Is There a Role for Envy in a Liberal Theory? Rawls, Social Unity, and Justice

Frye, Harrison, Government - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Klosko, George, Department of Politics, University of Virginia
Bird, Colin, Department of Politics, University of Virginia

A long-standing objection to redistributive policies is that they are motivated by envy. We may wonder whether this objection is worth taking seriously. Nonetheless, some theorists of justice distance themselves from envy, and perhaps no theorist more than John Rawls. This paper provides a critical review of Rawls on envy. Two recent publications challenge Rawls’s treatment, pushing for an expanded role for envy in his ideal theory of justice. I will defend Rawls against these challenges, drawing attention to his Rousseauvian affinities. This discussion gives insight into the substantive concern behind the charge of envy: leveling-down without compensating societal benefits damages the crucial social value of reciprocity. However, Rawls’s account of envy is limited to just circumstances. I conclude by arguing that envy might be productive in facing injustice. When we lack the right institutions and motivations, we might employ less attractive aspects of human psychology to motivate action.

MA (Master of Arts)
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