Is the Personal Political? Justice of Institutions and Justice of Personal Conduct
I would like to provide a critical discussion of Cohen’s claim about the nature of principles of distributive justice. Cohen argues that a freestanding conception of social justice is inconsistent, and such a claim is supposed to be a critique of Rawls’ idea that the main subject of justice concerns the “basic structure” of society rather than the daily individual choices of its citizens. His point consists in arguing that “justice requires an ethos governing daily choice which goes beyond on of obedience to just rules”. Therefore, “the personal is political”. Cohen’s critique of Rawls is particularly concerned with the difference principle and points out two main issues: (1) The incentives argument ( = economic inequality is necessary and just to a certain extent in virtue of the benign influence on productive motivation of the material incentives associated with it) shows that citizens in a (Rawlsian) just society are not truly committed to the difference principle; (2) We can only find the difference principle compelling if we take for granted that it is impossible and unfeasible to reach an ethos of justice that informs individual choices. The difference principle thus entails a pessimistic assumption. I try to develop two critical points against Cohen’s argument and then I try to suggest that an institutional conception of justice can indeed be very demanding towards its citizens, since it assigns citizens a duty to further just institutional arrangements and not to support unjust ones. My first point is against (1): I argue that you do not need to criticize the difference principle itself in order to criticize the incentives argument. There are less and more demanding ways of interpreting the difference principle: “social and economic inequalities…[should always be] to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society”. I try to argue that in a demanding way of reading it, the incentives argument would be rejected by someone who is committed to the difference principle, and institutional reforms inspired by the incentives argument would most of the time not pass the test of the difference principle. My argument against (2) points out the importance of the priority of the right over the good; on the contrary, Cohen’s ethos of justice and Murphy’s “monism” entail the endorsement of a comprehensive moral position. I try to show how the priority of justice has a point against such an endorsement. In the end of the paper, I argue that an “institutional” conception of justice demands a deep commitment from citizens and individuals. Such a commitment does not consist, though, in compensating inequalities with donations or private lifestyle-choices; rather it consists in a constant control over the justice of institutions. Thus, a freestanding conception of social justice demands far more than obedience to just rules.