By G. A. Cohen
In this article, Cohen argues that the principles of distributive justice need to be applied not only to the institutions of society, but also to individuals. He argues that Rawls theory of distributive justice is contradictory when it says it applies only to the basic structure of society and not to individuals. Also, he argues that the concept of the basic society is not well defined by Rawls, and that it should include informal social institutions as well as coercive, formal ones.
Cohen sets out to argue that “The personal is political,” a slogan that has often been used by feminist philosophers. The key point is that the liberal theory of justice, and Rawls theory in particular, unjustifiably ignore an unjust division of labor and unjust power relations within families. Rawls claims to focus on on the basic structure of society, but wobbles about whether the family is part of this structure of not. Susin Okin, for example, argues that it is, while Cohen argues that Rawls cannot allow the family to be part of the basic structure without abandoning the idea that the principles of justice only apply to the basic structure.
Cohen’s criticism of Rawls is of his application of the difference principle. The difference principle states that inequalities are just if and only if they are necessary to make the worst off people in society better off than they would otherwise be. He disagrees with Rawls on which inequalities pass this test, believing that very little inequality would satisfy the difference principle, if members of the society themselves accept the principle. On the other hand, Rawls believes the difference principle makes “deep inequalities” in initial life chances consistent with justice.
Rawls idea is that talented people will only produce more if they are paid more than an ordinary wage. The high wages incentivize them to do work that benefits all of society (through innovation, increasing economic efficiency, etc.). However, Cohen believes that this does not make sense if the relevant talented people themselves affirm the difference principle. If they believe that inequalities are unjust, then they will not demand a high wage to do what they know will help society overall. If they don’t believe in the principles, then how is it possible that the society is just?
The standard Rawlsian application of the difference principle is often modeled as a market economy in which all agents seek to maximize their own gains, and there is a Rawlsian state that selects a tax function on income that maximizes the income return to the worst off people. But why would individuals be simple maximizers, but also accept a state that re-distributes wealth through taxes? Cohen believes that a society that is just much have not only just coercive rules, but also an ethos of justice that informs individual choices.
Friends of Rawls might object that Cohen’s criticism is using what Cohen calls the “basic structure objection.” They believe Cohen’s objection is inappropriate, since it is based on the beliefs of talented producers, whose behavior occurs within and does not determine the basic structure of society, and the basic structure of society is the only thing to which the difference principle applies. Rawls says that people’s choices can be just or unjust, even if they occur within a just basic structure. The difference principle is a “principle of justice for institutions.” Talented people do count as faithfully upholding the difference principle as long as they conform to the prevailing economic rules because the difference principle requires those rules.
Cohen argues that distributive justice includes justice in the distribution of benefits and burdens to individuals. This is affected both by the structure of society and by people’s choices in it. Rawls is only concerned with the allocation of benefits and burdens in society that conform to the rules of the basic structure. Think of this example: If people decided to accept wages lower than the highest they could command, but still do the same job, there would be an equal amount of benefit to the worst-off, but there would be less inequality in society. However, since this result would be based on individuals’ choices and not on the basic structure of society, Rawls would not be able to say that this society is “more just.”
Although Rawls often says that the two principles only govern justice in the basic structure, he also says three things that seem to deny that restriction. He says:
When the difference principle is satisfied, a society will display fraternity, it’s citizens do not want “to have greater advantages unless this is to the benefit of others who are less well off… Members of a family commonly do not wish to gain unless they can do so in ways that further the interests of the rest. Now wanting to act on the difference principle has precisely this consequence.”
Rawls also argues that the worst off in society governed by the difference principle can bear their inferior position with dignity, since they know that no improvement is possible, and that they would lose under any less unequal dispensation. Cohen argues this isn’t true, since there could be less inequality if the well-off people were most disposed to seek equality.
Third, Rawls argues that people in a just society act with a sense of justice from the principles of justice in their daily lives. They strive to apply those principles in their own choices, because they “have a desire to express their nature as free and equal moral persons, and this they do most adequately by acting from the principles that they would acknowledge in the original position. When all strive to comply with these principles and each succeeds, then individually and collectively their nature as moral persons is fully realized, and with it their individual and collective good.”
However, it is true that Rawls has said that A Theory of Justice erred by in some respects treating th two principles as defining a comprehensive conception of justice. Therefore, he might give up these statements. However, that means the ideals of dignity, fraternity, and full realization of people’s moral natures can no longer be said to be delivered by Rawlsian justice.
Cohen also provides a more fundamental reply to the “basic structure objection.” This reply aims to show that justice requires an ethos governing daily choice that goes beyond one of obedience to just rules. This is not based on contradictory statements by Rawls, but rather is based on the question, “What is the basic structure?”
Rawls often says that the basic structure is a set of institutions, but it is not clear which institutions these are. It is possible to interpret the basic structure to be the constitutions, laws, and policies of a society – it’s coercive institutions. But Rawls never specifically gives this definition. It could also include the non-coercive ordering of society which occurs through rules and conventions of accepted practice.
Within coercive structures, it’s possible to distinguish between the choices that create and sustain the structure and the choices that occur within it. However, with respect to informal structure, this is not the case. When A chooses to conform to the prevailing norms, then the pressure on B to do so is reinforced. In this way behavior is constitutive of non-coercive structure.
Rawls says that “the basic structure is the primary subject of justice because its effects are so profound and present from the start.” This is true of both coercive and non-coercive institutions. Favoring more education for males than females may not be part of the coercive structure of society, but it does have profound effects. A sexist family structure can occur even when there is sex-neutral family law. Cohen believes that this shows that the basic structure must depend on both coercive and non-coercive institutions, and that there is no basis to distinguish between the two.
In compressed form, these are the arguments presented in Sections II through V:
1. Citizens in a just society adhere to its principles of justice. But,
2. They do not adhere to the difference principle if they are acquisitive maximizers in daily life.
3. In a society that is governed by the difference principle, citizens lack the acquisitiveness that the incentives argument attributes to them.
The basic structure objection to that criticism:
4. The principles of justice govern only the basic structure of a just society.
5. Citizens in a just society may adhere to the difference principle whatever their choices may be within the structure it determines, and in particular even if their economic choices are entirely acquisitive.
6. Proposition 2 lacks justification.
Author’s preliminary reply to the basic structure objection:
7. Proposition 5 is inconsistent with many Rawlsian statements about the relationship between citizens and principles of justice in a just society.
Author’s fundamental reply to the basic structure objection:
8. Proposition 4 is unsustainable.
This argument raises the issue of blame. Injustice in distribution that reflects personal choices within a just coercive structure cannot plainly be blamed on the structure itself, or on those who legislated it. Does it then have to be blamed on individuals within the structure? Some may argue that individuals deserve no blame, because they are participating in accepted social practice, no matter how awful that practice is. Cohen argues against this, noting that many people go against the grain of nurture, habit, and self-interest. Others think that individuals should have all the blame, regardless of societal norms. But Cohen says this is also unbalanced, since there is heavy social conditioning behind action. You could argue for example that a sexist husband in a sexist society, in which the overwhelming majority display an unjust division of domestic labor, is not necessarily an unjust individual, though we would argue that sexism as an institution is unjust. In economics, an ethos of equality may led executives not to accept salaries many times higher than their employees, and we could argue that this type of ethos would make the society overall more just, even in the coercive structures stayed the same.
Endnote on Coercive and Other Structure
Since the argument in section V is based on the similarities between coercive and non-coercive structures, Cohen adds this endnote further elaborating. He notes that coercive structure includes preventing people from doing things (using fences, prisons, etc.) and deterring people from doing things (though risk of penalties). Non coercive structures rarely involve pure prevention (except maybe locking a teenager in her room), but has significant sanctions based on criticism, disapproval, anger, etc. It is true that the legally coercive structure is easily discernable in the constitution and law, and that it is effective only in actions that comply with its rules. Cohen concludes that the issue requires more thought and definition.