Ethical Perspectives

September 2016

Cohen's Equivocal Attack on Rawls's Basic Structure Restriction

  • Kyle Johannsen

G.A. Cohen is famous for his critique of John Rawls’s view that principles of justice are restricted in scope to institutional structures. In recent work, however, Cohen has suggested that Rawlsians get more than just the scope of justice wrong: they get the concept wrong too. He claims that justice is a fundamental value, i.e. a moral input in our deliberations about the content of action-guiding regulatory principles, rather than the output. I argue here that Cohen’s arguments for extending the scope of justice equivocate across his distinction between fundamental principles of justice, i.e. principles that tell us what justice is; and regulatory principles of justice, i.e. principles that tell us what is required of us, all things – including justice – considered. Though Cohen initially had the regulatory sense of the word ‘justice’ in mind when critiquing the basic structure restriction, his replies to the problem of demandingness presuppose his own, fundamental sense of the word ‘justice’. The upshot is that he escapes demandingness at the cost of sacrificing regulatory justice’s capacity to provide clear guidance. I conclude by considering Peter Singer’s efforts to deal with demandingness in his own work on global poverty. Since Singer manages to deal with demandingness without giving up clarity, his work is a good a place to start in the search for regulatory principles that are suitable for the context of personal choice.

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To  Ethical Perspectives 3/2016