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Social Theory and Practice


published on September 18, 2018

Markus Furendal

Rescuing Justice from Indifference
Equality, Pareto, and Cohen’s Ethos

G. A. Cohen has argued that egalitarian justice proscribes equality-upsetting economic incentives, but that individuals nevertheless are required to make a sufficiently large productive contribution to society. This article argues, however, that Cohen’s claim that justice is insensitive to Pareto concerns and simply is equality, undermines such a duty. In fact, Cohen cannot say that justice prefers a distribution where everyone is equally well off to one where everyone is equally badly off. Individuals hence cannot have a duty of justice to use their talents at a more productive level. This indifference risks removing Cohen’s egalitarianism’s appeal as an alternative to the Rawlsian position it challenges. Several ways of avoiding this problem are proposed and evaluated. Ultimately, it is argued that such a duty to contribute must instead be based on a concern for both equality and human flourishing. The ethos Cohen defends must hence be made pluralist, and encourage a commitment to both principles.

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