Stanford Progressive

Interview with Joshua Cohen: What Would Rawls Do

By admin, published May, 2010


The Stanford Progressive sat down with Stanford Professor and co-editor of The Boston Review Joshua Cohen. Joshua Cohen teaches law, political science, and philosophy and is a leader for the Program on Global Justice at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. Previously, Professor Cohen worked as a political science professor at MIT where he won the 1989 Levitan Prize and the 1982 and 1989 Teaching Award from the MIT Political Science Department. Professor Cohen has written multiple books including “Rousseau: A Free Community of Equals” which is slated to come out during 2010.Professor Cohen was mentored by ethicist John Rawls, who first proposed the “veil of ignorance” and “original position” as means of investigating justice.

Stanford Progressive: How did you become interested in philosophy, especially ethics? Was it just a major you happened upon?

Joshua Cohen: I went to college thinking that I was going to become a lawyer. I didn’t start with any knowledge in philosophy. I was interested in politics primarily because I was surrounded by the popular rhetoric surrounding the Vietnam War, and in particular the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Soon thereafter, I found that I was drawn to other students who visualized political issues in a philosophical framework. I think there are two explanations for interest in these students. One is that I believed that it was important to reflect on basic principles. I hadn’t thought that previously, but when I engaged with people who were doing it that struck me as an important thing to do. The other thing that I think I was drawn to was that by going into political philosophy, I was not narrowing my sights. This path was going to give me an opportunity to pursue whatever topics drew my interest. As it turns out, this has been very true for me.

SP: What lead you to become a professor at Stanford?

JC: I was a professor at MIT for a long time, and I got an offer from Stanford. I thought about moving to Stanford in the mid-1980s but decided not to. I decided to make the move this time simply because I had been at MIT for 29 years. I started there when I was 25. I felt it wasn’t a bad time to move. I felt like it was ‘move in 2006 or not move at all’. We also thought it would be a nice change of location and university.

SP: Any weather considerations in that decision?

JC: No, MIT is a fantastic place, and Stanford is a fantastic place. Had I been at Stanford for 29 years, I probably would have moved to MIT. Cambridge is great. There was no “push” factor. It was more about diversification of opportunities and experiences.

SP: What lead you to become a professor in the first place?

JC: I decided to become a professor when I was an undergraduate. It’s hard to speculate about yourself when you answer a question like that. I don’t really know if I know the answer, but an important part of the answer was that I had befriended a couple of graduate students in philosophy. I was majoring in philosophy and decided to become a professor in philosophy. I didn’t decide to simply become a professor. Rather, my decision was to become a philosophy professor. There were a couple of graduate students with whom I became rather close friends, and they were becoming professors. I thought they were incredibly interesting, and I liked the stuff that they were doing and thinking about. One of them went on to teach at Yale law school for ten years and the other is the president of the University of Addis Ababa in Ethopia. So they were interesting people. I didn’t come from an academic background, but they seemed pretty good.

SP: Speaking of older friends you learned from, I know that you were a student of ethicist John Rawls.

JC: That’s correct.

SP: I’d like to ask you a couple of ethics questions based partially on your opinion and how Rawls might answer it. For instance, should democracies strive for universal healthcare?

JC: Yes, it is an important part of fair society. It is important for ensuring people have fair opportunities, that there is universal coverage. I think, and I am not sure, Rawls would have thought that a public option or a system of universal coverage through regulated private insurance is a matter of means, and not an end. The crucial moral requirement is that you have health insurance for everyone and you don’t break the bank doing it. Beyond that, everything else is a matter of policy and you can go in a lot of different directions.

SP: What about Rawls’ views on minimum wage?

JC: When it comes to the issue of where the minimum wage should fall, it is hard to say. Rawls, as you know, had the idea that it is only alright to have inequalities that work to the maximum benefit of the least advantaged meaning rougly the bottom 20% of the income distribution. What exactly that implies by way of level of income and policy instruments for achieving it is a complicated question. I think ethics have a really important role to play in politics; they are fundamental. But it is also important not to expect too much from philosophical ideas. You have to give a lot of independent importance to policy. Policy judgements should be guided by moral ideas, but you shouldn’t expect a philosophical theory of justice to tell you what the minimum wage should be or even for that matter that there should be a minimum wage as opposed to, for example, a negative income tax or a basic income grant or a basic wealth grant. There are lots of ways to ensure the fulfillment of this general requirement to maximize the benefits to the least advantaged. You want to be very careful not to fetishize the means.

SP: Given the fact that you are so busy, when do you have time for anything outside the Boston Review and your Stanford work?

JC: I have two children, twenty and twenty-four, and I am married. My wife teaches at the Berkeley Public Health School. Both of our kids stayed in and around Boston although our daughter is moving out here in a few weeks. I did spend about 10 years coaching baseball in Cambridge, and I would happily do it again if the opportunity came up. It was a great thing to do.

SP: Are there any life goals or aspirations you feel you are working towards or do you feel you’ve reached your ideal situation?

JC: Well, I am doing a new project. I was just in Nairobi last week with Terry Winograd from the computer science department. We are doing a project on part of a course next quarter called “Designing Liberation Technology.” This time, it is about IT applications for health, but we are expecting to do other areas of human development in the future. This is an entirely new endeavor for me. My current goal is to learn something about design, mobile phones, health, constructive uses for mobile phones and health. I also wish to see if there is some wider range of IT applications that are good for human development. We’re doing this in Nairobi, and it is easy to understand that there is a lot of passion, energy, enthusiam and engagement by people over ten years on issues about global poverty and global development. In the future, I would like to use this course to address problems regarding social development and poverty alleviation in the United States. I believe that we have become too distracted from the important social issues that face our country.


1 Comment »

  1.  Jim M., May 31, 2010 @ 7:27 pm

    Really decent post… I love it. Keep ‘em coming… :)


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