Envy in Rawls: Rousseau, Nietzsche and Resentment

Rawls versus Nietzsche
Chapter 81 of Rawls’ A Theory of Justice addresses ‘Envy and Inequality’, with passing reference to Nietzsche. Nietzsche appears on three occasions in the book, and is the representative of what is bad. H eis lined with Aristotle as Perfectionist, a follower of the morality of self-perfection. Nietzsche is presented as giving an egomaniac version of perfectionism. Aristotle’s moral ideal is an emotionally controlled slave owning aristocrat who regards himself as superior to slaves, labourers, foreigners and women. That does rather leave a question mark over any assumption that Aristotle is morally preferable to Nietzsche, but our main concern here is the comments on envy. Nietzsche turns up as the bad philosopher who finds envy everywhere. Rawls quite rightly observes that Nietzsche places envy at the centre of social relations and psychology.

Ressentiment, Envy and Egalitarian Liberalism

Structure of Ressentiment in Nietzsche
Rawls does not think that envy is an intrinsic part of human relations. For Nietzsche, envy as ressentiment, is at the heart of all psychology and social relations. Consciousness itself is constituted in the pain of the denial of instinct, and that denial is repeated in the origins of society. Those structures of ressentiment are given another form in the relation of master and slave, which reduces the slave to ressentiment in the powerlessness which prevents the execcution of revenge against the master. Ressentiment clearly translates from French as ‘resentment’ and as it contains the word ‘sentiment‘ brings in strong overtones of feeling itself. Nietzsche regarded the animal which can feel consciously as the animal which has a consciousness structured by ressentiment. In Nietzsche, that refers to the desire for revenge frustrated and turned into an impotent obsession with imaginary punishment. It is suggested that time itself produces such a reaction, as time places the past outside the power of consciousness. The realisation of the relation is a major dramatic and structural element of Thus Spoke Zarathustra; and is discussed in On the Genealogy of Morality in a relatively discursive manner.
Eliminating Envy in Rawls
Rawls refers to envy as the product of inequality that cannot be justified to those who have less. The idea of justified inequality is a pillar of Rawls’ thought. It is expressed in his famous ‘difference principle’. That principle is presented as the product of a rationality that precedes actual social relations, that is the ‘veil of ignorance’ which allows the design of a political system without regard to the place of the designer in any hierarchy in that system. Difference, that is inequality, is justified where it benefits the worst off in that society, where it increases the living standards of the poorest. The point of the chapter is that following the difference principle eliminates envy. Where the poorest can find that inequality raises their living standards, the inequality does not result in envy. That envy avoidance requires special measures to compensate for unjustified inequality, e.g. disadvantage that results from disability. Rawls’ liberalism here seems rather utopian, envy will be eliminated by sufficient public spending judiciously targeted.
Philosophy of Envy in Rousseau and Nietzsche
Rousseau is one of the main positive references for Rawls. Strangely he omits the account of envy in Rousseau’s discourse on inequality. Rousseau thinks of envy as emerging after the institution of property where individuals compares themselves with each other, and imagine how they appear in the imagination of others. This is the negative opposite of the sympathy Rousseau thinks humans feel for each other by nature. The possession by any person of more than other people will result in this envy. Rousseau sees envy as the inevitable result of inequity, All that can avoid envy is complete equality between individuals.

A Silence in Rawls
Rousseau exists in Rawls in a rationalised form, as a theorist of contract. The more extreme and disturbing aspects of Rousseau are silently excluded in Rawls. Instead we get a framework for rationally limiting envy. There is a lot of scope for intervening against unjustified inequality through compensation, but no scope for eliminating inequality. Rousseau accepted that large states will have social inequality, but is guided by the ideal of an autarchic community of small property owners. No such state can exist for Rawls. The Rtawlsian society is not driven by the energies of envy, or passion of any kind.

Rawls imagines a system of political justice which excludes passion. Envy itself is based on a depersonalised comparison between individuals. Rousseau’s citizens are driven by political and social passions, Rawls’ social actors are driven by a rational conception of society detached from individual interests and passions. Both Nietzsche and Rousseau deal with the human animal separated from nature, Rawls imagines a purely rational agent abstracted from any individual desires.

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