Friday, November 9, 2012

Clarifying the concept of envy & The Inevitability of Envy

This is a quick post providing some supplementary information to another article I wrote for Students for Liberty entitled "Envy and Libertarianism". The book I cite is entitled "Envy: A Theory of Social Behavior" by the late Austrian-German sociologist Helmut Schoeck. You can find a copy through Liberty Fund

Clarifying Envy

            Citing a careful definition provided by William L. Davidson in the Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, Schoeck writes:

Envy is an emotion that is essentially both selfish and malevolent. It is aimed at persons, and implies dislike of one who possesses what the envious man himself covets or desires, and a wish to harm him [the envied]... There is in it also a consciousness of inferiority to the person envied… He who has got what I envy is felt by me to have the advantage of me, and I resent it. Consequently, I rejoice if he finds that his envied possession does not give him entire satisfaction – much more, if it actually entails on him dissatisfaction and pain… (Schoeck, pg. 20-21)

With this definition, we see that envy is complicated. It is generally a painful emotional state, but can give rise to pleasure if the envier subjectively perceives that the envied person is in some way set-back or dissatisfied. Typically the object of envy is something material, but it need not be, as in the case of fixating on the envied persons “good looks” or “superior intelligence”. Schoeck elaborates that “envy very often denies the asset itself” (pg. 19). By this, he means that the envier fixates more on the perceived level of satisfaction of the envied person than the actual object of envy, in some cases preferring the loss or destruction of the object to the perceived detriment of the envied person. Even dissatisfaction suffered by the envied person unrelated to object can please the envier.
Shoeck goes to great lengths to distinguish what he perceives to be some misconceptions about the concept of envy. One of these misconceptions is the idea of envy as emulation. When advertisers use a phrase like “Be the envy of all your friends with Product X!”, they’re probably not trying to invoke the destructiveness which typically characterizes envy proper. They’re attempting to awaken the “animal spirits” (to basterdize a Keynesian phrase) by ingeniously tapping into our deepest desires for admiration and respect.
Another common misconception is the conflation of envy with jealousy. Where with envy, one would ignore/destroy the object of envy, the coveted asset in the case of jealousy is the prize to be won. Additionally, Schoeck writes: “…the jealous man is often in doubt as to the nature of his antagonist: whether he is a genuine, honourable rival on his own level or an envious man… intent merely on destruction” (pg. 19). The sense of inferiority is implied with the experience of envy, not necessarily so with jealousy. Jealousy differs from envy also in that it typically requires competition between two individuals over a prize: “Jealousy arises out of an opinion of what is one’s due…” (Schoeck pg. 21). It’s not clear that envy requires this competition, as we can imagine the envious person dreaming up all sorts of violent fantasies directed towards the envied person who remains totally unaware of their existence.

The Inevitability of Envy

            Can there be such a thing as an envy-free society? If by envy-free we mean “a social reality in which nothing is left that is enviable” (Schoeck pg. 341), then as we have seen from our definition of envy, this is seemingly impossible – the object of envy can very easily transfer from distributions of wealth to intangible personal attributes. The presumption that envy emerges because of unjustifiable economic inequalities has led some utopian dreamers to the conclusion that a strictly egalitarian society, where all are thought to be treated exactly the same, can solve the problem of envy. The “socialist” experiments in the Soviet Union are a tempting example of the failure of egalitarianism, but the USSR’s hierarchical decision-making and bureaucratic nature make it a poor sample of strict egalitarian societies. Instead, Schoeck cites examples of life on the kibbutz (an Israeli communal settlement and deliberate experiment in strict egalitarianism first pioneered in the early 20th century), discussing some of the serious challenges that kibbutzniks face.
In the case of electing leaders for important tasks, the artificial expectation of intense mistrust of anyone with an elevated social status, even if democratically imposed, leads to a ‘refusal pattern’, where “all seek to evade nomination or acceptance wherever anyone has to be chosen for necessary office” (Schoeck pg. 347). As natural divisions of labor emerged due to the unique talents of individuals, Schoeck recounts an experience that kibbutznik Melford Spiro encountered when he lived on a kibbutz: “One man told Spiro that he found it impossible to develop his poetic gift because he could not help thinking of his comrades, capable only of manual labour, who, as children, had sat next to him in the latrine…” (Schoeck pg. 351). The kibbutznik come as close as any modern society to establishing strict egalitarianism, but the problems of envy continue to persist. It would seem then that envy is an inevitable part of social life. 


Schoeck, H. (1969). Envy: A theory of social behaviour. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World.

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