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Jealousy

What's the Difference Between Envy and Jealousy?

The key lies in the fact that envy almost always is irrational.

Nick Bondarev/Pexels
Source: Nick Bondarev/Pexels

It's common knowledge that jealousy can arise in the context of romantic relationships. But does jealousy also occur in friendships and familial relationships? Or is that envy?

The short answer is that jealousy and envy can both occur in all types of relationships as well as outside a relationship.

Envy is closely related to resentment. When you envy someone, you resent them for a possession or advantage they have that you wish you had. If, say, you envy your brother for his affluent lifestyle—a lifestyle you have always dreamt of—you resent him for his affluent lifestyle, and insofar as resentment involves an attribution of responsibility and blame, you irrationally take your brother to be responsible for the unfair distribution of goods.

Envy implies that the envier perceives herself as at least as deserving of the advantage or possession as the envied. For example, if you envy your brother for his affluent lifestyle, you think you deserve it at least as much as he does.

This comparative aspect of envy is sometimes said to be based on the envier’s perception of similarity between themselves and the envied person. There is a sense in which that is true. You are probably more inclined to envy a sibling who leads an affluent life than you are to envy a stranger for living a similar lifestyle.

Yet even if we are more prone to envy those we feel similar to, this doesn't entail that we never envy strangers. We are prone to envy celebrities and extraordinarily successful, wealthy, beautiful, or smart people. You may be more keenly aware of feeling delight at their downfall than feeling envious of them. This feeling of delight in response to another person's misfortune is also known as schadenfreude.

Indeed, as philosopher Sara Protasi has pointed out, envy can occur even when it wouldn’t be possible for the envier to obtain the envied possession or advantage. If, for example, you are infertile, you may envy your good friend who has her own biological children, even though you can’t obtain the ability behind the envied good.

Academics sometimes distinguish between benign and malicious envy. Benign envy is said to be focused on the envier’s perceived disadvantage, whereas malicious envy is about the envied’s seeming advantage.

Unlike malicious envy, benign envy is supposed to be morally praiseworthy, because it motivates the envier to take steps to get to where the envied is. However, the comparative emotion that can motivate us to work harder seems to be a far cry from envy in its distilled form. Rather, the morally praiseworthy emotion some call "benign envy" seems to be (nonaggressive) competitiveness or zeal.

It is envy's almost inevitable irrationality that marks the greatest difference between envy and jealousy.

In common parlance, “jealousy” is often used synonymously with “envy.” But they are distinct emotions. Whereas envy is a reaction to another person’s seemingly unfair advantage or possession, jealousy is a reaction to a perceived threat of losing someone you already “possess” in some sense—usually a person with whom you have a special relationship—to a third party.

Who exactly our jealousy is directed at is still up for debate. One option is that jealousy is targeted at those we take to be directly responsible for introducing the threat of loss into your life. If, say, you discover that your long-term romantic partner has had a secret affair for the past two years, your jealousy may be directed at both parties. But presumably, we are more likely to take out our jealousy on our partner than on his lover, although this could simply reflect a greater opportunity to show our jealousy to our partner than to his lover.

Envy is rarely a rational emotion. This is because envy’s target is not typically at fault for having what the envier wants. Envy is a kind of misplaced resentment. But it can be rational on the rare occasions where the envied is responsible for having the possession or advantage you wish you had. If you envy your coworker for getting the promotion you had hoped for, and you happen to know he was promoted because he slept with the boss, your envy is rational, as long as it’s not spiteful. After all, it is at least in part due to his opportunism that he received the proposition and you didn't.

Jealousy seems akin to envy in involving resentment and attribution of responsibility. However, resentment and attribution of responsibility have much greater odds of being rational when present in jealousy than in envy.

We often think of jealousy as intimately tied to romantic love. This conception may turn on our tendency to think of our significant others as "our possession." Jealousy isn't only present in romantic relationships, however. One form of sibling rivalry may be based on a perceived threat of losing a parent's love to the other sibling. Likewise, two friends may compete for the attention and time of a third friend on the grounds of a perceived threat of losing the closeness they both have with the third friend.

In the next post, we will look at how to manage jealousy and envy in relationships.

References

Brogaard, B. (2020). Hatred: Understanding Our Most Dangerous Emotion, Oxford University Press.

Protasi, S. (2016). “Varieties of Envy,” Philosophical Psychology 29 (4): 535-549.

Protasi, S. (2017). “‘I'm not envious, I'm just jealous!’: On the Difference Between Envy and Jealousy,” Journal of the American Philosophical Association 3 (3):316-333.

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