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Clarifying Cohen: A Response to Jubb and Hall


In this brief essay, we clarify Cohen’s ‘Facts and Principles’ argument, and then argue that the objections posed by two recent critiques of Cohen—Robert Jubb (Res Publica 15:337–353, 2009) and Edward Hall (Res Publica 19:173–181, 2013)—look especially vulnerable to the charge of being self-defeating. It may still be that Cohen’s view concerning facts and principles is false. Our aim here is merely to show that two recent attempts to demonstrate its falsity are unlikely to succeed.

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  1. We believe this feature of Cohen’s account has been overlooked because it is most explicitly stated in two footnotes (Cohen 2008, p. 233, fn. 6, and p. 279, fn. 6).

  2. Cohen uses the terminology of ‘explaining’ throughout the argument, and tellingly refers to himself as defending the ‘indispensable explanatory role of fact-insensitive principles’ (Cohen 2008, p. 239).

  3. See Cohen (2003, p. 219, fn. 8) for a helpful account of the relationship between justification and explanation in his thesis, which we believe the above restatement captures accurately.

  4. In support of this interpretation, recall that Cohen holds the first premise of his argument is: ‘[W]henever a fact F confers support on a principle P, there is an explanation why F supports P, that is, an explanation of how F represents a reason to endorse P’ (Cohen 2008, p. 236).

  5. For example, Cohen asserts, ‘our principled convictions […] justify what we do, and that includes the doing that is adopting rules of regulation’ (Cohen 2008, p. 277). Recall also that Cohen believes that ‘political philosophy is not what we should do but what we should think, even when what we should think makes no practical difference’ (Cohen 2008, p. 268).

  6. To reinforce this point, consider Cohen’s response to those that argue that we could rely on a methodological principle rather than a fact insensitive normative principle, like Rawls’ original position. ‘We have to reckon,’ Cohen states, ‘not only with the principles justified by the original position procedure, but also with the principles that justify that procedure. Procedure is not ultimate; as Rawls says, not everything is constructed. […But this] either embodies or presupposes a fact-insensitive normative principle (to the detriment, be it said, of Rawls's claim […] that even the most fundamental principles depend on fact: there is a tension between that claim and Rawls's acknowledgment that not everything is constructed, since there appear to be normative principles among what is not constructed, and I do not see how those particular principles could be thought to rest on fact)’ (2008, p. 241). If, as Cohen defines it, a methodological principle ‘does not tell you (directly) what to do, that is, what action(s) to perform; it rather tells you how to choose principles that tell you what to do’ (2008, p. 240), then the response just quoted entails that Cohen does not take the argument for fact-insensitivity to apply exclusively to what to do (or how to act) but also applies to how we should choose. It is also worth noting that Cohen only mentions fundamental non-normative principles when speaking in voice for an objector (Cohen 2008, p. 240). He never himself (contra the reading given by Ronzoni & Valentini 2008) endorses the distinction. And indeed, it seems that his argument in both chapters 6 and 7 of Rescuing Justice and Equality depend on denying non-normative ultimate principles; as the example of his objection to using the original position as a stand in for citing a further fact-insensitive normative principle shows.

  7. This means for Cohen the cut between theoretical and practical reason is not a deep one.

  8. It is surprising that Cohen’s critics overlook the multiple places where he clarifies: ‘The thesis applies to anyone's principles, be they correct or not’ (Cohen 2008, p. 233).

  9. Thus Jubb is correct to say ultimate principles ‘are not sufficient for justification’, but on our reading they are not supposed to be. Recall: ‘ultimate principles are about justifying’ (Cohen 2008, p. 256). So, they are not themselves justificatory; they are explanatory. Again, in Cohen’s words, the argument ‘does not say that everything, or every principle, has to have a justification: I am neutral on that claim. [It] rather insists that there is always an explanation why a ground grounds what it grounds’ (Cohen 2003, p. 219; cf. Cohen 2008, pp. 237–238).

  10. Jubb’s and Hall’s arguments strike us as analogous to the following:

    1. 1.

      If no one can give a non-circular justification for modus ponens as a valid inference rule, then modus ponens is not a valid inference rule.

    2. 2.

      No one can give a non-circular justification for modus ponens as a valid inference rule.

    3. 3.

      So, modus ponens is not a valid inference rule.

    There may be no non-circular justification of modus ponens, but it still seems self-defeating to pose that argument as a modus ponens. Similarly, if Hall and Jubb do not reject the structure of normative commitment proposed by Cohen, but instead try to offer counter examples that rely on this very structure, then it seems as self-defeating as offering an argument against modus ponens that is a modus ponens.


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  • Ronzoni, Miriam and Laura Valentini. 2008. On the meta-ethical status of constructivism: Reflections on G. A. Cohen’s ‘Facts and Principles’. Politics, Philosophy and Economics 7: 403–422.

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Correspondence to Andrew T. Forcehimes.

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Forcehimes, A.T., Talisse, R.B. Clarifying Cohen: A Response to Jubb and Hall. Res Publica 19, 371–379 (2013).

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  • G. A. Cohen
  • Normativity
  • Ideal theory