Analytical Marxism: Principles from G.A. Cohen’s Egalitarian Critique of Rawls
The philosopher John Rawls is famous for his seminal work, A Theory of Justice (1971). The book constitutes a rigorously argued moral and ethical appeal for political liberalism. Rawls revitalized normative theory for decades, and is now considered one of the most important political philosophers.
In the 1980s, a tradition of Analytical Marxism emerged in the Anglo-American sphere of philosophy. One of its founders is G.A. Cohen, an analytic philosopher influenced by Rawls. Cohen was born to immigrant Jewish parents in Montreal, Canada. He had a working-class upbringing and was raised as a communist. Cohen’s work in analytic philosophy coined the term “Non-Bullshit Marxism.” The name perfectly expresses the attitude analytic philosophy brought to Marxist theory. For instance, Cohen is fully willing to abandon what he calls “bold explanatory theses” from Marxism and its historical and political form in history (Cohen 1995, p.6). Socialism, then, becomes something novel and untarnished in its intrinsic desirability. Specifically desirable for Cohen are the values of equality, liberty, and community. Cohen’s socialism is an analytical inversion of what has historically appeared as political leftism like Leninism and Bolshevism in Eastern Europe.
As a socialist, Cohen is distinct from the liberal tradition. He specifically criticizes Rawls who is liberalism’s biggest name. Under scrutiny, it is far too ready to make concessions to the political right. From the political left, Cohen analyzes how liberal philosophy like Rawls systematically sacrifices equality for the right’s notion of freedom inherited from right-wing free-market economics. In this paper, we will see how Cohen makes a fuller commitment to the value of egalitarianism.
“Facts and Principles”: The Grounding Thesis
Cohen’s essay “Facts and Principles” (2008) is a crucial piece of his criticism of Rawls. In it, Cohen problematizes the foundation of Rawls’ influential methodology. According to Cohen, Rawls’ method does not provide a theory of justice. Instead, it only outputs rules and regulations. Any idea of justice determined by these will be truncated by premature compromise. Analytical philosophy of the kind Cohen practices is concerned with finding principles of justice that are timeless and universal. By Cohen’s thesis on facts and principles, discourse on justice cannot be grounded in particular facts, but must commit to the logical priority of some higher principles.
Cohen’s thesis on grounding targets both Rawls as well as Marxism. In both cases, considerations of justice are fatally flawed when they assign a particular determining role to facts.
Cohen begins his paper by defining a normative principle as a “general directive” in a statement (Cohen 2008, p.229). When we argue for a principle (P), we do so by grounding that principle in a fact (F). One ought not steal because stealing constitutes social harm. When we are challenged to justify or explain our principle, we might do so by providing the fact of social harm. According to Cohen, our merely recounting the undesired effect — a fact — does not justify our principle. Justifying our principle P still requires another statement to explain why that fact F grounds what it grounds. The grounding relation is sustained by a more ultimate principle (P*) explaining why fact F grounds principle P. Together, the three statements of P, F, and P* constitute a justification.
The more ultimate principle has logical priority because we are implicitly committed to it even when it remains unstated. In its role of explaining the grounding relation between fact and principle, the higher principle is itself not grounded in a fact; it is fact-insensitive. Fuller explanation makes a justification. Consider the following set of statements:
P: One ought not steal.
F: Because stealing constitutes a social harm.
P*: One ought not cause social harm.
Principle P is grounded in fact F. Higher principle P* explains why F grounds P, but does not itself require another fact. When I argue P and ground it in F, I implicitly commit myself to P* even when it remains unstated.
The grounding relation is explained by higher-order principles of logical priority which are themselves not dependent on facts. It is these higher-order principles which explain why a certain fact grounds the original principle put forth.
The Grounding Relation in Cohen’s Case Against Rawls
Central to the success of Rawls theory of justice is his innovative method. He imagines how we would select principles of justice if we were placed in a state of relative ignorance toward ourselves. Rawls calls this the original position. From this, he designs a thought experiment where people are still aware of the basic laws of psychology and nature, but are made unaware of their personal circumstances in the world. Behind the veil of ignorance, as Rawls terms it, persons select principles of justice as fairness.
The outcome of Rawls’ methodology is a selection of “principles of justice” which “apply to the basic structure of the social system and to the determination of life prospects” (Rawls, 155). Rawls considers himself to be contributing to the tradition of social contract theory, in line with Locke, Rousseau, and Kant. Rawls’ theory is usually called contractualism, but Cohen refers to it as “constructivism” to retain the sense of constructing the structure of society.
In the original position, the social positions of race, gender, class are all made unknown in such a way that what remains is person choosing in accordance with common, rational interest. Rather than selfishly granting special rights and privileges to their own class or race, people would select principles according to the best interest of the society to which they belong in an unknown position.
From Rawls’ method, it becomes impossible to program a fundamental inequality into the social system which would guarantee a position of privilege to oneself at the expense of others. Gone is the divine right of kings to rule over their subjects. Liberalism effectively eliminates indelible auto-justification of authority usually above and beyond public scrutiny.
Behind the veil of ignorance, one could not, for instance, choose the unequal relations of slave society because of the degree of uncertainty involved. One would be unaware of one’s own position within such a society. Without the guarantee of being born a slave-master, there is a significant risk that I will be born a slave in the system I created.
Subject to these conditions of uncertainty, society’s designers would instead “adopt the more realistic idea of designing the social order on a principle of reciprocal advantage” (Rawls, 155). From the perspective of a designer, rational minds would select principles on a rational basis for optimizing equality in distributing goods and establishing relations. This way, Rawls attempts to reconcile the tension between social and economic conditions of equality and justice. The degree of uncertainty in the original position acts as a deterrence against holding inequality as a moral ideal.
Given the proper circumstances behind the veil of ignorance, individuals would choose principles of justice out of an original rationality. For Rawls, this process outputs two principles of justice as fairness: equal liberty by equal rights for all, and the difference principle which stipulates that equal liberty can only be sacrificed if doing so benefits the worse off in society.
What Rawls ultimately calls his principles of justice as fairness are, to Cohen, merely rules and regulations optimized to the facts. Justice itself is the ideal that informs the optimization between circumstances. The whole method of constructing principles for Rawls necessarily involves selecting what kinds of facts are concealed, and which are divulged to the rational actors making their selections. So, preceding the original position, there is a more primary process of selection determining which facts to divulge and which to conceal as irrelevant. The rationality of the selectors relies on an antecedent selection of facts which, although unstated, establishes the appropriate degree of uncertainty to condition the selection process.
The antecedent concealment and divulsion of facts disguises Rawls method as innocently rational when it is in fact the ideals that determine the facts, not the other way around. As such, Rawls accords far too much determining significance to facts and precludes himself from finding the more ultimate principles of justice informing his selections from the start. Rawls thereby settles for less, content with optimal rules and regulations. In this way, Rawlsian constructivism ends up with unequal relations by conceding too much to non-egalitarian right-wing opponents like Nozick. For Cohen, any variation of rules and regulations tailored to a compromise with the facts is not going to fully reflect the principles of justice. Rawls accommodates far too much inequality. He builds compromise into the foundation of what is supposed to be an ultimate ideal for principles of justice.
No true philosopher, it seems, could be content with an insufficient answer to the question of justice. For Cohen, Rawls has garnered notoriety from selling out the higher question of justice. Unsatisfied with the results, Cohen cites Rawls as writing “Conceptions of justice must be justified by the conditions of our life as we know it or not at all” (qtd. on 229). Our thinking about justice becomes limited when we remain tied to and dependent on our narrow conceptions of what is even possible.
Conclusions from Cohen’s thesis are radical. Put concisely, fact-insensitivity means that political feasibility does not bear on questions of justice or the ethically ideal. This leads to the justice as non-regulatory thesis which says that justice is not exhausted merely by optimal rules and regulations. More ultimate principles of justice inform and condition the processes of compromise and optimization producing the rules for society.
By establishing the proof of fact-insensitivity, Cohen does not say beliefs about ultimate principles cannot be justified. Rather, he says “ultimate principles cannot be justified by facts” (238). They may be justified in some other non-factual way. A form of non-factual grounding might be rooting higher-order principles in realizable possibility, not facts. The ethical ideal constitutes its own discourse that is not subject to the requirements of a contemporary discourse on political parties or economics.