Some excerpts/summary from a paper of mine, forthcoming in a symposium on Cohen’s Why Not Socialism? Lots of typos, I’m sure.
In Why Not Socialism?, Cohen articulates a number of moral principles he believes socialism can realize but capitalism cannot. In previous work, I’ve argued he’s wrong about this–under both ideal and realistic circumstances, capitalism outperforms socialism, Today I want to discuss a third principle of Cohen’s, which I’ll call the “community principle”. The principle of community is supposed to forbid most of the inequalities that luck egalitarianism and socialist equality of opportunity would permit. This principle is meant to justify a more radical egalitarianism than other luck egalitarians accept.
Cohen’s principle of community, a strongly egalitarian principle, seems appealing at first glance. However, further reflection shows this principle has many repulsive implications. For the principle of community to support Cohen’s strongly egalitarian conclusions, the principle must not only forbid inequalities of wealth, but most forbid most other differences, differences we not only have no reason to reject, but differences we have every reason to celebrate. In the end, if Cohen’s principle of community is strongly egalitarian, it permits at best a stunted form of community.
Why the Community Principle is Crucial for Cohen’s Argument
Though Cohen spends little space in his massive corpus defending the principle of community, this principle is crucial for his philosophy. He needs this principle, or some replacement for it, to be sound in order to get the conclusions he wants. The problem Cohen identifies is that luck egalitarianism is not egalitarian enough. The purpose of Cohen’s “principle of community” is to generate even more egalitarian outcomes than luck egalitarianism requires.
Another reason this principle is so important for Cohen is that he needs to have have an independent argument for egalitarianism that does not beg the question. So, for instance, much of Cohen’s past work, such as critiques of Robert Nozick and John Rawls, is meant to refute attempts to justify inequality, e.g., by undermining arguments that some people deserve more than others or that giving some people more is necessary to motivate them to work hard for the common good. [iv] Suppose he is right and that all of these justifications of inequality fail. Even if so, that does imply that material egalitarianism is correct. We cannot just assume, without argument, that equality is a baseline from which departures must be justified. But without a sound argument for this assumption, Cohen’s strategy of refuting justifications for inequality makes no difference, even if it succeeds. A non-egalitarian can just say, “Sure, these arguments for inequality fail, but as far as I’m concerned, they they do not need to succeed, because we have no reason to presume equality is a baseline from which departures must be justified.” In Cohen’s entire corpus, the principle of community, though underdeveloped, seems to be his best independent argument for presuming that equality is just such a baseline.
The Kinds of Inequalities the Principle of Community Forbids
Cohen claims that the (luck egalitarian) principle of socialist equality of opportunity is “consistent with three forms of inequality,” two of which are relatively unproblematic, but the third of which is “very problematic”. As Cohen explains:
The truly problematic inequality in overall benefit, the substantial inequality that is consistent with socialist equality of opportunity, is inequality that reflects differences in what philosophers call option luck. The paradigm case of option luck is a deliberate gamble. We start out equally placed, with $100 each… We [decide to] flip a coin on the understanding that I give you $50 if it comes up heads, and you give me $50 if it comes up tails. I end up with $150 and you end up with $50, and with no extra anything to offset that monetary shortfall.
Cohen makes it clear that the people making this bet start off as equal in all morally relevant ways, and that the bet is voluntary. He also makes it clear that while the loser regrets losing, the loser still considers it a reasonable bet, and would be willing to make such a bet again. No exploitation has occurred. Still, Cohen claims, the resulting inequality is “very” morally problematic, and socialists should find the resulting inequality “repugnant”.
Cohen worries that socialist equality of opportunity remains compatible with widespread, radical inequality, provided the inequalities come about the right way, such as through option luck. Socialist equality of opportunity requires a kind of equality in starting points, but no equality in results. For Cohen, then, the community principle is supposed to take care of the inequalities that socialist equality of opportunity would admit; it is supposed to help generate equal results. Still, Cohen does not quite tell us just how egalitarian this community principle is. Does it allow any inequality, and if so, how much?
In some writings, Cohen seems to advocate something close to complete egalitarianism: “Egalitarians like me think justice is fully served only if people’s access to desirable conditions of life is equal, within the constraints of a reasonable personal prerogative…” This passage suggests that justice would require perfect equality were it not constrained by personal prerogative. Cohen never quite tells us just how much a reasonable personal prerogative constrains the push for perfect equality, but as the example of option luck seems to indicates, he thinks two guys making a voluntary bet in which one ends up $100 richer than the other—a bet that both players wanted to make and would make again—is beyond the pale. This suggests that the space of a “reasonable personal prerogative” is tiny, and that this reasonable personal prerogative allows very little inequality.
However, elsewhere, Cohen seems to suggest that the community principle allows greater inequality. He says that we “cannot enjoy full community, you and I, if you make and keep, say, ten times as much money as I do…” Cohen might think you and I cannot enjoy full community if you make twice as much money as I do (or if you win $100 from me in a voluntary bet), but here he is at least appealing to more intuitive and widely shared notions of how inequality could undermine community.
Why should inequalities resulting from option luck threaten community? His main worry, as James Otteson summarizes it, is that a rich man and a poor man live in “virtually separate worlds”.[v] As Cohen elaborates, if you make ten times as much money as I do, then
…my life will then labor under challenges that you will never face, challenges that your could help me to cope with, but do not, because you keep your money…
To illustrate, I am rich…and you are poor…You have to ride the crowded bus every day, whereas I pass you by in my comfortable car. One day, however, I must take the bus, because my wife needs the car. I can reasonably complain about that to a fellow car-driver, but not to you. I can’t say to you: “It’s awful that I have to take the bus today.” There is a lack of community between us….And it will show itself in many others way, for we enjoy widely different powers to care for ourselves, to protect and care for offspring, to avoid danger, and so on.[i]
The main idea here seems to be that if one of us I much better off, we will lead such different lives that we will not have a sufficient degree of common experiences, including exposure to common challenges. Since we face different challenges and have such different experiences, we will not be able to properly empathize or sympathize with one another. We will be virtual aliens to one another, and so cannot properly be in community with one another. [Note: There are other interpretations of this passage, which I deal with in the full paper, but I’m only going to talk about this interpretation in this post.]
Cohen later returns to the example of a lottery. Suppose you eat much better than the rest of us because of option luck. You won a lottery that we all freely entered. Here, “even though there is no injustice…, your luck cuts you off from our common life, and the ideal of community condemns that, and therefore also condemns the running of any such lottery.” Here, the problem is that you are sufficiently different from the rest of us; you fail to share sufficiently in our common experiences.
Why This Kind of Argument is Problematic for Cohen
Cohen believes that differences in wealth translate into different life experiences, different exposure and vulnerability to challenges, and so on, that can reduce the degree to which we form a community. If I am very rich and you are very poor, I cannot fully understand and empathize with your plight. Moreover, it seems inappropriate for me to complain about many of my problems in front of you, since things I might regard as temporary misfortune—such as having to take a crowded bus to work—might be common experience for you. So, differences in wealth can bring us apart.
But in Cohen’s story, the problem with differences in wealth appears to be not specifically differences in wealth, but differences, period. Differences in wealth are bad because they (could) cause us to lead very different lives and thus not sympathize with or understand each other. But so can other kinds of differences. People have different personalities, different tastes, different goals, different worries, and differing conceptions of the sublime, the holy, the sacred, the noble, or the good. Almost all people care about community, but they have different conceptions of what a good community would look like, about what things must be shared to enjoy full membership, and about what things can be different without being a threat. Something that could interfere with one kind of community might not be a threat to a different kind.
Consider the egalitarian Hutterite communities spread throughout North America. The Hutterites have strict rules against birth control and against using the Internet or other media. They share all goods equally. They cap their colony population at around 100 members—if a colony gets too large, they must split into separate colonies. (The goal is to ensure everyone knows everyone personally.) They eat all meals together communally. Finally, everyone has the same religion—they worship together daily—and has the same cultural tastes. (There are no outside influences.)
No doubt the Hutterites are in a tight community with one another; they realize Cohen’s community principle as well as any realistic community I have read about. Indeed, they might realize it perfectly. But, note here that in realizing community with one another, the Hutterites make themselves aliens to others, including to Cohen and me. I have far more in common and am far more in community with billionaire Mark Cuban or with my housekeeper than I am or would be with any Hutterites.
Cohen, I presume, does not believe that all communities should look like secular versions of the Hutterite community, in which individuality and difference are suppressed. He wants his ideal communities to allow for difference and individuality. He wants community, but not totalistic community.
But this is a problem for Cohen. Since all sorts of differences can undermine or reduce the community that obtains among us, the stronger the community principle is meant to be, the less room it leaves for us to have any such differences. If the community principle is strictly egalitarian—if it forbids you from even having a measly $100 more than I—then this principle should also forbid you from being different in almost any way that would make you and I even slightly alien to one another. (Cohen might insist that that you having $100 more than I is much more alienating than you have a different religion, but that’s not at all plausible.) But if the community principle allows for massive differences in taste, religion, views of the good, ideas of the sublime, personality, and so on—all things that demonstrably reduce community and can render people alien to another—then it should also allow massive inequalities in wealth as well. After all, differences in wealth are not in any obvious way more threatening to community than these other differences.
Cohen could try to respond that as a matter of fact, these differences in wealth are especially threatening to community in way that these other kinds of differences are not. He might be right. But this looks like an empirical claim, not a conceptual claim. Whether differences in wealth are more or less dangerous than these others differences is a social scientific question, something for political scientists to investigate, not for philosophers to assert. (Philosophers qua philosophers can at best help political scientists fix on a proper operational definition of “community”.) Cohen doesn’t want to just assert that that community is, by definition, a thing especially threatened by differences in wealth. This would come across as question-begging or ideological. Instead, what makes Cohen’s arguments as persuasive as they are is that he relies upon relatively ordinary notions of community and a commonsensical empirical account of how differences in wealth can draw us apart.
So, Cohen has a serious problem. Insofar as we just take for granted his causal theory of how wealth undermines community, we have every reason to presume that other kinds of differences also undermine community just as much. However, if he wants to differentiate among these differences, arguing that differences in wealth hurt community in ways other kinds of differences do not, then he does has not supplied the social scientific research to back up his assertions, and it does not appear the research is out there to be found
These are just excerpts from the paper. In the longer version, I deal with possible responses from Cohen, as well as other interpretations of the community principle. You can email me for a copy.