Why envy is bad for us

Why envy is bad for us

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I am writing this post in Finland where I am working for a month. Last week the Finns marked their annual unofficial “National Envy Day” when the Finnish Revenue Service publicized the income taxes and income of every tax-paying citizen. That in itself is a shocking violation of people’s right to privacy (although everyone here seems to think it’s normal), but the government goes even further in the violation of the rights of the citizens—in the manner of all the Nordic welfare states—through highly progressive income taxation. This is a way to alleviate envy towards those who are better off (and to ensure revenue for the government). While progressive taxes reduce income differences and might alleviate envy, they (like taxes in general) violate people’s property rights and thus reduce their ability to make decisions for themselves and to pursue the values they choose. Progressive taxation also lowers the incentive to produce and discourages capital formation in the country, leading to less production, fewer jobs, and lower standard of living for everyone.

But the theme of this post is not the immorality of government’s violation of individual rights but envy itself, and why it is bad for us. Envy is a simultaneous resentment towards others and desire for something that others possess and one does not. Envy is based on using others as the standard of value. If someone else has a big house and a fancy car, you must have them, too; not because they are important values to you, such as space and comfort for your large family, or enjoyment of a high-performance car, but for keeping score, for impressing others, and for feeling equal (or superior) to others. From the rational egoist perspective envy is an utterly irrational and unproductive feeling, and indulging in it undermines the purpose of morality and violates some fundamental moral virtues. In other words, envy is immoral.

The purpose of morality is to guide us in living a good life: to achieve our values and happiness, without violating the rights of others. The primary virtue of egoism, rationality, guides us to adhere to the facts of reality (through observation and logic)—as opposed to evasion or wishful thinking—because that is the only way we can achieve values. For example, in order to maintain our health, we must adhere to the fact that nutritious food and exercise are necessary; getting a job and performing it well require knowledge and skills; knowledge and skills can only be obtained by studying and learning; a company can only succeed if its cash flow is positive (which in itself requires adhering to many facts). Envying others as opposed to focusing on reality hampers our ability to achieve values. Envying someone for his job does not make you qualified for it. Envying your competitor’s cash flow does not increase yours.

Another basic egoist virtue that guides us away from envy and condemns it as immoral is independence. If rationality guides us to adhere to facts in our thinking and action, independence, according to Leonard Peikoff, guides us to orient primarily to reality, not to other people. For example, an independent person chooses a line of work because he finds it gratifying and because it provides him an income he needs to obtain the material values that help him live his self-defined good life. An independent person does not pursue a job because it gives him power over others (although undoubtedly some politicians and bureaucrats are motivated by this) or because it gives him prestige or status. This applies to the pursuit of all other values as well. An independent person does not focus on what others do or what they possess but on living a good life, by pursuing values, both material and spiritual, he has chosen for himself. Values achieved by others can inspire and motivate us to pursue the same or similar values, but envy is not the motive power of an independent person.

Alleviating envy is not the proper role of the government but a choice that each individual has to make himself. Adopting the egoist virtues of rationality and independence lead to the conclusion that envy is immoral: it hampers the achievement of one’s values. Independent pursuit of one’s values pays—envy does not.

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  • November 5, 2012

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5 Responses

  1. Envy is an involuntary reaction. Introspection proves this. It’s how one chooses to react to this envy, that’s moral or immoral.

    1. Thanks, Ken, for you comment. I do disagree with you about the involuntariness of envy and its moral status. Envy is an emotion–and as such, it is a response to a person’s values. The response is subconscious and therefore it may feel “involuntary,” but it is not involuntary in the sense of a knee jerk is an involuntary reflex when the knee is tapped in the right spot. Envy is not involuntary because our moral values are chosen–we respond emotionally based on our values. If one experiences envy, then it is a good idea to introspect to find out what value one is holding (even if subconsciously).

      I also do not think envy, as defined in my post, is good. Being motivated to pursue values because of someone else’s achievement is not envy.

      1. You are advocating the A (activating event) B (belief system) C (consequence) approach to emotions. I have read Dr Albert Ellis on this topic. Hence a person might get angry because a person says no to them, reflecting the belief that others must give them what they want. What this ignores is that some reactions are hard wired into the human mind and are basically outside of human choice. For instance the emotion of revenge. Some are taught that this emotion is wrong, so they suppress it to degrees, but the feeling is always there. And I still believe that envy is in this category. Keep in mind that to the lawless left, the greatest sin is to pass moral judgment, and emotions like envy are lightening quick moral assessments. This is why the taboo on negative emotions.

        1. Thanks, Ken, for the comment. I am not advocating any “approach” to emotions–I am merely stating what is introspectively observable, and true, about emotions. Human behavior is not “hard-wired”, or determined. We have free will, which means that absent physical force or threat of it, we must choose our actions. Please see my earlier post “Who is responsible for your behavior?” on determinism

  2. You say “Envy is based on using others as the standard of value”. This is in fact a “approach” – ie, emotions flow from your beliefs. This is implicit if not explicit in your assertions. I did not say all human behavior is “hard wired” (please, no straw man arguments), I said some emotional reactions are hard wired into the human mind. As you point out, objective reality is our reference point. Next time you are abused or the victim of a crime, observe you emotional reactions. They are universal, ie the desire for vengeance and justice – the hard wired reaction.

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Jaana Woiceshyn teaches business ethics and competitive strategy at the Haskayne School of Business, University of Calgary, Canada.

She has lectured and conducted seminars on business ethics to undergraduate, MBA and Executive MBA students, and to various corporate audiences for over 20 years both in Canada and abroad. Before earning her Ph.D. from the Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania, she helped turn around a small business in Finland and worked for a consulting firm in Canada.

Jaana’s research on technological change and innovation, value creation by business, executive decision-making, and business ethics has been published in various academic and professional journals and books. “How to Be Profitable and Moral” is her first solo-authored book.

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