Saturday, February 06, 2010

More on Cohen, Justic, and Equality

God this guy is getting under my skin. I swore I was going to write one post, two at the most, on Rescuing Justice & Equality but he keeps saying things that can't go unchallenged.

So... on p. 80 he quotes Rawls talking about entrepreneurs, but concludes Chapter 1 without really taking up the associated issue. Specifically, the level of material goods available to distribute depends not just how hard/how longer/how much people work, but also on their choice of occupation. The handy ToC shows that Cohen tackles this specific question (in the context of a doctor/gardener) in Section 2 of Chapter 5, so I figured I'd skip ahead and spare myself the suspense.

I'm humbled by Cohen's magnaminity in his handling of this question. Right off the bat he declares that he's a liberal and, as such, can't sanction the Stalin-esque tactic of forcing people to work in specific jobs1. And then he's off to the races:

If the supposed trilemma is truly trilemmatic, then we shall face trilemmas in many similar contexts. There will also be, for example, what I shall call the Titmuss trilemma. Let me display that trilemma, and an apparent solution to it, which suggests a solution to the trilemma which is the topic of the present section. (p. 188)

There he goes again, lying in wait in some dark rhetorical alley rather than confront the argument directly. For the love of god man, speak plainly or not at all. Your self-consciously clever argumentation hasn't been all that compelling to date.

In any case his solution to the trilemma isn't all that complicated. He holds that, in a just society, the desire to serve the good of the community will prove stronger than personal preference2. Thus the doctor/gardener, though ey really wants to garden, will choose of eir own free will to doctor instead because such will benefit society more.

Fine, Mr. Cohen, sure, I'll give you that. Such an attitude may be compatible with human nature; there's a rich, cross-cultural tradition of people who have, of their own free will, devoted themselves to the service of others. But why stop at the choice of personal profession? If justice requires the supression of self-interest for the good of the worst off in something as central to a person's self-conception as their choice of occupation then surely it requires the same behavior for less important choices. Why should your doctor not eat, dress, and paint her house in such a manner as to improve the lot of the worse off3?

This isn't a case of slavery of the talented... Cohen is correct in asserting as much since the solution to the Titmuss trilemma seems to apply equally to all citizens. It would be more accurate to characterize this as slavery to the worst-off, since justice seems to require that all those more fortunate bend their efforts to the betterment of this class. Cohen's interpretation of the right seems to leave no place for the pursuit of diverse life plans; I might read a book, but how can I be so selfish as to do that when there are sick to heal and naked to clothe?

No doubt Cohen would answer this charge by saying that there are limits to the demands of justice; the demands that justice imposes must be balanced against legitimate self-interest. He says as much, both implicitly and explicitly, throughout the book4. This, though, raises two problems:

  • Cohen has yet to articulate a standard for self-interest5. I'm not done with the work as yet, but none of the material I've read so far, nor any of the index entries for self-interest, point to such a standard.
  • Even if he articulates a standard there is likely to be significant disagreement about where the balance lies in any particular situation.

What I've read to this point leads me to conclude that this fuzziness w.r.t. the bounds of self-interest is a major problem for his thesis. Let's revisit the conversation between the rich and the poor that arises in the context of justificatory community. How are the poor to answer if the rich say "Look, declining to work 14 hours a day is in our legitimate self-interest"? Either they accept that justification, in which case the problem is settled but equality is SOL, or they doubt the justification, requiring recourse to some metric to settle the issue.

If we allow for self-interest then Cohen's solution to the trilemma doesn't hold up. Individuals may be fully committed to the principles of justice and yet may invoke reasonable self-interest as a barrier to further sacrifice on their part long before total equality is acheived. On reflection it seems to me that this may be the reason why Rawls declined to extend the demands of justice to personal decision-making. It's possible to acheive a broad consensus on the basic rules necessary to promote justice at the level of the state in part because the state is not an independent entity with its own interests; it exists (in theory, at least) solely to serve the good of the polity. No such consensus is possible at the level of individual behavior because of (among other things) differing views on the boundaries of personal perogative.

Constructivism is useful, in my estimation, because it anticipates and accommodates such differing points of view. Looking at the ToC for Rescuing Justice it appears that Cohen has a bone to pick on that account as well. It'll be interesting to see whether he has a substantive critique of the technique or if he's going to continue picking at the edges without really confronting the core concept.


Oh yeah, and stop saying tout court all the frickin' time.

1 p. 186. Thank god for that, otherwise I'd have been compelled to author If You're So Liberal How Come You're Making Me Dig Ditches At Gunpoint?.
2 p. 189.
3 p. 194.
4 See the index entry for "self-interest" for a list.
5 This is one of the things that really irritates me about his style of argumentation. Rawls might postpone a supporting argument to a later chapter, but he's usually pretty good about telling you where such argument is to be found. With Cohen, on the other hand, you can never really tell if his argument is complete or not.


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