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June 2014

Friendly Morality in G. A. Cohen’s Why Not Socialism?

Kuznicki offers an objection to G. A. Cohen’s famous argument for the morality of socialism.

G. A. Cohen’s Why Not Socialism? delivers exactly what its title suggests: a defense of socialism. Jason Brennan’s recently published book Why Not Capitalism? is a rejoinder to Cohen. I recently read them both, and I suggest that readers do the same, regardless of where they stand in the debate: Knowing one’s opponents is important. I’ll have more to say about Brennan’s book later; this post will be about Cohen’s.

Cohen begins his argument by asking us to consider the kind of morality that naturally prevails on a camping trip among friends. He finds this morality to be highly consonant with, and maybe even equivalent to, a socialist morality: It entails sharing, treating property in common, and showing an equal concern for all members of the group. Everyone looks out for everyone else, and no one counts the costs. As a direct result, everyone has the best time that they could reasonably have.

Nearly everyone would act along these lines, Cohen suggests. I know I would.

Cohen then contrasts this, the (purportedly) socialist camping trip, with a (purportedly) capitalist camping trip. It’s a grim affair: the greedy campers squabble viciously over resources. Each tries to make sure that they, and they alone, get as much as they possibly can. The trip is miserable. The friends’ time is wasted on haggling and bickering. Thank goodness our friends don’t act like capitalists!

Cohen then asks: Why can’t more of our society be like the socialist camping trip? Isn’t it obvious, he asks, that it should be, even if maybe we can’t live up to it?

Many will find this analogy convincing, even if argument by analogy isn’t necessarily the best way to proceed. If we are inclined to be convinced, we must ask ourselves very carefully: How useful are these micro-level analogies for drawing inferences about society at large? (To be fair, Cohen asks the same.) And also: Are capitalist acts among friends always as offensive as Cohen claims? While we’re at, are socialist acts among friends always so appealing? And what can our reactions to these cases tell us about creating a good society?

One possible objection to Cohen is that many capitalist acts seem wholly innocuous, even when they are conducted among friends. Meanwhile, their socialist counterparts are apt to strike nearly all of us as morally ugly. 

This is a serious objection, because Cohen’s argument for socialism seems to rest on the premise that we show our greatest moral concern for our friends, and only an imperfect (but perhaps correctable) moral concern for others.

I’ll grant him this premise; Brennan, too, grants it, and quite a bit more. But if capitalist acts do survive moral scrutiny even among friends, then they can survive moral scrutiny anywhere. And if some socialist acts don’t survive moral scrutiny when among friends, then it’s unclear why they should get a pass anywhere else.

I’ll give an example. A couple of weeks ago, a friend told me about a bike that he won in a raffle. It’s brand-new and very expensive. Then he did something that ought to be offensive, but absolutely wasn’t: He offered to sell it to me. 

He already had a bike, he said, and he’d rather just have the money. Maybe it’s because I work for the Evil Cato Institute of Evil, but I have a hard time seeing what my friend did as even slightly wrong. (He’s not even a libertarian, if it matters.)

Now imagine that I’d answered as follows: “You have two bikes, and I have none. You should give me one of them. In fact, if you don’t give me a bike, you’re acting like one of those horrible people on the capitalist camping trip. You’re not being a proper friend at all.”

That would be obnoxious, wouldn’t it? It probably wouldn’t help if I pointed out that giving me the bike would be welfare-enhancing: If I got to use it, then at least someone would. 

My imaginary response offers a picture of socialism that will probably satisfy very few socialists. In this they are not alone. Remember, very few capitalists see their own moral standards reflected in the disastrous “capitalist” camping trip. I suspect that both capitalists and socialists must think something is amiss here, and it is.

In both cases, one gets the sense that only the empty forms of these systems are being deployed. Whatever substance they may have had is not. The micro-level analogies seem to fail all around.

Selling the bike isn’t an isolated example, either. Acts of reciprocity, of expecting value for value, are everywhere in friendship: If I dog-sit for you, I will probably call on you first for a similar favor. When I do, people will think you act wrongly if you decline without a valid excuse. If you invite me to a gathering, I ought to reply in kind. A guest shouldn’t come to a dinner without a gift, even if it’s just a six pack of beer. And so on. 

Cohen himself asks us to separate market reciprocity from what he terms communal reciprocity – the “antimarket principle according to which I serve you not because of what I can get in return by doing so but because you need or want my service, and you, for the same reason, serve me.” [Emphasis mine.]

Yet if there is a bright line between these two kinds of reciprocity, I am afraid can’t find it: Live long enough as someone’s friend, and your acts of communal reciprocity will almost always be rewarded. No one ever finds friends blameworthy for acting this way. Rather, friends are held blameworthy if they are unwilling to repay a kindness: Almost imperceptibly, acts of reciprocity shade into gift exchanges, coupon swaps, bike sales, yard sales, and increasingly market-like transactions. None of it arouses the slightest indignation.

To speak loosely for a moment: Friendship and the market aren’t enemies. They are friends. It is only by very carefully avoiding any consideration of intuitively appropriate market-ish reciprocity among friends that Cohen is able to make communal reciprocity seem like our only genuine way of being friendly.

Cohen must also, and does, carefully avoid the limits to sharing, limits that even friends would intuitively recognize among themselves: If my friend runs a store, I would hesitate to ask him for free items from it, my willingness to ask on a camping trip notwithstanding. The difference between them is easily explained: My friend runs the store so that he can make a living. He could not do so if he were genuinely obliged at every similar request to give away his merchandise for free.

The principle of free sharing needs to give way sometimes, so that making a living — and thereby having stuff to share, say, on camping trips — can become possible. Acting on the principle of free sharing all the time would paradoxically destroy sharing itself: It would destroy the plenty that makes sharing possible.

I don’t pretend to have drawn a full picture of what’s going on here. Some things honestly stump me. Consider that my bike-selling example is very similar to one that Cohen himself employed. It’s from the “capitalist” camping trip, the one that everyone rightfully hates:

[A]n excited Sylvia returns to the campsite and announces: “I’ve stumbled upon a huge apple tree, full of perfect apples.” “Great,” others exclaim, “now we can all have applesauce, and apple pie, and apple strudel!” “Provided, of course,” so Sylvia rejoins, “that you reduce my labor burden, and/or furnish me with more room in the tent, and/or with more bacon at breakfast.” Her claim to (a kind of) ownership of the tree revolts the others.

Both my friend’s bike and Sylvia’s apples are the products of luck, not of skill. Yet selling the apples does seem revolting, while selling the bike does not.

Our objection can’t be to profiting from luck alone: At some price point, we would all seem to find profits from luck excusable, or even wholly appropriate. (At some still higher price point, some people may find such profits intuitively inappropriate again; consider the many ethical objections to, say, star athletes profiting from inborn talent!)

I am not clear on why this is so, but here are some theories:

  1. We find Sylvia’s claim revolting because it brings us to contemplate her (probably pitiful, certainly ugly) attempts at excluding everyone else. She wouldn’t be putting up a fence, which would at least have a familiar sort of dignity. Oh no: she’d be standing athwart the apple tree yelling “Stop!” This we would find repulsive.
  2. We find Sylvia’s claim revolting because we are unaccustomed to thinking about questions of initial appropriation. She’s doing something that hasn’t been done very often, and certainly not within living memory for any tangible objects. (Except maybe for moon rocks, I guess. Does this counterexample invalidate the theory altogether?)
  3. In the real world, the apple tree isn’t up for appropriation. And we all know it: The apple tree legally belongs to someone else already. Perhaps it even belongs to someone else who is actually on the trip. Sylvia doesn’t have nearly as strong an ownership claim as my friend: The organizers of the bike raffle freely and explicitly transferred title. The owners of the apples, whoever they are, did not. (How odd, if this were the root of our objection to Sylvia’s behavior: We find it revolting not because she is a capitalist, but because she is acting like a socialist, and simply taking whatever she purportedly needs.)
  4. We find Sylvia’s claim revolting because it’s just apples, and we expect that apples should be cheap. It’s not worth our time to haggle with Sylvia about who gets them and for how much. But a high-end bike is expensive, so we readily excuse my friend, who stands to make (or forego) several hundred dollars on it.

I suspect that (3) and (4) are the strongest reasons, though not without qualifications and many further possible objections. Generalizing from behavior among friends to social policy is much more difficult and complicated than Cohen seems willing to admit. But the fact that capitalist acts are commonly a part of what people accept as friendly morality casts doubt on his entire project.

In my next post, I’ll turn to Brennan.

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