Stanford University

Envy (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

1.1 Defining Envy

This entry follows the widespread assumption that envy is an
emotion.[1]
That is not to say that it is a mere feeling. Emotions are generally
agreed to be more than feelings. Most emotion theorists could agree on
this vague characterization: emotions are syndromes of thoughts,
feelings, motivations, and bodily movements, loosely enough bound
together that a given emotional episode may not require the occurrence
of every element in the syndrome. Most theories of emotion privilege
one of these elements as central, or even essential, to emotion.
Cognitive theories identify a defining thought or judgment. Feeling
theories and Motivational theories respectively take a particular
affective experience or a distinctive motivational role as central or
essential to a given emotion type.

The specific contours of the emotional syndrome of envy are
controversial. It is agreed that envy involves an envier
(“Subject”), a party who is envied
(“Rival”)—this may be a person or group of
persons—and some possession, capacity or trait that the subject
supposes the rival to have (the “good”). The good might be
something that only one party could possibly possess (the crown
jewels, or being the world’s best go player), or it might be something
easily duplicated. It is sometimes held that the good may even be
utility, happiness, or some psychological state that Subject could
attribute to Rival even if there were no material difference in their
possessions or capacities. Most philosophers who have sought to define
envy agree in treating it as a form of distress experienced by the
subject because he does not possess the good and the rival does, and
in attributing a desire for the good to Subject. Many, but not all, go
on to add that envy involves a desire that the rival not have the
good. This disagreement is explored below, [see benign and invidious
envy]. Envy is widely but not universally agreed to be a symptom or
instance of the human tendency to evaluate one’s well-being
comparatively, by assessing how well one is doing in comparison with
others. Influential definitions of envy include:

Envy is pain at the good fortune of others. (Aristotle,
Rhetoric, Bk II, Chapter 10)

Envy is a propensity to view the well-being of others with distress,
even though it does not detract from one’s own. [It is] a reluctance
to see our own well-being overshadowed by another’s because the
standard we use to see how well off we are is not the intrinsic worth
of our own well-being but how it compares with that of others. [Envy] aims, at least in terms of one’s wishes, at destroying others’ good
fortune. (Kant, The Metaphysics of Morals 6:459)

Envy is that passion which views with malignant dislike the
superiority of those who are really entitled to all the superiority
they possess. (Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, p.
244)

1.2 Envy vs. Jealousy

Ordinary language tends to conflate envy and jealousy. The
philosophical consensus is that these are distinct emotions.While it
is linguistically acceptable to say that one is jealous upon hearing
about another’s vacation, say, it has been plausibly argued that one
is feeling envy, if either, in such a case. According to Farrell
(1980) and Neu (1980), both envy and jealousy are three-place
relations; but this superficial similarity conceals an important
difference. Jealousy involves three parties, the subject, the rival,
and the beloved; and the jealous person’s real locus of concern is the
beloved, a person (or being) whose affection he is losing or fears
losing. The locus of concern in jealousy is not the rival. Whereas
envy is a two party relation, with a third relatum that is a good
(albeit a good that could be a particular person’s affections); and
the envious person’s locus of concern is the rival.

On this way of distinguishing envy from jealousy there is a difference
between them even when the good that the rival has is the affection of
another
person.[2]
Roughly, for the jealous person the rival is fungible and the beloved
is not fungible. So he would be equally bothered if the beloved were
consorting with someone else, and would not be bothered if the rival
were. Whereas in envy it is the other way around. Because envy is
centrally focused on competition with the rival, the subject might
well be equally bothered if the rival were consorting with a different
(appealing) person, but would not be bothered if the
‘good’ had gone to someone else (with whom the subject was
not in competition). Whatever the ordinary meaning of the terms
‘envy’ and ‘jealousy,’ these considerations
demonstrate that these two distinct syndromes need to be
distinguished.

1.3 ‘Benign’ and ‘Invidious’ Envy

Many authors posit a distinction between two kinds of envy: a
malicious or invidious form, and a benign, emulative, or admiring
variety of
envy.[3]
Typically, the point of the distinction is to identify a class of
cases in which envy is somehow permissible or justifiable and separate
them from cases in which it is not. While details differ, the general
idea is that invidious envy involves a desire that the rival lose the
good, whereas benign envy does
not.[4]
But other philosophers claim that benign envy is not envy at
all.[5]
Like many disagreements over the nature of emotions, this one
threatens to become a merely verbal dispute, but it can be understood
as a substantive question about the character of an empirical
phenomenon.[6]

Some of the examples advanced on behalf of the suggested bifurcation
threaten to obscure the issue. It will not do, for instance, simply to
point out that people commonly say that they envy someone’s skill in
cases where it is quite implausible to suppose that they have any
desire that the person loses the skill. There is undoubtedly a common
tendency to use the term ‘envy’ for any desire for
something that is possessed by another. But, given the looseness of
natural language noted above, we must not simply assume that these are
really cases of the emotional syndrome of envy. Although some
discussions of envy seem to treat any desire for [an instance of] what
another person has as envy, this threatens to assimilate some cases of
envy to
admiration.[7]

Most parties to the debate would grant that not every case in which
someone would like something that someone else possesses is a case of
genuine envy. First, envy is typically agreed to be a form of pain or
distress—an unpleasant emotion. To fancy someone else’s linens
is not yet to envy them. So not every such desire should be counted as
a case of benign envy. Furthermore, even a painful desire for what
someone else possesses might be better described as longing than envy.
If you badly (painfully) want the new Mercedes convertible, then you
long for it. If you then discover that your neighbor has bought one,
does your longing become envy? To avoid turning this into a matter of
stipulation or a verbal dispute, it should be a substantive
psychological question whether you envy her for it. Envy should not be
held to follow as a logical consequence of the conjunction of your
painful desire with the belief that she has (an instance of) its
object. But then there must be something more to envy than painfully
wanting something that (you know) someone else has.

Robert Young suggests that what differentiates envy from mere longing
is that, in (even benign) envy, the subject is pained because the
rival has the good. But it is questionable whether this proposal
succeeds as a defense of benign envy. If the “because” in question is
causal-explanatory, this seems insufficient to mark the relevant
distinction. After all, ordinary longing may be occasioned by seeing
the good in someone else’s possession. Perhaps if your neighbor hadn’t
acquired the convertible, it would never have come to your attention.
It would then be true that you want it because she has it, yet it
seems possible that this is longing, not envy. Suppose that you would
have been equally pained by not having it regardless of how you
discovered its existence. Then the fact that, as it happens, your longing
was caused by seeing it in the neighbor’s driveway does not
suffice to make this a case of envy.

But perhaps Young’s “because” offers something like
the agent’s reason for being pained, or the content of a thought at
which she is pained. In other words, perhaps the point is to emphasize
the idea that the subject really is bothered specifically by the
difference in possession, not just by his own lack of the good. But if
so, more would need to be said to explain how how the envy can be
benign. If what pains the subject, or what he evaluates as bad, is
really the disparity between the subject and the rival (not just the
subject’s lack), it is hard to see how the subject could lack any
desire for the rival to lose the comparative advantage. After all, by
hypothesis the situation in which the rival loses the good without the
subject getting it would be better than the status quo, as far as the
subject’s envy is concerned – inasmuch as there would then be no
disparity to be bothered by. Of course the subject may not prefer all
things considered that the rival lose the good. But if he is only
motivated to improve his position, and lacks any desire for the rival
to lose the good, then why think that what bothers him is really the
disparity, rather than just his own lack?

Sara Protasi (2016) offers a more complex taxonomy of envy which
includes a version of benign envy that she calls “emulative
envy.” She draws two cross-cutting distinctions: whether the
subject is focused upon the good or upon the rival, and whether she
perceives the good as obtainable or unobtainable. Focus is understood
not in terms of salience or conscious attention, but as a matter of
evaluative concern: “what the envier focuses on is whatever she
cares about, from a prudential point of view.” (2016, p. 4) In
emulative envy, the envier is focused on the good and believes himself
capable of obtaining it. She is motivated to improve her standing, not
to bring down the rival. But emulative envy is supposed to be distinct
from admiration or even longing. It is meant to be a species of envy
in general, which Protasi defines as “an aversive reaction to a
perceived inferiority to a similar other, with regard to a good that
is relevant to the sense of identity of the envier.” (2016, p.2)
A question for this account is what role the perceived inferiority to
the rival can be playing in emulative envy, if the envier is held to
care only about the good, and not the inferiority as such. If it is
playing no role, then why think this is a species of envy in general,
rather than a (no doubt common and important) emotion of some other
sort? But if it is allowed that emulative envy does also include a
concern about inferiority as such, distinct from the desire for the
good, then the question is how to make that concern compatible with an
insistence that there is no desire that the rival lose the good.

Even those who deny that “benign envy” is a kind of envy
(hereafter, “deniers”) will grant the existence of cases
in which people want to have skills or other traits that are possessed
by another person, and are pained by their lack, but in which they
have no desire at all for the other person to lose those traits. Call
such a state “emulative desire.” Apparently some
other languages have a word for that
state.[8]
What deniers deny is that emulative desire is an instance of envy (or
of “envy proper”, as Rawls puts it). But what is at stake
in such a claim? We have already noted that ordinary usage surely
permits application of “envy” in such cases, and in others
besides, so linguistic propriety is not the issue. One way of
understanding the debate concerns which taxonomy of mental states
carves emotions at their joints—that is, carves them in ways
that reflect psychological kinds that support predictions and
explanatory generalizations.

One way to develop the deniers’ position is as
follows.[9]
Envy is a distinctive kind of psychological state that is essentially
competitive. It is concerned specifically with unfavorable comparisons
to others with whom the subject in some ways sees himself as in
competition. On this view, the characteristic dissatisfaction of envy
supplies or embodies some level of motivation toward whatever would
ameliorate the situation: in other words, toward either outdoing or
undoing the rival’s advantage Which of those motivations will emerge
in action depends on many factors. It depends on what the situation
affords, including the probabilities and expected costs and benefits
of success at either option. And it depends on other attitudes and
desires of the subject, including how much he likes the rival, whether
he thinks it would be wrong to deprive him of the good, and how much
that wrongness matters to him.

On this view, there can still be cases of genuine envy in which the
subject would not take steps to undermine the rival. He would not even
push a button to deprive the rival in secret—because he likes
the rival, or because that would be a rotten thing to do to anyone.
Call such a person a “decent envier.” A decent envier may
sincerely believe that he has no desire whatever that the rival lose
the good. He will be wrong about this, but it can still be true that
he would not act on that desire. The attribution of genuine envy in
such a case nonetheless explains some things. It explains why even a
decent envier’s pain is prone to go away, along with some of his
ambition to achieve the good, if the rival should lose it. Why should
envy go away in such cases, if all the envier wanted was to secure the
good himself? It also explains why even decent enviers may be more
likely to be amused by a story that shows the rival in a negative
light, and why they become drawn to other goods that the rival
acquires within the scope of the rivalry. And it explains why some
previously decent enviers become indecent enviers, or at least become
aware of some ambivalence about the rival’s possession of the
good, when their efforts to secure the good for themselves prove
hopeless.

In cases of emulative desire, on the other hand, presumably none of
these things should be expected. So what deniers want to say about
benign envy is that either it is not really envy (it’s just
emulative desire, or something else in the neighborhood) or it is not
really benign. Whether the deniers’ view should be preferred may hinge
on what explanatory advantages defenders of benign envy can offer for
a taxonomy that includes emulative desire as a species of envy.

1.4 Envy vs. Resentment

Although much of the psychological literature on envy supposes that
envy is concerned with matters of perceived injustice, most
philosophers reject this
suggestion.[10]
The received view is that envy is to be distinguished from
resentment. The latter is held to be a moral emotion, whereas the
former is not. What makes a given emotion a moral emotion has been
glossed in various ways. Roughly, the idea is that moral emotions are
ones that somehow embody moral principles or appraisals. Resentment is
a moral emotion because a given emotional episode does not qualify as
a state of resentment unless the subject holds some moral complaint
against the object of the state. The claim that envy is not a moral
emotion should be understood as a denial that any moral complaint is
part of the nature of envy as such. It is compatible with the
possibility of any number of cases in which envious people also hold
moral complaints against those they envy. And it is also compatible
with the possibility of envying someone for some moral feature.

It seems clear that in many (perhaps even most) cases of envy, the
subject is liable to find some moral complaint with which to justify
negative feelings toward his rival. This would explain various
experimental findings that correlate feelings of envy with complaints
of injustice. But, of course, such complaints may be defensive
rationalizations of rancorous feelings, rather than elements in envy.
Claims about which of the various thoughts that commonly attend a
given type of emotion belong in a characterization of that emotion
type are best defended within the context of a general theory of how
to individuate emotion types, which is beyond the scope of this entry.
In any case, some version of the thesis that envy is not a moral
emotion seems both plausible and necessary to make sense of the debate
over whether egalitarianism is motivated by envy (see section 3.1
below).

Assessments of the rationality of emotions take various forms. It is
useful to distinguish the prudential advisability of emotions (whether they are good for the person who has them) from
their fittingness (roughly, whether the appraisal of circumstances
involved in the emotion is accurate or not). Both of these
assessments are to be distinguished from various ethical appraisals of
emotions. Most authors who address the issue seem to agree that envy
is seldom advisable: insofar as one is able to control or influence
one’s emotions, it is best not to be envious, because envy harms those
who feel it. This is sometimes urged simply on the grounds that envy
is a form of pain, but more often because, in envy, a person’s
subjective sense of well-being, self-worth or self-respect is
diminished. But if envy involves certain characteristic patterns of
motivation, such as a motive to outdo or undo the rival’s advantages,
then the advisability of envy may be strongly dependent on the
advisability of the actions it motivates. And whether these actions
are advisable, in turn, depends upon whether they are efficient means
to the ends at which they aim, and whether those ends are themselves
in the subject’s interests. Thus an adequate assessment of the
prudential advisability of envy may well depend on whether the envious
subject’s sense that he is worse off because of his rival’s possession
of the good that he lacks is accurate. If it is accurate, then
motivation to change the situation may well be beneficial for the
Subject. We turn now to issues of accuracy.

It is commonly supposed that emotions, envy included, involve a way of
taking the circumstances—a thought, construal, appraisal, or
perception of the circumstances—which can then be assessed for
fittingness (objective rationality) and/or warrant (subjective
rationality).[11]
Thus fear can be unfittingly directed at something that isn’t really
dangerous, or fittingly directed at something that is. And it can be
unwarrantedly directed at something the subject has good reason to
believe poses no danger, or warrantedly directed at what she has good
reason to think dangerous—even if that good reason is supplied
by misleading evidence, so that the object of the emotion is not, in
fact, dangerous. Similarly, in light of the discussion above, we might
say that envy involves thinking that the rival has something good that
the subject lacks, and negatively evaluating this difference in
possession, per se. Each of the various strands in this way of taking
the circumstances, then, can be appraised for fittingness and warrant.
We will focus on fittingness here, but analogous points can be made in
terms of warrant. Envy will be unfitting, for instance, if the rival
does not really have the good, or if the ‘good’ isn’t
really good—for instance if the envy is directed at some
possession that the subject would not really value if he knew its true
nature. These suggestions are uncontroversial. A more interesting
question concerns the last element in envy’s characteristic appraisal:
the negative evaluation of the difference in possession. This too
might be thought to be amenable of broadly rational appraisal.

Some philosophers suggest that envy is always or typically irrational,
and they seem to have in mind the charge that it is
unfitting.[12]
Theirs is a restricted version of the Stoic critique of emotions,
according to which (roughly) all emotions are unfitting because they
involve taking various worldly things to matter that don’t really
matter. Not many contemporary philosophers are attracted to the Stoic
view of value, which is embedded in an idiosyncratic ancient
cosmology. But perhaps specific emotions can be convicted of the
putative mistake, and envy appears to be a likely suspect. If envy
involves taking the difference in possession between subject and rival
to be bad in itself, then, if such differences are not bad in
themselves, envy is systematically unfitting. Developing this charge
demands getting clearer about the sense in which envy can be said to
involve taking the difference in possession to be bad in itself.

Suppose that envy includes some desire that the rival not have the
good. Then envy may be interpreted so as to involve a preference for
the situation in which neither subject nor rival have the good to the
one in which rival has it and subject does
not.[13]
Call this the “envious preference.” The envious
preference is invoked as a basis for the claim that envy appraises the
former situation as better than the latter. But better in what
respect? There are a number of possibilities, and we will consider
just two. First, it might be held to be better, from the point of view
of the universe (“impersonally better” for short).
Secondly, it might be held to be better for the subject.

If envy holds that the situation in which neither has the good is
better, impersonally, than the one in which Rival has it, this can be
criticized as an axiological
mistake.[14]
Surely the world is a better place, ceteris paribus, if
someone possesses a given good than if no one does. But this is too
quick. First, consider cases in which rival has acquired the good by
wrongdoing. Arguably the world is not a better place when the fortunes
of some are wrongfully improved. Secondly, an extreme egalitarian may
hold that inequalities themselves are prima facie bad, because they
are unjust. On that view, it may sometimes be better that neither
possesses a given good than that one does. Either of these
considerations might then be invoked as a defense of fittingness of
envy. Thus, if envy is interpreted as making a claim about impersonal
value, it will be difficult to prevent moral considerations from
guiding verdicts about its
fittingness.[15]
While this does not completely collapse the distinction between envy
and resentment, it renders it considerably murkier.

Alternatively, envy can be held to present the difference in
possession between subject and rival as bad specifically for Subject.
This interpretation of envy’s characteristic appraisal is more
plausible, and it jibes better with the doctrine that envy is not a
moral feeling. Envy can nonetheless be criticized as irrational, on
this interpretation, for taking something to be bad for Subject that
is not in fact bad for him. What matters to how well things are going
for Subject is a function of what goods Subject has, not what goods
his rival has, the critic will suggest. Hence, while the present state
of affairs is worse for Subject than a situation in which he has the
good and Rival lacks it, it is not worse than a situation in which
neither has the good. So there is no self-interested reason for
Subject to have the envious preference. Envy is therefore
systematically unfitting because it takes something to be bad for the
subject that is not in fact bad for him.

The cogency of this argument for the irrationality of envy depends, of
course, on the plausibility of its claims about well-being. If people
do in fact systematically care about the possessions of others, and
regard themselves as worse or better off accordingly as they stack up
against their selected comparison class, some subjectivist accounts
will license taking this concern as itself a part of these subjects’
well-being—in which case, some envy will be fitting. Whereas
most objective accounts of well-being either treat it as a measure of
primary goods, or supply content restrictions on the desires whose
satisfaction contributes to well-being which would exclude desires
like the envious preference. One recent defense of the claim that envy
is sometimes fitting relies on the idea that being excellent in
various domains of human achievement contributes to well-being and yet
is essentially a comparative matter (D’Arms and Jacobson, 2005). If
such excellences, or other positional goods, are granted to contribute
in themselves to well-being, then it appears that envy will be fitting
whenever a rival’s diminution with respect to the relevant positional
good improves the Subject’s position.

3.1 Egalitarianism and Envy

A recurring suggestion in the history of philosophical and political
thought has been that envy supplies the psychological foundations of
the concern for justice, and, especially, of egalitarian conceptions
of
justice.[16]
Both the proponents of this charge and those who contest it have
commonly taken it to be a damaging suggestion for
egalitarianism.[17]
It is worth distinguishing genetic versions of the charge from
occurrent ones. Genetic versions concern the historical or
developmental sources of a concern for equality. Freud, for instance,
held that concern with justice is the product of childhood envy of
other children leading to concern for equal treatment, and thereby to
‘group spirit’: “If one cannot be the favorite
oneself, at all events nobody else shall be the favorite.” (p.
120). Nietzsche can be read as tendering an account of the origins of
egalitarian values or ideals in envy in his account of the
“slave revolt in
morality.”[18]
Whatever their merits, these claims should be distinguished from the
claim that those who defend egalitarian views of justice are motivated
by occurrent bouts of envy or propensities to
them.[19]

Defense of the charge that egalitarianism is occurrently motivated by
envy hinges both on the commitments of egalitarianism and on the
nature of envy. The common motif is that egalitarians wish to do away
with the advantages of the better off, and that they wish to do this
because they are bothered by the very fact that the better off are
better off. This is supposed to show that egalitarians are motivated
by envy. Whether this is a fair characterization of any prominent
egalitarian position is certainly open to
question.[20]
But in any case, in light of the distinction between envy and
resentment, it is clear that there can be no direct move from the
claim that egalitarians are ‘bothered’ by the advantages
of the better off to the claim that they are envious. For another
possibility is that what they feel is resentment, occasioned by the
thought that the present distribution is
unjust.[21]
Note that the claim that what is felt is resentment does not depend
upon showing that the resentment is fitting—that the
distribution really is unjust. It would suffice to show that the
response really is a moral evaluation, justified or not.

It seems clear that the occurrent version of the charge is only
damaging to egalitarianism if the basic distinction between envy and
resentment is accepted. Otherwise, envy could be granted to motivate
egalitarianism, but this would not impute any concern aside from
concerns with justice to the position. With the distinction in hand,
however, the charge is difficult to defend. Envy does not arise in
cases where inequalities favor the subject. So defenders of the charge
appear to be committed to the falsifiable thesis that egalitarians are
inconsistent in their commitment to
inequality.[22]
If the charge were true, egalitarians should oppose only the
inequalities that are unfavorable to their own interests. To the
extent that egalitarians are sincere and consistent in the embrace of
their principles, this counts against the charge that their occurrent
motivation is
envy.[23]

3.2 Envy-free allocations

A different way in which envy might be thought to motivate broadly
egalitarian thought is by appeal to the idea of envy-free allocations.
A distribution of goods is said to be “envy-free” when no
one prefers anyone else’s bundle of resources to her
own.[24]
The suggestion here is not that envy is the psychological motivation
for the concern with equality, but rather that, where a distribution
in fact produces envy, this is grounds to doubt the fairness of the
distribution. But ‘envy’ in these contexts is a technical
term for any situation in which someone prefers another’s bundles of
goods, and does not refer to the emotional syndrome with which this
entry is
concerned.[25]

3.3 Rawls’ Problem of Envy

In constructing the “original position” from which
deliberators select principles of justice in A Theory of Justice,
Rawls assumes that the imagined deliberators are not motivated by
various psychological propensities. One of these is the propensity to
envy. One justification Rawls offers for this stipulation is that what
principles of justice are chosen should not be affected by individual
inclinations, which are mere accidents. This rationale is less
persuasive if envious concerns are universal in human nature. Another
justification is that parties in the original position should be
concerned with their absolute level of primary social goods, not with
their standing relative to others as
such.[26]
He then proceeds in the second part of the argument for the
principles of justice to consider whether, in fact, human propensities
being what they are, the tendency to envy will undermine the
arrangements of a well-ordered society (in which case the principles
of justice would have to be reconsidered). The ‘Problem of
Envy’ is the possibility that widespread envy might do just
this. The reason that Rawls takes this to be a live possibility is
that “the inequalities sanctioned by the difference principle
may be so great as to arouse envy to a socially dangerous
extent.”[27]

The primary way in which Rawls thinks envy could pose such a threat is
if it comes to undermine the self-respect of those who are less well
off. It might do this, he thinks, if the differences between the haves
and the have-nots are so great that, under existing social conditions,
the differences cannot help but cause loss of self-esteem. “For
those suffering this hurt,” he continues, “envious
feelings are not irrational; the satisfaction of their rancor would
make them better off.” (534) He calls this “excusable
general envy,” and offers two reasons for doubting that it will
be prevalent in a well-ordered society. First, he argues that the
liberties and political status of equal citizens encourage
self-respect even when one is less well off than others. Second, he
suggests that background institutions (including a competitive
economy) make it likely that excessive inequalities will not be the
rule.

Rawls’ discussion is in some tension with the received view of envy.
He supposes that “the main psychological root of our liability
to envy is a lack of self-confidence in our own worth combined with a
sense of impotence.” This leads him to expect that envy will be
more severe the greater the differences between subjects and those
they
envy.[28]
However most observers of envy, from Aristotle on, have urged that it
is most often felt toward those with whom the subject perceives
himself as in competition, so that typically very great disparities in
well-being are not envied. And there is some empirical evidence to
support this
claim.[29]
This is usually explained by the hypothesis that the benchmarks
against which people measure their comparative well-being are, in some
(possibly metaphorical) sense, local. If true, this calls into
question whether preventing excessive inequalities is likely to reduce
the frequency or intensity of envy. But it also suggests that the
phenomenon of general, or class, envy toward which Rawls’ discussion
is directed may not pose a substantial threat to the well-ordered
society.

Follow us