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Self-Ownership, Reciprocity, and Exploitation, or Why Marxists Shouldn't Be Afraid of Robert Nozick

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 January 2020

Paul Warren*
Florida International University, Miami, FL33199, USA


A common theme of libertarians is that there is a conflict between the values of liberty and equality. Achieving equality, so libertarians often argue, would require frequent interference in individuals’ lives, creating constraints on freedom and obstacles to the development of individuality. Although not himself endorsing a libertarian conception of liberty, Oxford philosopher G.A. Cohen recently has advanced the surprising thesis that there is a tension in Marxist normative thought that in an interesting way parallels the often heard libertarian challenge to egalitarianism.

Research Article
Copyright © The Authors 1994

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1 See G.A. Cohen, ‘Self-Ownership, Communism and Equality,’ Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society (Supplementary Volume, 1990) 25-44; and ‘Marxism and Contemporary Political Philosophy, or Why Nozick Exercises some Marxists more than he does any Egalitarian Liberals,’ Canadian Journal of Philosophy (Supplementary Volume 16, 1990) 363-87. I focus mainly on the arguments that Cohen develops in these two articles, but I also discuss other work of his when relevant. See also the articles referred to in notes 6 and 8.

2 See Cohen, ‘Marxism and Contemporary Political Philosophy,’ 382. In his work on the Marxian conception of exploitation Roemer argues that although exploitation is an intrinsic feature of capitalism, it is an unreliable indicator of its normative objection ability which is that it produces an unequal and improperly generated distribution of resources. Cohen believes that the upshot of Roemer's argument, like his own, is to force Marxists to become more consistently egalitarian. Relevant works of Roemer include Free to Lose (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 1988); ‘Should Marxists Be Interested in Exploitation,’ Philosophy and Public Affairs 14 (1985), reprinted with abridgements, in Roemer, John ed., Analytical Marxism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1986)Google Scholar; ‘What is Exploitation? Reply to Jeffrey Reiman,’ Philosophy and Public Affairs 18 (1989) 90-7; and ‘Second Thoughts on Property Relations and Exploitation’ Canadian Journal of Philosophy (Supplementary Volume 15, 1989) 257-66.

3 Of course, even if capitalism were not exploitative, it could be criticized as falling short with respect to other values. A radical critique could be built around other evils endemic to it, such as alienation in the workplace, widespread poverty, growing inequality, environmental depredation, or its being inimical to democracy. Therefore, even if Marxists were forced to jettison their concept of exploitation, it would not follow that their case against capitalism vanishes.

4 ‘Self-Ownership, Communism, and Equality,’ 25

5 Not all right wing libertarians rely on the principle of self-ownership to defend their beliefs. Libertarians such as Hayek and Friedman suppose that libertarian arrangements can be defended on the basis of the value of choice, rather than on the basis of the self-ownership thesis.

6 Cohen provides an extended critique of Nozick's attempt to justify private ownership rights in world resources via the premise of self-ownership in ‘Nozick on Appropriation,’ The New Left Review 150 (1985) 89-105.

7 ‘Self-Ownership, Communism, and Equality,’ 27

8 ‘Marxism and Contemporary Political Philosophy,’ 364. See also 369 and 371. In elaborating Cohen's account of Marxian exploitation I also draw on his ‘The Labor Theory of Value and the Concept of Exploitation,’ Philosophy and Public Affairs 8 (1979) 338-60 and ‘The Structure of Proletarian Unfreedom,’ Philosophy and Public Affairs 12 (1983), both reprinted in Cohen, G.A. History, Labor and Freedom: Themes from Marx (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1988)Google Scholar.

9 The emphasis on the power that control over productive assets brings is absent from John Roemer's recent reconstructions of the Marxian concept of exploitation. Roemer thinks that this is an advantage of his account, but problems arise for that account in trying to explain the normative significance of exploitation. See my ‘Why Marxists Should Still Be Interested in Exploitation,’ in Fisk, Milton ed., Key Concepts in Critical Theory: Justice (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press 1993)Google Scholar. In Roemer's account exploitation is an imperfect measure of that which is normatively significant, viz., an improperly generated distribution of productive assets.

10 See Cohen, ‘The Structure of Proletarian Unfreedom.’

11 It may seem paradoxical to say that those who have their labor exploited are better off than those who are unemployed. However, the threat of unemployment is one of the crucial dimensions of workers’ exploitation because it is one method that capitalists can use to insure that the appropriate level of labor effort is maintained. To the extent that workers are able to organize and to the extent that there are acceptable alternatives to selling labor power, then the forced appropriation oflabor diminishes.

12 For an alternative interpretation, according to which Marx did not condemn capitalism as unjust, see Wood, Allen The Marxian Critique of Justice,’ Philosophy and Public Affairs 1 (1972) 244-82Google Scholar; and ‘Marx and Equality’ in John Roemer, ed., Analytical Marxism.

13 It should be added that there is no inconsistency in asserting both types of argument. Indeed, one might even argue that there is a connection between the two as would be the case if limiting freedom were argued to be a kind of injustice.

14 Cohen, ‘Self-Ownership, Communism, and Equality,’ 30

15 Of course someone committed to socialism is also probably committed to the position that such differences are unlikely to be excessive, i.e., that individuals are not radically different with respect to personal endowments.

16 Cohen, ‘Nozick on Appropriation.’ It might be argued that self-ownership must be interpreted in such a way that it allows individuals to capitalize their assets, i.e., that it requires the institution of private property. But it is unclear why it should be so interpreted; at least Cohen provides no such argument. Indeed, much of his previous work is devoted to blocking just such an inference.

17 Cohen, ‘Marxism and Contemporary Political Philosophy,’ 371-3

18 Cohen, ‘Marxism and Contemporary Political Philosophy,’ 369-70

19 Karl Marx, ‘Critique of the Gotha Program’ (1875), reprinted in Tucker, Robert ed., The Marx-Engels Reader (New York and London: W.W. Norton 1978), 525-41Google Scholar

20 It might be tempting to argue here, for reasons given earlier, that such recommendations are consistent with the thesis of self-ownership. But Cohen does not make such an argument and it is hard to see how such an argument would help his case.

21 Marx, ‘Critique of the Gotha Program,’ 530

22 Marx, ‘Critique of the Gotha Program,’ 531

23 Ibid.

24 Marx's reasoning here seems similar to that underlying Rawls's Difference Principle. According to Rawls, an arrangement that secures better expectations for the most advantaged is just if and only if such an arrangement improves the expectations of the least advantaged. What this means, inter alia, is that it is permissible to give the talented a greater reward if doing so will lead to an improvement in the prospects of others. Therefore, when Rawls speaks of counteracting the influence of the morally arbitrary features of social life, he does not mean that differences in talents should be extinguished. See Rawls, John A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 1971), 75Google Scholar.

25 Moreover, it also should be added that it is quite difficult to square a commitment to self-ownership with some of the things that Marx says about the natural rights tradition. Marx's thinking about justice and right is materialist and historical in character. As cited above, Marx believes that justice and right can never be higher than the material and cultural development of society, thus rejecting any kind of appeal to transhistorical standards of natural right as a basis for his views about justice. It doesn't follow that we should interpret Marx as a positivist or relativist about justice. For a good overview of the debate on Marx and justice, as well as positive contribution to that debate, see Geras, NormanThe Controversy about Marx and Justice,’ New Left Review 150 (1985) 4785Google Scholar. See also Geras's update of the debate in Norman Geras, ‘Bringing Marx to Justice: An Addendum and Rejoinder,’ New Left Review 195 (1993) 37-69.

26 Marx, Karl Capital, vol. 1 (New York: Vintage Books 1977), 873-6Google Scholar

27 For a development of these arguments see John Roemer, Free to Lose, ch. 5.

28 This is certainly Marx's view also, because he saves his discussion of ‘primitive accumulation’ until the end of Capital, vol. 1, well after his main discussion of exploitation. There is of course no inconsistency between the two explanations; there can be more than one account of why capitalist exploitation is objectionable.

29 This approach to the objectionability of Marxist exploitation is, interestingly enough, suggested, though not elaborated, by Cohen in ‘The Labor Theory of Value and the Concept of Exploitation.’ Surprisingly, he doesn't discuss the reciprocity approach to the moral objectionability of exploitation in his recent work critical of the Marxist theory of exploitation.

30 Rawls draws a contrast between his own approach to justice, which gives a central place to the notion of reciprocity that he believes is contained in concept of a ‘well-ordered society,’ and the principle of utility. See A Theory of Justice, 14, 33.

31 Moreover, although the wage-labor exchange can be voluntary, it can fail to be fully free if workers’ lack of access to the means of production constrains them to sell their labor power. This is another respect in which this second form of asymmetrical reciprocity fails to capture normatively significant aspects of reciprocity.

32 It is also necessary to distinguish between attitudinal and behavioral reciprocity, this distinction pertaining to the different motivations agents may possess. For example, suppose one leaves a tip in a restaurant to reciprocate the good service provided by the waiter. Individual customers might have different motivations for tipping good service. If one frequently patronizes a restaurant, one might want to assure good service in the future. But of course some people also tip in restaurants that they only go to once, so in such a case the consideration of future good service isn't relevant. One can reciprocate apart from any potential reward that might result from such behavior. While these notions might be appropriate for the evaluation of capitalism and for thinking about different forms of socialism, they do not figure in my argument that capitalist-worker relations lack reciprocity.

33 Of course capitalists sometimes go bankrupt and thus do not receive any profits.

34 Whether he endorses the labor theory of value and, if so, in what sense, are complicated matters that we need not concern ourselves with here.

35 For a perspicuous discussion of this slide from positive to normative considerations, to which my account here is indebted, see Levine, Andrew Arguing for Socialism: Theoretical Considerations (London: Verso 1988), 8590Google Scholar.

36 For helpful comments on an earlier draft of this paper I would like to thank G.A. Cohen, Dave Estlund, Andy Levine, Justin Schwartz, and two anonymous referees.