April 2008 -- A note about Bradley Doucet’s review of Joseph Epstein’s book Envy in the March 2008 issue.
I have not read Epstein’s book, but he apparently sees envy as a feeling that varies only in degree, from a mild wish to have what another person has or is, to stronger forms of jealousy, to the wish that the other person not have it. At any rate, Doucet seems to embrace this view. And he signs on to the related propositions that envy can motivate virtuous as well as vicious actions, emulation as well as destructiveness; and that everyone feels this emotion.
Although this reflects common usage of the word “envy,” Ayn Rand pointed out that there are qualitative differences among the feelings:
If a poor man experiences a moment’s envy of another man’s wealth, the feeling may mean nothing more than a momentary concretization of his desire for wealth; the feeling is not directed against that particular rich person and is concerned with the wealth, not the person. The feeling, in effect, may amount to: “I wish I had an income (or a house, or a car, or an overcoat) like his.” The result of this feeling may be an added incentive for the man to improve his financial condition.
The feeling is less innocent, if it involves personal resentment and amounts to: “I want to put on a front, like this man.” The result is a second-hander who lives beyond his means, struggling to “keep up with the Joneses.”
The feeling is still less innocent, if it amounts to: “I want this man’s car (or overcoat, or diamond shirt studs, or industrial establishment).” The result is a criminal.
But these are still human beings, in various stages of immorality, compared to the inhuman object whose feeling is: “I hate this man because he is wealthy and I am not.” (“The Age of Envy,” in The Return of the Primitive; originally The New Left: The Anti-Industrial Revolution)
The latter emotion is the wish that someone else not have something one regards as good, even if there is no gain to oneself. Rand identified this feeling as the “hatred of the good for being good” and observed that it is the leitmotif of our age, at work in egalitarianism, environmentalism, postmodernism, and all the other evils of our time. Envy in this sense is qualitatively different from the wish to have what the other person has. It is not a motive that can be put to good use, nor one that everyone has.
David Kelley is the founder of The Atlas Society. A professional philosopher, teacher, and best-selling author, he has been a leading proponent of Objectivism for more than 25 years.