In keeping with being on strike, I've been reading bits of G. A. Cohen's posthumously published corpus today - and also bits of Mike Davis' Buda's Wagon, although the methods of applying political pressure it provides a history of are obviously rather further than I am prepared to go. As well as the text of the talk How To Do Political Philosophy he gave at the beginning of my MPhil class in Contemporary Political Philosophy, collected in On The Currency of Egalitarian Justice, I looked through Why Not Socialism? I don't think I'd realised the extent to which taking that class had shaped not just my research interests, including interests in what we should expect from political philosophy, but also how I do, in the most basic sense possible, political philosophy. For example, one of the major points Cohen's instructions on how to do political philosophy make is that disagreement over political principles is endemic, at least amongst political philosophers, not because of bad faith but because there are typically conflicts between various desiderata all of which cannot be satisfied at once. He lists 8 such sets of desiderata as examples, pointing out how different theorists have rejected different desiderata. One of the points I try, doubtlessly imperfectly, to impress on students is to see that there is almost always something to said for an opponent's position and in rejecting it, you are rejecting something it would be attractive to believe. That, I think, is substantially a legacy of Cohen, as is the fetish for trying to be clear about how what you're saying relates to things any opponents you might have believe.
Cohen's focus on cutting through obscurity and exposing the deep conflicts underlying disputes between political philosophers I think sometimes had its costs though. I remain unconvinced that he ever really understood what was going on in Rawls, and particularly in the appeal to the basic structure as the subject of justice, although he's hardly alone in that. His work on Nozick and libertarianism generally is I think considerably more penetrating precisely because he encountered someone there who, although less disciplined, thought in a similar way. One way that this comes out is in the way he uses the value of community in Why Not Socialism. Community here is contrasted to the instrumentalising way which the twin motives of greed and fear structure market relations. It involves serving others and being served alike instead of only providing others with goods when and because it is to your benefit and is undoubtedly a considerably more moral attractive ideal of how to interact with one's fellows. The immediately obvious problem is the contrast with market relations. Even excluding the kinds of care and assistance that Cohen readily admits are not provided on the basis of greed and fear despite being provided through the labour market, it seems that many more market relations have basic features quite absent from this understanding. For one thing, the property rights around which markets are structured are very rarely maintained directly by greed or fear. I do not abstaining from robbing my fellow citizens from greed or fear; I do it for a whole host of more or less explicitly moralised reasons, some of which seem rather close to the sort of reciprocity Cohen invokes. The clarity he sought could, I think, too often encourage the drawing of too sharp distinctions and so obscure insights which required a more subtle appreciation. None of that, of course, diminishes my debt or my gratitude to him, both personally and in terms of the corpus of work he produced.