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Socialism Does Not Require an Egalitarian Ethos

Open Panel

Abstract

John Rawls famously allows that incentive payments to the talented are not unjust when they are necessary to improve the lot of the worst off. Against this claim, G. A. Cohen has argued that incentive payments to the talented are unjust, because the demands of justice apply to individual behaviour and not only to the basic structure of society. If the talented did not demand incentive payments, as he claims justice requires that they do not, then it would be possible to improve the lot of the worst off without sacrificing equality. Underlying this disagreement is a shared assumption: that a nontotalitarian society cannot achieve equality without sacrificing Pareto, unless agents demonstrate an egalitarian ethos: that is, unless agents fully utilize their talents without making such utilization conditional upon the receipt of additional incentive payments. Against this shared assumption I argue that a nontotalitarian society can indeed achieve both equality and Pareto without an egalitarian ethos. I argue that Cohen’s endorsement of the shared assumption is not even consistent with his own commitment to treating inequalities brought about by choice as justified. I examine three objections to my argument, all of which I find wanting.