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G.A. Cohen

More On Gaus’ The Tyranny of the Ideal

by John Holbo on August 4, 2016

Having posted about Gaus’ new book, let me link to Will Wilkinson’s review essay at Vox. Will is more enthused about the conclusions than I am, although I agree it’s a great read. I’ve been trying to work out my own thoughts in the same vicinity and, for post purposes, I’ll just sketch a thumbnail argument that seems to me the right Gaus-style indictment of Rawls, using a modified version of his mountain metaphor. [click to continue…]

Liberal, Conservative, Pangloss, Plotinus, Galton

by John Holbo on February 1, 2016

(This isn’t part of our Walton seminar, though it’s got Plotinus in it.)

What is liberalism? What is conservatism? If you are interested in getting answers to these questions, you (probably) want the answers to do two things for you: [click to continue…]

Defending The Priority of Democracy

by Jack Knight and James Johnson on February 20, 2013

We’d like to start by thanking the crew at Crooked Timber for hosting this conversation and Henry Farrell in particular for coordinating it. It is reasonably rare to have a baker’s half dozen smart people offer critical commentary on your work. So we appreciate the willingness of our interlocutors to participate in this discussion. That said, while we are tempted to rest content with the opening superlatives the discussants offer, we instead will take the opportunity to respond to the various qualms they have expressed. These, we think, fall fairly neatly into three categories: (1) questions regarding the relation of our enterprise to the sorts of ‘ideal theory’ exemplified by Rawls and those who have written in his wake; (2) doubts about operational problems with our argument – stated in terms of whether the conception of pragmatist democracy we advance is coherent or stable; and (3) questions about the sorts of learning and inquiry our arguments presuppose. We address each of these sets of qualms in turn even though, as will become clear, they intersect in important ways.

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This post is mostly by way of trying to make Bertram, Robins and Gourvitch’s post sticky, as it deserves to stay at the top for a while. If you haven’t read their post yet, do so. If you are already reasonably conversant with their points, proceed under the fold, if you like, for what is really just a Hayek-inflected restatement and reinforcement of some of their main points. (Also, it’s effectively a late, long footnote to the Red Plenty seminar): [click to continue…]

The new enclosures as a threat to freedom

by Chris Bertram on March 19, 2012

This morning brings news of new plans by Britain’s Tory/LibDem coalition, this time to privatize parts of the road network. Presented (again) merely as a way of getting things working more efficiently, this is both part of a pattern and – the philosophical point here – a further reduction in the liberty of individuals. The pattern is a gradual shift of resources that used to be common in to the private or quasi-private sector. Not long ago, higher education was free: now it is not. Fairly large amounts of formerly public space in cities are now in the hands of private developers who employ security guards to enforce their rules on what can be done on their land. Government plans to privatize publicly-owned forest and woodland have been defeated, but for how long? The “reforms” of Britain’s National Health Service allow for new charges to be brought in for treatments and services deemed “non-essential” (although NHS trusts are already denying treatment for some conditions that used to be treated for free). Generally, there’s a shift from formerly taxpayer-funded services towards privatized ones that users have to pay for.

No doubt our “libertarian” friends approve of this shift, but those who don’t have an ideologically distorted view of liberty should be alarmed. First, the extension of chargeable private space means that the range of actions permitted to individuals who lack money is reduced. Lack of money reduces your purely negative freedom,[1] as anyone who tries to perform actions encroaching on the state-enforced private property of others will quickly discover. Second — and this point should hold even for those silly enough to reject the view that private property restricts the freedom of those who have less of it — the increase in privatized public space means that we are increasingly subject to the arbitrary will of private owners concerning what we can and can’t do. Rights of assembly? Rights of protest? Rights to do things as innocuous as take a photograph? All of those things are now restricted or prohibited on formerly public land across the United Kingdom or subject to the permission of the new private owner. The interest of those who endorse a republican conception of freedom is thereby engaged, as is those of liberal persuasion who think a list of basic liberties should be protected: less public space, less capacity to exercise those basic liberties. The proposed privatization of the roads is just an extension of this.

(The Liberal Democrats as part of the Tory-led coalition bear a particularly heavy responsibility for failing to prevent these changes for which the UK government has no democratic mandate. With luck they will be destroyed at the next election, as they deserve to be. Let no-one forget, though, how far the last Labour government took us down this path and legitimized these changes through measures like student fees and the Private Finance Initiative.)

fn1. For an argument to this effect and a demolition of the idea that lack of money confers lack of ability rather than unfreedom, see G.A. Cohen, “Freedom and Money”: (PDF)

My friend Tony Laden says, “I am toying with an idea for a new upper-level undergraduate ethics class that would take as its reading a group of about 10-15 really fantastic papers in ethics that are accessible to undergrads, and then working through them one at a time at whatever pace the class finds worthwhile. So they don’t have to survey the field or hang together on a topic or in a tradition. They just have to be really good pieces of philosophy and/or really good pieces of ethics.”

I think it’s a great idea. My top-of-the-head suggestions are below the fold. Some of these would be on any list I made, but another day other papers would have come to the top. Feel free to add, debate, etc.

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Freeman replies

by Chris Bertram on December 16, 2008

Samuel Freeman “has replied in comments to my post about his response to cosmopolitan critics of Rawls”: . It is a genuinely helpful and clarifying response, for which I’m grateful. I could quibble about the semantics of “invariably”, but I won’t. Rather, I’d highlight just two points in Freeman’s remarks. The first concerns the non-identity of “state” with “people” and “society”. Of course, I agree with Freeman that they on sensible construals of either term they would be non-identical, but I’d argue that Rawlsian fastidiousness in this respect merely highlights something rather evasive about their view. For what is it that picks out a Rawlsian “people” as distinct from other “peoples”, as a distinctive cooperative unit? Usually, it is their legal and institutional unity. In fact, this is normally the only thing, since state boundaries are rarely congruent with ethnic, religious or linguistic boundaries. Rawlsians may want, given the morally dubious history of nationalisms, to promote this as a feature rather than a bug. But it is questionable, then, whether Rawlsian peoples are really distinct from the states that organize them as such. (And, somewhat counterintuitively, lots of peoples fail to be “peoples” – the Kurds, for example.) (I hereby promise a proper post about Rawlsian “peoples” soon: Rawlsians want to be neither “statist” nor “nationalist”, but I’m sceptical about the existence of the middle ground.)

The second concerns Freeman’s concession (though “concession” is unfair of me) that what is key to the notion of social-cooperation is not coercive enforcement, but rather the inescapability, for individuals, of compliance with social rules. This seems to me to open up two difficulties for Freeman. The first, which I won’t develop here, is the blurring of the distinction between a society’s “basic structure” and its “ethos”, a distinction that Freeman needs be sharper for another dispute (that with G.A. Cohen). The second is brought out by the following statement:

bq. compliance with the rules of basic social institutions, even if generally voluntary, is unavoidable for the members of a society, since these rules are inescapable and structure their daily lives in innumerable ways (unlike members of other societies, whose lives are structured by their own system of basic institutions).

Perhaps something special is meant here by “structured”, since if it means that people’s lives are shaped in systematic ways that open some opportunites and deny others, then it can hardly be denied that, for example, Malian cotton producers are subject to a good deal of structuring by the US government. And, of course, one can make a similar point with respect to the lives of would-be economic migrants from poor countries to rich ones. Systematic structuring, then, doesn’t do the job of dividing insiders from outsiders in the way Freeman needs it to.

Brooksley Born and Alan Greenspan

by Jon Mandle on October 9, 2008

The Times tells the story of the failed efforts of one Brooksley E. Born, the chair of the Commodities Futures Trading Association in 1997, to attempt to impose greater regulation on derivatives. “She called for greater disclosure of trades and reserves to cushion against losses.” She was fiercely opposed in this by Alan Greenspan and Robert Rubin. [ed:spelling corrected]
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Left Behind

by Harry on October 1, 2008

Ingrid’s post below (plus a couple of other events) prompted me to look for G.A. Cohen’s new book: Rescuing Justice and Equality (UK) is apparently already out in the US despite being published on November 1st. I bought several copies (so my students can read it with me), and hereby promise that I’ll have some sort of review here in January (January, because, unlike Richard Arneson, I need time to review books that haven’t officially been published yet).

The impact of political philosophers

by Ingrid Robeyns on January 10, 2008

In “the interview with G.A. Cohen”: that Jon linked to last week, Cohen closes by saying that in the long run political philosophy has an enormous impact on society. He gives as an example Mill’s liberty principle, which he sees as having been implemented a hundred years later; he concludes that ideas of contemporary political philosophers, such as Rawls and Nozick, have “enormous social effect”. We should just not want to see results within a few years, but rather look at a longer time scale.

I am sceptical about this optimism. At the very least, the “enormous” should be replaced with “some” social effect. Surely some political philosophy has some social effect; but in my judgement, it is especially the work of those philosophers who either are also well-informed about empirical matters and those who are willing and able to translate their insights for a broader public of citizens and policy makers, and who are effectively going into debate with citizens, are having most chance of having any effect. So I think the impact of scholars like Amartya Sen and Philippe Van Parijs will be much bigger, both in the short and the long run, then the Cohen-school of political philosophy. The higher the level of abstraction, the more ‘technical’ and (let’s face it) unaccessible the writing style, the more ideal-theoretical the work, the more based on hypothetical models and simplifying-assumptions-based reasoning, and the less informed by at least some empirical knowledge, the less the impact of a particular piece of political philosophy. Moreover, even the most socially relevant of political philosophy has probably only a modest effect in comparison with the impact of charismatic intellectuals, social activists or politicians. In short, I think Cohen & Co are way too optimistic about the societal and political relevance of their work, though of course I’m happy to be proven wrong.

Most people in the political theory/philosophy community probably know that G. A. Cohen is retiring (that’s a verb, not an adjective, as anyone who knows him would know) from the post of Chichele Professorship of Social and Political Theory. A rather brilliantly prosaic job advertisement is on the Vacancies page at the Department of Politics and International Relations (deadline Jan 7th). There’s a grander job ad here. The holders of the position since it was established in 1944 (a very odd time to be establishing Chairs, I’d have thought) have been G.D.H. Cole, Isaiah Berlin, John Plamenatz, Charles Taylor (not the famous one) and G.A. Cohen (who has held it for quite a bit longer than any of his pedecessors). Very curious who will follow.

The Truth in Conservatism

by Harry on November 21, 2007

G.A. Cohen’s paper, A Truth in Conservatism: rescuing conservatism from the conservatives, is well worth a read, both for the substance and the humour. I heartily endorse the basic message of the paper, and recommend it to you for Thanksgiving table discussion (I’m a bit surprised it hasn’t made the tabloids actually: “Marxist philosopher endorses conservatism without abandoning socialism”). But there is one thing he says, as a preliminary, that I partly disagree with (pp 4-5):

Please do not expect me to say to what extent our practice should honour the truth I hope to expose, in comparison with other truths the honouring of which may sometimes conflict with honouring this particular conservative truth. Philosophers like me are not primarily, as philosophers, interested in what should be done in practice, all things considered. We are interested, instead, in what distinct things are worth considering. We care more about what ingredients should go into the cake than about the proportions in which they are to be combined.

Cohen is right that, qua philosophers, we are not concerned with what is what should be done in practice all things considered. People concerned with that must draw on philosophical claims, but must draw also on much that philosophy cannot supply. But I think he’s wrong that we are not concerned with the “proportions in which [relevant value considerations] are to be combined”. Surely it is a philosophical question how valuable one value is relative to another both in the abstract and in contingent circumstances — this is exactly the kind of philosophical result on which agents will want to draw when determining how to act.

5 Questions in Political Philosophy

by Harry on September 3, 2007

I’m not a big fan of the academic interview, perhaps having been put off it by attending “A conversation with Jacques Derrida” while I was in graduate school (better, perhaps, than the “Rudolph Bahro interviews Himself” that’s in one of the Socialist Registers in our downstairs loo). So I only read Political Questions: Five Questions in Political Philosophy (UK) because Adam Swift twice told me to do so (three times including his enthusiastic blurb on the back of the book). It’s really very interesting: 18 political theorists and philosophers of varying eminence give their answers to 5 questions:

Why were you initially drawn to political philosophy?

What do you consider your most important contribution to political philosophy and why?

What is the proper role of political philosophy in relation to real, political action? Can there ever be a fruitful relation between political philosophy and political practice?

What do you consider the most neglected topics in late 20th century political philosophy?

What are the most important unsolved questions in political philosophy and/or related disciplines, and what are the prospects for progress?

Obviously the responses vary in their level of interest. There are no shocking revelations – William Galston doesn’t renege on his pluralism; Amy Gutmann doesn’t come out in favour of dictatorship. And there is an unevenness in how fully people answer the questions; some are too lengthy and others, frankly, too terse (I’d have liked to hear more from Allen Buchanan and Phillippe Van Parjis in particular). And there are missing characters – I’m not going to propose anyone for elimination, but it would have been nice to hear from Elizabeth Anderson, Loren Lomasky, and Norman Daniels. (I presume that some people refused to be interviewed — how else to explain the absence of G.A. Cohen, for example?).

I was most interested in what people had to say about question 3.

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I’ve been using Adam Swift’s Political Philosophy: An Beginner’s Guide for Students and Politicians (UK) in my Political Philosophy course this semester, and, having now had several students thank me for assigning it, I should probably recommend it more widely. The book is written at an angle to my course. The course goes through the main ideas of various important contemporary theorists of justice: Rawls, Sen, Nozick, Milton Friedman (ok, he’s the odd-one-out, but my view is that nobody should leave college without reading chapters 1,2 and 6 of Capitalism and Freedom, and I abuse my position as a professor to do my bit), Kymlicka, Okin, Fraser, and G.A. Cohen. The book is more conceptual; it consists of chapters on Social Justice, Equality, Freedom, Community and (in the new, second, edition) Democracy, which go through various distinctions and problems in thinking about those concepts, and it only refers to the work of particular philosophers insofar as it is relevant to the problem at hand. The book also includes a lovely discussion of the division of labour between political philosophers on the one hand and political activists and politicians on the other, and offers a semi-sympathetic diagnosis of the reasons that politicians often seem to be such uncareful thinkers about matters of value. It really is a superb piece of writing, accessible to anyone with an interest in these matters, but somehow achieving the accessibility without compromising the complexity of the issues in question.

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Best political philosophy/theory papers

by Chris Bertram on May 17, 2004

I know that a largish number of political theorists and philosophers read Crooked Timber, and some of them even write for it! I’m interested in opinions about the most significant journal papers in the field over the past 10 years (we can start with 1994 to keep things simple. I’m especially interested to hear about papers that others consider fine, but which have not received the attention they deserve. Here are five suggestions from me to start us off, some well known, others less so (post other ideas in comments):

Thomas Pogge, “An Egalitarian Law of Peoples”, _Philosophy and Public Affairs_ (1994).
G.A. Cohen, “Where the Action Is” , _Philosophy and Public Affairs_ (1997).
Michael Ridge, “Hobbesian Public Reason”, _Ethics_ (1998).
Elizabeth Anderson, “What is the point of equality?” _Ethics_ (1999).
David Schmidtz, “How to Deserve”, _Political Theory_ (2002).

UPDATE: With the permission of my co-bloggers, I’m moving this post up to the top again in the hope of getting a few more submissions. On a related note, I’m happy to see that two of my own selections (Anderson and Cohen) and a different paper from another one of my chosen authors (Pogge) are included in Matthew Clayton and Andrew Williams (eds) “Social Justice”: , my copy of which arrived in this morning’s post.