Reducing Inequalities May Increase Envy

No comparison, no envy.

Posted Nov 13, 2009

"Where there is no comparison, no envy; and therefore kings are not envied but by kings." Francis Bacon

"Some men must follow, and some command, though all are made of clay." Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

It is often assumed that a reduction in inequality would lead to a drop in the level of envy. I believe that this assumption is incorrect and that, on the contrary, when inequalities are decreased the level of envy increases.

It would appear that the desire to eliminate inequality, that is, our inferior position, is an important component of envy. In consequence two different claims have been raised regarding the envy-inequality relation: (a) the basis for envy is a concern for equality-thus a reason for condemning this concern; (b) reducing inequality will reduce envy-thus a reason for praising the concern for equality. Both claims are in my view erroneous, as reduction inequality does not decrease envy.

The central concern in envy is different from the egalitarian moral concern that calls for the reduction or even elimination of different inequalities. No doubt, by fulfilling the desire underlying envy, namely, gaining what someone else has, we may become equal to this person in this respect, but this is not what the egalitarian moral concern amounts to. Envy differs from the egalitarian moral concern in at least two major ways. First, it involves a partial rather than a general concern: envious people are not concerned with equality as a general value; the claim to equality is merely a desire to improve our personal situation and thus does not appear when inequality favors us. Second, envy also surfaces in cases where the demand for equality is unrealizable and has nothing to do with egalitarian moral principles; for example, when we envy the beauty or wit of another person. The claim that egalitarianism is a central concern in envy should be rejected as egalitarianism is a general, moral stand in a way that envy is not.

The main reason that the process of reducing inequalities usually lead to a rise in the intensity of envy is the importance of closeness and the comparative concern in envy.

Many people have observed that envy is directed at those who are similar or equal to us. The Greek poet Hesiod wrote that "the potter is furious with the potter and the craftsman with the craftsman, and the beggar is envious of the beggar and the singer of the singer." Aristotle argued that we envy those who are near us in time, place, age, or reputation.

In envy our attention is focused on those perceived to be immediately above us, since these people occupy the first rungs we will have to climb on fortune's ladder. These are the people we are most likely to be compared with or whose accomplishments are most likely to demean us. It is a kind of "neighborhood envy" in Elster's terms: each person within a hierarchy primarily envies the person immediately above herself. In cases of extreme inequality, especially cases of unattainability, far less envy is aroused than in cases of minimal inequality, which inevitably provokes the envious one to think, "I could easily be in her place." Where no closeness exists, comparison is less likely to arise and we are less prone to feel inferior. Those who are close to us, but still above us, emphasize our own inferiority more than do those who are distant from us.

Envy is not concerned with inferiority in general but with specific inferiority regarding people who are emotionally significant to us. We do not compare ourselves to everyone but only those who can hurt our self-image. As Kant suggested, it is not things themselves that affect us, but things in their relation to ourselves. Since comparison is chiefly limited to those similar to us, envy should be more typical of small subject-object gaps.

Being in some sense similar to each other increases the common ground of people and is therefore important for a long-term romantic love. But such similarity may also generate envy, since comparing inferiority is easy. Hence, being married to one with identical profession may lead to feeling inferiority and not getting what one deserves and hence to envy.

The correlation between the intensity of envy and the subject-object gap would be simpler if envy could be defined in terms of mere inferiority or mere desert. If envy were related merely to inferiority, it would be plausible to assume that the larger the gap, the more intense envy would be. If envy were related merely to desert, it would be plausible to postulate a mainly negative correlation between the intensity of envy and the subject-object gap because questions of desert are more prominent in smaller gaps where inferiority is less evident. Since in my view envy is characterized with undeserved inferiority, it is not immediately obvious what the relationship is between the intensity of envy and the subject-object gap. It can go both directions depending on the relative weight of each element.

Reducing inequalities may lead to a more just society, but such a society may witness a rise in the level of envy. Whatever the social and moral advantages of reducing inequality may be, a decrease in envy is not part of them. If we are to witness a reduction in social and economic inequalities, we should expect the problem of envy to become more prominent. When social and economic gaps are large, the probability of rage, hate, frustration, and various types of violent reactions are greater. When these gaps narrow, such reactions are reduced, while envy usually intensifies (see here).