The dilemma in using envy to diagnose evil

I saw this on the old Twitter :

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And was, of course, instantly infuriated. Any sentence that begins “philosophers believe” is almost certainly thereby wrong. But it got me to thinking about envy again. In particular about the fact that envy is not especially useful as a morally diagnostic term- as a concept to employ in deciding whether something is right or wrong.

Envy is, I think, one of those terms which is ambiguous between two meanings- one morally thick and the other thin. One meaning is something like “resentment for what another person has, regardless of whether that resentment is justified” whereas the other is something like “unjustified resentment of what another person has”.

In the first sense, a lot of envy is fine- I will be envious of the possessions of a person who stole from me, and there is nothing wrong with that. But then how could we use this concept of envy to diagnose the bad, since it doesn’t imply badness?

In the second sense, envy is automatically bad. But this also means that we can’t use the concept of envy to diagnose bad people and things, because to say “x is bad because x is envious” is circular.

What we need in order for envy to do diagnostic work is something like the first sense, plus a moral postulate that envy is bad absent a special reason that excuses it. But it’s not clear how far this gets us because one exception, surely, will be “the good the person possess that I am envious of they hold unjustly, at my expense, because they have not met their obligation to surrender that thing to me”. But now we’re just back to square one, arguing over whether a rich person, or the public as a whole, have a better claim to some portion of the rich person’s goods. That the public has better claim(1) is exactly what the left advances, that it does not is exactly what the right advances. The concept of envy has advanced us no further in our debate over the justice of re distributive taxation.


(1): Reasons we might think the public has a better claim:

A) Because wealth is not made in vacuum, but depends on an order of property rights, public goods etc, which the state, and society as a whole generate. Those who benefit disproportionately from this order- and are assigned disproportionate shares of the productive factors including land and capital should also pay disproportionately.

B) Because existing property claims to capital and land from which disproportionate incomes arise are hardly innocent, but reflect a history of force, fraud, regulatory action etc. The notion that we now, at this stage of the game, need to leave the winners of the past rounds be to enjoy their spoils or else we aren’t playing fair is absurd.

C) Because those less than rich need it more than the rich.

One thought on “The dilemma in using envy to diagnose evil

  1. The evil in question is whether this is stealing, not whether this is envy.

    Envy, classicly, (as I understand it at least) seems to not actually apply here. Envy is usually used to describe a few situations :
    1. Wanting the specific things another person has. This can be his wife, his house, or his ability in scholarly studies (the last is actually considered a positive as far back as the Talmud Bavli), etc
    2. Wanting things because someone else has them. Not in the “oh that exists/is possible, I want in” sense. In the “he shouldn’t have more than me” , resentful sense. An ugly, keeping up with the Jones’s cousin.

    Being envious of your own things, stolen from you, is not parcel of the sin. Unless you only want the item only because someone else has it and not because it is yours perhaps.
    Jealousy would be closer to the mark.

    Regardless of the question of redistribution, I doubt envy as sin between the higher classes and lower classes to be common, I’d expect it to be mostly intra- social circles, with most of what’s leftinter- social circle.

    I would say that these ideas of envy (which are originally what the word was trying to get at) are useful in finding who o


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