In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Philosophy & Public Affairs 30.4 (2002) 363-386

[Access article in PDF]

Taking People as They Are?

Joshua Cohen

My purpose is to consider if, in political society, there can be any legitimate and sure principle of government, taking men as they are and laws as they might be.

—Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract

Following Rousseau's opening thought in The Social Contract. . ., I shall assume that his phrase "men as they are" refers to persons' moral and psychological natures and how that nature works within the framework of political and social institutions.

—John Rawls, The Law of Peoples


According to John Rawls's "difference principle," inequalities are fully just if and only if they, roughly, maximize the advantage of the least advantaged group. Although the difference principle imposes no direct limits on the range of the income distribution (difference between top and bottom), or on any other measure of income dispersion, it is nevertheless an egalitarian principle in requiring that income and wealth inequalities be justified by reference to their contribution to the common advantage, and, more particularly, by reference to the benefits they confer on the least advantaged. In a series of papers on "incentive inequalities," however, G. A. Cohen has shown that the content of the difference principle is less determinate—perhaps less egalitarian—than it may seem. 1 The resolution of this indeterminateness has, I believe, important [End Page 363] consequences both for our understanding of what justice requires and for a family of fundamental methodological issues in political philosophy—including the plausibility of political liberalism, the role of substantive claims about social order and human nature in normative political thought, and the appropriate way to justify principles of justice. 2

Much of Cohen's writing about incentive inequalities has been presented as a critique of John Rawls's theory of justice, and for the purposes of this article, I will largely preserve this polemical setting. In section II, I explain what I mean by "incentive inequalities," and introduce a range of cases in which incentive inequalities countenanced by what I will call an "ultralax" interpretation of the difference principle are objectionable. While a strict version of the difference principle, which condemns all incentive inequalities, suffers from unreasonably rigorous expectations about our willingness to serve the good of others, only an unacceptably ultralax version would permit incentive inequalities in all the cases I consider. In section III, I show that at least in some circumstances a Rawlsian conception of justice will require, contrary to Cohen's assertions, changes in the social ethos because that is how institutional changes lead to a more just distribution. With these observations about institutions and ethos as background, I then consider, in section IV, how a Rawlsian can handle the cases of intuitively objectionable incentive inequalities sketched in section II. The Rawlsian response underscores the essential role in Rawls's formulation of egalitarian liberalism of substantive claims about social order and human motivations: in particular, claims about the pervasive influence of institutions on political- economic outcomes and on culture and identity. In section V, I suggest that if we reject this strong "institutional determinism," we seem to face a choice between preserving political liberalism's institutional focus while backing off from egalitarianism, or preserving egalitarianism and extending the scope of our account of justice so that the social ethos is [End Page 364] brought explicitly within its scope. Reflection on the justifiability of incentive inequalities, then, sharpens our sense of the available options in political philosophy, puts pressure on Rawls's proposed marriage of political liberalism and egalitarianism, and highlights the role of ideas about social order and human motivations in sustaining that marriage. 3


Cohen's criticisms of the difference principle have shown, I think, that the content of that principle is importantly indeterminate. This indeterminateness owes to the uncertain place of a social ethos in an account of distributive justice. By the "social ethos" I mean—and I take Cohen to mean—socially widespread preferences and attitudes about the kinds of rewards it is acceptable to insist on, and, associated with those preferences and...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 363-386
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2003
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.