Envy and Efficiency

Joseph Heath

Table of Contents


One of the weaknesses of the Pareto principle as a normative standard is that it is easily undermined by the presence of envy. If the mere fact that one person‚s condition improves serves to worsen the condition of others, then it may be impossible to make any Pareto-improvements. As a result, philosophers who take the Pareto efficiency principle seriously typically try to exclude envy from the set of preferences that they treat as normatively salient. In this paper, it is argued that the two most prominent strategies for doing so (those adopted by John Rawls and David Gauthier), are much too broad, and wind up excluding a number of very reasonable concerns people may have about their relative standing in various social hierarchies. A new approach is recommended, one that focuses more upon the character of the goods that serve as the object of preference.

Key Words

envy, efficiency, relative preference, positional goods, competitive consumption