5th Pavia Graduate Conference in Political Philosophy – Abstract/Biale

Enrico Biale

The Personal is Political

This paper critically considers Cohen’s thesis, developed against Rawlsian dualism and its limited scope of justice, according to which «principles of distributive justice… apply to the choices that people make within the legally coercive structure to which principles of justice (also) apply». Many people have analyzed and criticized the principal arguments developed by Cohen, looking at the coherence of the Basic Structure Objection and the role of the egalitarian ethos in order to guarantee a just society. I would like to develop a different approach by considering the, as claimed by Cohen, non-decisive objections to Rawls’s dualism. The rationale for taking this approach has two reasons:

  • they underscored the Rawlsian moral background and the tension between such background and Rawls’s principles of justice.
  • they offer a counterpoint to various Rawlsian objections that have been levelled against Cohen’s thesis.

Firstly I will try to demonstrate how Cohen’s criticism is founded on his distinction between principles of regulation (principles of public policy) and principles of justice (principles of basic justice), and on the idea that, given the complex moral background on which Rawls builds his theory, principles of fairness can only be good principles of regulation. According to Cohen this is a problem, that arises due to the Rawlsian idea that justice is only a function of institutions (the subject problem) whereas a fuller (better fitted to background values) conception of justice ought to consider both institutions and the choices made by people within such institutions (subject extension). Cohen said that this conclusion was inspired by the feminist slogan the personal is political and that it mirrors the form of certain feminist criticisms of Rawls’s theory which, abstracted from their gender-centered content, claim «that choices not regulated by the law fall within the primary purview of justice». Through my analysis I hope to be able to show, on the one hand, that there does not exist any relationship between the feminist claims and those of Cohen, and on the other hand that Cohen’s proposal is inadequate because it identifies Rawls’s problems without understanding their main source.