Rawls in A Theory of Justice repeats on a number of occasions that the parties in the original position are “mutually disinterested,” e.g.,

they are conceived as not taking an interest in one another’s interests (12);

they are not willing to have their interests sacrificed to the others (112);

all parties try to to win for themselves the highest index of primary social goods, since this enables them to promote their conception of the good most effectively whatever it turns out to be. (125)

Cohen replies that “in the original position mutual indifference is assumed for methodological reasons to derive justice from rational self-interest under a veil of ignorance constraint. But it does not follow that the principles chosen by mutually indifferent parties of the original position are consistent with mutual indifference when they operate as rules of interaction in a functioning society.” (RJaE, 81)

And yet this device demonstrates that Rawls is concerned solely with the society’s political constitution and economic policy, not personal morality. Cohen grasps this quite well. He “rejects the conclusion that impersonal justice is a matter for the state only”; “demands of distributive justice reach personal decision.” (9) Cohen contrasts the Rawls’ view “that distributive justice is a task for the state alone” with his own, “which is that both the state, with no life of its own, and the individual, who is indeed thus endowed, must, in appropriately different fashions, show regard in economic matters both to impersonal justice and to the legitimate demands of the individual.” (10)

It is this view that causes Cohen to qualify his concession that “every person has a right to pursue self-interest” with “to some reasonable extent; but a modest right of self-interest seems insufficient to justify the range of inequality, the extremes of wealth and poverty, that actually obtain in society…” (61) It is unclear why self-interest ought to be “modest” as opposed to being the fundamental part of human nature, animating all human actions. The fact is, human beings seek happiness and act for ends. The contemplate potential future enjoyments and set out to bring them about. Ought the self-interest of the “poor” also to be be modest? Does Cohen suggest that people repress their emotions and desires? He must, because he’d like people to be moved by his “egalitarian ethos” where the “rich” have an alleged duty to become equal to the “poor” in material wealth.


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