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 towards envy. In A Theory of Justice, Rawls is predominantly concerned with the threat that class envy – or what he calls general envy – poses to political stability. By contrast, he does not think that particular envy – the type of envy that arises between peers competing for the same objects – would be in any way problematic for his ideal political society. I contest this claim by pointing to the politically deleterious effects that peer envy would likely have within a society ordered according to his principles of justice. Section 1 reconstructs Rawls’s conception of peer envy, underlining the causal connection that he draws between this emotion and rivalry. Section 2 argues that since Rawls wishes to promote rivalry within the political and economic spheres, there is good reason to believe that his ideal just society would be marked by elevated levels of peer envy – and perhaps hazardously so. In Section 3, I then briefly turn to ancient Greece, showing how its agonistic culture generated politically destabilizing levels of peer envy. This is followed by an overview of the key institutional mechanisms that the Greeks developed in order to keep peer envy within socially beneficial limits. I conclude that if Rawlsians wish to establish a society structured around political and economic rivalry, they would do well to reflect on the institutional means by which peer envy can be effectively harnessed.


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