Rather than a template for the “good society,” originary thinking provides a touchstone for ethical progress: act so as to diminish the overall resentment in the world, in particular by increasing opportunities for the recycling of resentment into beneficial productive activity. This ethical precept reflects the thesis that the principal concern of human culture is and has always been to check the potential violence of mimetic desire. Constructing a model of the good society is unfaithful to the human exchange-system, whose operations have been from the beginning beyond the grasp of any individual mind within the society, and in which since the rise of the market system we participate largely unmediated by ritual.

This ethical precept notwithstanding, the “moral model” of reciprocal exchange first exemplified in the originary event provides the basis for a recurrent temptation to create good-society utopias. The theoretical gesture of measuring a given social order against a moral ideal seems to us an extension of the moral intuition we apply in judging our own actions; whatever our degree of resignation, we cannot help but resent any evidence–even if it is “objectively” false–that we have been victims of a failure of reciprocity. It is only from the standpoint of the originary hypothesis that we can recognize the inadequacy of such extrapolations. Both the moral theory and the personal intuition are direct descendents of the originary exchange of representations. The first moral “theories” are explicitly sacred. Abstract moral theorizing must ultimately appeal to either transcendence or intuition, and the appeal to the former differs only in its rhetoric from appeal to the latter.

These ideas too are situated in history. Determining the proper relationship between morality and ethics poses a particularly acute problem in the postmodern era. The question that has remained with us since the end of WWII is how to overcome the paralysis of Auschwitz; how to acknowledge the necessity of non-reciprocity without condoning genocide. If we hold history’s institutions to the touchstone of the moral model, they will all be found wanting, yet this historical experience tells us that we must do so nonetheless, for if we do not, anything is possible. That accusations of Nazism (or “fascism”) are still current today–and against Israel itself–is a sign that the moral dilemma has not yet been resolved. But unlike metaphysical thought, originary thinking takes the Holocaust as a sign not of the need to resolve this dilemma, but of the necessity of leaving it aside. Making the world a better place does not require–is in fact incompatible with–a prior image of the world made good.


The most serious attempt to grapple with this postmodern quandary is that of John Rawls, whose A Theory of Justice (1971) remains the era’s most important work of moral philosophy. To sum up Rawls’ basic idea: if we imagine humanity in an “original position” when society is just coming into existence, so that the participants’ (future) place in it is hidden from us by a “veil of ignorance,” then they will agree on the criteria of a good society, since their uncertainty will inspire all of them to create a set of safeguards that would protect them from unfairness in the event they are assigned one of society’s less desirable roles. We can accept this agreement, unbiased by the participants’ knowledge of their social role, as universal humanity’s best judgment. Rawls considers that under these conditions the least fortunate will be assured that they will reap a positive benefit from any inequality in the overall distribution of social goods; any such inequality can be justified only by demonstrating that eliminating it would make the least well off still less well off than if it remained. (This is an economically-oriented version of Sartre’s “existentialist” notion that the measure of freedom in a society is that of its least free member.) This conclusion has many ramifications that Rawls examines at great length, both within the book and subsequent to its publication, as part of his laudable effort to enter into dialogue with any number of other points of view.

Rawls’ original position in which all human difference has disappeared behind the “veil of ignorance” has much in common with the anthropological originary scene; what it lacks is scenicity. This Enlightenment-style thought-experiment is more a parable than the model of a hypothetical event. If–against its creator’s intention–we attempt to situate the original position in a narrative, it could only be a theistic one; only a transcendent power could throw the “veil of ignorance” over these “original” humans. The closest thing to it in the secular utopias of the recent past is the dream of an agency that regulates both production and consumption in such a way as to fulfill the preexisting desires and exploit the preexisting talents of each individual. This is the conception that presides over the Fourierist phalanstère, or Marx’s half-serious portrait of the socialist man who is able to hunt in the morning and fish in the afternoon because the distribution of goods and services is handled by “society” (see Chronicle 278).

Nevertheless, Rawls’ construction has not only been widely influential, it has held the field virtually to itself. Although it has inspired volumes of critique, none of Rawls’ critics have constructed a rival model that allows us to mediate as his does between the condemnation of inequality and its resigned acceptance. The models, for example, of “rational choice” theory are based more in economics than ethics; their creators share GA’s skepticism about moral theorizing, without however being able to account for the universality of our moral intuition–save perhaps as a biological adaptation.

If we leave aside for the moment the question of agency, Rawls’ scenario resembles our hypothetical originary event, in which any previous hierarchy of distribution breaks down under mimetic pressure, so that the participants, whose future social roles may truly be said to be undetermined, require and receive assurance–through the mediation of a transcendental agent revealed/invented at this moment–that the distribution of the central object be as equal as possible. Such rough equality is typical, as we know, of hunter-gatherer societies to this day. By forcing ourselves to see Rawls’ original position in this manner we gain from it an appreciation for the intuition of equality that lends plausibility to his construction of morality–or Kant’s–even in its ahistorical form. For it is only because there is indeed a historical basis for our intuition that all humans are fundamentally equal that metaphysical moral theories such as those of Kant and Rawls are plausible; they are in fact exercises of the scenic imagination that cannot be explained in the absence of an originary event. This does not mean that we have in the depths of our brains some Jungian archetype of an originary scene, but that the very thing that makes us human, the exchange of representations with ourselves and others, presupposes this fundamental reciprocity; no language can maintain a distinction between its speakers and its listeners.

Yet another feature of Rawls’ model seems incompatible with any conceivable originary context; it presupposes, without actually thematizing it, that the society to be constituted will involve highly differentiated roles, some of which are very much more desirable than others. I emphasize the “very much” because the just society Rawls sketches contains significant inequalities that are patent to all concerned and which necessarily generate resentment. The burden of Rawls’ quasi-scene is to provide a criterion for judging–in the light, I would insist, of the maximal injustice of the Holocaust–such radically unequal societies. And given the abstract nature of the transcendent agent that will ultimately distribute the roles, Rawls’ model applies just as well to the entire human world as to any particular community. Abstraction permits Rawls to ignore thearticulation of the social order and, as his conservative critics emphasize, to consider the distribution of roles independently of the organic connection of individuals within the society. In his attempt to resolve the moral dilemma of postmodernity, Rawls has invented an ingenious means of superimposing the undifferentiated moral model on an intricately differentiated modern society.

What should make us suspicious of Rawls’ model is that the behavior of these hypothetical beings whose individuality is hidden behind the veil of ignorance cannot really be intuited. They are being asked to choose among hypothetical social models on the basis of an existential fear imported from the originary scene, where fear of inequality and of violence leads to the establishment of equality here and now. Rawls assumes that the veil of ignorance entails the coincidence of our self-interest with that of justice, and that this self-interest is clear enough for us to be able to reason about it. But it is by no means obvious that the fear of occupying the worst role would be determinant; indeed, the “rational” choice would be a society with the highest average, or at least median, complement of human values: to maximize overall expectation rather than being assured of a higher minimum. A society of millionaires with a 1% population of homeless would be preferred by most over a society where everyone makes $1000 per year.  The only superiority of Rawls’ system over the old utilitarian calculus comes from his borrowing of the existential angst of the originary confrontation. The original position is a guarantee of morality only to the extent to which it embodies fear–whose object, as the originary hypothesis suggests, is more violence than poverty.

Unlike Rawls’ theory, originary thinking, by referring to an explicit scene situated in time, does not attempt to dissolve the tension between the originary moral model of absolute reciprocity and the ethics of the historically existing social order. Although Rawls writes as though it goes without saying that we must apply the moral model not merely to specific interactions but to broad categories of social existence, this use of the “original position” as a moral touchstone for the national or global social order is a development conceivable only in the postmodern era. An ancient Greek or Roman, a medieval monk, a 19th century colonialist–even an early Christian awaiting the Second Coming–would have found such an enterprise incomprehensible. Yet to situate Rawls’ model itself in history is not to “relativize” moral values; on the contrary, it is only by so doing that we can discover the mediations between originary morality and the ethical principles of our own society.


The central tenet of generative anthropology is that human order is a response to the threat of violence inherent in mimetic desire. Yet the term “violence” does not appear in Rawls’ index, and the danger posed by the breakdown of social order is never considered. On the contrary, Rawls entertains the option of civil disobedience as a means of protest against “injustice,” but as for the danger that such protest might lead to disorder, we have only the near-tautological assertion, “Yet if justified civil disobedience seems to threaten civic concord, the responsibility falls not upon those who protest but upon those whose abuse of authority and power justifies such opposition” (390-91). In other words, if those in power are unjust, then they are responsible for the disorder they provoke, even if this disorder leads to total chaos–but chaos is never a serious consideration in Rawls’ civilized Anglo-Saxon world. As for how we are to decide what is just or unjust in such circumstances, Rawls’ epistemology presupposes that however difficult this may be in practice, there is always a correct answer, one that can in most cases be obtained by following the chains of reasoning in his book.

The concept that in Rawls’ universe stands for the potential violence of mimetic desire is envy. In the course of his introductory exposition of the original position (section 25), Rawls excludes envy ex hypothesi as a motivation, leaving until later the question of “whether the conception arrived at is feasible in view of the circumstances of human life” (144). Yet when in section 81 Rawls finally comes to deal with this subject, after explaining that in a society with adequate opportunity for self-improvement, envy does not pose a threat (the feature of market society I call the “recycling of resentment”), he takes to task “conservative writers” who “have contended that the tendency to equality in modern social movements is the expression of envy” (538):

Yet to insist upon equality as the two principles of justice [roughly, equal rights and equal opportunity] define it is not to give voice to envy. This is shown by the content of these principles and the characterization of envy. It is also evident from the nature of the parties in the original position: the conception of justice is chosen under conditions where by hypothesis no one is moved by rancor and spite. (sec. 25) Thus the claims to equality supported by the two principles do not spring from these feelings. The claims of those affirming the principles may sometimes express resentment, but this as we have seen is another matter. (emphasis mine)

This is a surprisingly egregious example of petitio principi. Having decided to hypothesize the absence of envy in the construction of his just society, Rawls has no right to appeal to this exclusion in answer to the empirical question of whether egalitarianism is motivated by envy. Rawls’ difficulty is that he wants to build a society without considering the fundamental reason why society exists, which is to prevent “envy” from destroying the socio-economic order. But if we transform the “original position” into an originary scene in which individual envy becomes the origin of collective morality, we can showboth that the desire for equality conforms to the moral model that is the basis of Rawls’ intuition of justice and that this desire is motivated by resentment/envy. When we feel we are unequally treated, it is true both that we are envious of those better off and that we are not merely envious: our sense of justice is offended. Rawls thinks he has to choose between the envious motivation of our reaction and its moral justification, whereas it is precisely this conjunction that is the core of the human.


What lends Rawls’ system its plausibility despite its underestimation of the power of “envy” is its tacit reliance on the broad equality of opportunity that exists only in the market system. His book appeared in 1971, after 25 years of Cold War, and its ahistorical abstraction notwithstanding, its vision of the just society is clearly modeled on a mildly left-wing, “Labour” version of Western market society. Whatever its inadequacies, Rawls’ constructive ethical model is worthy of admiration in an era of deconstruction and postmodernist nihilism. But a system of justice that ignores the potential violence of mimetic desire cannot meet the “post-millennial” challenge of defending our social order against the virulent resentment that finds its current expression in radical Islam. The implication of the originary hypothesis is that justice, like love–like all of culture–cannot be understood as a fixed set of ideal relations, but only as the unending transcendence of resentment.