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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  31 May 2011

Richard J. Arneson
Philosophy, University of California, San Diego


One way to think about capitalism-versus-socialism is to examine the extent to which capitalist economic institutions are compatible with the fulfillment of socialist ideals. The late G. A. Cohen has urged that the two are strongly incompatible. He imagines how it would make sense for friends to organize a camping trip, distills the socialist moral principles that he sees fulfilled in the camping trip model, and observes that these principles conflict with a capitalist organization of the economy. He adds that these principles are ethically attractive, so if it is feasible to organize the economy on the camping trip model, we ought to do so. This essay argues to the contrary that for all that has been said, capitalist economic arrangements might be in the set of institutional arrangements that overall would best fulfill the camping trip principles, and anyway, the principles themselves ought to be rejected, so the question whether or not a capitalist set-up might satisfy these principles should not interest us. The grounds for rejecting the camping trip principles support a form of welfarist consequentialism that denies that equality of distribution of any sort is per se ethically desirable and also denies that liberal freedoms to live as one chooses are per se morally desirable. Equality and freedom should rather be regarded as in the light of possible means (or hindrances) to advancing good for people, fairly distributed.

Research Article
Copyright © Social Philosophy and Policy Foundation 2011

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1 The disagreements are both empirical and normative. Normative disagreement is disagreement about values, about what states of affairs are intrinsically good and bad, and about what choices of actions and policies are morally forbidden, permissible, or required.

2 I do not have any profound rationale for dividing the liberties in this way. I mean simply to set aside political liberties that are not going to be central to the dispute between capitalism and socialism as G. A. Cohen (whose views are the target of this essay) and I understand that dispute.

3 I say more about one aspect of political liberty, the right to a democratic say, in Arneson, Richard, “Democracy Is Not Intrinsically Just,” in Dowding, Keith, Goodin, Robert E., and Pateman, Carole, eds., Democracy and Justice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 4058CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Arneson, , “The Supposed Right to a Democratic Say,” in Christiano, Thomas and Christman, John, eds., Contemporary Debates in Political Philosophy (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 197212Google Scholar.

4 Welfarist consequentialism is itself a large tent. It houses many doctrines, including right-wing views such as those of Richard Epstein, who holds that a capitalist market economy embedded in a classical liberal framework of laws is an effective and efficient engine for producing human good. It also houses views such as those of the nineteenth-century utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill, whose views, though nuanced, all in all place him in the company of left-wing critics of the capitalist market economy. See Epstein, Richard A., Simple Rules for a Complex World (Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard University Press, 1995)Google Scholar. See John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism; On Liberty; Principles of Political Economy; Autobiography; Chapters on Socialism; and The Subjection of Women. These works by Mill are all available, with details of first publication, at

5 The characterization in the text is rough. There is also an important ambiguity here. Recall Mill's hope that as the population becomes more competent and morally minded, superior individuals will be unwilling to work for a boss and will instead form labor-owned cooperative firms. Eventually, the economy mainly contains cooperative firms, and would-be capitalists can only hire the least competent and morally minded workers, and have little real freedom to form and sustain capitalist firms. But in the mainly cooperative economy Mill envisages, full rights of private ownership and free exchange are upheld, so “capitalist acts between consenting adults” are not banned, and no expropriation of private property occurs (or need occur) to bring about this outcome. The legal framework is capitalist, but capitalist firms are few. I disagree with Mill that there need be anything problematic or undesirable about working for a boss, in a privately owned or publicly owned firm, but the distinction between (1) guaranteed legal rights for capitalist activity and (2) actual capitalist activity occurring makes sense. Mill's discussion is in his Principles of Political Economy, Book IV, chap. VII, sections 3–4. The phrase “capitalist acts between consenting adults” is taken from Nozick, Robert, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1974), 163Google Scholar.

6 By G. A. Cohen. See the next section of this essay.

7 Cohen, G. A., Why Not Socialism? (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010)Google ScholarPubMed. See also Cohen, , Rescuing Justice and Equality (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

8 My understanding is that Cohen stipulates that a socialist economy is (a) not capitalist (not organized around private ownership of resources and market exchange) and (b) fulfills the egalitarian principles he outlines. According to this usage, it is left an open question what set of institutional arrangements would satisfy (a) and (b); socialism is not then by definition identified with public ownership of the means of production.

9 The image of the socialist economy as a big pot, with people free to take from the pot and add to it as they choose, comes from Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, chap. 7. Nozick's characterization is pejorative, but I suppose Cohen would have held that a centralized planned economy that imposes slight coercion on those who participate to sustain it would be desirable if feasible. One might query the characterization that says people are free to contribute to the common pot or not, as they choose. Are people in Cohen's imagined socialist society free not to contribute? Answer: yes and no. Yes, it is true that no threat of coercion binds them to contribute, but no, they are morally bound to contribute to the common good and if they are well socialized they will feel pangs of conscience if they do not do what is morally required. Here Cohen and Karl Marx disagree. Marx at least flirted with the thought that a post-capitalist society would be free from moral constraints, so that people would just do what they want and would spontaneously like to do what facilitates efficient social production. Cohen rejects the freedom-from-morality idea. See Cohen, G. A., Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

10 Marx, Karl, “Critique of the Gotha Program,” in Tucker, Robert C., ed., The Marx-Engels Reader, 2d ed. (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1978), 531Google Scholar.

11 Bourgeois equality of opportunity is what John Rawls endorses under the name “fair equality of opportunity.” See Rawls, John, A Theory of Justice, rev. ed. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999)Google Scholar.

12 This is a sufficient, not a necessary condition for justification.

13 Mill, John Stuart, Principles of Political Economy and Chapters on Socialism, ed. Riley, Jonathan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 423–25Google Scholar.

14 I borrow this example from Roemer, John E., “A Public Ownership Resolution of the Tragedy of the Commons,” Social Philosophy and Policy 6, no. 2 (1989): 7492CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

15 Here Cohen follows a line of thought advanced by Samuel Scheffler. See Scheffler, , The Rejection of Consequentialism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982)Google Scholar. For the record: I myself espouse act consequentialism (one should always do whatever would produce consequences no worse than anything else one might instead have done), so I reject the Scheffler prerogative, at least at the level of first principles. Still, if one accepts a nonconsequentialist morality, something like the prerogative looks very plausible.

16 This last point is not a criticism of Cohen. Recall once more that his aim is to elicit the reader's assent to the principles he associates with the socialist ideal, to note that these principles cannot be fulfilled under capitalism, and to urge that if it is feasible to arrange the economy to satisfy these principles, we should do so. Which noncapitalist institutions and practices would best achieve the socialist ideal is a question he sets aside.

17 A device favored by John Stuart Mill. See his Principles of Political Economy, Book II, chap. II, section 3; see also Mill, Autobiography.

18 Sometimes enacting a legal prohibition can help to crystallize a social norm against what is prohibited. Allowing one's dog to defecate in public spaces and oneself not to clean up the mess used to be socially acceptable in the United States but is no longer so in many communities.

19 The policies mentioned here are noncoercive with respect to those who are the objects of the paternalism. Of course, they might be coercive with respect to others—for example, those taxed to provide aid in kind, take it or leave it, to people who need help and are not trusted to use cash grants wisely. On this point, thanks to Ellen Paul.

20 Here is one possibility: organizing an economy to achieve socialist principles is feasible if and only if making the organizational changes does lead to the fulfillment of the principles and also promotes people's living genuinely good not squalid lives and does all this without running afoul of other moral norms and constraints that we ought to respect.

21 Fleurbaey, Marc, “Equal Opportunity or Equal Social Outcome?Economics and Philosophy 11 (1995): 2556CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Fleurbaey, , “Freedom with Forgiveness,” Politics, Philosophy, and Economics 4 (2005): 2967CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Fleurbaey, , Fairness, Responsibility, and Welfare (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), chap. 10CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

22 On the idea of priority, see Parfit, Derek, “Equality or Priority?” reprinted in Clayton, Matthew and Williams, Andrew, eds., The Ideal of Equality (Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), 81125Google Scholar. See also the discussion of “extended humanitarianism” in Temkin, Larry S., Inequality (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), chap. 9Google Scholar; and Nagel, Thomas, Equality and Partiality (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991)Google Scholar.

23 The condition described in the text is the Pigou-Dalton axiom from welfare economics, which any version of priority satisfies.

24 If priority is yoked to desert, then there may be a consideration that dampens the reason to aid those whose lives are going badly (depending on the degree, if any, to which their conduct has been undeserving) as well as the prioritarian consideration that amplifies the reason to aid. The point in the text still holds. Giving weight to how much benefit to people one's actions would achieve, and giving weight to how badly off they would be absent that benefit, renders priority more prone to recommend extending aid than Cohen-style luck egalitarianism in many circumstances.

25 There is a large literature debating the merits of socialist equality of opportunity, the doctrine also known as luck egalitarianism. On luck egalitarianism, see Arneson, Richard, “Equality and Equal Opportunity for Welfare,” Philosophical Studies 56 (1989): 7793CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Arneson, , “Egalitarianism and the Undeserving Poor,” Journal of Political Philosophy 5 (1997): 327–50CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Cohen, G. A., “On the Currency of Egalitarian Justice,” Ethics 99 (1989): 906–44CrossRefGoogle Scholar; see also Nagel, Equality and Partiality; Dworkin, Ronald, “What Is Equality? Part 1: Equality of Welfare; Part 2: Equality of Resources,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 10 (1981): 185–246, 283–345Google Scholar; and Dworkin, , Sovereign Virtue: The Theory and Practice of Equality (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000)Google Scholar. For criticism, see Fleurbaey, “Equal Opportunity or Equal Social Outcome?”; Wolff, Jonathan, “Fairness, Respect, and the Egalitarian Ethos,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 27 (1998): 97122CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Anderson, Elizabeth S., “What Is the Point of Equality?Ethics 109 (1999): 287337CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Scheffler, Samuel, “What Is Egalitarianism?Philosophy and Public Affairs 31 (2003): 539CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Hurley, Susan, Justice, Luck, and Knowledge (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003)Google Scholar. For responses to criticism, see Arneson, Richard, “Equality of Opportunity for Welfare Defended and Recanted,” Journal of Political Philosophy 7 (1999): 488–97CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Arneson, , “Luck Egalitarianism and Prioritarianism,” Ethics 110 (2000): 339–49CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Arneson, , “Luck Egalitarianism Interpreted and Defended,” Philosophical Topics 32, nos. 1-2 (Spring and Fall 2004): 120CrossRefGoogle Scholar (actual date of publication September, 2006); and Knight, Carl, Luck Egalitarianism: Equality, Responsibility, and Justice (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009)Google Scholar. See also Tan, Kok-Chor, “A Defense of Luck Egalitarianism,” Journal of Philosophy 105, no. 11 (2008)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Segall, Shlomi, Health, Luck, and Justice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

26 If priority by itself swings too far in the other direction, giving no intrinsic weight (just instrumental weight) to factors of responsibility and individual deservingness, one can restore balance by embracing a double priority—priority for the worse off along with priority for the more deserving. Each person earns a deservingness score on an absolute scale, and the individual's score dampens or amplifies the moral value of gaining a benefit or avoiding a loss for that individual. I interpret deservingness subjectively, roughly as conscientious effort, trying to conform to the right and the good—but this is a large issue. See Arneson, Richard, “Desert and Equality,” in Holtug, Nils and Lippert-Rasmussen, Kasper, eds., Egalitarianism: New Essays on the Nature and Value of Equality (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 262–93Google Scholar. See also Arneson, “Moral Worth and Moral Luck” (work in progress; essay available from the author).

27 Cohen, Why Not Socialism? 39. Communal reciprocity is not unconditional provision of service to others; one does not continue to serve others who are able to reciprocate but do not. The communal reciprocator would prefer to cooperate with others who are similarly disposed to cooperate with her, even if she could escape the burdens of cooperation and benefit from the cooperation of others without contributing to the cooperative scheme herself.

28 Ibid., 82.

29 See Sugden, Robert, “Why Incoherent Preferences Do Not Justify Paternalism,” Constitutional Political Economy 19 (2008): 226–46CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Sugden, , “Opportunity as Mutual Advantage,” Economics and Philosophy 26 (2010): 4768CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Sugden is responding to Thaler, Richard H. and Sunstein, Cass R., Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008)Google Scholar. I borrow the example of the individual's changing diet preferences from a lecture presentation by Sugden.

30 Cohen, , “Expensive Taste Rides Again,” in Burley, Justine, ed., Dworkin and His Critics (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004)Google Scholar.

31 Ibid., 16.

32 On the theory of fairness, see Varian, Hal, “Equity, Envy, and Efficiency,” Journal of Economic Theory 9 (1974): 6391CrossRefGoogle Scholar. The “no envy” test is satisfied with respect to a group of persons, each of whom has a bundle of resources, if and only if no individual would prefer to have the bundle of any other person rather than his own bundle. The idea is deployed in Dworkin, Ronald, Sovereign Virtue: The Theory and Practice of Equality (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), chap. 2, pp. 65119Google Scholar. For a philosophically sophisticated discussion of the family of fairness views (principles of distributive justice that do not rely on any interpersonal comparisons of welfare or well-being or the like), see Marc Fleurbaey, Fairness, Responsibility, and Welfare.