Thursday, July 2, 2009

Gordon on Cohen

It is one of the oddities of contemporary academic life that the right-winger often finds more worthy and formidable opponents the farther he looks to the left. During the last half-century or so, mainstream academic liberal philosophers of the Rawls or Dworkin stripe largely ignored the views of writers like Hayek, Oakeshott, and Scruton. Nozick got attention, of course, but (a) it was often tinged with a hostility such liberals would never display toward other opponents, (b) it treated Nozick as if he were an eccentricity rather than a representative of a serious tradition of political thought, and (c) it was usually superficial – certainly Rawls himself never replied to Nozick with the depth and seriousness the latter’s critique merited.

In fairness, this has changed a little in recent years as at least some academic liberal philosophers have been willing more seriously to engage the arguments of libertarians and of social conservatives like John Finnis and Robert P. George. It was also, I think, more an American phenomenon than a British one, though that may be because the center of political gravity is in Britain further to the left than it is in the U.S. In any event, during the period in question one could often find the most serious responses to thinkers like Hayek and Nozick coming from socialists rather than liberals. The work of G. A. Cohen is exemplary in this regard. Cohen is perhaps the most formidable socialist thinker writing today. His book Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality is among the best things ever written on Nozick, probing Nozick’s position in depth – and defending it from more superficial critiques – while trying to find some way of avoiding his inegalitarian conclusions. If your views are anything like mine, you will find Cohen’s conclusions completely unacceptable. But you will also find that his arguments and analysis are fascinating indeed and repay careful study.

The esteemed David Gordon reviews Cohen’s latest book Rescuing Justice and Equality, at length, here. Like much of Cohen’s recent work, the book is a probing critique of mainstream egalitarian liberalism from a position further to the left. Cohen is the guilty conscience of academic egalitarianism, always challenging his colleagues to be more consistently egalitarian. He is certainly more interesting than Rawls ever was. Rawls is at bottom a mere liberal apologist, and not a good one either, considering that he never seriously considers the most formidable challenges to his basic liberal assumptions. Cohen is a serious critical analyst of his own deepest commitments. His egalitarianism is unflinching, but he at least tries to meet the other side at its strongest point.


  1. 'Rawls or Dworkin stripe largely ignored the views of writers like Hayek, Oakeshott, and Scruton.'

    I would be genuinely interested if you could expound upon how Rawls' views fundamentally opposed those of Oakeshott's in particular, given Rawls himself claims Oakeshott's On Human Conduct elucidates a form of political liberalism in the book Political Liberalism. Obviously, that one may find Rawls' claims frequently only stipulatory in nature does not rule out seeing his work as being within a tradition shared by Oakeshott (and indeed Hayek) - they're all philosophical liberals of a kind after all. Perhaps you would deny this though?

    'It was also, I think, more an American phenomenon than a British one, though that may be because the center of political gravity is in Britain further to the left than it is in the U.S.'

    Perhaps not so much with respect to the issues that you appear to centre in using the terms 'left' and 'right' - e.g., in the internecine struggles of the British Communist Party during the 70s and 80s, it was the 'right wing' (the so-called 'Eurocommunists') who were interested in gay rights and feminism, rejecting much of the rhetoric of 'class struggle' in the process. Similarly (if less dramatically), major figures in the British Labour Party who have enacted socially liberal legislation while in power have tended to be on the right of the party with respect to economics. Only in America does it not make sense to characterise such a position ('left wing' on social matters, 'right wing' on economic ones) as 'liberalism all round'...

  2. Hello Chris,

    Yes, they're all liberals in a broad sense, but Oakeshott and Hayek were not economic egalitarians in the sense Rawls was. Furthermore, Rawls's system was, I would argue, "rationalistic" in the sense Oakeshott would object to. It might seem otherwise given that Rawls couches the difference principle as a merely procedural principle of justice, but no one takes this seriously other than Rawlsians themselves -- it is clearly an attempt to impose a substantive and highly controversial conception of justice on society as a whole, subordinating the diverse ends of a modern pluralistic society to an overarching egalitarian one. Nothing Oakeshottian about that.

    Re: left/right in the U.S. vs. British contexts, what I had in mind specifically was economic policy. "Hot socialism" (as Hayek called it) never had any serious traction in the U.S. (well, until now, maybe) the way it did in the U.K. and Europe more generally.

  3. And yes, I was using "liberal" in more or less the narrow, contemporary American sense of "egalitarian liberal," where egalitarian liberalism and classical (non-egalitarian) liberalism have common historical roots in the broader liberal tradition but nevertheless diverge significantly. Hayek and Oakeshott are classical liberals, Rawls an egalitarian liberal.

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  5. If you dig into Rawls' _A Theory of Justice_, everything actually rests on "the sense of justice" -- which goes unexplained, unanalyzed, unaccounted for.

    His later work was in part an effort to rescue himself from this original defect.

  6. Hey Greg, long time no see -- good to hear from you. Sorry I didn't respond sooner, it often takes me a while to check for comments on older posts.