Thursday, May 24, 2012

Philosophy Bites From 2007.  G.A. Cohen on Inequality of Wealth.
Dave Edmonds: There's an anachronistic opulence at All Souls College, Oxford, a college with many eminent scholars, but not a single student. College retainers serve dinner; there's port on offer, and posh cutlery on display. So perhaps an odd place to find the titular professor of Social and Political Theory, G.A. Cohen, who was born into a poor working-class family in Montreal. Both his parents were communists, both factory workers in the rag trade. Jerry Cohen is renowned as a leading Marxist philosopher, and a critic of both the liberalism of John Rawls and the libertarianism of Robert Nozick. Now he's comparatively well off, one question nags away: can one be a rich egalitarian?

Nigel Warburton: Gerry Cohen, welcome to Philosophy Bites.

Cohen: Hi, it's good to be here.

Warbuton: Now the topic I want to focus on today, is equality, specifically equality of wealth. Do you believe in egalitarianism?

Cohen: Yup.

Warburton: Egalitarianism of wealth?

Cohen: No, not egalitarianism of wealth. You can't be very precise about the equality that a sensible egalitarian believes in, believes in. Because there are many good things in life, and they're not commensurable with each other. You can't trade them off against one another and so, they're gonna to be lots of cases where one person has a lot of wealth, but not a very nice job, and not a very sustaining family life, somebody else does much better in the dimensions in which that first person does poorly and poorly in wealth. And if you're asked who's better off you don't know what to say. You're an egalitarian, in my few, if, for the cases where you do know what to say, about who's better off, you think there's an injustice that demands redress, unless, what may well be the case, the person who's less well off is so because of the things they've done themselves, and can reasonable be blamed for having done themselves, which is certainly not the case for the vast range of inequality that obtains in our society.

Warburton: So, inequalities which are the result of human responsible actions are to be tolerated.

Cohen: Nothing is ever merely the result of human responsible action. All action requires external conditions which helps to contribute to its result. So when egalitarians like me say that they are allowed to say that inequality is acceptable where one person simply was lazy and self-indulgent and the other person used self-discipline to become more industrious and so forth, where you have examples like that you can tolerate measures of inequality they seem appropriate to the ways that different people oriented themselves. But that doesn't mean that we can say "well he invested the money here, he could have chosen to do otherwise, so he deserves the full fruit of that investment" because thousands of other circumstances were necessary for him to act at all, and you can't tell exactly about who's responsible for what but you can make educated guesses in certain contexts which could lead to policy consequences. The person may have used the levers well but that those particular levers were available will ultimately depend on accidents of nature and nurture, how you were when you were born, how you were brought up and so forth, which nobody can claim responsibility for. And it need not justify anything like one person making 200 times the income of another person.

Warburton: So do you think that individuals have any responsibility to redistribute their own wealth when they are benefactors of genetics and good behavior that's resulted in them being richer than other people?

Cohen: Yes I do think that but I also think a person's not a hypocrite if he votes for a government that is going to take away say 30 percent of his income but doesn't volunteer that 30 percent. It's human and natural that it's easier to give away your 30 percent when everybody else is having to give away their 30 percent by law. It's difficult to expect a person who lives in a particular social niche to depress the circumstances of himself and his family below a certain level even for the sake of principles that he sincerely affirms.

Nigel Warburton: We're sitting in All Souls College in Oxford; it's a very plush room. You have servants effectively coming to look after you; you have meals laid on. Now that for many people is an incredible luxury. Some people would say, if you're a real egalitarian you shouldn't wait to be taxed.

Cohen: The basic question is, if you have a salary -I don't want to say exactly what my salary is but obviously it's maybe two, three times the average wage in the society- and you don't believe that you ought to get all that, which I don't. Then you believe that you ought to sacrifice quite a lot of it which I don't -I give away some but not very much- and the explanation is that I'm a less good person than I would be if I were as good as I could be. You know I just think that I'm not a morally exemplary person, that's all. That's the reconciliation.

Warburton: If you're an egalitarian, are there any good reasons for hanging onto your wealth?

Cohen: I wrote a book called "If you're an Egalitarian How Come You're so Rich?" And the final chapter discusses fourteen reasons people give for not giving away their money when they're rich but they profess belief in equality, twelve of which are, well, rubbish. I think there are two reasonable answers that a person who doesn't give too much of it away can give and one of them has to do with the burden of depressing yourself below the level of your peer group with whom you're shared a certain way of life; and in particular, depriving your children of things that the children around them favor. And also, and slightly separately, the transition from being wealthy to being not wealthy at all can be extremely burdensome and the person who has tasted wealth will suffer more typically from lack of it than someone who's had quote unquote the good fortune never to be wealthy and therefore has built up the character and the orientation that can cope well with it.

Warburton: Some of the bad arguments that rich people might use. I mean they might say that if I gave my money away, it would only be a drop in the ocean, it's not going to make much difference. What do you think about that argument?

Cohen: You shouldn't expect it to be more than a drop int the ocean. You're only one person. But if you can affect materially the lives of four or five people who'd otherwise die the face that it's an insignificant proportion of the total suffering in the world doesn't mean it's not effect on the world for one person. Precisely because you're a drop in the ocean, you shouldn't expect to produce more than a drop in the ocean. But that drop can mean an enormous amount to quite a few people.

Warburton: What about the argument that it's the duty of the state not the individual to redistribute wealth, to help the poor?

Cohen: If it's the lifeguard's duty to save the drowning person, and the lifeguard isn't doing it, and I can swim to save that person, it's no answer to the question "why didn't you try to save him?", that it was somebody else's duty.

Warburton: And the idea that it's too costly for me to do it/ that I'm just one person trying to find the targets for this redistribution/ the state would be much more efficient than me.

Cohen: I'm not trying to give an argument which says that you might be better at it than the state. Of course it's better if the state does it, from many points of view, including from the point of view of the dignity of the recipients, who don't have to think of themselves as depending on charity in quite the same sense. So of course it's preferable if the state does it. But unless you think that the inefficiency at the individual level is so great as to make it impossible to achieve anything -which is preposterous-. Suppose 40% of what you give gets eroded for organizational reasons or difficulties in identifying people, you still have the result.

Warburton: From an autobiographical point of view, is there something that drives you, in writing about this area, in the title, "If you're an Egalitarian How Come You're so Rich?" That's quite a provocative way into this question.

Cohen: Well, I was brought up in a working class communist home, in Canada, born in 1941. Believed very strongly in egalitarianism. We're weren't rich, by the standards of the society. We were quite poor but not very poor. And a lot of life, social life, and political life was conducted within the context of the Canadian Communist Party. And there were quite a few people in it who were pretty rich, and that used to baffle me when I was small. So the question, how can you be a communist if you're so rich, is not identical to the question how can you be an egalitarian if you're so rich, because some communists affect the posture that nothing that an individual does is relevant anyway; all that matters is what you contribute to the process of history; and so forth. I mean, among those fourteen excuses for not giving that I canvassed, some are specific to Marxists. But that's what cause me to start thinking about the question in the first place. But then, as I because well off, let's say, by having good academic jobs and so forth, of course I began to think of it in relation to my own convictions.

Warburton: It strikes me that this question, and the way you've treated it is a kind of classic rebuttal of the idea that philosophy leaves everything as it is. That it doesn't touch human life: it's a matter of conceptual engineering.

Cohen: Well, nobody can say that about political philosophy. I mean, you could take very abstract exercises in political philosophy like John Stuart Mill's Liberty Principle, very roughly speaking, that you should be able to do whatever you like unless what you do harms somebody else. That was rolled out in 1859 and people might have said 6, 7, years later "see it's made no difference"- the way they say now about what political philosophers do. It's absurd ["abzurd"] short time scale for assessment of the matter. A hundred years later, a hundred years, literally after Mill, the major Western countries began enacting liberating laws, such as on homosexuality and other things, which implemented the Mill program. Now, of course Mill was part of a largge historical process, but an enormously important part of that. There's absolutely no doubt that political philosophy, the resurgence of right wing ideas, in the 70's, with the work of Robert Nozick in particular, and the Rawlsian edifice, these things I think have enormous social effect.

Warburton: On that partly positive note, thank you very much.

Cohen: Great. Thank you.

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