Res Publica 14(2008) (peer-reviewed)
In his multi-faceted attack on Rawls’s account of justice, G.A. Cohen has argued that the notion of basic structure is necessarily insensitive to the importance of informal social norms to social justice. The paper argues that the most plausible account of the basic structure is not blind to informal social norms in any meaningful sense. Whereas informal, non-legally coercive institutions are not part of the basic structure as such, their careful consideration is necessary for the assessment of whether the basic structure itself is indeed just. This claim is based on an account of what it means for normative principle to apply to institutions, which I expound in detail throughout the paper. Principles apply to institutions, I argue, not in that they restrain their conduct, but in that they indicate which social conditions they should bring about.
John Rawls, G.A. Cohen, Social justice, Social norms, Institutional theories of justice.