G.A. Cohen’s Critique of Rawls’s Difference Principle: From Intuition to a Utopian Conception of Justice
I’d like to share the (lamentably) late G.A. Cohen’s conclusion from his discussion in Rescuing Justice and Equality (2008) of the “incentives argument” (sans notions of entitlement and desert) with regard to Rawls’s formulation of the “difference principle.” It’s clear that Rawls believed the latter to be consistent with the former, and I think Cohen persuasively argues that Rawls was wrong on this score. Cohen’s own position is described by Elizabeth Anderson as “luck egalitarianism”, a characterization he accepts, making plain that this conception is, non-pejoratively speaking, utopian in so far as “it is not a constraint on a sound conception of justice that it should always be sensible to strive to implement it, whatever the factual circumstance may be,” and this utopian conception of justice is distinct from Rawls’s constructivist principle(s) of social design wherein a scheme of social institutions, e.g., the “basic structure of society,” may be deserving of the appellation “just.” In fact, there is tension or ambiguity if not contradiction here (at least on the ‘strict interpretation’ of the principle) insofar as Rawls believed that in a “well-ordered” society each individual “acts out of a sense of justice informed by the principles of justice [expressing their nature as ‘free moral persons’]” while also unqualifiedly endorsing unequal incentives as when, for example, talented people have the power to demand and the expectation of “high salaries whose level reflects high demand for their talent (as opposed to the special needs or special burdens of their jobs).” Cohen elaborates, drawing a distinction between a “strict” and “lax” interpretation of the difference principle:
“On the lax interpretation of what the difference principle demands, it is satisfied when everyone gets what she can through self-seeking behavior in a market whose rewards are so structured by taxation and other regulation that the worst off are as well off as any scheme of taxed and regulated market rewards can make them. On my view of what it means for a society to institute the principle, people would mention norms of equality when asked to explain why they those like them are willing to work for the pay they get. This strict interpretation conflicts with Rawls’s unqualified endorsement of unequalizing incentives. Yet…the strict interpretation of the principle coheres with a number of significant general characterizations of justice to be found in Rawls’s work.”
The interpretive warrant for a “lax understanding” of the difference principle is likewise found in Rawls, in which case the dignity of the worst off is said to be honored, “since, so he says, they know that they are caused to be as well off as they could be.” In reply, Cohen exquisitely comes to the point: “But that is an illusion. For they are as well off as they could be only given self-seekingness of those who are better off, and maybe far better off, than they.”
It follows from a “strict interpretation” of the difference principle that “free moral persons,” those whom Cohen terms “high fliers,” are motivated in their daily lives to act from the principles of justice. Sufficient introductory material in place, we’re prepared to read and consider Cohen’s conclusion:
“My principle contention about Rawls is that high fliers would forgo incentives properly so-called in a full compliance society governed by the difference principle and characterized by fraternity and universal dignity. I have not rejected the difference principle in its lax reading as a principle of public policy: I do not doubt that there are contexts where it is right to apply it. What I have questioned is its description as a basic principle of justice, and I have deplored Rawls’s willingness to describe those at the top end of a society governed by it as undergoing the fullest possible realization of their moral natures. My own socialist-egalitarian position was nicely articulated by John Stuart Mill in his Principles of Political Economy. Contrasting equal payment with incentive-style payment according to product (‘work done’), Mill said that the first
appeals to a higher standard of justice, and is adapted to a much higher moral condition of human nature. The proportioning of remuneration to work done is really just, only in so far as the more or less of the work is a matter of choice; when it depends on natural difference of strength or capacity, this principle of remuneration is in itself an injustice: it is giving to those who have; assigning most to those who are already most favoured by nature. Considered however, as a compromise with the selfish typed of character formed by the present standard of morality, and fostered by the existing social institutions, it is highly expedient; and until education shall have been entirely regenerated, is far more likely to prove immediately successful, than an attempt at a higher ideal.
Rawls’s lax application of his difference people means ‘giving to those who have.’ He presents the incentive policy as a feature of a just society, whereas it is in fact, and as Mill says, just ‘highly expedient’ in society as we know it, a sober ‘compromise with the selfish type of character’ formed by capitalism.* Philosophers in search of justice should not be content with an expedient compromise. To call expediency justice goes against the regeneration to which Mill looked forward at the end of this fine passage.”
*The following (further references omitted) is from a footnote to this material:
“According to Mill, ‘the deep-rooted selfishness which forms the general character of the existing state of society is so deeply rooted only because the whole course of the existing institutions tend to foster it.’”
 See chapter 1, “The Incentives Argument,” in G.A. Cohen, Rescuing Justice and Equality. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008: 27-86, but especially 68-86 with regard to Rawls.
 For a brief introduction, see the section on the “difference principle” in Lamont, Julian and Christi Favor, “Distributive Justice,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2008/entries/justice-distributive/. The difference principle is the first part of Rawls’s second principle of justice: “Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both: (a) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged, consistent with the just savings principle, and (b) attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity.” For an introduction that also addresses Cohen’s earlier criticisms, see chapter 3, “The Second Principle and Distributive Justice,” in Samuel Freeman, Rawls. New York: Routledge, 2007: 86-140.
 In Cohen’s words, “Luck egalitarians seek to render precise an intuition about distributive justice, which says, roughly, that inequalities are just if and only if certain facts about responsibility obtain with respect to those inequalities.” In particular, on this conception, an allocation within the rubric of distributive justice “extinguishes inequalities that are due to luck rather than to choice.”
Addendum: I thought perhaps it might be important to specify exactly what I meant by calling Cohen’s conception of justice “utopian” (in a non-pejorative sense). As Cohen says in a later chapter, “justice is justice, whether or not it is possible to achieve it, and that to conform our conception of justice to what is achievable creates distortions in our thought and also in our practice.” The adjective utopian is intended precisely in the sense spelled out by William Galston (from his 1980 book, Justice and the Human Good) in our introductory post on utopian thought and imagination. (That Galston might be judged a quintessential Liberal political philosopher is irrelevant.) Rawlsians, on the other hand, could be said to subscribe to “utopianism” in a pejorative sense. In other—and Cohen’s—words, they believe “justice must be so crafted as to be bottom-line feasible, they believe that it is possible to achieve justice, and I am not so sanguine. It follows from my position that justice is an unachievable (although a nevertheless governing) ideal.” In conceiving of justice in this way, Cohen could be said to be a utopian who thereby avoids the charge of “utopianism.” Finally, Cohen might be fairly described as a Platonist in the following sense: The Platonic construction of normative utopian models are not intended to point to some future political reality or indicate decisive historical telos, rather, they serve to remind us of both the indeterminacy of Platonic Forms (like ‘Justice’) that inspire or motivate utopian discourse and the significance of contingent historical conditions and political variables that make for relativity and plurality, as well as the necessity of judgment, in the domain of realization (or positivization), in which case, for example, justice is never fully realized, retaining its “ideal” status however much or in spite of the degree of instantiation or embodiment. All the same, they remain indispensable to the critical political and legal tasks of specification, justification, and evaluation as adumbrated by Galston.