Introduction to Political Theory

(Marvins-Underground-K-12) #1

(a) You will be committed to giving priority to the worst-off and so will regard
redistributive income tax as legitimate.
(b) You will be motivated to maximise your income.

These two motivations do not necessarily conflict if we assume – as Rawls does

  • that inequality generates incentives to produce and thus help the worst-off, but
    if you are really committed to helping the worst-off do you not have a moral duty

(a) give directly– not just through tax – to the poor; and
(b) work to bring about a society in which the poorest earn more than 15 units?

Cohen borrows a slogan from the feminist movement: the ‘personal is political’
(Cohen, 2000: 122–3). How you behave in your personal life is a political issue.
Rawls, along with most liberals, rejects this claim, arguing that the distinction
between public and private is essential to a pluralistic society, and that not all aspects
of morality should be enforced by the state: while it is right to require people to
pay taxes to help the worst-off, it is for individuals to decide what they do with
their post-tax income. This may not resolve the tension that Cohen identifies
between, crudely expressed, public generosity and private avarice, but the onus is
on Cohen to explain the role of the state in ‘encouraging’ private generosity.
This brings us to the second criticism, which relates to the basic structure
argument. The rich fulfil their duties to the poor by accepting the legitimacy of
taxation, and that taxation is used to fund certain institutions, such as the pre-
university education system, money transfers (social security, pensions, etc.) and
health care. Outside the scope of the original position is a ‘private sphere’ that
includes the family. Rawls accepts that the family is a major source of inequality –
the transmission from parent to child of privilege undermines equality of opportunity

  • but because liberty (the first principle of justice) takes priority over equality (the
    second principle) there has to be a legally protected private sphere. Not only is the
    private sphere a source of inequality, it also produces within itself inequality. Here
    Cohen joins forces with feminist critics of Rawls: families are based on a division
    of labour, and one loaded against women, but because the recipient of redistribution
    is the household, and not the individual, there is a class of people – mostly women

  • who are worse off than that class which Rawls identifies as the ‘worst-off’.
    Cohen argues that what Rawls includes in the basic structure is arbitrary – Rawls
    cannot give clear criteria for what should or should not be included. He cannot say
    that the basic structure consists of those institutions which are coercively enforced,
    that is, we are forced to fund through taxation, because the basic structure is defined
    beforewe choose the principles of justice, whereas what is coercively enforced is a
    decision to be made in the original position (Cohen, 2000: 136–7). The basic
    Marxist point is this: Rawls assumes that human motivations are relatively constant

  • certainly, people can develop a moral consciousness, but they will remain self-
    interested. Motivations will always be a mix of self-interest and morality. Marxists
    reject this, and maintain that social structures determine how people behave.
    We come, finally, to the third criticism. Marx argued that the workers do not
    get the full value of their labour. This argument assumes that there is something a
    person owns, which generates a moral right to other things: in effect, as a Marxist,
    Cohen, along with Nozick (who is not a Marxist!), endorses Locke’s ‘mixed labour’

Chapter 4 Justice 93
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