Cohen's Ambiguities

33 Pages Posted: 3 Sep 2010  

Alexander Kaufman

School of Public and International Affairs

Date Written: August 30, 2010

Abstract

Gerald Cohen’s later works criticize John Rawls’s political theory for tolerating “deep inequalities” in cases in which permitting these inequalities generates benefits for the least advantaged members of society. Rawls’s argument for this position, Cohen argues, involves two ambiguities; and the resolution of these ambiguities, in Cohen’s view, produces a dilemma for Rawls’s view of justice. The ambiguities involve: (i) the degree to which permissible inequalities must be necessary in order to benefit the least advantaged; and (ii) the proper definition of the basic structure of society.

First, Cohen argues, Rawls provides an ambiguous account of the notion of necessity underlying the view of permissible inequalities embodied in the difference principle, so that two inconsistent readings of this notion can be defended on the basis of Rawls’s argument. On a strict reading, inequalities are necessary in the appropriate sense only if they are strictly necessary (independent – in particular – of anyone’s chosen intentions) to produce benefits for the least advantaged. On a lax reading, inequalities are necessary even if this necessity is caused solely by the self-interested demands of talented producers for high levels of compensation as a condition for employing their talents to generate social benefits. While the lax reading seems necessary in order to justify the “deep inequalities” that Cohen claims that the difference principle permits (in order to create incentives for the more talented to employ their talents productively), only the strict reading can – Cohen asserts – can be described as a basic principle of justice consistent with the intuitions that justify the difference principle. The ambiguity in Rawls’s account of necessity, Cohen concludes, must be resolved in favor of the strict reading.

Second, Cohen argues that there is a “fatal ambiguity” in Rawls’s specification of the basic structure. The basic structure – the primary subject of justice – may consist solely of institutions that are legally coercive, or it may consist of both coercive institutions and institutions whose structuring depends upon convention, practice, and usage. Rawls cannot, Cohen argues, limit the specification of the basic structure to coercive institutions, since Rawls’s justification for designating the basic structure as the primary subject of justice – the fact that its effects on life chances are so profound from the start – applies not merely to coercive institutions, but also and equally to the practices and conventions that order social behavior. It is therefore clear, Cohen asserts, that the requirements of justice properly regulate the chosen behavior of individuals that are bound up within social practices (such as market relations) that affect the distribution of benefits of social cooperation.

Once the ambiguities in Rawls’s argument are resolved, Cohen argues, it is clear that (i) the difference principle permits only inequalities that are strictly necessary in order to benefit the least advantaged; and (ii) the requirements of the difference principle apply squarely to the choices of individuals in the market. It is also clear, Cohen concludes, that the difference principle – on this reading – justifies little or no inequality in incomes. The preferences of the talented to demand high levels of compensation for the value of their services are, according to Cohen’s reading of Rawls, clearly inconsistent with the fundamental requirements of justice. Thus, the difference principle appears to license unjust (because grounded in unjust preferences) choices to seek higher levels of income.

I will argue that Cohen’s argument fails. While Cohen argues persuasively that the difference principle is properly viewed as regulating informal, as well as coercive institutions, I will argue that Cohen’s claim that the difference principle licenses unjust choices is grounded in a confused reading of the difference principle. On one hand, the difference principle does not – as Cohen claims – require that inequalities must be “necessary” in order to benefit the least advantaged; on the other hand, the difference principle does not license unrestrained selfishness. Rather, the requirements of the difference principle are determined by considered judgments regarding the just relation between the employment of human capital and compensation.

Persons who “have done what the system announces it will reward,” Rawls argues, have “legitimate expectations” that their expectations will be met, and “are entitled” to receive the promised compensation. A just form of social life, Rawls argues, “gives each person his due” by honoring these entitlements. According to the difference principle, expectations (higher levels of compensation generated through superior skill or level of effort) are “legitimate” when they operate as part of a scheme that is to the benefit of the least advantaged. Not only does the difference principle not require that high levels of compensation are permissible only when necessary to benefit the least advantaged, then, but the considered judgments that ground the principle explicitly recognize as just claims for higher levels of income based upon superior skill or effort.

While the difference principle does apply to individual choices within the basic structure, then, it does not forbid the choice to seek high levels of income in exchange for effort or skill. Cohen’s claims that (i) the difference principle justifies little or no inequality in incomes; and (ii) the preferences of the talented to demand high levels of compensation for the value of their services are inconsistent with the fundamental requirements of justice both fail. Cohen’s argument therefore fails to justify his claim that the difference principle licenses unjust choices.

Keywords: Rawls, Cohen, Difference Principle, Basic Structure of Society, Distributive Justice Equality

Suggested Citation

Kaufman, Alexander, Cohen's Ambiguities (August 30, 2010). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1668456 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1668456

Alexander Kaufman (Contact Author)

School of Public and International Affairs ( email )

Athens, GA 30602-6254
United States
706-542-2922 (Phone)

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