stackhanovite lite, in effect? Give up the job you prefer for the one you somewhat disprefer. Cohen says you should. But why won’t you? One reason you won’t is because you are selfish. This isn’t a counter-example to Cohen’s moral views. But another reason is that you appreciate that you doing this thing isn’t going to fix the problem. The problem with Stackhanovism isn’t just that it’s horrible to jump in a vat of cement and heroically agitate the mixture with your own arms. (Cohen is agreed that you can’t be expected to freely give up a good life for a horrible one, just because the system is too stupid to build enough cement-mixing equipment.) The problem is that Stackhanovism is not an adequate response to systemic inefficiencies in the overall system.

And now we get back to objections that Cohen thinks are actually good ones. So if they score against him, that’s a problem. I’m gardening. Should I become a doctor? Either there are enough other people becoming doctors or there aren’t. If there are, then I can go on gardening. (Why not?) If there aren’t, and if the reason is that not enough people are willing to doctor for only 20,000 (whether this is morally blameworthy of them or not) then the solution is not for me to be a hero (because that’s not a solution to the systemic problem at all) but for the government to raise that cap on wages. At which point I will become a doctor (but not a hero). There is no situation in which the optimal arrangement is for me to engage in heroic-lite doctoring. There is only a situation in which the optimal arrangement, on the assumption that the government is being overly-egalitarian about the whole business, is for me to engage in heroic-lite doctoring. This is not an overcoming of the dilemma (or trilemma) that Cohen sets himself. This seems to me like a problem with Cohen’s use of the case.

What do you think?



John Quiggin 03.13.09 at 5:04 am

Here’s the question that occurred (and is certainly more relevant) to me. Suppose the choice is between becoming a gardener and becoming a university professor. How do I determine which is the right choice?

In a market society, I could operate on the assumption that, if university professors are paid a lot more than gardeners then their services are more valuable, though of course, that same reasoning has led a lot of physicists to become Wall Street quants. And, I guess I could square things morally by giving away all my surplus income (to the state?, to poor people in general?, to poor people with whom I have a personal connection?)

But even allowing for the limitations of market wage determination, it’s hard for me to believe that a government agency could credibly determine a ranking of social contributions that would resolve these kinds of questions more than very coarsely.

I know that this is one of those epistemological questions, but it does seem to me to be a problem if the requirements of justice (in this case regarding the choice of an occupation) turn out to be more easily observable in an unjust society than in a just one.


John Holbo 03.13.09 at 6:49 am

I think Cohen’s choice of examples – blood donation, for example – show the limits of his approach. It is possible, I’ll bet, to figure out how much blood is needed. So you can solve the epistemological problem outside the market economy. And, plausibly, you can then call upon people to voluntarily meet the need. So you can move blood donation outside of the rest of the economy. But you can’t move the whole economy outside of the economy. There are basic epistemological problems with expecting people to know that they should give up gardening and take up doctoring. They could only know that if it were really obvious that there was a horrible doctor shortage. That is, they could only know it if Cohen has already lost, in effect, because the situation is not pareto-optimal.

Suppose we imagine that things sort of bobble back and forth. Doctors run short. People start to realize the need for a spot of Stackhanovite-lite doctoring around the place. Problem solves itself as moral heroes step up to ‘do their bit’. No problem. So people go back to gardening. Horrible problems start again. (Nothing less than horrible problems will make the gardeners realize the need to beat their plowshares into scalpels. No one is going to give up what they want for the sake of what they do not want because maybe – who knows? – there is a shortage of doctors.) This is just not going to be pareto optimal, to say the least.


dsquared 03.13.09 at 7:47 am

Yes, this was the question that kept bubbling up in my mind on reading the chapter (as well as a subsidiary one about whether this would lead to a demographically stable society that I’ll write up later) – it’s got the same problems of Robinson Crusoeism that a lot of economics textbook examples get. The question of whether it’s worth more to society for person X to be a doctor or a gardner are going to depend massively on the choices made by a million other people. It’s not at all obvious that (in the absence of something like a solution to the socialist calculation problem) the statement “it is worth £50,000 to society if A trains to be a doctor” has any meaning at all.

I think Chris is going to get into work in about ten minutes and say that the central argument of the chapter isn’t affected by this, because all that’s really required is some sort of good faith effort to do one’s best for society, but there is a big epistemological problem here.

That is, they could only know it if Cohen has already lost, in effect, because the situation is not pareto-optimal

No, Cohen does get this one right (and gets serious kudos from me for being just about the only person I’ve ever seen who is clear about the Pareto condition). If there is a hideous doctor shortage, people dying from infected wounds all over the place and I am the only person who could save them, then if I would rather be a gardner, the situation is Pareto optimal. Because there are no improvements that could be made without making at least one person (me) worse off. Remember that “all for me, none for you” is a Pareto-efficient distribution.


Zamfir 03.13.09 at 9:05 am

But Dsquared, is that part of the argument still about Pareto efficiency? There is definitely a moral “ought” involved, which would seem unnecessary when Pareto-optimal is the only goal.

I can’t put my finger on it, but there seems in these arguments somewhere an asymmetry between the provision of work and monetary compensation, in the sense that the choice of work is taken as a personal decision, with morality involved but still personal, while the compensation can be set by society at large according to first principles.

I am not quite sure why the reasoning that would make it moral to become a doctor would not in symmetry make it moral for her boss to pay 50,000.

Of course, in our society income taxes do redistribute the compensation, but no similar principle redistributes work, but that seems more for practical reasons than purely moral principles.


Tracy W 03.13.09 at 9:54 am

In a market society, I could operate on the assumption that, if university professors are paid a lot more than gardeners then their services are more valuable

More precisely, that the service of the marginal university professor is more valuable than the service of the marginal gardener – the average gardener could be providing more valuable services than the average university professor, but if gardening is incredibly attractive and people flock to it while university professoring is incredibly unattractive then all else being equal gardeners would be cheap so that the marginal gardener is hired to do something low value relative to the marginal university professor’s job. Which makes valuing the relative worth of gardeners to university professors even more difficult as not all gardening jobs are identical, and nor are all professoring jobs.

(Of course on another level, in a market society, or indeed any society, you can operate on any assumption you want, regardless of whether the assumption is true or not. Reality may cause problems for us if our assumptions is false, but I have managed to go for years with false assumptions without realising it until eventually something happened to make me aware.)


Jacob T. Levy 03.13.09 at 10:09 am

I strongly agree that Cohen misses out on the informational uses of wages. He treats “we may need to pay more to attract people into certain professions” as just equivalent to “people are holding their talents hostage by threatening to refuse to go into those professions,” which relies on the unstated assumption that it’s already known to everyone what the higher-[economic-]value use of the talents is.


mpowell 03.13.09 at 10:54 am

6: This seems like a pretty practical problem with Cohen’s idea of justice. Take the example of being an engineer. That’s a job that quite clearly has some social benefit and you could pursuse engineering in the right spirit of things. But you still have to be working at the right problems. And knowing many engineers, that won’t happen unless you signal pretty strongly to them what they need to be doing. Based on my observations of human nature, I would not accept that this time wasting should be described as immoral. But I think Cohen clearly would. I think you could construct an argument that Cohen’s society is never really stable, etc as dsquared is suggesting, but this kind of practical problem falls into the category of, well, Cohen is hoping that this doesn’t become a problem, and wouldn’t it best if it didn’t? After all, i’t snot absolutely necessary to use wages to pass information around. The government could keep track of waiting lines at doctor’s offices, how many people get the treatments they deserve, etc and project how many doctors they’ll be needing in the future based on this kind of information and then give people indications of whether or not they should really be thinking of signing up. If you would prefer to be a gardner, but the government is telling you there will be a shortage of doctor’s in 10 years, shouldn’t you give it some thought? And the degree of shortage could directly take the place of the income differential in your calculation. This could happen without ever getting to the point of people dying in the streets. Sure using wages for information might be easier, but I think Cohen can argue that this would be a better system, if it works, to meet his ideals of justice.


dsquared 03.13.09 at 11:11 am

#6: I don’t think that this is intrinsically a problem actually; Cohen’s suggestion (from Carens) is that the wage/price mechanism works normally and then there is massive redistributive taxation


John Holbo 03.13.09 at 11:32 am

“#6: I don’t think that this is intrinsically a problem actually; Cohen’s suggestion (from Carens) is that the wage/price mechanism works normally and then there is massive redistributive taxation”

I should have said something about this. I think the idea that people will behave exactly the same, economically, if they are only playing for ‘monopoly money’ is somewhat far-fetched.


Chris Bertram 03.13.09 at 12:00 pm

_I think the idea that people will behave exactly the same, economically, if they are only playing for ‘monopoly money’ is somewhat far-fetched._

Does Cohen need to be committed to a claim as strong as that? Surely Cohen only needs the claim that the allocative aspect of the market can be divorced from its distributive one and that people (with the right ideals, of course) could (i.e. would have the capacity) to adjust their behaviour to prices. So he only needs something like logical possibility not predictive plausibility about actual people.


dsquared 03.13.09 at 12:20 pm

I think the idea that people will behave exactly the same, economically, if they are only playing for ‘monopoly money’ is somewhat far-fetched.

what Chris said, also it isn’t really all that far fetched (you can get tax systems really really progressive and the sky doesn’t fall in) and I dispute that it’s “monopoly money” in the relevant sense – for example, a company making profits will be able to invest more than a company that isn’t (I am assuming that given the massively redistributive income tax system, a Carens economy wouldn’t have a corporation tax)


dsquared 03.13.09 at 12:24 pm

(since I might not get the chance to write the post I want to, I’ll note here that IMO the real problem with the Carens economy arises demographically – since there is no relative income uncertainty, there is no precautionary motive for saving, also the implicit retirement pensions system is a PAYGO with 100% replacement rate. This means it’s really quite sensitive to developing adverse demographics; I think that such a society would need some quite serious pro-natalist policies which might be difficult on both libertarian and central-planning grounds.


mpowell 03.13.09 at 12:42 pm

12: I am not seeing how this would push towards the development of adverse demographics? Are you suggesting that people won’t have enough kids?


dsquared 03.13.09 at 12:47 pm

Yes basically. Or rather, if they happened to start not having enough kids, their pension system would move into actuarial insolvency quite sharply, leading to some quite unjust-looking intertemporal redistributions.


Yarrow 03.13.09 at 1:45 pm

Back to John’s argument against Cohen in the peacetime humming-along situation: Cohen’s response (which I think may be from If You’re an Egalitarian… rather than Rescuing Justice and Equality), is along this line: You don’t have to able to solve the systematic problem for justice to demand that you become a doctor; you just have to be able to heal a normal doctor’s worth of patients from disability, pain and death.

This is not a comfortable argument, since by it’s light most of us (including Cohen, as he says himself) are not meeting the demands of justice. That it’s uncomfortable doesn’t make it false.


mpowell 03.13.09 at 1:52 pm

14: Isn’t this a problem in all societies, though? Even if people are saving, if there are not enough workers producing goods, wouldn’t you just get inflation? After all, you’re saving currency, not actual economic goods. Also, people seem to like having kids. I’m not sure why this would be a particular concern in this society.


dsquared 03.13.09 at 2:07 pm

Yes, that’s true I suppose, how embarrassing. Although a Carens society does have a problem of deciding on the correct size of the contingency reserve for society as a whole while a non-Carens society doesn’t (the sum of individual contingency reserves will always be at least as large as the optimal reserve for the sum).


John Holbo 03.13.09 at 2:07 pm

“Does Cohen need to be committed to a claim as strong as that?”

Sorry, having sloppily skipped that point in the post, it didn’t help much to breeze by it in comments. (But I was trying to wrestle two children towards bedtime.)

I don’t think he needs to believe anything quite that crude. But I honestly don’t see what more sophisticated thing he’s got up his sleeve, so – since he doesn’t really say much about it (unless there’s more in those chapters still to come!) – I’m not going to bother elaborately speculating about what it might be, only to pick at it. There are tons of obvious problems with the limited sketch he provides, seems to me. And I do think he needs more than logical possibility in order for his claim to be terribly interesting.

I’ll just say: my own belief (but what do I really know?) is that vastly lessened inequalities, relative to those that prevail today, would give you just as much efficiency – just as much vital ‘information’ about where the economy needs to go. But total equality, evening it all out, would not do at all. I don’t claim that lessened inequality, short of perfect equality, is therefore just. But I think it’s probably economically necessary, for reasons Cohen accepts in principle. And I think it’s also what people want. That is, if lesser – but still quite significant – inequality is unjust, then it turns out that people don’t actually want a just society. That sounds a bit weird, but I don’t think it really is: people prefer to play a game in which there is a degree of luck and potential unfairness – meritless pay-off. (Not that you need to take my word for it. Just saying where I’m coming from, roughly.)


Pete 03.13.09 at 2:43 pm

Chris says @10,

“Surely Cohen only needs the claim that the allocative aspect of the market can be divorced from its distributive one…”

I think you’re right about Cohen, and I just wanted to note that Rawls shares this view about the possibility of separating the allocative and distributive functions of prices in a market economy, so at least a Rawlsian probably wouldn’t want to use its rejection as a defense against Cohen.


Zamfir 03.13.09 at 3:08 pm

The doctor in the example seems to me not a good example of an economic function, because it has atypical moral claims, in the sense that doctors in particular are expected to help others in emergency even without pay, to an extent not expected from other functions. It is hard to say in the argument where the universal demand ends and the particular expectations of doctors start.

The argument should still hold if the $50,000 was something completely different, say being the valet servant of P.Diddy. In that case, when gardening he is not withholding a service from society at large, just from P.Diddy. If that leads to P.Diddy withholding beautiful songs from society, unless he gets a servant, the “blackmail” accusation seems to apply more to him then to the gardener.


mpowell 03.13.09 at 4:14 pm

17: Okay, I’m not sure how to test your claim. I think these kinds of problems are solvable (I would be interested to see if someone could show that is not the case), but it’s certainly also true that if you’re going to build a Caren’s society, you’d better think really carefully about all of these distributional issues that are normally driven by distributed market decisions and now have to be much more centrally managed.

18: I definitely agree with your sense of what people would prefer. I think the ‘game’ is part of what keeps life interesting. If you do what you’re supposed to be doing better than other people, than you get to ‘win’. Just being provided motivation to do stuff should not be overlooked as to the value it can add to one’s life. One of the reasons why I’m not sure I agree with Cohen is that if that’s what people like and losing doesn’t mean living a bad life, I don’t see what’s wrong with that. (certainly, I would not consider us to be at that stage though!)


Yarrow 03.13.09 at 5:20 pm

The argument in 18 that “people prefer to play a game in which there is a degree of luck and potential unfairness – meritless pay-off” may be right, but it is not the same as 21’s “motivation to do stuff”. Additional reward for additional effort is perfectly compatible with Cohen’s setup. For that matter, so is a lottery, if participation in it is voluntary. What Cohen argues against is forced participation a lottery in which those born with greater talent are also rewarded with greater wealth and greater status. I take John to suspect that people would still prefer this birth lottery to a more equal distribution of (for the sake of the argument exactly the same) goods. That might be the case if somehow folks could decide this before birth — better a 10 percent chance at being one of the elect than a guarantee of dead equality — but presumably by the time everyone is an adult, the bottom 90 percent would either (a) prefer equality, or (b) suppose themselves to really be in the top 10 percent and so unfairly dealt with.

I personally think we may be stuck with greater status for the talented, but I’ve never seen why such status and material wealth should have much to do with each other. I also see an argument against the actual existence of broad innate differences in talent (among otherwise normal individuals) in Flynn’s explaination of the Flynn effect, that very small differences in talent and interest can be highly magnified by the environment. The Polgar sisters’ chess talent is an example of what can happen when we decide to create talent rather than believing we have found it.


Paul J. Reber 03.13.09 at 7:52 pm

I think the question is poorly formed for a number of real-world contingencies. For example, is an unhappy doctor who wishes s/he were gardening as useful to society as it is being assumed? What about a poor or careless doctor?

And is one’s contribution to society dominated so thoroughly by job choice? One reason one might prefer gardening is that by having a more rewarding, lower pressure, lower time demanding occupation, it frees up time for community work, volunteering or even simply investing more heavily in raising happy children (or other contributions to the happiness of others).

My naive intuition (and I confess to not having read the original problem) is that a person who is likely to provide a lot of social value will do so regardless of their occupation. If so, then we can avoid spending a lot of time infringing on liberty on what they ‘ought’ to do and instead consider if the social structures we can influence provide the proper incentives for people. If being a doctor is an objectively worse profession to many so that we run a deficit of doctors in favor of gardeners, I think we should consider why we have made doctoring unpleasant rather than worrying about morally shaming gardeners into becoming unhappy, resentful doctors.


Chris 03.13.09 at 9:06 pm

@20: You’re not really withholding a service from P.Diddy either because P.Diddy can hire someone else. The substitutability of one worker for another undermines a lot of arguments of this sort (as well as the concept of “going Galt”, which, come to think of it, is precisely what we are accusing the hypothetical gardener of doing).

@23: I don’ t think you can take the pressure out of medicine; having other people’s lives depend on your job performance is inherently part of the job.

You probably *could* take the insanely grueling hours out of medicine, but only at the cost of having society train more doctors. Training a doctor requires an immense amount of other people’s effort and I think that has a lot to do with why doctors are worked so hard by the system – two doctors working 60 hours a week each are cheaper to train than three working 40. (This is true for any job, but the extreme cost of medical training makes it a sharper consideration for medicine.)

Note that the concept of inherent talent isn’t necessary to explain *any* of the phenomena surrounding the status, wealth, etc. of doctors – the massive educational investment is sufficient. (When you consider the effect of nutrition, books in the home, and educational level of parents, it starts to sound like the saying attributed to Edward III, “To train a longbowman, start with his grandfather.”) Therefore, by Occam’s razor, we should be dropping talent from the discussion… right?


Jeff R. 03.13.09 at 11:32 pm

Hello from another new participant here (I’ve been following the discussion with interest, recently realized that my local library system made the text avaiaible, and have just now caught up with the reading; I so assert and all.)

So, first, can someone who has read the mentioned-in-passing Self-Ownership provide a quick precis of its argument? [Does it assert that it is possible to deny that principle without creating a state of universal slavery and, perhaps even more offensively, universal collective slave-ownership, or does it conclude that that state is, contra intuition, actually a good thing?]

Secondly, I have to say I find the argument that attempts to escape to equality-pareto-freedom trilemna unconvincing and a bit tautological. (I’m not sure if this chapter is slated for a second post or not, but it strikes me that in a lot of places where Cohen claims the arguer has demonstrated that he does not believe in egalitarianism it may be more proper to say that the arguer has, having assumed egalitarianism, reached an absurdity and thus formed a reducto proof against it. Or at least against his strong formulation which must be applied rigorously and at times torturously, like as Asimovian law of robotics, to any economic/moral question)


Pete 03.14.09 at 1:11 pm

I was surprised to see Cohen say, on p 199,

I do not question the right of the talented to decide (that is, their right not to be coerced with respect to) how much they will work at various rates of renumeration.

It looks like Cohen is just giving away the store here. Rawls’ question is just what, in a liberal democratic society, coercively enforceable rights we have. Note that the question of what rights are coercively enforceable depends not at all on any actual uses of coercion. This is a question about authorization.

This is a distinct question, a question of justice, that is separable from broader questions about what we morally ought to do. It is also a centrally important question, because it defines the background of (coercively enforceable) rights against which we pursue whatever else it is that we may think are morally obligated to do, or pursue what we simply desire.

Rawls does not rule out that we can make these broader moral judgments, but these judgments are not his project. His project is made all the more important if we think, with Rawls, that reasonable people can disagree about these broader moral standards. Cohen reveals in this chapter a sympathy with communism. What system of rights can he, Rawlsian liberals, Kantians, Christians, Jews, and so on all accept as reasonable even though they disagree about many other moral evaluations (such as whether our doctor-gardener has an obligation to be a doctor because, as in John Holbo’s case 2, this would bring more benefit to others, even though there is no severe shortage of doctors)? This question of authorization to coerce is an important question of justice no matter what your broader moral evaluation of such situations is.


dsquared 03.14.09 at 1:38 pm

It looks like Cohen is just giving away the store here.

But there’s coercion and coercion isn’t there? Look at our breastfeeding thread, for example. The requirements imposed on people by their own beliefs in what is ethically required can feel pretty coercive at times.


Pete 03.14.09 at 5:19 pm

But there’s coercion and coercion isn’t there?

I mean something pretty straightforward: what standards can we legitimately be forced to uphold? I agree that social pressure and even our own consciences can feel coercive at times. But this is a different point. I can be literally compelled to compensate you when I damage your property: this is an authorization implicit in the idea of a property right. I cannot, on the other hand, be compelled to change my caddish behavior, though I may well find myself unwelcome in many social circles if I do not. There is no authorization, in the latter case, for me to be sent to prison or made by the coercive machinery of the state to compensate you for the effects of my insensitivity or rudeness.


Chris Bertram 03.14.09 at 6:25 pm

But Pete, we’ve been here before, haven’t we? It won’t do to say that, for Rawls, justice is about legally enforcible rules, etc. etc. and that therefore Cohen misses his mark, because Cohen is perfectly entitled to respond that such an artificial constriction of justice rules out saying some perfectly sensible things about whether a society is just or unjust. (Ditto for individual conduct: there are many things that it would be wrong for me to do which it would be wrong for the state to punish me for doing.) You write about “these broader moral standards”. Do you perhaps think the right/good distinction maps onto the coercively enforcible/not distinction? ( It pretty clearly doesn’t, afaics)


Pete 03.14.09 at 7:57 pm


Coercion was indeed discussed before. I brought it up again because Cohen addressed it pretty directly in a way I thought he hadn’t before. So, at least, I hope I’m not merely retreading covered ground.

I don’t think that “coercively enforceable/not” maps onto “right/good,” for exactly the sorts of reasons that you cite. In fact, the recognition that not all dictates of right ought to be coercively enforceable is another way of raising the question I see Rawls as trying to answer.

Rawls claims that the justice of the basic structure is the primary subject of social justice. Let me set aside this claim, and talk about a weaker one for a moment: a just basic structure is an important subject of social justice that is distinct from and not simply reducible to other questions of justice. The basic structure consists of the coercively enforceable rules that bind us as citizens, together with mechanisms for creating, enforcing, and adjudicating disputes about these coercive rules. (A quick aside – these rules are coercive even if actual force never needs to be applied to enforce them. They are coercive in the sense that they are bound up with an authorization to coerce, unlike many other moral rules, as you pointed out above.)

Cohen holds that justice requires equalizing… something…, but also holds that it is not always legitimate to use coercion to achieve this aim (however we might spell the aim out). This clearly leaves open a very important set of questions: when is coercion legitimate, and when not, and why? It’s obvious just from the set-up of the problem that it can’t be answered simply by reference to the state of affairs that Cohen thinks justice aims at. We need more than just to repeat the specification of the state of affairs that justice aims at. So, this is the sense in which it is a problem that is not simply reducible to Cohen’s distinct account of justice as aiming at this state of affairs.

Final point: coming up with principles governing such a structure as I’ve outlined above does not answer all questions of justice, nor does it exhaust all moral judgments we might make about a society. So, I might hold both that the basic structure of a society is just, and that a particular doctor-gardener is unjustly taking advantage in some way or other. I might be a good citizen but a bad husband or father, or just a bit of a jerk. These evaluations, even seen as all matters of right or justice, come apart.

Well, I’m afraid that I’ve still ended up saying some of the same things over again, and I apologize for that. I hope that some of the formulations are different enough to perhaps make my claims a bit more clear.


John Quiggin 03.14.09 at 8:53 pm

Let me try again with my main concern from last time. Suppose a Rawlsian (or for that matter a utilitarian) argues as follows: Arguments for the difference (or utility) principle of justice are applicable both to social and individual choices. But we know that, as regards individual choices the implications are highly (impossibly?) demanding. We can expect that some people will act to some extent in accordance with such principles and others will not. That is, if we define social justice to be a situation where all actions, individual and political, are guided by justice, it cannot be achieved. Given that, let’s consider a more limited concept of political justice.

Suppose, then, we organise things so that anyone willing to act in accordance with justice can do so (by working extra hours, giving away their excess income and so on), knowing that some will do so and some will not. Then, conditional on that knowledge, political justice requires that we organise institutions such as wage-setting to satisfy the Pareto (or utility-maximization) principle.

In this context, it seems to me that the Rawlsian or utilitarian response to Cohen is to cite Kant, as in our masthead, and to say that their theory does the best possible with the available materials.


Chris Bertram 03.15.09 at 8:54 am

Would it be unfair, John, to parse you as saying that ought implies can, and, also, that Cohen’s standards are excessively demanding?

If so, then I think Cohen can quite reasonably respond that to establish that it is very unlikely that people can be brought to phi is different from the issue whether they can phi. The fact that I can predict that you (singly) or a group of people (collectively) are very unlikely to do something (or even that you aren’t going to do that thing) is quite different from whether you could do that thing. The recent Cohen conference had a paper by David Estlund around some of these issues, and I hope it sees the light of day soon.


dsquared 03.15.09 at 10:46 am

30: Pete, it sounds like you’re saying that monogamous partnership (for example) isn’t part of the “basic structure” of British society, but the illegality of indoor smoking is. I don’t think that coercive/noncoercive enforcement maps onto anything except itself.


Pete 03.15.09 at 2:16 pm

Daniel, I’m not sure what I’ve said to contradict the Rawlsian claim that the legal structure of the family (including the new legal rights and responsibilities we acquire when we get married and when we have children) is part of the basic structure. As for a civil penalty for smoking indoors (criminal law is a different story: this is a part of non-ideal theory, and is not part of the subject of basic, social, distributive justice), here’s all I can think of to say about it right now: I’m not sure that a civil law against indoor smoking is required in order to establish the justice of the basic institutions of society, but such a law looks to me to at least be consistent with the requirements of basic social justice.


Jeff R. 03.17.09 at 6:57 pm

I suspect that we may go into this more in the next installment, but I’m not at all sure that ought does inf fact imply can. (Ask a heroin addict.) Much as Rawls’ society designed by (maximally risk-averse) Amnesiac Androids is not clearly applicable to human being, Cohen’s insights might be useful in setting up a society of luck-egalitarian, perfectly logical Angels, but again, considerably less applicable to humans. (I’m somewhat skeptical of, and increasingly of the opinion that Cohen has provided a reducto against, the premise that the civil requirement that everyone in the society must have a commitment to justice actually does require everyone to accept the ‘luck-egalitarian+whatever special pleading enables luck-egalitarians to avoid setting up their society primarily for the convenience of rats, beetles, or microbes while still respecting the disabled’ package)


Perezoso 03.18.09 at 7:58 pm

Namely, if I am obliged to be egalitarian, that is automatically a grave affront to liberty.

Rawls attempted to justify an obligation to be egalitarian (Cohen follows Rawls, with a few slight modifications (even more egalitarian)). Did Rawls succeed in proving that obligation, merely from the perspective of disinterested rational choice? Nyet. In a limited context, say Kropotkinville, many might have sound, personal reasons to be egalitarian, and respect the loom, so to speak (tho’ not everyone would). In terms of national or global politics, RawlsSpeak has little or no application, and far less effective than a Nimitz class supercarrier.

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