'Excusable general envy' and justice: Questions for John Rawls
Dr Miriam Bankovsky (La Trobe University)

March 21, 2013, 12:00pm - 1:30pm
Philosophy, University of Melbourne

Linkway Meeting Room, 4th floor, John Medley building.
University of Melbourne, Parkville

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Abstract: Rawls is correct to refuse to assign to 'envy' the status of a moral sentiment. Unlike the moral sentiments, which affirm the idea of collective advantage, 'envy' produces antisocial and pathological behaviour.

That said, Rawls overlooks the moral relevance of 'excusable general envy' for a theory of justice. Envy is general when it characterises the sentiments of groups rather than individuals, and it is excusable (albeit immoral) when the basic social structure is largely responsible for its production. On the one hand, Rawls does not expect such envy to emerge in a society well-ordered by justice. On the other hand, it turns out that the 'just constitution' cannot prevent its production, since a constitution is bound to limit itself uniquely to the protection of those public values (basic liberties) on which overlapping consensus actually obtains. This effectively rules out the protection of the difference and fair equality of opportunity principles (which are more demanding and controversial). Consequently, Rawls's theory can no longer guarantee that the 'inevitable injustices' of a just constitution will be equally shared, because permanent and heavy socio-economic injustice can persist, wounding the self-respect of the disadvantaged, even when basic liberties are formally upheld.   This problem leaves Rawls unable to take seriously our collective responsibility for manifestations (albeit immoral) of 'excusable general envy', because he does not acknowledge their distant origin in a sentiment of justice (albeit distorted and pathological). Indeed, to do so would be to subscribe to a theory that resembles that of Axel Honneth rather than Rawls.   Venue: Linkway Meeting Room on the 4th floor of the John Medley building

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