Cohen and Socialism I: Justice and Personal Behavior
- Who is G. A. Cohen?
Gerald Allan (G.A.) "Jerry" Cohen (1941-2009) was raised in a communist family in Montreal, Canada. He later obtained his political philosophy there and then a doctorate in England. As professor at a university in Oxford, England, Cohen held analytic philosophical, Marxist, and egalitarian views. His notable ideas concern egalitarian ethos and strict difference principle. Some of Cohen’s works include a defense of Marxism, egalitarianism, justice, equality, socialism, as well as, other topics on moral and political philosophy. His political philosophical works, or refutations of others’ works, has been widely read, commented, critiqued and praised. Before delving deeply into Cohen’s views about social justice and personal behavior, I will initially dissect each of his views about egalitarianism, social justice, equity, and personal behavior. I will subsequently expound on the question whether the basic structure of society is the primary subject of justice, or is justice fundamentally a matter of personal behavior.
- What are Cohen’s views?
Given Cohen’s early childhood and later life views about socialism, or Marxism, he is still predisposed to egalitarian ethos and strict difference principle. He has been, especially during his growing up years, influence by Marxism, egalitarianism, justice, equality, and socialism. As Cohen attained maturity and observed firsthand the lives lived by individuals he knows who advocate and support Marxist principle, he cannot but question whether they live up to the expected practicality or mere ideology of socialism (Cohen, If You're an Egalitarian, How Come You’re So Rich?). When he became a professor, he believed the more about egalitarianism and equality, but still left with the same questions during his professorial career. For instance, Cohen’s action, just like his former Marxist comrades, denies the principle they claim to believe by their action and not by their intention. How come, he said, that if he or others, professes themselves as egalitarians, yet are rich “as professors go” and wealthy socialists do, are they truly egalitarians?
Given the justifications for being not so rich, but fare better than those of the average earners in his community, Cohen cannot but grant and accept that there are indeed people who are professed egalitarians, yet fail to live up with their principles. Whether strict egalitarians or socialist, they have their own justifications why they amass more wealth, given that they are affluent yet seemingly dismiss their egalitarian stance. The dilemma exists and defies common logic, but it is how words match up with their supposedly egalitarians’ personal behavior. Is there a contradiction between social justice and equality with that of people’s personal behavior? The answer to that question are detailed from the rest of this essay.
- What does Cohen mean by egalitarianism?
For many, egalitarianism is the doctrine whereby the equality of individuals is a desirable thing: economically, politically, and socially. In an egalitarian society, most, if not all, people are supposedly treated fairly and squarely. Individuals have the right to quality life and freedom to exercise their rights relative to other people’s freedom, liberty to do things they desire in consideration of other people’ interest, etc. Since individuals live in a communal membership, whether explicitly stated or otherwise, they are expected to show goodwill, fraternity, care, and so on. They have to be sufficiently sensible to the plights of others so that they are what they profess themselves to be, as egalitarians. It is both the role of the individual members and the obligation of the state to “condemn[s] unbridled egoism and any inequality” (Estlund 101).
Given that egalitarianism is a philosophical thought realizable in the most probable extent possible, it has many ramifications. In the first place, even in an egalitarian society, there are non-egalitarians, professed egalitarians, typical egalitarians, lax egalitarians, and strict egalitarians. Society’s spectrum of classes consists of people who individually or collectively hold similar and differing views regarding equality or social justice. Just like the types of egalitarians just mentioned, many individuals differ, one way or the other, in their understanding of what equality means. People have their innate or socially acquired conception of egalitarianism, depending on the context within which they live. Their egalitarian views could just adhere or clash with their own developing views or remain as it was before. In the case of Cohen, he offered his own interpretation of egalitarianism given Rawls own conception of it.
- Egalitarianism as discussed by Cohen
Cohen’s conception of egalitarianism is based on his prior knowledge and experiences of it. He believes himself to be an egalitarian, but not a strict one. He cannot live with it given his modest admission that he saves more money from his earning compared to how much he gives to other people, especially for the worst-off. Unlike Rawls’ theory of justice (specifically, in his difference principle) that “condones inequalities that arise solely from the selfish unwillingness of the talented to work for less,” Cohen sees something more that is amiss in the former’s conception of social justice (Baynes 182). Cohen stated how Rawls’ difference principle gives importance to social justice and equality, but provided only a balance in society through legally coerced intervention (such as taxation). Cohen explained that people do believe in a fair share, but actually lacks the gut to do so given their personal behavior (such as self-interests, natural endowments, and other related considerations). Thus, it is only through the state’s intervention that a certain sort of egalitarianism is controlled and sustained for the advantage of the worst-off societal members.
Cohen, to whom he also directed to himself statements regarding egalitarianism mentioned how people, though they show care, compassionate and justice to others, defy their intention to give much for the sake of strict egalitarianism. They equate what they can contribute with their own personal gain and special talents, not to mention individuals who may not contribute fairly in a just society (that is, how much more in an unjust society). Individuals, on their own volition, make it difficult for them to give a fixed percentage of their income to the least well-off members of society for reasons that do admit some personally reserved justification. It is not that many people are naturally egoistic, but because they are constrained by forces internal and external to their being in a society that tolerate conformity to already existing “dominant patterns in social behavior” (Cohen, Where the Action is: On the Site of Distributive Justice 26).
- What does Cohen mean by social justice?
Social justice, for Cohen, is an assessment or judgment involved in the determination of rights, as well as, the assignments of rewards and punishment. Many people are rewarded for their abilities, whereas others are limited or deprived to enjoy what life has to offer them. For instance, in a democratic society, talented individuals are more incentivized compared to the less talented individuals. Later, those who rise up the ladder and succeed are the ones society looks up as having used best their talents. On the other hand, individuals who have less talent are subordinated by the specially talented to “achieve a sense of justice in doing so” (Cohen, Where the Action is: On the Site of Distributive Justice 8). In Rawls’ terms, people with special talents control the basic structure of society (that is, institutions) so as to perpetuate status quo. However, to care for the least well off, a government who sets up control mechanisms for such basic structure for legally coercive measures to bring about an equalizing effect. A government, in such a case, builds system of taxations and other forms of condition so that the wealthy get taxed for the benefits of the worst-off societal members. The worst-off are given equal life chances through governmentally imposed laws and regulations for them.
The rules and regulations set forth by society come from the participation of the individual members of society and through their publicly elected officials who make up the consensus. Only through such measures that social justice is meted out for the benefit of most, if not all, in the long-term period of the least well-off so that the cycle of seeming social injustice is alleviated. Given that different people have different endowments (such that, some individuals are born from rich family, while others are not; some are born with looks, whereas others are not; and even more, some individuals have special talents than others), government-constraining mechanism should be enforced. Considering the homeostatic force of legally coercive institutions that exist and operate based “on the mechanism of coercive law,” societal members are constrained to do just as they pleases or not (Baynes 186). Governments have to ensure social justice for its members given the loopholes of basically structured (that of Rawls) and/or socially ethosized systems. Thus, from the point-of-views of even other political philosophers, governments maintain and sustain a sense of social justice through coercive means to provide the balance for the other structures; social ethi; and individual choices (Cohen, Where the Action is: On the Site of Distributive Justice 26).
- Equality as discussed by Cohen
Both Cohen and Rawls agree in “improving the condition of the worst off” (Cohen, If You're an Egalitarian, How Come You’re So Rich? 162), except that Rawls is a prioritarian egalitarian whereas Cohen is a relational egalitarians. Cohen views his being a relational egalitarian as someone who have a better chance of making his drop-in-the-ocean. Even when he does not do it every payday, he believes in equality or contributing one’s talents for other people whether on their own volition or legally instituted interventions. For instance, becoming a medical doctor and treating other people provides an equally beneficial effect for the former and the latter. However, before one becomes a licensed doctor, he has to pay for his or her schooling. On the other hand, the one to be treated has to have a source of income or insurance. Given that there are constrains along the way, a student wishing to become a doctor should have an adequate financial support from family to continue with his or schooling. On the other hand, the soon-to-be patient, in case he or she does not have an adequate savings, has to rely on social welfare. Although there are social support systems (e.g., scholarship grant) for the specially talented who wants to be doctors, so, too, for the worst off in the form of state welfare systems.
Other than the personal wishes of the wannabe doctor and the prospective patient’s health and financial problems, society has to put up safeguards, as much as possible, for everyone. That is how equality could possibly be maintained and sustained. However, because Cohen is discussing a complex issue concerning equality, how people regard it - socially and personally – means that there is more to it. Equality doe not simply equate to having the same economic measure of something; innate values and people’s sentiments also count, if not, even more. Hence, it is not that someone wants to be a doctor and earn a good amount of money. Some people wish to be doctors for higher purposes (still a personal reason), such as to treat not only one’s cherished family members, but also other impoverished people. On the other hand, those who meet unfortunate events in their life (such as work disability) may attribute it to factors beyond their control. Hence, on equal grounds, people have to work out their ways and the government to maintain equality despite real-life inequalities (cf. Section 4, paragraphs 1ff in Cohen’s If You're an Egalitarian, How Come You’re So Rich?).
- How about personal behavior for Cohen?
Personal behavior, for Cohen, refers to how people exercise their “right to a private space into which social duty does not intrude” (Cohen, If You're an Egalitarian, How Come You’re So Rich? 167). They do something given their private views about what is of worth to them. For instance, in a world where individuals and society value equality and social justice, also comes personal interest. When a person has to take care of an ill loved one, yet he or she has limited resources to hire someone to do it, he or she has no other option but to do it himself or herself. Likewise, if an individual is the sole breadwinner of a family of five and he or she has not enough savings, he or she has to remain working on a daily basis to make ends meet. It may not be his or her personal choice to continue with that set up, given his or her current predicament. In short, personal behavior is something that presses hardly on individuals to make choices they would not otherwise do if they only think of and for themselves. Thus, for me, Cohen put forward something like the personal as political that has to work both or either ways.
Thus, the basic structure of society (that is, whether families or other institutions) has to maintain and sustain social equity and justice. People that make up a society and form governments have to value the most number of individuals as compared to the interest of the few. Hence, taxation and other legally coercive measures entitle governments to ensure satisfaction of the greatest number of people for it would have a significant effect on the “very worst off [to be] palpably better off” (Cohen, If You're an Egalitarian, How Come You’re So Rich? 162). Still, when it comes to the personal or private lives of individuals, governments simply cannot coerce individuals or groups to do things harmful to their personal behaviors, except under totalitarianism, when personal behaviors do not clash with the general welfare. For instance, in taxation, people are taxed depending on their income and dependents. However, the personal choice of an individual to become a doctor or not cannot simply be imposed by state or government just to anyone except if the concerned party consented. In the first place, not everyone has the aptitude to become a doctor. Not everyone has the resources to attend to a medical school. Not even the state can give financial support to all who wish to become doctors. Laconically speaking, and in most cases, it is basically the personal decision of an individual to become a medical professional or not that is of weight under Cohen’s view of the personal as political.
- Personal behavior as discussed by Cohen
Cohen’s conception about personal behavior or social ethos (that is, individual “motivations and attitudes”) seem to supplement even more Rawls’ conception of the basic structure of society and (strict) difference principle (Baynes 183). Rawls focused more on the difference principle (not to mention his other principles in his theory of justice). On the other hand, Cohen did not only question Rawls’ basic structure and difference principle, but also add to it an element of the personal or private behavior. From the aforementioned examples concerning personal behavior, the personal seems indeed also political in view of legally coerced measures, but still subject to individual or collective consent. People behave personally in ways that they want to, but given the social constraints and controls, they have to abide by the laws or regulations they approved of or are a member. They cannot simply separate their personal interest with society’s interest despite that the latter is of more assessed value to people in general. Then, again, that is precisely where the horn of the dilemma is.
Many individuals have conflicting personal beliefs and actions. What they say is not what they mean. They sometimes profess to be egalitarians, but are not in deeds. Moreover, even when they assert social equity as better than private interest, they still mostly succumb to the latter. It seems that there is no way to reconcile the two except when it is for the interests of both the individual and the state. However, depending on the situation, personal interest weighs much more heavily on an individual when those at stake are those of his or her own (such as, family, properties). For instance, the wealthy believers of egalitarianism and Marxism offer their own justification for enjoying their affluence and not given as much as they could, which is simply idiosyncratic from Cohen’s point of view. Nonetheless, there situation is only negligible given social inequality relative to individual personal behavior in society. On equal vein, equality does seem to promote more one’s own, thus, the need for “comprehensive state” intervention (Cohen, If You're an Egalitarian, How Come You’re So Rich?).
- What is Cohen’s stand?
Apparently, Cohen’s has a question about egalitarianism and equality he did “not address” for reasons known to him (Cohen, If You're an Egalitarian, How Come You’re So Rich? 163). On the other hand, he is stood firm to being a professed relational egalitarian. He made a comparative review of his own standing in life and how he fulfills his duties as an analytic political philosopher with apparently a Marxist dent. He questioned Rawls’ difference principle as based mainly on difference principle. For Cohen, the worst-off has a better chance of experiencing equal life chances given a government’s coercive measures plus personal behaviors of the social ethos. Given the self-seeking nature of individuals, it is fit to infer why there are those who approve of egalitarianism and yet are wealthy (that is, they are rich because they apportioned more money or profit for themselves that an equally lenient state would allow them). However, that is understandable given that individuals have varying talents or endowments and personal behavior based on social ethos.
- Concluding Remarks
Cohen is correct in his views concerning personal behavior, egalitarianism, social justice, or equality. He even admits not being a hypocrite given that he is an egalitarian but does not fully exercise its principles. He defended himself as he analyzed his views vis-à-vis that of Rawls. He believes Rawls’ difference principle is for the benefit of the worst-off societal members when the state provides legally coercive measures. Cohen added that individuals could be individualistic, but not solely natural self-seekers. They have to make good use of their special talents, those who have them, so that it would be better off for their family and then others.
The same holds for the government or state. It has to maintain social justice through the use of lawfully coercive measures so that there are safeguards. Even when an egalitarian democratic society allows people to own or have private properties, they still have to share a modest sum, which could be personally and voluntarily painful the reason there is taxation, for instance. The pain of giving through taxation is much better for people who may be ambivalent to do so on their own volition. When the state’s will is imposed upon people, they are justified to believe that it is for the benefit of the majority, if not all of the state’s constituent for having done so.
Baynes, K. "Ethos and Institution: On the Site of Distributive Justice." Journal Of Social Philosophy 37.2 (2006): 182-196.
Cohen, G. If You're an Egalitarian, How Come You’re So Rich? Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2009. Web.
—. "Where the Action is: On the Site of Distributive Justice." Philosophy and Public Affairs 26.1 (1997): 3-30. Web.
Estlund, D. "Debate: Liberalism, Equality, and Fraternity in Cohen's Critique of Rawls." Journal Of Political Philosophy 6.1 (1998): 99. Web.