Warding off the Evil Eye: Peer Envy in Rawls's Just Society

Archiv für Geschichte der Philosophie (forthcoming)
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This article critically analyzes Rawls’s attitude toward envy. In A Theory of Justice, Rawls is predominantly concerned with the threat that class envy poses to political stability. Yet he also briefly discusses the kind of envy that individuals experience toward their social peers, which he calls particular envy, and which I refer to as peer envy. He quickly concludes, however, that particular envy would not present a serious risk to the stability of his just society. In this article, I contest this claim by arguing that the principles that structure Rawls’s ideal society are likely to exacerbate particular envy to a politically risky extent. Section 1 reconstructs his account of envy, giving special attention to his belief that competition kindles envy between peers. Section 2 then examines the way in which Rawls often endorses rivalry within the body politic. I argue that the society governed by justice as fairness is, on account of this rivalry, likely to generate a politically problematic degree of particular envy. In Section 3, I invoke ancient Greece as an example of a society that was, as a result of its intense competitiveness, often imperiled by dangerously elevated levels of peer envy. I then survey the key institutional mechanisms by which the ancient Greeks sought to manage this hazardous emotion. It turns out, however, that most of these mechanisms would be unavailable to Rawls insofar as they starkly contravene his principles of justice. I conclude that if Rawlsians wish to establish a society that fosters rivalry, they would do well to reflect on the means by which peer envy can be effectively harnessed.

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James S. Pearson
University of Amsterdam


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