Rawls, Cohen, and the Difference Principle: Chris Bertram and Lawrence Solum have been posting on Jerry Cohen's critique of Rawls's difference principle. If you're new to this debate, Adam Swift has a very accessible introduction to the basic arguments toward the end of the equality chapter of his book Political Philosophy. Solum says he doesn't see why Cohen's argument has had such success:
If Cohen were right, everyone who was not in the least advantaged group would be obligated to adopt the welfare (loosely speaking) of the least advantaged as their own goal in life. So long as there was a least advantaged group, no one outside that group would be entitled to their own comprehensive conception of the good. No one could pursue art, music, religion, or building a better Internet as a life plan, unless their action would produce the greatest benefit for the least well off as compared to any alternative course of action.
Solum is objecting here to the moral demandingness of Cohen's conception of justice. Someone sympathetic to Cohen's argument might respond to this criticism by saying that one's interest in pursuing a comprehensive conception of the good is protected by a personal prerogative, or perhaps by the value of liberty. But that this value of liberty, or the prerogative to pursue one's personal interests (defined here expansively in terms of a conception of the good), is in tension with the demands of social justice. Justice requires that we act so as to benefit the worst-off. Yet we recognize that justice isn't the only moral value. A plausible balance of moral values will provide some space for the pursuit of personal interests. The upshot of the argument, however, is that citizens must consider whether deviations from equality-producing activities are justified by their personal pursuits. They cannot avoid making these sorts of difficult judgments by claiming that their every-day decisions are not the proper subject of justice. I take it this is what Cohen means when he says that justice requires a social ethos according to which citizens apply principles of justice even when they are making ordinary decisions about how to lead their daily lives. Does something like this argument make Cohen's critique more plausible?
Rawlsians are clearly exercised by Cohen's critique. Josh Cohen, Thomas Pogge, Andrew Williams, David Estlund (who develops a criticism of Cohen based on personal prerogatives in his article on "Liberalism, Equality and Fraternity in Cohen's Critique of Rawls," Journal of Political Philosophy (1998)), and others have written some compelling responses, but I think this debate is just getting under way. Lots more ink will be spilled on it before people are satisfied that the major issues have been clarified--which is as much a testimony to the depth and complexity of Rawls's theory as it is to Cohen's criticism of it.
I wish I had time to say more about this. I'll be blogging more lightly this week than last (which was sort of a mad rush out of the gates). Work is finally catching up with me . . .