Review: Rescuing Justice & Equality

Rescuing Justice & Equality
by G.A. Cohen
(Harvard University Press)
£29.95/$45 (hb)

Jerry Cohen's valedictory lecture © Chris Bertram

Jerry Cohen's valedictory lecture © Chris Bertram

Rescuing Justice & Equality forms part of a stream of writings about egalitarian justice which Cohen has produced over the last 20 years. It collects together, updates and adds to a number of key papers and arguments that he has produced over the period. The themes pursued here continue directly from the concerns of Cohen’s last book If You’re An Egalitarian, How Come You’re So Rich?, even reproducing one of its chapters.

Cohen’s egalitarianism issues from a “deep normative conviction” – a conviction about how things should be – which maintains that justice “roughly” requires economic equality. Cohen does not offer a defence of this principle; indeed, he states that it is difficult to defend such deep convictions, “except against attack”. Therefore Cohen’s general approach is to take on philosophers who advance theories of distributive justice which offend against his deep conviction. In other places Cohen has written at length about threats to achievement of economic equality posed by theories from leading contemporary political philosophers such as Robert Nozick and Ronald Dworkin. In this book his criticisms are trained almost wholly against John Rawls and the economic inequalities that his theory sanctions in the name of justice.

The first part of the book centres on a critique of Rawls’ second principle of justice – the “Difference Principle”. The second criticises Rawls’ “constructivist” methodology for justice and especially Rawls’ use of an Original Position to unearth and justify principles of justice.

Rawls’ Difference Principle allows inequalities in income and wealth only if such inequality maximises what goes to the least well off groups in society and makes them better off than they would be in an economy of strict economic equality. This principle accommodates the fact that extra financial incentives and an economy of inequality might be required in order to get the talented to produce in ways which maximise what can be allocated to the worst off.

Cohen’s aim is to rescue economic equality from threats posed to it by the extra equality-subverting material incentives which talented producers demand for their efforts. He claims that it might be “sensible” to operate an economic policy which is sensitive to such facts about the motivations of high-flying producers; however we shouldn’t call an economy which relies on such facts about human motivation, or the narrowly self-seeking attitudes of high-flying producers which make such facts true, just. In part one Cohen attempts to show in various ways that given Rawls’ professed egalitarian commitments, such selfish behaviour cannot be vindicated by the terms of Rawls’ own theory.

In part two Cohen’s concerns with Rawls are more abstract and deal with issues in theoretical ethics raised by the criticisms presented in part one. Here Cohen’s aim is to rescue the very concept of justice from Rawls. Cohen’s striking claim is that Rawls’ principles of justice are not “principles of justice” at all. They are actually “optimal rules for social regulation”. For Cohen, Rawls claims too much about what he has achieved in his Theory of Justice. Rawls can’t claim the label of justice because the normative principles – the principles which tell us how things ought to be – which he defends are shaped by and hostage to facts (such as facts about human motivation and productivity in the formulation of the Difference Principle). For Cohen “facts are irrelevant in the determination of fundamental principles of justice.”

Rawls’ dependence on facts for justice occurs in the methodology that he uses for his theory. This requires that justice must be constructed from an Original Position in which parties consider alternative normative theories and “the conditions of our life as we know it” (which include facts about human nature and the human situation) before they choose principles to govern the basic structure of society.

For some, Rawls inclusion of the “conditions of life” clause is a virtue of his theory. It gives it a worldly quality and seems to make his views about justice relevant to, applicable for, and achievable in our lives. Cohen claims that facts can’t enable us to know or justify the normative principles that Rawls claims. Facts can’t support principles in the way that Rawls assumes. This is because if a fact supports a normative principle then this is because of a deeper normative principle that makes that fact relevant to the first principle. At the pure bedrock of justice are fact-free normative principles. Rawls’ theory fails to operate at, or even recognise, this “Platonic” bedrock.

The central claims of both parts of the book are interesting and highly original contributions to contemporary debates in liberal egalitarian philosophy. Arguments for these claims are conducted in Cohen’s characteristically forensic analytical style. This book is philosophers’ philosophy. It will be challenging for those who are uninitiated in the academic twists and turns of debates about Rawls’ A Theory of Justice and the ins and outs of academic debates in liberal egalitarianism.

Rajeev Sehgal is a senior lecturer in philosophy at Roehampton University

  1. im interested as to what stance this cohen chap would take regarding morality at the interpersonal level. the idea that there may be a psuedo platonic bedrock for justice would mean there should be a clear, utterly definable collection of things that are just and unjust and will always be so. since the concept of justice (as far as im aware) rose up out of the people’s moral obligation to each other mediated by the state (and therefor in a way the peoples moral obligation to the state itself) then this groundrock/archetype of justice would also be applicable to moral theory at all levels, wouldnt it?

    i think that’d make for an interesting debate seeing as so far the only thing most humans can agree upon is that certain things are bad no matter the circumstance; we havent been quite so good at reasoning out good/just/moral acts yet.

    *note if i ramble it is because ive just woken up :)

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