[This post is the seventh in a series drawing on a recent paper of mine, 'Staying Home: G.A. Cohen and the Motivational Basis of Socialism'. The previous posts in the series are here: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.]
Extending feelings of community
Internal to the camping trip ethos there is a clear dose of self-interest acting as a precondition to community sentiment and the desire to do things for others. The communal motivation does not simply make its own way, so to put it. How much more difficult to envisage its making its own way, without the supporting precondition, in the larger, societal context. The difficulty is intrinsic; it is not due merely to the want of an effective social technology for harnessing generosity. So far I have argued for this conclusion from the tension identified in Cohen's own text. But there are independent grounds for thinking the same thing, and I now move on to them.
It should be an obvious point, but the typical camping trip is shared with family, friends, neighbours and other connected sort of folk, and it is a standard observation that we tend to treat such people differently, more generously, than we do unrelated strangers. How does Cohen handle the point? In an interesting passage he refers to a song from his childhood expressing the sentiment that it would be a wonderful world in which we considered each other 'a neighbour, a friend or a brother'. To the anticipated objection that one could not possibly be friends with the millions of people of a large society Cohen responds: 'But the song need not be treated in that overambitious fashion. It suffices that I treat everyone with whom I have any exchange or other form of contact as someone toward whom I have the reciprocating attitude characteristic of friendship'.12
Cohen's sufficing hypothesis here is question-begging. Even if, as he at once goes on to say, friendship is not an all-or-nothing relationship but a matter of more and less, we may ask: does the non-overambitious notion of friendship that he projects include, or does it not include, enough of the favouring attitudes standardly shown towards others in the genuine family-and-friendship circle to make it like authentic friendship? If it does, this is an exorbitant expectation – the expectation of a society in which all people would relate to one another pretty much as if they were actual friends. If it does not, then Cohen must have in mind something more like relationships of civility or considerateness than of authentic friendship and we are back where we started: wondering why the friendship model of the camping trip should be thought generalizable to a society of millions when the attitudes that are common among (ideal) camping trip companions do not in fact carry over into the great wide world.
We are to extend the attitude characteristic of friendship, extend it without limit – to everyone, says Cohen. Everyone? To those who are rude to us, or condescending, or dishonest, or vicious? I have come to wonder whether in constructing the argument of Why Not Socialism? Jerry ever gave any thought to the idea of there being people with whom he wouldn't want to share a camping trip. For my part I can certainly think of some: not only particular individuals, whom I could name but naturally will not; but whole categories of putative campers whose company on a camping trip might not be entirely congenial: the very selfish or exceptionally difficult; free-riders; people whose views one finds hateful or whose values repugnant or whose obsessions tiresome; those who talk a lot about themselves but show no interest in the lives and concerns of others; parents being unkind to their children; children who have not learned forms of desirable restraint; and so on.
Is it that we are to assume there would be no people like this in a future society of socialist equality of opportunity and communal reciprocity – that, consequently, for every individual there would be no one towards whom they could not feel sentiments of communal friendship? If this is supposed to be the assumption, I can see no possible warrant for it based on the common experience of humankind. Why not then just avail oneself, as Cohen precisely does not, of a parallel assumption regarding the social technology for harnessing human generosity – that something suitable will turn up? Why not just dream of utopian harmony without making any effort to anticipate and solve known difficulties? That is not, in general, the spirit of Cohen's enterprise.
The mere wishing away of likely obstacles blocking the path towards a better world is no more appropriate with respect to patterns of human feeling and interaction than it is to problems of social organization. On the basis of our present knowledge, we must assume that for many, probably most, sets of human beings there will be some other human beings for whom they do not feel a strong sense of friendship, and with some of whom they will not want to spend time on a camping trip (or even anywhere) if they can avoid doing so. Cohen's camping trip analogy is therefore incompletely used by him: he does not explore all the contours of this motivational terrain.
 WNS, pp. 51-2.
(Part 8 is here.)