Tuesday 14 December 2021

The Philosophy of Envy

Today's post is by Sara Protasi (Puget Sound) on her new monograph The Philosophy of Envy (Cambridge University Press, 2021). 

You are four years old, and you really want the heart-shaped lollipop that you have been staring at for days in the candy store window. And then, today, here it is, in the hands of your friend at school. You are so mad, and there’s this unpleasant ache, deep down in your tummy. “No fair!” you think. So, when the lollipop slips from your friend’s little hands and falls on the dirty ground, you cannot help but grin with satisfaction.

You are all grown up now, and are telling the lollipop story to your high school best friend with a mix of amusement and shame. As they laugh, you notice that today they look so cool, with their new fashionable haircut. You catch a glimpse of your shaggy hair in the mirror. That sinking feeling in your belly resurfaces. You repress a little sigh, and go on chatting, casually dropping a: “Hey, I saw Rainier making out with Sam in the cafeteria the other day. I thought you two were getting serious?” 

By the time you are a first-year in college, you and your high school bestie have grown apart. You are driven and hard-working, so you are heartbroken when you discover that the scholarship you cared so much about has been won by… your roommate, of all people! You are not an insecure teenager anymore, and you know they deserve it. But there’s this gnawing awareness that they are always a little better than you. So, you wish them all the best, and move out of the apartment. 

You have become a professor. You have spent years studying hard, looking up to people like your former roommate. You applied for more scholarships, won some of them, and were lucky enough to get a good job at a university near your hometown. When you go to your high school reunion, you are happy to see your long-lost friend. You feel a familiar pang when you note their new suit, but hug them and compliment them. And you make a mental note of buying a new outfit.

Do any of these scenarios resonate with you? Chances are some of them will. Everyone feels envy at some point in their life. Some people are more aware of their envy than others; some people are prone to feel envy more than others; some people feel more malicious kinds of envy than others; and some people are crippled by their envy more than others. Still, there is no culture that is devoid of envy, even though it takes different forms in different places and times. 

Notwithstanding envy’s ubiquity, it is a maligned emotion. It is condemned by all religious traditions, feared in all societies, repressed by most who feel it, and often kept a secret even to oneself. Because envy is a cross-cultural emotion, we have good reasons to think that it serves an important function in human psychology, and yet it has a terrible reputation. In my book I try to restore the truth about envy and argues that such a reputation is at least partially undeserved. Like other traditionally censured, but recently rehabilitated negative emotions such as contempt, anger, and disgust, envy has a role to play in our lives and may be essential to our flourishing. Once we can see the bright side of envy, its benefits and its reasons, then we can also better deal with its darkest features, its harms and its deceptions. 

My overarching argumentative strategy is to develop an original taxonomy of envy, to which I alluded in the four scenarios above: spiteful, aggressive, inert, and emulative envy, respectively. Once we know what envy is and how many varieties there are, we can look more fruitfully into how to deal with it, and into its value or disvalue. Thus, the first two chapters are devoted to laying out the ontology – what envy is. The remaining three chapters develop the practical normativity of envy – what is good and bad about envy in three main domains: ethics, love, and politics. The Conclusion tackles the axiology that stems from envy – the value of enviable things, which are more than you might expect. Finally, an Appendix traces the history of envy. 

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