Saturday, August 8, 2009

G. A. Cohen (1941-2009)

Marxist philosopher G. A. Cohen, about whose work I said some nice things recently, has died. Libertarian David Gordon says some nice things about him here. Another libertarian, Jan Narveson, says some nice things about him in the Crooked Timber combox. On the other hand, libertarian Tom Palmer takes a very different view of Cohen here.

After reading Palmer’s comments, you might ponder Chris Bertram’s admiring remark at Crooked Timber that Cohen “was quite brilliant at striking the right balance between the discipline of following the argument where it leads and the importance of hanging onto one’s deepest convictions.” (Just a thought: Can you imagine anyone at Crooked Timber praising a religious thinker who balanced “following an argument where it leads” with “hanging on to his deepest convictions”? Me neither.)

UPDATE: Check out the comboxes to the Gordon and Palmer posts linked to above for some vigorous debate over how libertarians ought to regard Cohen.


  1. Maybe a good one, like Plantinga.

  2. I think that Palmer misstates Cohen's attitude toward the Soviet Union. My impression is that he was far from a sympathizer; and the claim that he favored enforced equality and disregarded liberty will not survive a reading of Rescuing Justice and Equality.

  3. totally out of subject...but I wanted to hear your opinion on the position held by some "pro-choicers": that is merely detaching the embryo or fetus from the uterus and letting it die(hysterectomy abortion or chemical abortion by RU-486) is not actually killing and only "terminating the pregnancy", the death of the unborn child being a side effect....

  4. Anonymous 1,

    "Maybe a good one, like Plantinga."

    Nah. No doubt such people would acknowledge Plantinga's intelligence and perhaps the value of some of his work, but that's different. What they would NOT do is say "It's OK that he retains certain religious convictions come what may, and looks for arguments for them rather than considering that the convictions might in fact be wrong" -- even though it appears they WOULD say something analogous to this about Cohen vis-a-vis his egalitarian convictions.


    I suspect so; certainly I don't believe Cohen thought mass murder was justifiable. All the same, I don't think there is anything whatsoever to be said in favor of the Soviet Union -- to say the very least.

    Anonymous 2,

    Check out my article "Self-Ownership, Abortion, and the Rights of Children," where I address this sort of view. It's linked to at my main webpage.

  5. I have never said that about a religious thinker on CrookedTimber, but I can immediately think of a bunch of Christian thinkers of whom I think that (and presume I'd come up with a long list within 10 minutes if I could be bothered). Where do you get the impression that CT is anti-clerical? As probably the most visibly pro-religious (while not religious myself) CT-er I have been struck by how many of my fellow CT-ers jump in to defend me from attacks by anti-clerical types.

    As for Jerry, I was not influenced by his attitude toward Christianity, but when he first started voicing it I was delighted to find that it was very much like my own. The assumption that atheist leftwingers are all, in addition, anti-religious, is simply false.

  6. Hello Harry,

    Sorry if I was too glib. I agree that not all atheist left-wingers are hostile to religion. A great many of them are hostile these days, though, especially where the religious beliefs in question are more conservative or traditional ones. And many in the CT crowd do strike me as consistently condescending toward the arguments of conservatives, so I guess I ran these things together in my (off-the-cuff) remark.

  7. Right, the mistake is blurring "religious" with "conservative", a mistake too many people on the left make, and one that is worth trying to prevent (eg by not dong it oneself!).

    Speaking for myself (but only for myself) if I know that a conservative is sincerely religious I try that bit harder to take what they are saying seriously, and to impute good will. (I have no trouble taking something seriously and imputing good will when it clearly merits being taken seriously).

    Palmer's post, though, is deeply embarrassing (for lots of reasons, including his remarkable failure to cite the context of Jerry's remarks about the Soviet Union, and the spectacular failure to understand both Jerry's argument and the comments that he reports being made to him) -- I presume his friends will tell him so. Jerry would enjoy pointing out that there are very good self-interested reasons for not speaking ill of the recently dead...