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Rawls and Cohen on Facts and Principles

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  12 November 2009

The Queen's College,


G. A. Cohen has recently argued for a thesis about the relationship between facts and principles. He claims that Rawls denies this thesis, and the truth of this thesis vitiates Rawls's constructivist procedure. I argue against both claims by developing an account of Rawls's justificatory strategy and the role of facts in this strategy, which I claim is similar to the role of facts in some defences of utilitarianism.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2009

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1 Cohen, G. A., ‘Facts and Principles’, Philosophy & Public Affairs 31 (2003), pp. 211–45, at p. 214CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2 Cohen, ‘Facts’, p. 211.

3 Cohen, ‘Facts’, p. 211, emphasis in the original.

4 Cohen, ‘Facts’, p. 216, emphasis in the original.

5 Cohen, ‘Facts’, p. 216, emphasis in the original.

6 Cohen, ‘Facts’, p. 213.

7 Rawls, John, A Theory of Justice, rev. edn. (Oxford, 1999), p. 138Google Scholar.

8 Street, Sharon, ‘Constructivism about Reasons’, Oxford Studies in Metaethics: Volume 3, ed. Shafer-Landau, Russ (Oxford, 2008)Google Scholar.

9 Rawls, John, Collected Papers (Cambridge, Mass., 1999), p. 55Google Scholar.

10 Rawls, Theory, p. 18.

11 Sidgwick, Henry, The Methods of Ethics, 2nd edn. (London, 1877), p. 91Google Scholar, emphasis in the original.

12 Scanlon, T. M., ‘Contractualism and Utilitarianism’, Utilitarianism and Beyond, ed. Sen, A. and Williams, B. (Cambridge, 1982), p. 108Google Scholar.

13 Sidgwick, Methods, p. 435.

14 Rawls, Theory, p. 136.

15 Rawls, Theory, p. 137.

16 Rawls, Theory, p. 23.

17 Rawls, Theory, p. 25, and ch. 5.

18 This strategy, which many utilitarians have employed, has been articulated by R. M. Hare. See Hare, R. M., ‘Ethical Theory and Utilitarianism’, Utilitarianism and Beyond, ed. Sen, A. and Williams, B. (Cambridge, 1982), p. 30Google Scholar. For an application of this strategy to the question of slavery, see Hare, R. M., ‘What is Wrong with Slavery’, Philosophy and Public Affairs 8 (1979), pp. 103–21Google Scholar.

19 See Rawls, Theory, p. 398, and Cohen, ‘Facts’, p. 213.

20 Cohen, ‘Facts’, p. 215.

21 Cohen isn't committed to claiming that this is the correct of account of promising. See Cohen, ‘Facts’, p. 216.

22 Hooker, Brad, Ideal Code, Real World: A Rule-consequentialist Theory of Morality (Oxford, 2000)Google Scholar.

23 Hooker, Brad, ‘Reflective Equilibrium and Rule Consequentialism’, Morality, Rules and Consequences: A Critical Reader, ed. Hooker, B., Mason, E. M. and Miller, D. E. (Edinburgh, 2000), p. 233Google Scholar.

24 Rawls, Theory, p. 506.

25 On the notion of the closeness of possible worlds, see Lewis, David, On the Plurality of Worlds (Oxford, 2001), pp. 20–7Google Scholar.

26 Rawls, Collected Papers, p. 289.

27 Rawls, Theory, p. 137. Quoted in Cohen, ‘Facts’, p. 237.

28 Rawls, John, Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy (Cambridge, Mass., 2000), pp. 107–9Google Scholar.

29 It is worth noting that in the quoted passage Rawls's comments concern how we conduct our inquiries and not the nature of moral truth. We should also note the historical context of these passages. First, Rawls is arguing against the then dominant approach in moral philosophy, which primarily relied on linguistic analysis. Second, A Theory of Justice was written before Kripke's arguments in Naming and Necessity, which distinguished between necessity, apriority, and analyticity, were widely known. This, I think, accounts for Rawls quickly moving from claims about conceptual analysis to talk of possible worlds in the passage quoted. For the argument that necessity, apriority, and analyticity were typically taken to be the same notion for much of twentieth-century analytic philosophy prior to Kripke's work see Scott Soames, Philosophical Analysis in the Twentieth Century, 2 vols. (Princeton, 2003).

30 Rawls, Lectures, p. 171.

31 On some interpretations, the Categorical Imperative procedure allows us also to maintain that there are things which are wrong in all possible worlds. For instance, slavery would be wrong in all possible worlds. O'Neill argues that we can't will the maxim of becoming a slave as a universal law. She writes: ‘[I]f everybody became a slave, there would be nobody with property rights, hence no slaveholders, and hence nobody could become a slave.’ Similarly, we can't will the maxim of becoming a slave-holder. See O'Neill, Onora, Constructions of Reason: Explorations of Kant's Practical Philosophy (Cambridge, 1989), p. 96Google Scholar.

32 Nagel, Thomas, ‘Equality’, The Ideal of Equality, ed. Clayton, M. and Williams, A. (Basingstoke, 2002)Google Scholar; Sen, Amartya, Inequality Reexamined (Oxford, 1992)Google Scholar; Kymlicka, Will, ‘Rawls on Teleology and Deontology’, Philosophy and Public Affairs 17 (1988), pp. 173–90Google Scholar. For an opinion to the contrary see Freeman, Samuel, ‘Utilitarianism, Deontology, and the Priority of Right’, Philosophy and Public Affairs 23 (1994), pp. 313–49CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

33 Rawls, quoted in Nagel, ‘Equality’, p. 79, emphasis in the original.

34 Rawls, Theory, p. 138, emphasis added.

35 Rawls, Theory, p. 137.

36 Cohen, ‘Facts’, p. 236.

37 Cohen, ‘Facts’, p. 241.

38 I wish to thank Jerry Cohen, Brad Hooker, Rob Jubb, Seth Lazar, David Miller, and Ben Saunders for their comments on previous versions of this article.