PhiloMadrid - Pub Philosophy Meetings in Madrid

Friday, June 07, 2019



Envy is an emotion that manifests itself when we yearn for something someone else has or possesses. It also seems to be a necessary condition that envy creates a want in us for something similar to what the other person has.

If my friends has a red ball, and I’m envious, I do not necessarily want the very same ball my friend has, any red ball of the same type or better will do. Our energy is not directed against the other person, but at the idea of us obtaining a “similar” object. Compare this with jealousy that directs our energy against the person. It’s not that I want to have a ball similar to my friend, but rather I don’t want my friend to have a ball.

We can agree up to point that envy is milder than jealousy. But what is the difference between envying something someone has and wanting something similar to what someone has? For example, I might envy someone because they have a certain mobile phone, and I might want one because it seems to be quite a useful mobile phone. But then I realise that I do not need a phone like that model, for me the money is just not worth it. However, I might want a model of the phone because it meets my needs, and it seems to be reliable for what I want to use it and so on. Envy need not lead us to aggravated behaviour other than an agitation for not having something. But this criterion is very weak and the barrier into jealousy is not always effective.

It is sometimes argued that envy is a positive force to motivate people to achieve personal goals such as career advancement. Thus we see our colleague advancing and we want to advance. There is a problem here. Under the meaning of envy we are not supposed to cause harm to the person we are envious of. Thus failure to obtain something might cause us anger and frustration but that’s about it.

If envy is used as a motivator for example in a career, the opportunities for example of becoming a managing director in a company are very limited. Thus if I am envious of my managing director (i.e. their job) there is a good chance that envy can develop into jealousy and then start causing real harm to the company if not the person. Jealousy is a serious motivator to cause harm to others and this is not limited to romantic encounters.

But envy is a powerful tool in business marketing, politics and religions to mention just a few. In business envy can be use to create a strong want and interest for a product especially when using celebrities or characters of peers or betters to promote their products; upper middle class families, rich people, and even colleague like characters. Of course, this strategy works if we assume that consumers operate within the confines of envy for example causing no harm to others for not having the product.

But the barrier as I have argued between envy and jealousy is very fragile. And in the business context envy can lead to jealousy for example the thriving counterfeit industry. This is not just a matter of buying a cheaper product, it cannot be a cheaper product of an exclusive product: it is a fake product. However, the buyer of counterfeit products wants to give the impression that they have an exclusive product thus being the centre of attraction and maybe an object of envy. But this is a case of doing harm to others, since it is true that luxury or exclusive companies might make unreasonable profits, it is also true that the majority of people working in these enterprises are people working for an honest living like the rest of us. Most of the employees of these multinationals do not drive a luxury sports car.

Politicians make it a point to exploit our weakness of envy: envy politics. One camp argues that if you vote for our policies you too can become rich and important like us and our supporters. The other camp point out, look you are doing the work but your bosses are keeping the profit. However, the scope for politics would be very limited if policies were based on solid economic and financial principles and everyone had access to opportunities to do well in life. As I have argued many times, people who have a real advantage over others are not very keen on sharing that advantage.

Indeed, religions are the masters of using envy for business principles. To begin with, religions are the original long term business model which only a few companies can even mimic beyond half a century. In business there is always an exchange of goods and services for money; religions do not give anything in exchange for devotion but a promise which may or may not be fulfilled. And like retail outlets, religions depend on footfall to their temples to convert envious people into “money paying” customers. In the case of religions people are paying with their loyalty, participation, following and of course money.

Envy, therefore, is not just an emotion we experience it is also an emotion others can exploit in us. The question for us is: given a certain indulgence to envious feeling (like paranoia) at which point can this feeling cause us and maybe others harm?

Best Lawrence

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