Saturday, May 24, 2014

Brief Discussion of Envy

NOTE: These 12 essays are being reproduced from my now defunct blog Random Notes, as I intend to cite them in my upcoming essay on the use of words will emotion-heavy connotations and little in the way of actual denotation (such as "need" versus "want", or "exploit" and "fair").

I just wrote a post ("Willful (Economic) Blindness?") which mentioned "envy" in its postscript, and "envy" is a word I have used a few times, such as in my posts "Envy Kills" and "Envy And Analogy". Like "selfishness", "envy" is a word that is used quite a bit in writing critical of capitalism, the free market and the pursuit of self interest in general, so I feel the need to look at this word, and discuss how "envy" differs from proper, healthy emotions which help drive the free market. In the course of this essay, I will likely also explain a bit about the terms "greed" and "selfishness" as well, as both of those are also often confused with "envy".

To keep this simple, let us start by saying that "envy" is not just the desire to possess what another has, but much more. It is the desire to have what another has by taking it from him. In other words, it is not just interested in elevating oneself, but in dragging down another. In fact, in some forms of envy, the point is more to lower another rather than elevate the individual. We see this in those surveys where those polled would rather have a system where everyone had less, but all were equal, rather than a system where everyone had more, but some were more wealthy than others. Looked at rationally, that is a nonsensical position, as what you have is all that matters, if you have more, does it matter than another has more still? Of course not1 But if you fee envious, if your desire is to drag down anyone who surpasses you, then, yes, it makes sense.

Which is why I say envy is destructive emotion.

Opposed to envy are a variety of healthy emotions, all of which come under the vague heading of "greed". We can call them "admiration", "aspiration" or any other term, but all mean simply wanting more for oneself, and, in some cases, wanting for oneself something that another has. In no case does this mean taking from another, or at least taking from another is not an essential part of the dream. All that matters is obtaining something for yourself, beyond that, it does not matter.

Now, this sort of greed can be destructive. For example, those who fee greed but do not recognize the importance of following the laws of civil society, and allow that greed to drive them into crime. But, ignoring those cases, greed is generally a positive emotion, as it is what drives us to work, to produce, to improve the lot in life of not just ourselves but others. ("Greed Versus Evil")

Since some will object to this claim, let me offer the quickest explanation I can. (Those who want more can read the various posts I have linked in this essay.) Those who feel greed find that, to satisfy their desires, they must accumulate wealth. Wealth is obtained by having others give it to us. (That is, unless an individual can personally manufacture all of the items he desires, from the raw materials to the finished goods.) Individuals will only exchange money for things they desire, and so a greedy individual finds he must provide goods or services to others. And, if he wants a lot of money, he must either do it more efficiently than any other, or satisfy needs not yet filled by others. In short, the more money he must satisfy the most urgently felt needs as efficiently as possible. Which means that greed will drive individuals to provide as best they can for the needs of others. ( "The Triumph of Good")

And that brings me to "selfishness". Some consider this a negative word and equate it with "envy", and I suppose in one usage it is related. However, I tend not to think of it in such terms. However, since it is used both ways, let us look at the various ways in which "selfishness" is used.

The most simple use is the one I prefer, that is "interest in one's own desires". However, it is often sued to mean "interest in promoting one's own desires over those of others" or even "impeding the actions of others in order to satisfy one's own wants." And, those last two usages, the ones which take into consideration the desires of others, are the ones which tie into envy.

But I do not choose to see "selfishness" in those terms. Nor is it truly used very often with those meanings. Most often, in everyday life, being "selfish" simply means wanting things for yourself, without any reference to others. And that sort of "selfishness" is like "greed", a strong source of good, so long as those feeling it understand the rules of society. An individual who desires things for himself is just like the greedy individual I described, so long as he realized theft and fraud are not valid paths to his goals, he will be forced to pursue the benefit of his fellow man.

And that is really all I need to discuss here. "Envy", while popularly confused with "greed" and "selfishness", is truly something else. The other two terms, though they can lead to destructive acts when improperly understood, are not inherently damaging, while envy is. Envy centers entirely on dragging down others, or, at best, focuses on evaluating one's own success in relation to others, which can easily lead to such a mindset. Greed and selfishness, on the other hand, are interested entirely in what one has, not in relation to others, but simply on their own terms. 

I doubt these definitions will be accepted universally, as the words have been used in any number of different ways, and many vague means have become attached. But, even if these meanings are not accepted by everyone, I can at least refer here for those reading my blog. Whatever meaning you may choose to attach to these words, when they are used in this blog, these meanings are the ones I intend.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2011/03/31.

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