Efficiency, Freedom and Equality: Is There a Way Out of the Egalitarian Trilemma?
Jerry Cohen famously criticized Rawls’s theory of justice for being narrowly applied only to institutions of the society (its basic structure) and for making a false distinction between the requirements of justice for institutions and the requirements of justice for individuals. According to Cohen, the pursuit of justice cannot be divorced from the individual behaviour of the citizens. In order to achieve a truly just society, egalitarian ethos has to be a guiding principle for both individual behaviour and institutional structure. Egalitarian ethos however, can be bounded by the personal prerogative of each individual to live his/her own life and pursue his/her interests to a reasonable extent. However, as I will argue in this paper, Cohen cannot reconcile the demands of an egalitarian ethos and the personal prerogative, without making one of them (presumably latter) meaningless. Although he claims to acknowledge the importance of personal prerogative and consequently, the fact of value pluralism seriously, he is unable to consistently incorporate it in his own theory. I argue that in his envisioned society there would be no place for the meaningful pursuit of personal goals and conceptions of the good life, since people would have to, in order to pursue egalitarian ethos, seriously limit their needs and scope of their personal prerogative. Although justice is the first virtue of social institutions, we also have to somehow acknowledge the fact that it is not the first virtue or goal in many individual conceptions of the good life. While Cohen’s theory of justice merely acknowledges the existence of moral reasons that can override the primacy of claims of egalitarian justice, Rawls’s conception truly incorporates those reasons and the fact of value pluralism as a default feature of human societies which has to be not merely tolerated, but appropriately acknowledged and sustained as something intrinsically valuable. Although individual pursuit of justice must correspond, at least to some extent, to public principles of justice, Cohen’s egalitarian ethos fails to provide us with guidance about its appropriate extent, at least not without sacrificing all other things that we consider important in our lives. Considering all this, I argue that Cohen’s egalitarian ethos is not an appropriate principle for organizing our political life.