G. A. Cohen's critique of standard liberal interpretations of the difference principle has been very influential. According to Cohen, justice is not realized simply because the state's tax policies and other distributive tools maximize the position of the worst off. Rather - possibly in addition to, but not to the exclusion of, certain state policies - justice requires talented people to improve the position of the worst off through their actions in their daily lives. Specifically, it prohibits talented people from insisting on inequality-causing incentives. To this extent, Cohen's view of distributive justice is anti-statist. On standard liberal interpretations, human rights are such that, logically, they can be violated only by states, not private individuals. An individual who tortures someone commits a moral wrong but does not violate the victim's human rights. For this reason, the crime is less problematic than it would have been had a police officer done it on behalf of the state. To this extent the standard liberal understanding of human rights is statist. This parallel between liberal understandings of distributive justice and human rights raises two questions: (1) Is the statist understanding of human rights vulnerable to Cohenian criticisms parallel to those that he canvasses against the statist understanding of distributive justice? (2) If so, should we welcome an anti-statist understanding of human rights, or should we see it as a problem with Cohen's critique of a statist focus in distributive justice that it commits us to an implausible anti-statist view of human rights?
Politics, Philosophy and Economics, 2014, Vol 13, Issue 2, p. 165-185
G.A. Cohen; distributive justice; human rights; incentives; Liberalism