G. A. Cohen begins this publication of the Gifford Lectures of 1996 by asking the audience to consider the effect of upbringing on the final position any individual takes in life and how his personal experiences from being raised in a fervently Marxist and anti-religious home have led him to a surprising shift from Marxism out the other side of radical liberalism to a strong belief in the necessity of social and moral element to socialism more akin to the Judeo-Christian treatment of the issue of equality.
First, after equating religious beliefs with strongly held political ones, Cohen asks the audience to consider that no matter how strongly individuals believe in the correctness of their beliefs, it may be a mere accident of faith that they were not exposed to different sets of beliefs and correspondingly find themselves at the opposite end of the spectrum from where they now stand. Individuals who find they believe very strongly in anything should consider the origin of that belief. He argues that any firmly held belief may be logically irrational, although we are then left with the intellectually uncomfortable position of explaining to ourselves why we still continue to believe what we know to be irrational.
Lecture 2 recounts his family history and the nature of his fiercely Marxist and devotedly anti-religious upbringing in a Montreal communist Jewish neighbourhood and the many facets of his young life which formed his outlook and gave him early pause in his considerations of the nature of belief and justice.
He then goes on in lecture 3 to illustrate the nature of Marxism, or scientific socialism, as it develops and incorporates the pre-existing beliefs of Hegel’s dialectical idea, the French Utopian socialist ideal and the nature of the British political economy to become a whole that was more than the sum of its parts.
In lecture 4 he delves extensively into the Hegel’s ideas of the dialectical and illustrates with special attention the important elements of the obstetric motif to show how a belief in the inevitable resolution to the problems of capitalism and inequality were believed to be inherently present in the problem itself. This led followers to focus their attentions not on the solution, which would surely come sooner or later, but on shortening or lessening the strife associated with the transition to the forthcoming state of perfection. Cohen argues that this may be one of the most damaging elements of Marxism because it led to an overly lax attitude and a lack of scrutiny at the repercussions of the actions taken by politicians.
Lecture 5 looks at the oft-misused ‘religion is the opium of the people’ quote and how rather than advocating a fight against the church, Marx was advocating a good look at the present situation that an individual finds himself in. He stresses that Marx meant that any subsequent analysis will lead to the realization that religion is not the problem nor the solution but a symptom of an underlying inequality which will only be resolved when people stop applying the balm of religion to the wounds caused by that inequality.
Lecture 6 investigates the nature of inequality as understood by the Marxists of the author’s youth and how that compares to the position of needy found in modern society. An important development in world economy has proven that the inevitable abundance foreseen by Marx will not come and that, in fact, resource scarcity will likely drive the nature of political decision making in the future. This alters the nature of the working class in such a way that Marx’s proletariat may be almost entirely unrecognizable in today’s market economy. Cohen argues that in light of this difference, the focus of socialism should be on distributive justice and not on merely bringing about the age of plenty in which distribution will not matter a whit to the needs of the people.
Lecture 7 was a multi-media presentation, not reproduced in this book due to the nature of publication.
Lecture 8 describes the nature of a just society as defined by egalitarian liberalism under the Rawlsian difference principle. According to this principle, inequality is justified if it leads to a better position for the worse off than a situation of pure equality would provide. Rawls evokes the idea that inequality may promote more production through incentives than pure quality would, and that this increased production can be used to lift the worse off in a society above what they would otherwise have if the incentive-based increase in production did not exist. Cohen argues that this is impossible and he points out that Rawls requires the citizens of a just society to themselves be just and that therefore any increased incentive would be contrary to justice since just individuals would not be more motivated to produce by an incentive they knew to be unjust.
In another blow to the Rawlsian just society, Cohen argues in lecture 9 that the view that socialism can be enacted at the top and lead to a just society at all levels is flawed due to the fact that a just society, according to Rawls, only applies to coercive institutions and not to personal choice. Personal choice, in its many aspects of daily life, can lead to injustices that are more or less sanctioned by non-coercive elements of society and that these injustices would have to be tolerated by a society that was otherwise perfectly just if you looked only at the rules enacted by coercive institutions.
Lecture 10 finalizes the series by elucidating the ways in which a person who may believe in distributive justice may not enact any such justice in their personal life. He argues specifically why rich people who profess to believe in egalitarianism may not give their excess wealth away to poor people or to organizations that work to rectify the injustices of inequality. He illustrates all the arguments that may be given to explain or justify retaining excessive wealth by an individual who claims to believe in equality and how these arguments may hold under a strictly Marxist or Rawlsian view of socialism but largely fall apart if one considers that socialism need to be guided by social ethos on an individual level.