G A Cohen, acclaimed political philosopher is not a fashionable name in discourses. For, he propounded such unpalatable philosophy that no ‘ism’ could adopt him. His two most prominent ideas are that ‘accidental inequality is unjust’ and that ‘poverty limits freedom.’
A collection of Cohen’s essays, some till now unpublished, has been brought out by the Princeton University under the title GA Cohen: On the Currency of Egalitarian Justice, and Other Essays in Political Philosophy edited by Michael Otsuka.
Cohen is not everyone’s cup of tea. The span and depth of his writings are so wide and deep that only a serious reader of politics and economics with a dash of sociology can grasp his ideas. Otsuka has arranged the essays in three parts and explains “The major theme of this book is “luck egalitarianism,” which is the name Cohen borrowed to describe his view that “accidental inequality is unjust.” Two minor themes are the relation between property and freedom and between ideal and political practice. These three themes form the three parts of this book.”
Cohen takes on and questions the several accepted theorists, including Amartya Sen and puts forth his own views on words (usages) as egalitarianism, freedom, poverty and justice. These are relative ideas, relative to the socio-economic and cultural situation of societies and communities. Cohen too discusses them only in the abstract, on a theoretical platform, as philosophy.
Here is a taste of Cohen on ‘freedom.’ In an essay on ‘Capitalism, Freedom, and the Proletariat’ he says “It is easy to show that under capitalism everyone has some of this freedom, especially if being free to sell something is compatible with not being free to sell it, two conditions whose consistency I would defend. Australians are free to vote, even though they are not free not to vote, since voting is mandatory in Australia… If Marxists are right, then workers, being forced to sell their labour power, are, in an important way, unfree. But it must remain true that (unlike chattel slaves) they are free to sell their labour power.”
There is an essay where Cohen “teaches” how to do political philosophy. “The only way to teach people how to do it is by letting them watch, and listen, and imitate… My first piece of advice is that you should be as clear as possible about exactly what you think you’re achieving when you present an argument…. When you’re doing philosophy, don’t be afraid to sound dumb, or simple-minded.” Sounds simple enough!
Cohen died in 2009, while preparing his essays for publication. Some of these essays have been included in this volume. Cohen, author of several books and papers, was the Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at All Souls College, University of Oxford from 1985 to 2008. The editor of the volume Otsuka is professor of philosophy at University College of London. It is an utterly academic work that presents the best of Cohen.
(Princeton University Press, 41, William Street, Princeton, New Jersey, 08540.)