Rawls, Nozick and Gore Vidal on envy

Nozick argues that one of the unchallenged assumptions made by egalitarians is that the have-nots resent the haves only to the extent that the haves possess power and wealth that were unearned. The envious man, if he cannot also possess a talent and success that someone else has prefers that the other not have it either. The envious man prefers neither have it if he does not have it.

An old Russian joke tells of a poor peasant whose better-off neighbour has just bought a cow. In his anguish, the peasant cries out to God for relief from his distress. When God replies and asks him what he wants him to do, the peasant replies “shoot the cow.”

Nozick said that what really rankles the have-nots is the haves who clearly earned their status and possessions:

It may injure one’s self-esteem and make one feel less worthy as a person to know of someone else who has accomplished more or risen higher.

Nozick said that proximity is a bigger factor in the creation of envy than just desert. Envy is local rather than global in its scope with your neighbour as the target of your envy is rather than far-off figures you don’t really know who may be far more wealthy and successful than the people you actually envy in your day to day lives:

Workers in a factory recently started by someone who was previously a worker will be constantly confronted with the following thoughts: ‘Why not me? Why am I only here?”

Whereas one can manage to ignore much more easily the knowledge that someone else has done more if one is not confronted daily with him.

The point, though sharper then, does not depend upon another’s deserving his superior ranking along some dimension. That there is someone else who is a good dancer will affect your estimate of how good you yourself are at dancing, even if you think that a large part of grace in dancing depends upon unearned natural assets.

These considerations make one somewhat sceptical of the chances of equalizing self-esteem and reducing envy by equalizing positions along that particular dimension upon which self-esteem is importantly based.

Knowing that another’s superior ranking along some dimension depends in part upon unearned natural assets does not soften this loss of self-esteem. These considerations made Nozick sceptical of the chances of equalizing self-esteem and reducing envy by equalizing positions along that particular dimension upon which self-esteem is importantly based.

Nozick said that a contraction of options through regulation, redistribution  and other government mandates will only increase envy because it will inevitably result in fewer socially acceptable ways of demonstrating personal worth. With fewer options (i.e. less freedom), the perception of inequality and emotion of envy are likely to be more, not less pronounced. Nozick has point here: primitive societies were racked with envy and  any good fortune good fortune has tainted by genuine luck from  escaping harvest failures and disease.

Nozick said we should expand a person’s options through capitalism thereby making it more likely that he will find something that he does well and on which he can base his self-esteem. Nozick said we should expand a person’s options thereby making it more likely that he will find something that he does well and on which he can base his self-esteem.

Adam Smith wrote that matters of justice can only be resolved if people distance themselves from the grubby particulars their own positions in particular disputes. This view evolved into Rawls arguing that the justice of social institutions should be tested from behind a veil of ignorance where people are ignorant of their particular role in society and individual talents.

Rawls had no place for envy behind his veil of ignorance:

  • Principles of justice should not be affected by individual inclinations, which are also mere accidents; and
  • The parties behind the veil of ignorance should be concerned with their absolute level of primary social goods, not with their standing relative to others.

Rawls was nonetheless alive to the possibility is that:

The inequalities sanctioned by the difference principle may be so great as to arouse envy to a socially dangerous extent.

Rawls’ project was to outline a realistic utopia — a society that could really exist given actual human nature. Political philosophy must describe workable political arrangements that can gain support of real people as they are.

On envy, Rawls’ main fall-back was the background institutions (including a competitive economy) making it likely that excessive inequalities will not be the rule. He recognised that the income of the poorest, along with the whole of society, benefit from competition in a market economy. Richard Epstein explained how the market is important to distributive justice and social peace despite envy:

Strong competitive markets do not favour one individual over another. They work well to harness individual self-interest to generate massive amounts of wealth, widely distributed in society, through voluntary transactions. Behind the veil, rational people should the support of strong and transparent markets as their first order of business.

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Jim Rose
    Nov 17, 2014 @ 13:24:41

    Reblogged this on Utopia – you are standing in it! and commented:

    Reblogged in honour of Robert Nozick’s birthday

    Like

    Reply

  2. Tim Harding
    Jul 28, 2018 @ 23:52:23

    Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

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