Weblog of a Christian philosophy student

Weblog of a Christian philosophy student. Please feel free to comment. All of my posts are public domain. Subscribe to posts [Atom]. Email me at countaltair [at] yahoo.com.au. I also run a Chinese to English translation business at www.willfanyi.com.

Location: Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Friday, November 12, 2010


How does envy 'work'? Where does the emotion come from?

Proverbs 27:4: Anger is cruel and fury overwhelming, but who can stand before jealousy?

James 3:14-16: But if you are bitterly jealous and there is selfish ambition in your heart, don't cover up the truth with boasting and lying. For jealousy and selfishness are not God's kind of wisdom. Such things are earthly, unspiritual, and demonic. For wherever there is jealousy and selfish ambition, there you will find disorder and evil of every kind.

1 Corinthians 13:4: Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.

Envy is a somewhat unusual emotion in that it has no 'good' aspect at all. For instance, when Aristotle was forming his 'doctrine of the mean', he tried to find a 'good' aspect to every emotion (as part of his system where virtue is between two opposite extremes). E.g. anger is good when it protects the vulnerable. Fear is good when it stops us from being complete idiots. Being trusting is good unless we are too trusting and someone takes advantage, and so on. But he could find no 'good' aspect to envy.

To find out what envy is about we need to look at what condition(s) needs to be fulfilled for anyone to experience envy. That is, what is something that needs to happen before you can experience envy?

There may be several answers, but one answer is not being content.

For example, can you think of any situation where someone is really content about XYZ and also feels a lot of envy about XYZ? For example, suppose that someone was really content about how much money they had and frankly did not care about having more money, because it doesn't matter to them at all - they have enough. Can that person feel envious towards someone for having more money than them, given their contentment about money?

Lack of contentment seems to be a basic condition for envy.

OK, so what do envious people do? They make life difficult for the person who they envy if they can.

Now, why is it that a lack of contentment would 'spill over' into basically having something against other people? How does A. Lack of contentment in any way cause B. Having something against other people?

The answer could be that acting enviously gives the envious person a practical benefit...

But it doesn't seem that envy is a 'strategy' to get what the other person has. For example, if you envy someone who has a lot more money than you, then you probably don't think you'll be able to get some of their money by making life hard for them.

In almost all cases of envy, someone's envy will not allow someone to get, practically speaking, what they are envious about. It will also not make society more equal because one envious person will not make society more equal on their own (however, if everyone was envious, then maybe society would be more equal, but it would be a rather unhappy, nasty sort of equality).

Actually, I can't figure out what selfish strategy envy is part of. Even if someone is a complete psycho, cares only about themselves, and has no good emotions at all, I simply don't know what selfish benefit they can get from envy, and I haven't even talked about how unhappy it makes the person that envies.

But I find it hard to believe that there isn't some kind of selfish benefit to envy, even one that is almost never realised. Otherwise envy is a very peculiar kind of selfish act - a selfish act that does not benefit the selfish person.

A second possibility is that envy is not a strategy but an automatic process. Envy could simply be a result of the brain accepting two or three facts: 1. I am not content about XYZ and 2. Someone has XYZ and probably 3. I will let myself feel envy. In this view, envy is like thinking that Pluto is no longer a planet after you hear the news, just an automatic reaction that can happen if you are not content and see people with what you desire.

Anyway, we can map the process of envy something like this:

I am not content about something => a selfish strategy or an automatic process => I feel envy and feel like I am 'against' the person who has whatever it is I'm not content about.

This may be one reason why the Bible teaches people to be content. In other words, the Bible doesn't teach us to be content to make us docile and passive, but because a lack of contentment causes people to experience envy and makes it harder for us to love other people.

Hebrews 13:5: Don't love money; be satisfied with what you have. For God has said, "I will never fail you. I will never abandon you."

1 Timothy 6:6-8: Yet true godliness with contentment is itself great wealth. After all, we brought nothing with us when we came into the world, and we can't take anything with us when we leave it. So if we have enough food and clothing, let us be content.

Labels: , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home