by G.A. Cohen. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008. 448pp. Cloth. $45.00/£29.95/€31.50. ISBN: 9780674030763.

Reviewed by Justin Zaremby, Department of Political Science, Yale University. Email: justin.zaremby [at]


On November 27, 2002 an obituary in THE GUARDIAN stated that “[w]ith the death of John Rawls . . . the English-speaking world lost its leading political philosopher.” This statement was not unique. Since the publication of A THEORY OF JUSTICE in 1971, Rawls has been elevated to a pantheon of political theorists whose writings dramatically reshaped the course of political philosophy and modern liberalism. Students and teachers of political theory now debate the value of the difference principle, lexical ordering, and the veil of ignorance alongside Plato’s allegory of the cave. Indeed, in his new book, RESCUING JUSTICE AND EQUALITY, G.A. Cohen, while thoroughly criticizing Rawls’s liberalism, honors Rawls by stating that “at most two books in the history of Western political philosophy have a claim to be regarded as greater than A THEORY OF JUSTICE: Plato’s REPUBLIC and Hobbes’s LEVIATHAN” (p.11).

Although Cohen acknowledges the rigor and importance of Rawls, his new book offers two central criticisms of Rawls’s theory. First, he attempts to reveal how Rawls’s difference principle is not actually compatible with a truly robust theory of justice. Cohen rejects the Rawlsian emphasis on a political state, and the inequalities that the state allows, in favor of a more egalitarian conception of justice.

At the same time, he attempts a larger criticism of Rawls’s methodology. “Beyond the disagreement between me and the Rawlsians with respect to both the form and the substance of justice,” he writes, “there is a disagreement about how to do political philosophy, or indeed philosophy” (p.3). With a combination of humor and earnestness that runs throughout the text, Cohen observes that that difference is “completely explained by the fact that I am an Oxford man (of a certain vintage) and [the Rawlsians] are Harvard men and women. Oxford people of my vintage do not think that philosophy can move as far away as Harvard people think it can from pertinent prephilosophical judgment” (p.3). Cohen’s book is not simply a criticism of Rawls, but an attempt to infuse a particularly analytic approach to ethics and philosophy into post-Rawlsian liberalism.

The book is divided into two parts. In the first, Cohen tries to “rescue” equality from the substantive claims of Rawlsian liberalism. He looks specifically at the difference principle with its reliance upon Pareto-superior inequalities, and at the basic structure argument that drives Rawls’s thought. In the second part, Cohen seeks to rescue justice from Rawls’s methodology and willingness to rest his liberalism not merely on theory, but on real-world facts. Cohen’s goal, throughout, is to discover a purer form of justice than what is presented in [*276] A THEORY OF JUSTICE, and to indicate that questions of justice are not merely practical concerns of the state, but are vibrant and personal theoretical concerns for individuals in their everyday life.

Part I carefully analyzes Rawls’s use of the difference principle. Cohen argues against using any form of inequality to further the creation of a just society. Chapters 1 and 2 reveal Cohen’s primary source of disagreement with Rawls’s difference principle. According to the difference principle, social or economic inequalities can be justified if they can help the worst off in the society (or at least do not make the worst off even more worse off). Cohen launches his criticism through an engaging examination of a 1988 income tax shift in Great Britain. He refutes the view that inequalities allowed by the difference principle are fundamentally harmless to society even when they do not harm the worst off. What could be wrong with inequality if it does not make the worst off suffer more?

Cohen explains that the metric by which the suffering of the worst off is measured is based upon the existence of a world in which unjust inequalities already exist. “The further back one goes,” he writes, “temporally and causally, in the construction of the feasible set, the more one encounters open possibilities that were closed by human choice, and the harder it is to identify inequalities that do not harm the badly off” (p.33). At some point in history, choices were made that ensure that even “harmless” inequalities are tainted. Through a textual analysis of the THEORY OF JUSTICE, Cohen asserts that neither the difference principle, nor Rawls’s focus on Pareto optimality, demands the existence of inequalities in society and, as such, such inequalities should not be tolerated. A truly just society cannot be driven by inequality in any form.

Chapters 3, 4, and 5 offer Cohen’s most targeted attack on Rawls’s methodology. Cohen criticizes the scope of Rawls’s basic structure. He continues his earlier points about the difference principle, explaining that Rawls allows certain inequalities to persist as long as they are borne out of the basic structure of society and the difference principle. The basic structure concept is too vague for Cohen to allow it to serve as the fundamental justification for inequalities in society. He writes: “There is an important ambiguity in the concept of the basic structure, as that is wielded by Rawlsians. That ambiguity turns on whether the Rawlsian basic structure includes only coercive aspects of the social order or also conventions and usages that are deeply entrenched but not legally or literally coercive” (p.125). This failure, Cohen explains, “shipwrecks not only the basic structure objection but also the whole approach to justice that Rawls has taught so many to pursue.”

Additionally, Cohen criticizes the tendency of theorists to look only at the basic structure of society when studying justice. The existence of the basic structure distracts theorists from asking questions about how justice applies to individual choices. By only focusing on inequalities that arise as a result of the basic structure of society, instead of as a result of individual actions, supporters of Rawls fail to see the limitations of Rawlsian liberalism and the dangers of [*277] allowing any inequalities to exist in its system of distributive justice.

By the end of Part One, Cohen has made his case against allowing inequalities that would, in any way, use other individuals as means toward the achievement of personal or societal goals. His demand for a more radical egalitarianism than permitted by Rawls leads to his rejection of Rawls’s methodology in Part Two. In Chapter Six Cohen makes a strong attack on Rawls and other philosophers who “are disposed to think . . . that our beliefs about matters of normative principle, including our beliefs about the deepest and most general matters of principle, should reflect, or respond to, truths about matters of fact” (p.231). That view holds that justice cannot be discerned outside of an understanding of reality, and, just as importantly for Cohen, serve as a means of grounding abstract principles. Cohen argues that justice, as a normative principle, should not be defensible on the grounds of facts, but instead must be justified on purely philosophical grounds.

It is in the succeeding chapter where Cohen gives his strongest criticism of Rawls. Cohen rejects what he calls Rawlsian constructivism, an approach defined by the view that “a principle gains its normative credentials through being the product of a sound selection procedure” (p.274). Such an approach to justice fails because it “treats justice as sensitive to certain sorts of fact and because it fails to distinguish between justice and other virtues” (p.275). The Rawlsian belief that justice will grow out of the proper application of lexical ordering to the basic structure of society and difference principle is a constructivist notion.

Justice, for Cohen, is not an ideal that grows out of facts, nor out of the teleological approach of Rawls. Moreover, justice is not merely a set of principles to be enacted by the state. Rawlsians, according to Cohen, approach justice as a standard by which to balance the different interests of the better and worse off. The pursuit of justice thus becomes a matter of regulation instead of philosophy. The logical arguments of Rawls cannot be truly binding as principles of justice, because his view of justice is not purely normative. In his final chapter and appendix, Cohen responds to a series of critics who argue against his view that justice can be found on the personal level, as opposed to within the larger economics of a state. His responses are pointed and follow the same methodical style that fills the rest of the volume.

Cohen’s book deserves much praise. His criticism of Rawls is both thoughtful and thorough, as he pits himself against both the substantive and methodological claims of Rawls and his defenders. Although Cohen’s underlying approach is Marxist, his criticism of Rawlsian justice should welcome a broad audience. His claim that justice is a principle that should rise above facts and, indeed, above the realm of optimization, will appeal to figures on both the far left and the right. Cohen’s attempt to save justice from the realm of optimization, and the Rawlsian interest in forming a properly regulated and just society should inspire further critiques of Rawls. Moreover, the book does an excellent job of exploring and criticizing the philosophical methods of Rawls, in [*278] addition to the political implications of his work. Cohen’s real-world analysis of ideas such as taxation and organ sales help further what could be a largely abstract argument.

A central criticism that can levied against the work, though, comes from its structure. While Cohen’s analysis is piercing, his language is sometimes difficult to follow, particularly as he often offers several iterations of the same basic idea. What he gains in rigor, he sacrifices in narrative. Additionally, it is unclear whether his analysis of Rawls is fair. After all, Rawls’s theory, with its focus on a basic structure and facts, does not necessarily claim to be as idealistic a vision of justice as Cohen would like. That is, while Cohen rightly criticizes certain flaws in Rawls’s argument, Cohen’s idealism may have forced Rawls to become an unwilling interlocutor.

Rawls, John. 1971. A THEORY OF JUSTICE. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Rogers, Ben. 2002. “John Rawls.” THE GUARDIAN, November 27, 2002 (available at

© Copyright 2009 by the author, Justin Zaremby.