Rescuing Justice and Equality is an original, subtle, and astute work of ethical and political philosophy. From its justly renowned author, G. A. Cohen, we have come to expect no less. The work ranges over questions of ethical theory (metaethics) and normative political theory. My remarks address only the latter.
Cohen’s book tries to develop both a sustained critique of some ideas on justice that had been affirmed by John Rawls and a meditation on the ideal of socialism. This dual aim does not as one might fear force a split personality on the enterprise, which in fact shows a unified theme. Cohen interprets John Rawls as the quintessential liberal, urging that egalitarian justice can in principle be fully attained in a market economy setting. More important to Cohen is the way he sees Rawls distinguishing between public and private life in the just society. For Rawls, justice is a norm that mainly regulates the structure of major institutions—the basic structure of society. Individuals are bound by justice mainly to support just institutions when they exist or help bring them about when they do not, and to obey laws compatible with justice. Within just institutions, individuals are morally free to carry out their own projects and aims. This picture of the just society conjures up for Cohen the image of an economy in which selfish individuals try to do as well for themselves as they can within the just institutional rules. The image is defective, says Cohen, and the defect precludes our calling a society that fits the image a just society.
According to Cohen, the distributive justice component of social justice requires that the distribution of benefits and burdens across individual persons is fair, and bringing about and sustaining the just distribution are the responsibilities of the individual members of society not merely the standard for choice of basic structural institutions. In Cohen’s idea of a just society individuals make their choices in daily life, within the limits of an appropriate personal prerogative that each of us has to pursue her own projects and aims, with a view to contributing to the good of others and to bringing about a just distribution, which Cohen supposes to be roughly an equal distribution. The shape and structure of institutions must also satisfy principles of justice, but that’s not enough. In this connection Cohen makes an apt comparison between the just society and the society that overcomes racism. To qualify as non-racist, it is not enough that a society’s institutional rules should prevent people from acting on racial prejudice when they interact within basic institutions.