June 24, 2008
Wanted: A Cure for Envy Deficiency
People work and even pray to acquire virtues. But I need a vice. A certain particular one. Forget "vice", let's use an old-fashioned word - "sin", because it's one of the classic seven deadly ones. Now, I am not short of vices, but one I do lack feels like some kind of vitamin deficiency. So I beg divine favor to give me some of that four letter word which sounds like a two-letter word: envy.
Not Getting Envy
I just don't have it. I don't "get" envy. I am not boasting of any great virtue here, just reporting a psychological block, a moral or immoral autism. I really don't get envy, and I think not getting it helps explain a certain underachievingness on my part. Also it may explain some (I think good) attitudes or outlooks, e.g. my "classical liberal/libertarian" views on political economy and a generally tolerant attitude to others.
These are probably in part sustained by the fact that I just cannot work up the slightest bit of resentful distress that some people -- and possibly far less-deserving ones by many standards -- are filthily richer, happier, or more beloved than I. Someone has 400 sports cars, while I struggle to pay a doctor for an emergency foot muscle treatment. Yawn, cool for him and the cars. X is handsomer than me and gets more accolade for, I don't know, bad puns. Double yawn. Someone I don't like is happier than I, yawn, good for him or her, he probably earned it, or at least someone who did earn it wants him or her to have it. Someone gets a job I applied for. Good for him or her. They showed up and filled out the form.
Daniel Pipes: Bad Guy but Best Wishes
Let me use an Aqoulish illustration as an example. I, like others here, despise Daniel Pipes. Even worse, I think that so many millions of others (including me for that matter) were better suited for a position on the US Institute for Peace than he was. And we are better mideast experts too. But, ya know, except for the unwisdom of that appointment, and an anger about the public damage from it or from his other shenanigans, I feel in some way he did earn the position -- he wrote enough words, flattered the right people enough, slandered the wrong people enough, and successfully leveraged his dad's reputation. In other words, he reached for it and got it. Good for him, though bad for humanity and the country.
Progressivism as Envy
As an aside on the general economics issue -- I do believe that much progressive and leftish economic attitudes are rooted in envy rather than idealism. (Similarly, some classical liberal economics is indeed rooted in greed, though in fairness to myself, greed is not a vice I have a lot of , and I don't miss it, and it doesn't influence my economics or political thinking.)
A Little Vice is a Not Dangerous Thing
Now, how could not having a vice be a deficiency? Well, we learn from such sacred scripture as the original Star Trek series that the good Captain Kirk couldn't command effectively without the evil Captain Kirk within. The seven deadly sins are actually virtues when at small doses: pride at junior grade is ... well, pride, in the good sense of the term. Lust junior is a happy, even giving, passionate sensuality. Anger junior is justifiable indignation. Sloth junior is relaxation. Greed junior is responsible earning and ambition. Gluttony junior is a hearty appreciative appetite.
So what then is envy junior, the healthy envy?
I think it's competitiveness.
I think one needs envy, that dash or droplet dose of hate-anger that somebody else is more happy or successful than you, if you seek to push on and upward. Oh, I do have anger, but it's usually situational or ideological, rarely a predatory or sustained personal resentment.
But envy may be muted in me in part because the sin of "sloth" makes envy less nurturable: after all, envy -- and competitiveness -- require lots of work. (I could never be stalker, for example, not because I have great emotional or psychological security, but do you realize how much trouble it would be to get up every morning and follow someone around? Go back to bed, I say, a good rest is worth a broken heart.)
More Eggheady Sociological Reflections
On a more broad sociological level, mostly American, I find that a shortage of envy is almost a strongly American-culture influenced state, something that my home culture generally approves of. Oh yes, I know, Americans are full of envy like any other people. But I do feel that one area where Americans are probably relatively unique even by Western standards is in having a certain disdain for the public airing of one's envy, and a genuine dislike of all but the most indirect expression of it. It's one reason we never developed a real socialist left. Success, you see, is to be admired and envious discourse is frowned upon.
I think envy-discouragement is also a key reason that a profound anti-Semitism never took root here, as in Europe. Much anti-Semitism is rooted in envy -- the resentment that people who are supposed to be outsiders manage to be successful despite the obstacles. But if Americans are told, however, that, say, "the Jews own Hollywood" the gut non-PC answer is more along the lines of: congratulations on your success, a good thing to own! Alot of anti-Semitic rhetoric of the old days -- and modern Russia for example -- seems to contain the odd implicit assumption that when some from a group of people are successful at accumulating wealth/power/ status they are supposed to be looked upon as committing some kind of outrage. But non-envious people would think, and should think in my opinion, that amassing such things, and doing so while being part of a small outsider group, is a good and even admirable thing.
On the personal level, a total lack of envy is a bad thing, however. No competitiveness driver. There must be something to this hatred of others for being happy; please send me some. It might help my bottom line.
I don't think envy is the only fuel for competitiveness. Like you, I don't have envy, but competitiveness, I have lots. Not in the sense of, "I don't want others to be better than I am", which would be envy, I'm much more of the "good for them" kind too.
Without much reflextion, I guess, my own competitiveness would come along the lines of, "I have fun breaking new limits" and "I deserve more and I will go get it". A purely entertainment driven pioneering/experimental spirit with a pinch of self-esteem/confidence?
yeah, I do have the same, the push the envelope, do something new, type of achievement motivation.
I wonder though if envy isn't -- in soupcon form -- a necessary propellant, or a useful one.
I just find myself wierded out by manifestations of envy, like "why does that bother you?"; and I do think it makes it easier to be a "classical liberal" when one doesn't have it.
Posted by: matthew hogan at June 27, 2008 07:39 PM
Well, I'm quite convinced of the more often destructive nature of envy than any other virtue it might have. I've seen in some backward regions prevalent "loser" behaviors where envious folks would 1) be unproductively bitter about their own situation 2) mock, or worse, act destructively towards others who fare better, acting as balls and chains to their environment - "winners" might be expected to serve as role models to emulate, but this expectation goes counter observation of yours truly in presence of envy.
I agree with your points re classical liberalism though.
I would add that if you don't have the "achievement" drive absent envy, chances are destructive behaviors leveling competition downward are less costly as an individual option than spending all those efforts fighting your way up. (And as per your hint, I personally have always been quite convinced this was a major factor underlying leftist ideologies).
Or to quote the old Ten Years After song: Tax the Rich/Feed the Poor/Till There Are/ No Rich No More.
Shouldn't that be till there are no POOR no more?
A revealing lyric.
Actually I am exaggerating a bit as I tend to be far more glad than not for an envy deficiency. But mild vices must have some virtue. A certain Andalusian we know once told me that envy is the only deadly sin without a virtue in milder form; perhaps she is right.
I do note that people I know who are classical liberals in the ideological sense, tend not to get angry, or do get less angry, about the personal success of people they dont like.
Meanwhile alot of progressives are, to use deadly sin terms, greed-prudes, the same way Victorian conservatives are lust-prudes. I think just as Mencken observed that lust-prudes are angry/envious that someone somewhere is having a good time, the greed-prudes are similarly mad that someone somewhere is enjoying the stuff they own.
There can be genuine well-intentioned moral and social concerns in both pruderies, as well as simply matters of restrained taste, but often they are merely envious of others having a grand time, and possibly as well envious of the popularity of the rich (for progressives) or the hedonistic (social conservatives).
Posted by: matthew hogan at June 28, 2008 12:48 AM
Competition != envy. Sure, sometimes it may arise from it, but other times it's an internal competitive force (i.e. competing with oneself, seeing how far you can go, etc.).
Frankly, envy is overrated. To steal the words of Milton in The Devil's Advocate: Vanity, definitely my favorite sin. If you're looking to acquire a new sin that is ...
Posted by: M. at June 28, 2008 01:57 PM