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Justifying Egalitarianism: G.A. Cohen’s Socialist Critique of John Rawls’ Liberalism

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In 1999, President Bill Clinton praised the philosopher John Rawls (1921-2002) – who had just received the National Humanities Medal – for his contributions to liberal political thought. Clinton applauded Rawls for having “placed our rights to liberty and justice upon a strong and brilliant new foundation of reason” and having “helped a whole generation of learned Americans revive their faith in democracy itself.”

But while Clinton was validating John Rawls, Rawls – or, more precisely, Rawls’ political philosophy – was validating the economic legacy of Bill Clinton. After all, it was Rawls who provided a liberal defense of inequality, which was justified, he argued, so long as the “rising tide” of the economy “lifted all boats.” As it happened, the inequality that blossomed under Clinton – the president of NAFTA and “welfare reform” and financial deregulation – was precisely of this sort. While inequality increased between 1993 and 2000, so too did the incomes of those in the bottom quintile. Clinton’s economic legacy, it turns out, was a perfectly Rawlsian one.

But how exactly, it is essential to ask, did Rawls justify inequality? More importantly, what are socialists and egalitarians supposed to make of his argument, and what are the flaws in Rawls’ theory (reformulated, though it was, several times between 1971 and 2001)? And, perhaps most importantly, what, if anything, can take its place?

Rawlsianism Explained

John Rawls’ political philosophy starts with a thought experiment: at an imagined stage prior to people’s entrance into society – a situation he calls “the original position,” what principles, he asks, would they agree to in advance? Central to this thought experiment is that these future citizens deliberate behind a “veil of ignorance,” meaning they do not know what talents, abilities, or social standing they will inherit.

Rawls maintains that everyone will consent to two principles of justice. The first guarantees basic individual liberties, and the second (trumped by the first) has two parts, each relating to distributive justice: the first part ensures an equality of opportunity, and the second, called the difference principle, stipulates that, after beginning with equality, any change in the distribution of wealth and income must be to the benefit of the worst off.

For obvious reasons, many classical liberals have opposed John Rawls’ version of liberalism. They have singled out in particular the constraint imposed by the difference principle, questioning by what right the worst off ought to be able to inhibit the flourishing of the richest, most talented members of society. Yet for all of the right-wing criticisms of Rawls’ philosophy (and there are many), there have been notable leftist critiques as well. Perhaps the most comprehensive and sophisticated criticism to date was made by the late Canadian philosopher G.A. Cohen (1941-2009).

Cohen’s Egalitarianism: From Deterministic to Ethical

Cohen, who attended a communist Yiddish school in Montreal until age 11, was an early devotee of socialism and a leading member of the school of Analytical Marxism. In the first years of his academic career, Cohen grounded his socialism in a Marxist account of a history. Yet after the collapse of Really Existing Socialism, and after grappling with the libertarianism of Robert Nozick (the subject of his 1995 book Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality), Cohen admitted that he had been “shaken from his dogmatic socialist slumber.” If socialism and egalitarianism were not in some sense inevitable, he wondered, how could they be salvaged, much less promoted?

It was in his engagement with the works of Robert Nozick, and subsequently, John Rawls, that Cohen claimed to have found a new way to defend egalitarianism – on ethical rather than historical-determinist terms – by “incorporating within it the most powerful idea in the arsenal of the anti-egalitarian right: the idea of choice and responsibility.”

In his 2008 book-length criticism of Rawlsianism, Rescuing Justice and Equality, it was precisely this idea that animated one of his major criticisms of the difference principle – Rawls’ stipulation that any change in the distribution of wealth and income that results in inequality can occur only if it makes no one worse off (a change that economists refer to as a “Pareto improvement”).

Critiquing the Difference Principle, Part 1: Choosing Equality

At first glance, it is hard to see what is problematic with a Pareto improvement: if no one is made worse off by a new distribution, why oppose it? Yet Cohen criticized the argument that the more talented members of society make to justify this inequality. According to Cohen, the most talented members of society are telling the worst off, “Look, I will work harder to benefit you and the rest of society, but in return I want an extra monetary reward.” Cohen argues not only that this specious demand collapses when uttered before the “justificatory community” (those who stand to benefit), but also that this attitude contradicts a “strict” interpretation of the difference principle.

While under Cohen’s “lax” interpretation of the difference principle, citizens are expected to behave as self-interested maximizers – indifferent to the fate of strangers and content with allowing the government to make the requisite justice-preserving redistributions, under the strict interpretation, members of society have internalized the principles of justice and act on them “in the course of their daily lives” and in the spirit of “fraternity” – agreeing to help others like “members of a family.”

According to Cohen, under the strict difference principle, the talented ought not hold out for the promise of higher remuneration before working to benefit the worst off. Instead, they realize that their effort will benefit others and will work harder as a result, without demanding additional compensation – just like members of a family.

Cohen does not believe that inequality is entirely unjustified under the strict difference principle: it may be justified to offer inequality-inducing incentives to people who carry out particularly arduous or undesirable labor. Nevertheless, when it comes to the talented performing duties they already prefer, Cohen argues, demanding higher remuneration amounts to a repudiation of the strict difference principle.

When it comes to the lax difference principle, on the other hand, Cohen argues that John Rawls is wrong to legitimate and even encourage unequalizing incentive payments to produce Pareto improvements. Cohen argues, as we shall see, that offering financial reward is not the only way to motivate members of society to improve the lot of the worst off.

Reconciling Freedom and Equality

Cohen anticipates that some will reject such calls for self-sacrificial altruism on the grounds that they endanger individual liberty, which, according to Rawls, has ethical priority over matters of distributive justice. Don’t individuals have the freedom of occupation – to decide what their jobs will be and how hard they will work? Cohen arranges this objection into the form a trilemma, according to which it supposedly impossible to have (1) equality (2) Pareto efficiency – a situation in which any improvement comes at one person’s expense and (3) freedom of occupation.

But Cohen shows it is possible to have all three by invoking what he calls the Titmuss trilemma, named for the British social researcher Richard Titmuss (1907-1973). Cohen recounts how Titmuss favored a blood bank system that met the following three criteria: (1) non-payment for donations (2) an adequate supply of blood and (3) freedom to donate. According to Titmuss, such a system was not just possible, but also proven to work, since many Britons did volunteer to donate without any compensation or expectation of reciprocity.

Cohen argues that it is possible to dissolve the first trilemma with a similar “ethical solution.” It is possible to have equality, Pareto efficiency, and freedom of occupation if citizens embrace an “egalitarian ethos” and selflessly labor to help their fellow man. Such an ethos, motivated by a concern for the well-being of others, involves no sacrifice of one’s freedom, Cohen argues. On the contrary, acting on an egalitarian impulse to help others without engaging in “market seeking” amounts to an expression of one’s freedom (if not one’s moral responsibility).

Justice à la Cohen: Moral Realism and the Role of Personal Conduct

If it sounds like Cohen advocates lofty and demanding ethical standards, that’s because he does. Cohen contrasts John Rawls’ constructivism, the belief that moral truths can be reached through interpersonal deliberation and compromise, with his own moral realism, the belief that moral truths exist – independent of our attitude toward them. Rawls’ approach, he argues, leads not to ethical truths or principles of justice, but merely to “rules of regulation” – ideas for how to organize and maintain a decent and functioning society. Cohen, on the other hand, believes that “justice is justice, whether or not it is possible to achieve it.”

A consequence of Rawls’ constructivism, Cohen claims, is that it leads him to commit “fact-idolatry” – to conflate is and ought. Rawls, he argues, is all too willing to accommodate tendencies in human nature when determining the principles of justice. For instance, Rawls appears to believe that it is common for people to demand unequalizing incentive payments for extra work and therefore legitimates this tendency by justifying the inequality that arises from them.

While Cohen acknowledges that a demand for such payments may be typical – and even admits that applying such incentives in the realm of public policy may be effective, he insists on not calling the demand for unequalizing payments just. “Since the flesh is weak, it is ordinary and normal for people to seek what they can get,” he writes, adding, “but one should not make a principle out of that [emphasis added].”

As the philosopher Kok-Chor Tan has observed, Cohen’s critique of Rawls rests on a fundamental disagreement about to how to conceive of justice. Modern liberals, such as Rawls, tend to see justice as to relating to the “basic structure” of society and the rules that govern it, granting individuals as much space as possible to pursue their own life courses. Cohen, however, subscribes to a more classical understanding of justice, one that concerns both the basic structure of society and personal conduct. Cohen, after all, believes that for justice to prevail – especially in an age that celebrates “private vices” for delivering “public benefits” – that there needs to be “a revolution in the human soul.”

Critiquing the Difference Principle, Part 2: Preserving Equality

At this point, it is clear how Cohen managed to turn the ideas of “choice and responsibility” against liberalism and in favor of egalitarianism. But Cohen was just as concerned with the influence and ethical relevance of factors beyond people’s control as he was with human agency. And, he argues, so too was John Rawls. Indeed, Cohen argues that there is a “repressed egalitarianism” in Rawls’ philosophy, but one that he all too readily abandons.

Recall that Rawls argues that the initial condition is one of material equality. As Rawls explains in his 1985 work Political Liberalism, “the obvious starting point for them is to suppose that…wealth and income…should be equal.” Rawls attributes this initial equality to “natural and social contingencies” in people’s birth and upbringing, which are “arbitrary from a moral point of view.” In other words, since people are unaccountable for their nature and nurture, it is unfair for such randomness to determine the distribution of wealth and income.

Recall also that Rawls is willing to forgo this initial equality if the new distribution of wealth and income is to the benefit of the worst off. Imagine, for instance, that two talented citizens propose departing from an initial equality of 5-5-5 (or D1 for short) for a new distribution of 7-10-10 (or D2). Cohen asks the reader (assuming equal effort, but differential output, by all three workers), is the move from D1 to D2 just?

Cohen’s answer is no. “The reason we begin with equality is the moral arbitrariness claim of the standard causes of inequality. We are told that, if everyone can be made better off, there is no reason to stay with equality,” he writes. “But there is a reason…to stay with it, to wit, the reason that we had to begin with.”

In other words, the mere addition of wealth and income does not justify departing from equality – under either the strict or lax interpretation of the difference principle – given that the morally arbitrary distribution of people’s differences persists. Cohen argues that Rawls overlooks the possibility of a more preferable and just distribution, D3 (say, 9-9-9), which involves a Pareto improvement over D1 and which preserves equality.

Beyond Rawlsianism: Luck Egalitarianism

It is Cohen’s concern for the ethical implications of the randomness of people’s natural endowments and social environment that motivated his endorsement of a rival theory of distributive justice: luck egalitarianism. According to this theory, differences in wealth and income should not be determined by conditions beyond people’s control (conditions determined by what philosopher Thomas Nagel referred to as “constitutive luck”). Rather, luck egalitarians hold, material inequality should reflect, as nearly as possible, differences in individuals’ choices and effort.

According to Cohen, everyone should have the ability to dictate the course of his or her life, but, under the prevailing order, many people lack the resources to do so – largely as a consequence of the circumstances of their birth. According to luck egalitarianism, everyone should be entitled not just to a free quality public education (a measure that even conservatives like Ted Cruz endorse) but also to health care and other resources and services that compensate for bad luck – leveling-up policies like those that prevail in social democracies. The aim of distributive justice, Cohen argues, is to guarantee that everyone possesses an “equal access to advantage” – an enhanced form of the liberal, anemic concept of “equal opportunity.”

Cohen’s legacy lies not just in his cogent critiques of liberals classical (Nozick) and modern (Rawls), but also in his scrupulous development of the theory of luck egalitarianism. With his work, he has supplied socialists with the vocabulary, arguments, and philosophy necessary to confront the apologists for inequality and to recommend the radical and egalitarian policies that can ameliorate it.

Image: John Rawls (left) and G.A. Cohen (right)

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Stephen Yearwood
Stephen Yearwood

First of all, thanks for another informed, thoughtful essay. 

"Luck egalitarianism" is a credible approach to an ethic for the "basic structure" of a society. It is not, however, necessarily universal. One can think it should be universal, that everyone should accept it for a society's ethic, but that doesn't make it necessarily universal. For that reason, using it as the basis to order the basic institutions of a society cannot be accomplished without a form of coercion. Only an ethic that is necessarily universal can avoid that dilemma. 

If there can be no such thing as an necessarily universal ethic, society is condemned to a gruesome struggle as suggested by Hobbes at the very dawn of modernity: the ordering of a community's basic structure can only be an endless war among competing positions unless one position can be imposed on all others by whatever means are necessary. The emerging political crises in nations with egalitarian political processes reflects the growing realization that egalitarianism lacks the inherent authority of a necessarily universal ethic.