Two sections of Chapter IX of A Theory of Justice take up the apparently provincial question of how to respond to socially destructive psychological propensities with envy being used as the specific case for the general question. The point of this posting will not just be to critically reconstruct the argument of these sections but also to use them to answer the question of why Rawls bothers to expend space on an argument that might strike some as not particularly significant.
The introduction of this question marks a shift in the general strategy of the argument of Theory. Within the original position Rawls assumed that there were not operative destructive psychological propensities as something like envy was taken not to motivate a rational person. This was part of the general removal of special contingent psychological circumstances from the specific choice situation defined in the original position. In making this move Rawls correctly followed the Kantian interpretation of justice as fairness although, in so doing, he certainly simplified the situation within the original position. But part of the point in adopting such simplified assumptions is that there is no evident moral value in any special psychological states and we wished there to arrive at a situation in which contingencies that lacked moral value were eliminated.
However when introducing the question of envy Rawls strikes a new note admitting here that such psychological states as this do exist and have, in some sense, to be dealt with as part of the theory of justice. What is his justification for undertaking an examination of such a question? It is that the general discussion of justice has two separate parts. The first part, which involved the discussion of the original position, proceeding on the assumptions of aiming to clarify rational discussion of justice without introduction of contingencies that lacked moral value. The second part, in which envy comes on the scene as a topic to be discussed, asks now whether the well-ordered society is one that will encourage feelings such as envy to develop and in so doing will create circumstances that are not favourable to its survival. So the discussion of envy is a special case of a general problem of the stability of the well-ordered society. Should this society really be subject to problems in terms of its possible encouragement of destructive propensities that destabilise it then it could yet be the case that the justificatory force of the earlier arguments given could yet have to be revised.
In looking specifically at envy Rawls has to make some distinctions concerning the way it is to be understood. In doing so he distinguishes between two forms of envy: looking at what he terms "general" envy as opposed to "particular" envy. General envy has social force in terms of the kinds of goods some possess as against the particular items they have. So general envy focuses on something like the opportunities possessed by some as opposed to others. Particular envy, by contrast, is well expressed in rivalry and competition where something specific is fought over. To understand the latter it is necessary to have a conception of the kinds of things that can be fought over just as to grasp the former it is necessary to understand what types of opportunities provoke general envy. The comprehension of such questions is focused for Rawls by his notion of primary goods which includes a sense of opportunities, liberties, income and wealth.
On this basis Rawls arrives at a general definition of envy as "the propensity to view with hostility the greater good of others even though their being more fortunate than we are does not detract from our advantages". In understanding envy in this way Rawls is pointing to the way that the comparative sense involved in it is one that is operative regardless of any specific material disadvantage suffered by the one possessed of envy. Such disadvantage may afflict them (particularly in the case of particular envy) but it is not a necessary feature of envy and even if it is given it may not be a disadvantage in practice (i.e. may not prevent the envied person achieving anything they wish to). Further envy is such that deprivation of the goods in question from the person envied may even be to the disadvantage of the one possessed by envy and yet still be desired by the latter. The other problem provoked by envy is that discovery of its existence by the one envied may provoke them to jealous clinging to their advantages in such a way that they feel obliged to protect themselves against others. So envy provokes a kind of arms race between the one envied and the one suffering envy and this is the reason why Kant discussed envy as a vice.
This does not mean that there cannot be such a thing as "benign envy" as when we describe someone as having an enviable situation as they possess something we take to be good without wishing to deprive them of it or feeling we are in any sense worse off by them possessing it. We are, in such a benign case, agreeing with the one possessing the valued thing that it is indeed valuable. Slightly differently there can be an emulative type of envy in which we engage in competition with someone for something, such as a kind of status, without either of us thereby falling into the destructive spiral described above. It is the case that emulative envy is liable to become destructive under some conditions but it is not necessarily a destructive feeling.
Rawls is careful to argue that there is nothing intrinsically moral about envy. What is meant by this claim is that there does not exist a moral principle that can be cited as a justification for envy. In saying this Rawls distinguishes envy from resentment as resentment is taken by him to be a moral feeling. When resentment is expressed it is, according to Rawls, a response to unjust situations or wrongful conduct and thus refers to an injury suffered. Rawls also distinguishes envy from other non-moral feelings that might be thought related to it, such as jealously. Rawls describes jealously, however, in a somewhat odd way as he relies on the sense of it that is used when we say that someone is "jealous" of their possessions rather than when we say that someone is jealous of the way someone else than themselves is receiving the lions' share of glory for something. Because Rawls thinks of jealously in this way he takes it to be the "reverse" of envy rather than being, as it may often be, simply a different kind of way of experiencing a very similar response to something.
More interesting than the contrast between envy and jealously is the one that Rawls mentions between envy and spite where the latter is characterised as the inclination to deny someone else a benefit one does not need and perhaps cannot even use oneself. The latter is, like envy, a kind of vice in being a trait that is socially detrimental. This does not mean that envy is never "excusable" since if someone feels that they lack self-respect and it would be unreasonable to expect them not to feel this then envy of others might be a response to be expected from them.
Having given this general discussion of envy Rawls turns next to the likelihood of it endangering the stability of the well-ordered society. In doing so Rawls claims that the root of envy is a lack of self-confidence in our own worth combined with a sense of an inability to alter matters. Three conditions are listed by Rawls as likely to encourage envy in a destructive way. The first is that the psychological condition just mentioned prevails and the second is that social circumstances occur in which the discrepancy between oneself and others is made painfully visible to one. The third is that there is no constructive alternative open to the one who experiences the feelings in question.
The listing of these circumstances is meant to provide the means to assess the construction of the well-ordered society. In such a society self-esteem is taken to be a primary good and circumstances of arranging for its cultivation are general. So publicly all are treated as equal and everyone possesses the same basic rights. A common sense of justice prevails and instills civic relations between persons. Part of this is that no assumes that the better off are thereby morally preferable to anyone else. So the less fortunate are not taken to be inferior in any central sense and this should enable them to bear better the circumstances in which they are placed than in other forms of society.
The absolute and relative differences between members of society are to be less than in other societies as the spread of income and wealth should not be excessive in practice given the background institutions of the society. Natural duties are honoured in practice which will include the diminution of conspicuous display of social differences by means of wealth. So the liability to envy is unlikely to be strongly evoked. Finally, there will be constructive alternatives to envy within such a society. So there are no specific reasons to think that there would be troublesome conditions of envy within the well-ordered society.
The second part of Rawls' discussion of envy has a different focus than the first part. Having assessed the reasons for thinking that envy is not a problem for the well-ordered society Rawls next looks at the arguments for taking envy to be bound up with demands for a more egalitarian order. Conservative writers often present demands of this sort as motivated by envy but Rawls points out that this cannot be said to be the ground of the principles of justice. These principles are justified by means of a procedure that allows no scope for such feelings as envy and whilst it is possible that some who argue for these principles feel resentment that is quite different for the reasons given. The principles are justified by reference to criteria of universality and generality not by means of special circumstances.
Rawls also rejects other types of arguments that relate demands for justice to envy such as the ones given by Freud. Freud's arguments can be responded to on the grounds of Rawls' earlier account of the morality of authority as certainly requiring first of all inculcation of principles based on the simple standing of the one making them but as requiring, in a well-ordered society, development into the basis of character in such a way that they are autonomously justified.
The specific discussion of envy is brief and what it does is show a basis for thinking that the account of moral sentiments is provided in order to show the means by which positive feelings can be developed. The presence of negative feelings is facilitated and encouraged by conditions that breed them so Rawls' argument is meant to show that the change of such conditions is the ground for hope that destructive motivations would also thereby reduce. To the critic who alleges that Rawls has not dealt seriously enough with the topic it is possible to respond by pointing out that the general account of moral psychology he has provided can be backed up further by a Kantian conception of the person. Such a conception, when reinforced by conditions that positively affirm it, permits the hope that emotions could develop on grounds that are different in connection with background conditions that are.