How Insensitive: Principles, Facts and Normative Grounds in Cohen’s Critique of Rawls

Socialist Studies 8 (1):246-268 (2012)
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Cohen’s hostility to Rawls’ justification of the Difference Principle by social facts spawned Cohen’s general thesis that ultimate principles of justice and morality are fact-insensitive, but explain how any fact-sensitive principle is grounded in facts. The problem with this thesis, however, is that when facts F ground principle P, reformulating this relation as the "fact-insensitive" conditional “If F, then P” is trivial and thus explanatorily impotent. Explanatory, hence justificatory, force derives either from subsumption under more general principles, or precisely exhibiting value in light of relevant (actual or hypothetical) facts. In examples where no subsumption occurs, actual facts trivially become hypothetical facts in "fact-insensitive" conditionals, an empty formalism. Indeed, Rawls’ grounding of principles of justice in “conditions of life” can easily be reformulated as a conditional principle “sensitive” only to hypothetical such conditions, and thus formally fact-insensitive in Cohen's sense, for all Cohen’s ire against Rawls’s grounding.Moreover, any plausible “ultimate fact-insensitive principle” must be intricately qualified, which tacit ceteris paribus clauses mask. Each qualification implies prioritisation of one principle over another in conceivable circumstances, and wherever the now qualified principle is given scope, that too implies prioritisation over competing principles in typical circumstances. Any principle is thus sensitive to conceivable circumstances of application, as recognised by more sophisticated intuitionisms. Non-trivial ultimate principles – luck egalitarianism, act utilitarianism, etc. - require defense, which inevitably involves showing how they best interpret and respond to facts about human needs, goals, and capacities in predictable circumstances. Finally, the substantive debate between Rawls and Cohen about which facts are relevant to the DP is only obscured by the doctrine of fact-insensitivity.
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