"If You're Such a Liberal, How Come You Love Conformity?" is the title of a recent article by Andrew Sabl that takes the debate about Cohen's critique of Rawls in a new direction. In an earlier post, I said that this debate is really just getting started. One of the consequences of Cohen's critique will be a discussion among liberal egalitarians about their own fundamental moral and philosophical commitments. Sabl's review gets that discussion off to a provocative start. Unfortunately, the review is on-line, here, only for a fee—although many university libraries will probably subscribe to either the print or the online version. I asked Sabl whether he might be willing to put something on-line. He was very gracious to write a rough summary of his argument for the purpose of participating in the discussion that has been taking place among various bloggers. For a review of recent posts, see Solum's redux. The full details of Sabl's argument are only found in the published version: Andrew Sabl, “Review Essay” on Cohen’s If You're Such An Egalitarian, How Come You're So Rich?,” Society 39, No. 3 (March/April 2002): 78-85. As you'll see, this post is a bit longer than my normal comments on this blog. But I set this page up to discuss political theory, and I think Sabl's contribution is definitely worth reading. What follows obviously assumes some familiarity with Cohen's criticisms. Sabl writes:

Cohen's arguments are ad hominem, but he misunderstands homo liberalis. The points he thinks will dig deep into liberals' souls will only worry those who've tried to create so much common ground between liberals and neo-Marxists that they've forgotten what liberalism means: individualism, pluralism, a society where all may live as free as possible from excessive social demands.
Cohen's argument rightly shows that those who aspire to certain ideals of justificatory community and social fraternity, and who hope that citizens' deepest motivations will line up "unambivalently" with their public principles, must reject a society based on incentives and hope for a moral transformation that will render incentives unnecessary. But liberals should reject the premises: Cohen's vision of justificatory community is too demanding, his ideal of fraternity is the opposite of individualism, and ambivalence and a bit of unpredictability are what liberalism is all about.
The ideal of community Cohen takes as a starting point is, he notes in a footnote, the kind of community he talks about in his 1992 Tanner Lecture, "Incentives, Inequality, and Community" (in Tanner Lectures on Human Values, Vol. 13, Univ. of Utah Press, 1992). This is not a concrete social or political community, real or aspirational, but a rationalist, "justificatory community" where people seek to "make policy together." This vision of community leads to demands for justification that are very broad—we must justify not just new proposals or ongoing collective institutions and practices but everything we do or refrain from doing—and very deep—we must justify not only our actions and choices but our inner states.
Both the breadth and depth do a lot of work, and both may be questioned. Only the breadth lets Cohen make one of his most vivid, and central, comparisons: a talented citizen who won't work without incentives is like a kidnapper who explains that without a big ransom he will have no alternative but to keep the abducted child. (There's another, similar example involving Russian generals who say that only Lithuanian submission will prevented their own invasion, which they otherwise "predict.") These examples are, of course, coercive: the kidnapper has used coercion to force a relationship of threat with a desperate family in order to extort money. But there is no reason to regard such coercive relationships as analogous to typical relationships in liberal society. Ordinary members of a liberal society, in their private relationships, are not forcing others to cooperate with them and are therefore less obligated than kidnappers (as would seem obvious) to justify the terms on which they might choose to cooperate with others. Of course, Marxists think that capitalist relationships are inherently coercive and little different from crime. But that's precisely where liberals disagree: Cohen is begging the question.
What I've called "depth" is even more demanding and more dubious. Cohen envisions in place of incentives (explicitly drawing an analogy between such a secular conversion and Christian hopes for new societies) a mass conversion to a new social ethos, one that would change not just institutions or even moral norms but the personal motivations existing throughout society. He breezily mentions "a socialization process that instills egalitarian principles in the young" ("Incentives," 290) as something such a society would feel obligated to establish.
But surely one thing liberalism means is a deliberate refusal to aspire to such mass conversions and mass indoctrination. To be liberal is to value a diversity of behaviors, motivations, and human characters, often judging some better and some worse but deliberately fighting the temptation to buy moral reform at the cost of uniformity. Respect for others entails restraining oneself from judging the state of others' souls, or at least from claiming the authority to change them. The conversion Cohen longs for would be not only hard to achieve, and undesirable to impose by force (both of which Cohen admits), but undesirable if it were achieved. It would make people too much the same, and too ready to judge others. A liberal society cannot be a society of noodges, and a society of noodges should not appeal to liberals.
There's a distinctive, liberal view of agency that's quite different from Cohen's. Cohen thinks that we're most distinctively agents when least alienated from ourselves—when the principles that govern one part of our lives govern all. (With reason, he cites on the subject Marx's On the Jewish Question.) But liberals have always valued a certain departure from this kind of rational agency in favor of a different kind of agency: one based on individuality, a diversity of character and personal aspirations that could not survive regular social examination of all our quirks to check them for consistency with our actual or attributed moral principles. Liberals think that this kind of agency is not only good itself but socially useful, for it enables the dissent and discovery that drive improvement—in morality (through experiments in living) as in science (through experiments in empirical testing).
Consider some personal rather than social cases. When our friends complain that they cannot bring themselves to carry out projects that they would like to, it is normally considered rude—not respectful of agency—to tell them to be better people. Instead of going after their characters, we suggest changes in their external circumstances. We counsel the colleague who wants to learn French to take a course with regular exams; we suggest that our unfit friend hire a personal trainer or join a running club. But financial incentives operate precisely like this. They preserve our respect for individual character. And when applied throughout a society, they make certain outcomes more likely (as when health plans offer to buy gym memberships for members to keep them healthier) but let individuals whose life plans differ from the collective ones do as they please if they’re willing to forego the incentive.
It's not clear that Cohen really understands liberals' reasons for valuing liberalism. His reading of Mill recognizes only the reformist side of Mill's thought, while slighting Mill's reasons for wanting reform to take place through criticism and example rather than social coercion. The words "tolerant" and "toleration" appear only as pejoratives in his work; he seems to fear rather than treasure a society in which moral views and systems differ fundamentally in ways that track the variety of individual circumstances, backgrounds, and judgments. And he neglects the possibility that liberals who limit the idea of justice to the "basic structure" of society may be doing so not out of mere inconsistency but out of a recognition of moral pluralism. Justice matters, and so does the need to justify one's actions, but perhaps these good things must yield at some point to other (intrinsically) good things: privacy, say, and individuality.
The gap between neo-Marxists like Cohen, however "democratic" or non-authoritarian, and liberals, however "left" or "social," is bigger than many in both camps think. Marxists value fraternity. Liberals value individuality. Marxists think people in society should try to hold as many values and projects as possible in common with their fellows. Liberals think we are better off having very few common projects as possible in common with their fellows. In fact, those whose lives depart greatly from those that are socially expected, as long as the departures are willed and interesting, are quite likely to be the best people—both the most authentically happy and the most beneficial to society. One of liberalism's central points is that social progress need not, and often cannot, be achieved by increasing social feeling.
Even when liberals support redistribution and the welfare state, as we often do (quite rightly), it's for reasons that distinguish us very sharply from neo-Marxists. Marxists like the fact that the welfare state expresses commonality and solidarity. Liberals hope that it does no such thing: that it will free all citizens from having to worry about people they don’t particularly like (and shouldn’t have to): free the poor from fawning towards the rich, and free the rich from the unctuous artificiality of voluntary charity.
Granted, certain rationalist liberals and those who seek to build bridges with communitarians and radical socialists in fact do aspire to these ideals of mutual justification, fraternity, and rational consistency as the basis for social unity. They do indeed play down, or abandon altogether, individuality as liberalism's animating idea. And they do indeed try (a la Dewey) to make liberalism consistent with an extremely demanding form of social solidarity. These kinds of liberalism may indeed be inconsistent of hypocritical. And these kinds of liberals may indeed have dug their own graves—with Cohen as gravedigger. But the rest of us liberals may safely whistle past them.

As I said, the debate is just starting. If you've got comments, be sure to copy them to Sabl.

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