One could write a history, beginning in the Enlightenment, of the models of elementary human interaction, from Hobbes’ war of all against all through Rousseau’s pity, Hegel’s master and slave, Marx’s economic exchange, to Girard’s mimetic ambivalence. In the originary scene hypothesized by GA, the fundamental human relation is our common mediation through the central figure designated by the sign. In the previous Chronicle we saw how the perceived violation of the equal/reciprocal terms of this mediation led to resentment. Justice was presented as a norm that is only made thematic by the resentment aroused when it is violated. Does this comprise an adequate “theory of justice”?

The obvious criticism of basing the sense of justice on resentment is that it seems to become amoral; one resentment is as good as another. As analyzed in Chronicle 221, the sense of justice is composed of two elements: in the first place, the internalized model of reciprocal linguistic exchange, or the “moral model,” and, in the second, the representation of a violation of this model. Epistemologically, we become aware of the moral model as a norm only when we represent its violation to ourselves. The question then becomes how we justify our resentment as the reaction to a real violation of this model. How, in other terms, do we distinguish justified from unjustified resentment?

There is no simple answer to this question because, as the recent election diatribes remind us, there is no objective standpoint from which resentment can be judged outside of the intuitions of those who potentially or really experience it. We seek impartial judges and juries who have no stake in the resentments of a given case, but we can only understand resentments by identifying with them, that is, by making them imaginarily our own. There is no algorithmic theory of justice that can adjudicate conflicting resentments by tossing the unjustified ones out of court.

John Rawls’s Theory of [distributive] Justice offers a model for calculating, through a procedure akin to what GA calls “originary analysis,” the relative justice of differentiated social arrangements. The premise is that any difference in fortunes must be justified by a benefit to the group as a whole such that we would accept it in the so-called “original position,” in which we are unaware of the position we would ultimately occupy in the society. Rawls has defended his model with great scrupulousness through several editions of his book and other discussions and writings, conscientiously modifying it in response to objections. If we can use his model to arrive at useful results in a concrete situation, so much the better, but this model can make no anthropological claim (for example, that the equality of distribution in the originary event is the basis of our sense of justice). It could only do so by relinquishing its raison-d’être, the not merely implausible but deliberately paradoxical disparity between the postulated uniformity of the participants in the “original position” and the specialized socio-economic structure into which they are to be integrated.

We can decide what is just in a given case more easily that what is justice itself. Justice, as opposed to its worldly adjectival counterpart, is a metaphysical concept that typifies Socrates’ quest for the Idea. Indeed, we might consider the idea of justice as the paradigmatic case for the impossibility of a constructive definition. If justice takes as its model the originary reciprocity of linguistic exchange, then any deviation from this model is a scandal (a potential source of violence), and any rectification is an ad hoc attempt at restoring equilibrium rather than the output of a preexisting algorithm. A “just” action is an a posteriori attempt at righting in-justice rather than the realization of a pre-given norm. In the general case, equilibrium cannot be restored by simply reversing the timeline.

For example, if I commit a murder, the traditional punishment is that I be put to death on the principle of “an eye for an eye.” But many reject this very symmetry, equating capital punishment with legal murder, a “cruel and unusual punishment” that demeans state power. I am not responsive to this argument, but its popularity makes clear that there is no objective procedure for restoring equilibrium after a murder has been committed; the disequilibrium caused by the murder cannot be measured in any simple way. Our intuition that murder is wrong because it destroys this equilibrium is powerful, but the intuition that suggests the appropriate punishment, even if equally powerful, is not directly linked to originary peace; on the contrary, it urges reciprocal violence. Even if we evoke the evolutionary adaptivity of the intuition behind the death penalty, all this tells us is that it worked in the long term, not that it was the most just or even the most efficient solution.

Judges apply laws; in less formal circumstances, we try to “balance things out.” My sense of this balancing–which would be an interesting object for empirical research–is that it follows two rules of thumb that reflect the two kinds of reciprocity in the originary scene. On the one hand, with objects (I use this term in its broadest possible sense) not previously attributed, we attempt to divide them equally: if children are fighting over candy or a new toy, we attempt to divide access to it equally, whether by turns, sharing, or division. On the other, when an object already belongs to someone, we assert property rights (which are not incompatible with temporary sharing): if Johnny takes Mary’s pencil, we have him return it, then (perhaps) ask her if he may borrow it. Thus, on the one hand, we implement the originary reciprocity that precedes sharing of the central object, and, on the other, we insist on respect for the portions already distributed. We all participate in both the “democracy” of linguistic exchange and the “republic” of material exchange, where reciprocity is mediated by “scarcity” and its concomitant hierarchies. The latter case involves a notion of private property that some would say is culture-bound. But even hunter-gatherers have individual possessions, and, at the limit, there must always be a point at which an object becomes one’s “private property” if one is to be able to use it–say, eat it–at all.

Resentment enters this model when injustice is done: when Johnny takes Mary’s pencil or Jane refuses to let Dick share the new scooter. Such resentments may be equated with a sense of injustice; righting the wrong will satisfy them. But what if Johnny has no pencil of his own and Mary has five of them? The question of distributive justice cannot in practical cases be resolved through procedures such as the utilitarian calculus or Rawls’s “veil of ignorance”; who is to say whether the possible world in which Johnny has as many pencils as Mary would be a better world for all? In the local universe comprising Johnny and Mary, equal distribution might satisfy Johnny but would enrage Mary, who can’t be expected to give pencils to all her pencil-less friends. And because desire is mimetic, as Hobbes recognizes, even if Johnny has his own pencil, he might well find Mary’s more attractive (and she, his).

There is no obvious way to eliminate or satisfy such resentments. Where premodern societies “purge” them through ritual, including such auxiliaries as popular art and carnival, modern societies increasingly recycle them into the system as the energy of ambition. The question for us is whether we experience these “unjustified” resentments in the same way as the others. Does our resentment engine itself operate differently, or does the difference come entirely from without, from the never completely internalized judgments of our “superego”?

The originary model suggests that all resentment is essentially the same. The desire to justify “illegitimate” resentment leads to revolutions: we declare Mary’s extra pencils, perhaps even her first, as the illegitimate rewards of privilege. On the other end of the spectrum, just as love exists only as a constant transcendence of our natural state of resentment, so “good sportsmanship” exists only as a constant transcendence of our natural state of sore loser. Our very admiration for the former trait reflects our understanding that it denies our real feelings; underneath, we always resent inferiority, but the good sport pretends not to feel this resentment out of respect for his fellows.

We may conclude that resentment and the sense of injustice comprise the same complex of idea and feeling, but since the latter explicitly refers to a concept, its expression makes a claim on communal reality that the expression of resentment does not. In the event that his claim of injustice is denied by the community, the resenter learns that similar claims are illegitimate and becomes less likely to make them in the future.

Practical justice applies our prior and posterior rules of equality in consonance with the consensus in a given community. Even though the overarching model of justice is the originary moral model, it cannot apply to concrete situations as the template of a static utopia but only as the horizon of a movement toward greater reciprocity. That all concepts of justice share this horizon allows us to agree, more or less, on the direction in which the social order should move. Contrary to those who despair of the possibility of cohesion in our increasingly diverse culture, I think the path of history, and in particular the success of liberal democracies, demonstrates that these societies are increasingly united on ethical issues.

For example, contrary to what one commonly hears, recent controversies on abortion and homosexuality should be seen as signs of greater moral integration rather than less. In the past, abortion was a crime, but it was sought despite its criminality, and despite “pro-life” beliefs, by many who felt it necessary; homosexual acts took place in a similar atmosphere. Recent developments have made controversies, that is, dialogues, out of closed worlds that once were reconciled only in hypocritical silence. If the woman who has an abortion must deny it in polite society, she is accepting consensus only at the expense of dialogue, in a moral version of what Durkheim called “mechanical solidarity” in contrast to the “organic solidarity” of exchange in which these controversies exist today.

If there is a real danger to this solidarity, it comes from the resentment less of the morally than of the economically disaffected both within our society and, more crucially, in the increasingly Islamic “Third World.” Integrating the economically less successful nations into some kind of global exchange-system may well be the challenge of the new century and of the new millennium.