Equality, Pareto and Cohen’s Ethos
In his influential critique of John Rawls, G. A. Cohen rejects that the economic incentives sanctioned by Rawls’s difference principle are necessary, and that they would be consistent with justice. Cohen instead defends the idea that justice requires an egalitarian ethos, which would ask people to choose a sufficiently productive occupation, and to work at a rate of compensation that does not upset equality. Unlike Rawls, Cohen also rejects that considerations of Pareto efficiency affects what justice fundamentally is. This paper demonstrates that such an egalitarian duty cannot follow from Cohen’s conception of distributive justice, and then outlines how Cohen’s proposal nevertheless can be rescued. The critique says that since Cohen believes justice consists solely of the value of equality, he faces an indifference challenge: If justice simply is equality, he cannot say that an equal distribution where everyone are better off is preferable to an equal distribution where everyone are worse off. Hence, talented individuals might have a duty not to bargain their way into inequality-generating incomes, but they cannot have a duty of justice to use their talents at a more productive level, whether they receive extra compensation or not. Cohen can only make the weaker claim that if they decide to work productively they cannot demand incentives for doing so. The paper considers whether equality nevertheless requires individuals to choose productive jobs in certain circumstances of inequality, but argues that this defense of Cohen’s position ultimately falls short of avoiding the problem completely. In light of Cohen’s value pluralism, I then argue that adding an additional principle of human flourishing to Cohen’s ethos is the only way to avoid the problem. Whereas Cohen’s egalitarian ethos cannot require individuals to make particular occupational decisions, a pluralist ethos of equality and human flourishing can. This conclusion, in turn, has great significance for how to think of Cohen’s ethos, since it suggests that the ethos is a device adopted in lights of facts and other values than justice, in order to guide actions. It is, in that sense, closely related to Cohen’s notion of rules of regulation.