- The principal target of Cohen’s article is Rawlsian constructivism. This is because Rawls believes that the way the world is (the facts) enter into the construction of the fundamental principles of justice (via, for instance, the general facts made available to the parties in Rawls’s original position). Cohen believes that Rawls is not altogether consistent here, in any case, since the design of Rawls’s constructivist procedure rests on general claims (that persons are to be considered as free and equal) that are either themselves fact-independent or rest on further principles that are. So, for Cohen at least, Rawls’s putatively fundamental principles of justice aren’t fundamental at all, but merely derivative or regulatory principles that actually derive from deeper fact-independent principles.
- Is Cohen’s argument damaging to Rawlsian constructivism? If Cohen is correct, Rawlsians might reasonably, though concessively, reply. They might argue that it is true that if we look at what the logical structure of people’s ethical beliefs ought to be, then fact-independent principles are at the bottom. It isn’t the case then, that what justifies and constitutes our most fundamental commitments is that they derive from a constructivist procedure. But (1), epistemically, such a procedure is the best method for getting at what those commitments are and (2) given “the facts”, the regulatory principles which we are practically most interested in are best seen as the product of a constructivist apparatus. Too concessive? I think most Rawlsians could live with it.
Update: Another impressive post on Crooked Timber by Jon Mandle can be found here. Mandle argues in a different way for the conclusion that Rawls is not Cohen's real target.