Envy and the Desire for Equality

Envy is not to be confused with jealousy. One is jealous of what one has, envious of what other people have. Nor is envy to be confused with generalized resentment. Real envy is personal. You envy a particular person. You don’t envy a class – say, the rich. You may resent the rich, but envy is reserved for a specific person who has gotten richer than you and, you are quite sure, does not deserve it.
“Real envy is reserved not for the great or the greatly gifted, but for those whose situation seems only slightly better than our own.” (Epstein)
We envy people who we see as roughly comparable. I don’t envy LeBron James because I have long since given up any hope of that kind of athletic genius. But another middle-aged minister whose basketball skills clearly exceed my own might trigger a brief, ‘hey, why not me?’ thought. So women tend to envy other women and men tend to envy other men – because we see them as being in a comparable position, and we’d like to do as well as they do.

Envy is also the only one of the seven deadlies to be proscribed in the ten commandments. Yahweh declares himself to be jealous, and forbids us to be envious:
“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”
Not a word in the ten commandments, or, indeed, anywhere in the Tanakh – which Christians call the Old Testament – prohibiting the other six. Leviticus, in particular, is filled with page after page of rules, but nothing there forbids gluttony, anger, sloth, pride, or greed. There are a lot of ways your lust cannot be expressed, but there’s no law against lust itself. Coveting, however, that’s not allowed.

Why not? The commandments already say, “You shall not steal.” So as long as coveting your neighbor’s house or ox doesn’t lead to stealing it, what’s wrong with coveting it? The commandments already say, “You shall not commit adultery.” So as long as coveting your neighbor’s spouse doesn’t lead to that, what’s the problem?

The problem, I guess, is that other side of envy: the side that says, well never mind me getting it, I’ll just make sure my neighbor doesn’t have it either. If your neighbor’s ox mysteriously dies, you haven’t exactly stolen it. Iago doesn’t end up with Desdemona – he just makes sure Othello doesn’t have her either. Iago’s envy and Othello’s jealousy together drive the plot.

Nasty business, this envy.

This, “If-I-can’t-have-it-you-can’t-either” impulse runs deep. In an experiment with chimpanzees, there’s a chimp in a cage, there’s a table of their favorite foods outside the cage. The cage is on wheels and the chimp can reach out, grab the edge of the table and pull it over and get the food. There’s also a rope attached to a couple of the table legs. Pulling on the rope causes the table to collapse and the food to roll away, irretrievably out of reach. Now put two chimps in side by side cages. They can both reach the table, and they each have their own rope that can collapse the table. As long as they pull the table closer to where they both can reach it and share the food, all was well. But if one chimp pulled the table over toward himself out of the reach of the other chimp, then the aggrieved chimp would often pull the rope, collapse the table and thus ensure that neither of them got the food.

Often. Not always. Some chimps have the “if I can’t have it you can’t either” impulse stronger than others. It’s the same with their cousins, the humans. And it’s a good thing. We need people who care about equality just for equality’s sake – even when that sometimes means taking away something from someone else with no tangible benefit to anyone.

That’s a strange thing to say. But even though there may not seem to be any benefit in one particular instance, over the longer haul there may be. The chimp who pulls the rope to deny food to another chimp gets no benefit THIS TIME. But next time, the greedy chimp will be more likely to share. Maybe in some circumstances we know that there will be and can be no next time, but our emotions are wired the way they are from millions of generations dealing with situations in which there were next times.

An important detail that I didn’t mention is that when a deprived chimp does pull the rope to say, “fine, then neither of us is getting any food,” that chimp doesn’t just quietly pull the rope, as if the collapsing table might have been some unfortunate accident. Oh, no.
“When the table rolled away from them, the annoyed chimps exploded in rage, turning into screeching black furballs.” (Ariely)
They are very loud about communicating a message for next time: treat me fairly. The roots of envy lie in an impulse to insist upon equality because even though there may be no benefit to you this time, you increase your odds of better treatment next time. Without that impulse, we’d never have developed as much fairness as we have.

Life isn’t fair, but it’s a good thing for human beings in their dealings with each other to try to be.

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This is part 19 of "The Seven Deadlies" (Part 2 on Envy)
Next: Part 20: "Upsides of Envy"
Previous: Part 18: "Wanting the Cow Dead"
Beginning: Part 1: "Seven and Sins"