2013-08-12

Upsides of Envy

Envy -- arguably the least fun of the seven deadly sins -- has a positive side. The pinch of envy might spur us to a wholesome pursuit of justice, or it might drive us work harder to achieve the qualities we admire in others.

Envy springs from the same place from which comes concern for justice and equality. The impulse that makes us care about fairness and equality is a little voice that has been hardwired into us to say, “I don’t want anyone to have it better than me.” As William Hazlitt remarked:
“Envy, among other ingredients, has a love of justice in it.”
The envious tend -- for good and for ill -- to be injustice collectors. Envy is what we get mired in when the childish demand that everything be perfectly equal isn’t qualified and moderated by understanding.

Envy also has roots in another, secondary source: admiration.
“Aristotle writes of emulation as good envy, or envy ending in admiration, and thus in the attempt to imitate the qualities one began by envying” (Joseph Epstein)
Noticing a certain inequality – someone has a talent or a virtue in greater degree than you – you might want that for yourself, and so strive to emulate it. Admiration informs and motivates your own character development. Or, noticing an inequality that comes from some unfairness, we might engage for the sake of greater fairness. Both of those are positive, healthy, good.

Envy is the turning bad of these positive forces in human life. Kierkegaard wrote that
“admiration is happy self surrender; envy is unhappy self-satisfaction.”
Some people “feel envy only glancingly if at all,” others “use envy toward emulation and hence self-improvement,” and still others “let it build a great bubbling caldron of poisoning bile in them.”

We are built with different sensitivities. After all, some chimps pulled that rope to collapse the table and others didn’t. Still most of us compare ourselves with others -- and we want the comparison to favor us.
“Studies such as Robert H. Frank’s Luxury Fever have shown that people would agree to make less total money so long as they make more than their neighbors: that is, they would rather earn, say $85,000 a year where no one else is making more than $75,000 instead of $100,000 where everyone else is making $125,000.”
Indeed, H. L. Mencken said that contentment in America is making $10 a month more than your brother-in-law.

Academics and artists seem to be uncommonly afflicted with envy. The writer Gore Vidal admitted,
“Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.”
The advertising industry is built on the aim of inducing as much envy as possible. Envy seems to cut across all economic systems. As the saying goes:
Under capitalism, man envies man. Under socialism, vice-versa.
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This is part 20 of "The Seven Deadlies" (Part 3 on Envy)
Next: Part 21: "Faith Envy"
Previous: Part 19: "Envy and the Desire for Equality"
Beginning: Part 1: "Seven and Sins"