The evolution of Cohen’s political position has taken a turn
that will seem to many to be, quite literally, mystifying. If You’re an
Egalitarian, How Come You’re So Rich? is, in part, a defence of religion
Cohen’s politicized, working-class family home is sketched in contrast to the strong religious affinities—and divisions—that characterized his school and home town, Montreal. A divided society, in its turn, leaves Cohen’s intellectual views and emotional attachments at variance. A leftist Jewish primary school taught the young Marxist about his religious heritage, including a ‘History of the Class Struggle’ in Yiddish, before it was disbanded in McCarthyite manner in 1952. At his Protestant secondary school, the majority Jewish intake made Cohen feel that he had to conceal both his lack of a bar mitzvah and his political views. Press-ganged into a prayer group at summer camp, he then had to hide an enjoyment of bible-reading—the rebellion of a revolutionary—from his antireligious family. The final fault-line between heart and mind was Cohen’s view of Israel, his initial anti-Zionism swayed by singing the Israeli national anthem and, later, the Six Day War, to settle into ‘anti-anti-Zionism’—intellectually dismayed by, but feeling emotionally responsible for, Israeli policy in the occupied territories.
The tales of Cohen’s childhood are set in the context of a discussion about nurtured beliefs, with Cohen proposing that it is irrational to continue to hold such beliefs once it is realized that a different upbringing would have instilled rival ones. The first exhibit is Cohen’s Marxist heritage, but in order to generalize beyond the political and religious he cites his views, nurtured during an Oxford degree, about the distinction between analytic and synthetic truths. Proposing irrationality seems rather strained, for few are prepared to view their beliefs as irrational on the grounds that an as-yet-unheard case might be just as strong: to do so would be rather like listening to those politicians who speak on behalf of the ‘silent majority’. Cohen, it would seem, intends to invoke the power of nurtured belief and its hold over our life and actions. Moral and religious beliefs, both in the family and across society, constitute a structure that forms opinions, influences subsequent actions and constrains our future choices.
Cohen’s political views were initially defined by his
The critique of
Cohen argues that a strong moral case provided the implicit
basis for the traditional critique of
In reply to those who hold that the four features cohere at the international level, Cohen asserts that the working class ‘do not form a majority within or across the societies in question’. This is due to the disaggregation of the Western working class into distinct and relatively well-off groups, the continuing agrarian majority in the developing world, and the ability of transnational capital to absorb and expel sets of workers at will. The international cooperation of labour is not an option: there are too many cultural barriers for labour to organize effectively at this level. Worse still, for the socialist hope of material equality, is the environmental crisis. Aggregate consumption will have to be reduced, and we therefore need a political morality which presumes that conditions of scarcity will persist for the foreseeable future.
As an assessment of the political state of the
My own fundamental concern is neither the basic structure of society, in any sense, nor people’s individual choices, but the pattern of benefits and burdens in society—that is neither a structure within which choice occurs nor a set of choices, but the upshot of structure and choices alike . . . My root belief is that there is injustice in distribution when inequality of goods reflects not such things as differences in the arduousness of people’s labours, or people’s different preferences and choices with respect to income and leisure, but myriad forms of lucky and unlucky circumstance.
The phrase ‘benefits and burdens’ is ambiguous, suggesting social as well as material goods, but it retains a clear focus on equality of outcome, rather than equality of opportunity, power or human development. Cohen does not rule out all inequalities here, but proposes that inequality can justified only if it is the result of choices for which the individual affected can reasonably be held to be responsible—with the grounds for responsibility being individual choice, as opposed to inherited circumstance. It becomes clear that if nurtured beliefs are a constraint, then we will need to turn our attention to their distributive effect.
Cohen’s reference to the ‘basic structure of society’,
quoted above, marks out his disagreement with Rawls. For Rawls, that
structure—consisting of the main constitutional, legal and social
institutions—is to be designed to ensure that citizens are of equal political
status, with each being accorded the most extensive set of basic liberties
consistent with allowing the same liberties to all. The distribution of all
other social goods is to be determined by the ‘
Cohen’s case against Rawls is intended to establish that systematic, and unjust, inequalities could occur within a liberal constitutional framework. If we are to accept Rawls’s description of the principles of justice, then they should also be applied to people’s choices within the legal framework proposed. Two major illustrations are offered in support of this case: inequality in salary levels and the division of labour between the sexes. With regard to the first, Cohen poses a question to those commanding a high salary: ‘Why, in the light of their own belief in the difference principle, do they require more pay than the untalented get for work which is not specially unpleasant?’ If they believe that inequalities are only just when they benefit the worst off in society, then their labour-market behaviour cannot be just: the extra salary could go directly towards helping the poor.
Rawls’s position is that political justice is concerned only
In his recent reworking of ‘The Idea of
Cohen’s final application of the feminist slogan, ‘the
In my view this fatally damages Cohen’s case against Rawls. Rawls admits that different conceptions of justice can apply to the family, and other voluntary associations, but he restricts his own to the coercive institutions on the basis that these represent a special case: society as a whole is a closed system, and we cannot escape its basic political, economic and social arrangements. Although Cohen has argued that our choices are constrained by complex sociological and psychological factors, his final analysis concedes our freedom to act in a way contrary to our received morality and the moral views of those around us. This allows Rawls to justify his strong distinction between the basic structure and our choices within it. Cohen’s own view of individual choice and responsibility, as a ground for just distribution, is sufficiently liberal to ensure that his case against Rawls will fail on its own terms.
The motive for Cohen’s focus on individual morality rather than social structure remains puzzling. It appears that Cohen’s views, particularly concerning the political impotence of the working class, have led him to conclude that political change will only occur when the social pressure for an egalitarian society draws on comprehensive moral and religious doctrines. It is through the cumulative effect of personal actions and choice, the microstructure of society, that we will come to demand, and uphold, just political institutions. Whether religious beliefs are true is not the question: the realm of political discourse can act as a broker, and egalitarian religion would not be an opiate but a stimulant. Cohen’s support of—supposedly, widely held—religious morality is therefore instrumental: it offers a possible lever for change. This would seem to ignore one feature of religion that Cohen’s engaging memoirs managed to highlight: the incompatibility of such doctrines across most societies. It is because the religious view of a better society is so far divorced from our current arrangements that the doctrines vary so widely—they are utopian visions, and fail to take into account the salient features of contemporary life.
This is not to deny that Cohen documents a real phenomenon—the distributive effect of people’s actions within the legal framework—but this is the result of collectivelyheld moral views. Looking for a remedy via individual moral transformation is to misunderstand the problem. There are two dimensions that Cohen appears to ignore: the effect of our basic economic and social arrangements on our collective morality, and an analysis of effective historical agency. Asking high earners to give to charity will have limited effect while our economy is designed to encourage inequality of this kind. Those who have economic power will tend, on the whole, to wield it; high earners will feel that they deserve their salaries, whether or not they can be held responsible for the talents they exercise. Addressing this requires exactly the structural focus that Cohen eschews. There is a valuable role for conceptions of justice that challenge the capitalist notion, but Cohen obscures our view of the correct territory for this.
A stable egalitarian society requires a redistribution of
economic and social