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If You're an Egalitarian, How Come You're So Rich? Revised ed. Edition

3.8 out of 5 stars 4 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0674006935
ISBN-10: 0674006933
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Editorial Reviews


These nine engaging and searching lectures, an unorthodox mixture of intellectual autobiography and philosophical argument, fall into two parts. In the first, [Cohen] describes the leading features of the Marxism in which he once believed. In the second, he explains why he remains critical of the sort of left-wing liberalism that would seem to be Marxism's natural alternative. (Ben Rogers The Observer)

Some titles carry the author's voice...Surely If You're an Egalitarian, How Come You're So Rich? does. Cohen is much the funniest living Anglophone political philosopher of any note, as well as perhaps the cleverest. Many of his best comic effects depend on the tone of voice, and some are clearly intended simply for fun. But it is always dangerous to assume that the jokes do not carry a point...[Cohen's book is] a strikingly personal address, fusing autobiography and the history of ideas with political philosophy, and ending not only with the weighty issue of how far personal attitudes must feature within the subject matter of justice itself, but with the more disconcerting question of how far the disciplines of living effectively under capitalism are bound to prove lethal for the soul...At one level, Cohen's book is largely an ingenious and agreeably frank casuistry of the ethics of professorial income management, but at another and more consequential level, it is a most imaginative deployment of personal ethical discomfort to pin down, and press home, a deep evasion at the center of this majority vision of social justice under capitalism. Its source may be merely the externalization of a private disquiet; but its force at the point of impact is as public as any philosopher could wish. (John Dunn Times Higher Education Supplement 2001-01-12)

This is an unusual book, a remarkably successful blend of autobiography, intellectual history and moral philosophy that reflects the author's distinctive outlook and background … [It] presents, I believe, the most important contemporary challenge to the egalitarian form of liberalism...The questions he asks are the ones we should all be worrying about. (Thomas Nagel Times Literary Supplement)

It would be difficult to over-praise this wonderful book. It is profound, humane, witty, erudite, and often deeply personal. Though presented as something of an intellectual memoir, Cohen provides us with more food for thought than has been available in any book on egalitarian political philosophy in recent memory. (Daniel Weinstock Philosophy in Review)

From the Inside Flap

This book presents G. A. Cohen's Gifford Lectures, delivered at the University of Edinburgh in 1996. Focusing on Marxism and Rawlsian liberalism, Cohen draws a connection between these thought systems and the choices that shape a person's life. In the case of Marxism, the relevant life is his own: a communist upbringing in the 1940s in Montreal, which induced a belief in a strongly socialist egalitarian doctrine. The narrative of Cohen's reckoning with that inheritance develops through a series of sophisticated engagements with the central questions of social and political philosophy.

In the case of Rawlsian doctrine, Cohen looks to people's lives in general. He argues that egalitarian justice is not only, as Rawlsian liberalism teaches, a matter of rules that define the structure of society, but also a matter of personal attitude and choice. Personal attitude and choice are, moreover, the stuff of which social structure itself is made. Those truths have not informed political philosophy as much as they should, and Cohen's focus on them brings political philosophy closer to moral philosophy, and to the Judeo-Christian ethical tradition, than it has recently been.


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press; Revised ed. edition (September 30, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674006933
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674006935
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 0.7 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #749,510 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Michael Greinecker on July 13, 2003
Format: Paperback
In this book Cohen examines the role of individual behavior in the philosophy of justice. Cohen starts by telling about his own life as a jewish marxist in Montreal, who later became an analytic philosopher in Oxford. He discusses the core beliefs of marxism with a special emphasis on Marx's views on religion. He argues that marxists have neglected issues of justice and issues of individual behavior. The first was neglected because of wrong views on the working class and the illusion that there would be no real tradeoffs under communism. The second was neglected because of Marx's theory of revolutionary change and history. He finds the missing egaliarian ethos of individual behavior in christianity. Hence the importance of the relationship between marxism and religion.
Cohens next step is to show that Rawls difference principle, which he accepts, must hold for individuals too in a just society. He gives very careful rebuttals of views to the contrary. From this he shows that much less inequality is justified by the difference principle than usually believed.
Now that he handled the case of individual behavior in a just society from a Rawlsian point of view, he adresses the question of how one ought to act in an unjust society. Specifically how should egalitarians act in an unegalitarian society? This leads to the question posed in the title and Cohen spends the rest of the book examining different justifications for why rich people don't have to spend most of their income on ending inequality.
The book will be of interest mainly to marxists and people interested in contemporary political philosophy.
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Format: Hardcover
Quite probably one of the best books in political philosophy to emerge in recent decades far outsurpassing Rawls and Nozick's often cited works. In fact these two scholars from Harvard (I believe they are still there), if any, should read this work and then check their bank accounts. Cohen heads straight for the issue confronting contemporary self style liberals or "republicans" in democrat clothing who still speak of economic equality and quasi communitarianism (distributive justice) in today's global economic society so rich with its many "divides" between rich and poor.
The central question comes down to how much people are willing to put their actions and practices where their mouths are, the old cliche of putting one's money where one's mouth is. Cohen elegantly draws the fateful and radical incoherence in the left's incommensurable principles of 1. a just & fair compassionate society and 2. selfish individuals acting in their own interests. Liberals support both by necessity. How do we square these two? How can we demand that society be just economically, that our institutions act altruistically, but on the other hand hold that individuals should be able to act in their own self interest? This is the real dilemma presented by Cohen and I aver that it will take some real time and hard thought to properly answer him on this score. Try turning Ayn Rand into a progressive and you will experience the problem that Cohen presents elegantly in his book. The next book must deal with the implications of all this: do we keep talking like Al Gore but living like the Bushes, or do we give up self interest and create the just society. Liberals want it both ways, Cohen shows they can't have it!
forgive any typos. dms
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is one of the most enjoyable philosophy books I've read recently (and in general). The published form of a set of lectures Cohen delivered in Scotland, the chapters walk through a series of loosely connected topics, with the overarching theme being a sort of intellectual biography of Cohen's life and work. But the book is engaging even if you didn't know or care about Cohen before jumping in because of the path his work has taken: from his upbringing as a Communist in Montreal, to his early work developing an analytically respectable form of Marxism, ultimately leading to him abandoning Marxism and exploring the normative foundations of egalitarianism, and crafting an egalitarian response to liberal political philosophy (e.g., Rawls). It ends with a discussion of a titular question, how people who claim to be egalitarian can justify being rich in unequal societies. Cohen's famously hilarious, and while I'm sure he peppered these lectures with jokes that didn't make it into the print form, his humor combines with his philosophical acumen to make these incredibly entertaining to read.
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Format: Paperback
This book is very much a waste of time in that the most of the book did not directly address the question posed by the title. It also went into a lot of autobiography and for someone who is interested in philosophy I find it a waste of time to learn about someone's boring life - and as a philosopher, if the most important thing you can say about your beleifs is that you have them because of your upbringing, then your beliefs are pretty worthless even if they are right and true. This guy is a communist egalitarian because his parents are communist egalitarians. Not very interesting and quite unphilosophical. This is not to say he didn't address the issue as a philospher should but that he put in too much stuff that a philosopher shouldn't. Now on to the essence of what he should have and did include:
The author, who admits he is not generous himself, does come to the conclusion that there is no moral justification for being a rich egalitarian and not giving away much of your money- there sre strong excuses such as that giving away a lot does not make that much of a difference because it won't change society as a whole - but they are not valid reasons for retaining your wealth when you think it is wrong to be so well off when others are not. What the book reveals, though without intent, is how fundamental a practice it is for liberals not have any integrity. Integrity is defined as acting in accordance with your beliefs. If you think it is wrong that rich people get to keep so much money while others do without or with little, then you should give your money away in copious amounts until you are lower middle class yourself. But rich liberals don't do this.
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