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The Desire to Be Envied

On the moral complexity of a vice and its consequences for happiness.

Raise the Red Lantern movie scene
Songlian getting foot massage
Source: Raise the Red Lantern movie scene

Envy can be vicious. Alexander Dumas’ Count of Monte Cristo, the protagonist in the eponymous novel, is so envied for his personal qualities, quick rise in the ranks, and the love of a beautiful woman that he is framed for a crime. In Zhang Yimou’s (remarkable) film Raise the Lantern, a young woman named Songlian discovers that her maid, Yan’er, keeps a voodoo doll – a replica of Songlian – stabbed with pins. In Jean Genet’s play The Maids, two maids envy their mistress so much that they conspire to kill her. (Though it is unclear whether they really want to kill her or simply want to fantasize about it.)

We have every reason to be wary of those who envy us. True harm may befall us as a result of envy, as the case of Count Monte Cristo illustrates. But there is another side to the story about envy, one that introduces a moral complication: Some desire — nay, crave — to be envied.

This peculiar want, or thirst, is by no means uncommon. Mark Twain, in Following the Equator, goes so far as to say, “Man will do many things to get himself loved; he will do all things to get himself envied.” [1] And in the novel Daniel Deronda, George Eliot describes a man named Grandcourt whose well-being depends on the envy of others. He is particularly keen on arousing envy in his cousin, Deronda. Eliot says this:

Grandcourt did believe that Deronda, poor devil, who he had no doubt was his cousin by the father’s side, inwardly winced under their mutual position; wherefore the presence of that less lucky person was more agreeable to him than it would otherwise have been. An imaginary envy, the idea that others feel their comparative deficiency, is the ordinary cortège of egoism; and his pet dogs were not the only beings that Grandcourt liked to feel his power over in making them jealous. [2]

As it happens, Deronda does not, in fact, envy Grandcourt, nor does he have a reason to. Deronda is a better man: he is nobler than Grandcourt and above envy. But suppose Grandcourt succeeded in provoking envy. Then both his envier and Grandcourt himself would be at fault. A victim of envy who arouses envy deliberately is a non-innocent victim. [3]

There are strands in our culture that reflect the moral complexity of envy. On the one hand, we consider envy a vice. In Christianity, it is one of the seven deadly sins and according to the Medieval poet Chaucer, it is the worst of all sins: “For truly, all other sins are sometimes only against one special virtue, but certainly Envy is against all virtues and against all goodness. For it is sorry of all the goodness of his neighbor, and in this manner it is diverse from all other sins.” [4] On the other hand, however, we have norms against bragging and flaunting one’s accomplishments. Boasting too is regarded as a vice. Both envier and envied may be seen as being in the wrong.

Note also that boasting only seems like a vice against the background of a widespread tendency to envy. It is, in other words, a vice that depends for its existence on another vice. For suppose others had nothing but goodwill for you and were not prone to begrudge you your desirable qualities at all. You could then brag to your heart’s content, and it would only make them happy. In such a world, boasting would be perfectly acceptable. (Much as it is when you talk to your parents. If you have good parents, they have nothing but goodwill for you, so you can flaunt your accomplishments, and it will only give them joy. This explains why there is no norm against boasting to one's parents. Of course, for your mother and father, your accomplishments are in part their own.)

What we have here then are two tendencies — or character flaws, if one wishes to use moral language — that feed on each other: to envy and to arouse envy. Both of these tendencies, or flaws, are rooted in a more general propensity to compare ourselves to others, and a desire to come out ahead. Should we resign ourselves to these all too human inclinations?

There are clearly self-interested reasons to try to free ourselves from envy: It is a painful emotion to feel (and said to be the only one among the deadly sins that isn’t fun). What about the desire to provoke envy? I would argue that there are reasons to do away with that too. It is true that the person envied may derive satisfaction from it, but to seek to obtain pleasure from the assurance that others feel inferior when they compare themselves to us is to adopt a myopic view of life. I doubt we really want to take the risk of having those who envy us say all manner of cruel things behind our backs (to mention nothing of stabbing voodoo dolls with our names on them with pins, like Yan’er).

In addition, if you desire envy, you may fail to get it, and then the tables may be easily turned: You'd become the envier, and that would be painful. One could imagine, for instance, Grandcourt from the earlier example, realizing that Deronda doesn't envy him, and becoming envious of Deronda for Deronda would have shown himself to be the stronger man; the one who wouldn't let his happiness remain hostage to a social hierarchy.

If all that's not persuasive enough, consider a thought experiment. Suppose a person has succeeded in making everyone envy him. Unfortunately, envy suppresses love, so not many love him. He is about to die, and there is hardly anyone who would shed a tear. How good do you think he feels about others' envy then? We need not answer.

It should be noted here that one may go too far in an attempt not to provoke the envy of others. A psychotherapist I met once told me that she was in the process of treating a patient who was constantly sabotaging herself for fear of surpassing her sister. This patient happened to be both more intelligent and more beautiful than her sister, and it pained her to see her sister disadvantaged. One can only hope that the sibling in a less enviable position would encourage her sister not to sabotage herself, perhaps by showing pride in her sister’s accomplishments.

Philosopher Thomas Nagel has argued that our emotions, being a private matter, are no one else’s business. Many of us, Nagel maintains, are secretly mean people, secretly envy the success of friends, or wish bad things to happen to others. That in itself is not a problem, in his view. A problem, according to Nagel, would arise if we start speaking our hearts on each and every occasion. But we need not do so. What is more, we need not feel guilty for the occasional fumbling of our hearts. All we have to do vis-à-vis our untoward thoughts and feelings is to make sure they don’t come out into the open. Social cohesion demands that we edit what we say and do. We do not, in addition, have to edit what we think and feel. Nagel writes: “To internalize too much of one’s social being and regard inner feelings and thoughts that conflict with it as unworthy or impure is disastrous. Everyone is entitled to commit murder in the imagination once in a while, not to mention lesser infractions” [5].

None of what I said here contradicts Nagel's analysis. I readily cede that our feelings are a private matter. We are not accountable to others for the way we feel. That includes feeling envy or desiring the envy of others. What I argued is that secretly wishing the envy of others is not the best strategy for achieving well-being. (That envy is destructive to the envier is, I take it, clear.) My argument is not moral but prudential: as we provoke more and more envy, we'll get less and less love, and we'd be better off being less envied and more loved.

But what about Twain's observation that people desire the envy of others more strongly than they desire love? Am I not recommending a path that would lead to frustrated desire?

My answer is that while there is something right about Twain's observation, the explanation of the phenomenon is evolutionary. The tendency to constantly compare ourselves to others and come out ahead may make us better survival machines for our genes. But it won't make us happy, and indeed, it may cause us all a good deal of anguish. Evolution does not much care about our flourishing. Some of the desires it instills in us -- and the desire to be envied is among them -- may cause us unhappiness not only when they aren't fulfilled, but when they are. That we should have desires of this sort is one of the tragedies of the human condition, but we need not resign ourselves to it. We can, instead, try to liberate -- if you wish, rewire -- ourselves.

How, though, can we do that? We have so little control over our feelings and desires.

This is true. Above I offered some considerations meant to make the prospect of being envied undesirable. Here, I want to mention something else. This is my final point. I said that Nagel is right to hold that others have no say in the way we feel. I would now add that we can accept that and nonetheless acknowledge that we have a role to play in the way others feel. We have a good deal of control over that, actually, possibly more than we have over our own emotions. There is a hopeful message in this: however powerless we may be to change our own desires, we can influence those of others, and they can do the same for us. We can lessen each other's misery by resolving not to provoke in each other the painful emotion of envy. We can also reduce another's desire to be envied by simply showing no envy and reacting with joy to her triumph.

There is certainly no duty to do this — we can leave others to fight their demons as we struggle to subdue our own — but it would be a good thing. It would be a good thing even though both envy and the desire to provoke it are character flaws (a moral saint would show neither); and despite the fact that whatever pain these tendencies cause, those who have them must, according to all public conventions, keep that pain to themselves and try to deal with, as best as they can, in private. [6]

Follow me here.


[1] Twain, M. (1897/1989). Following the Equator. New York, NY: Dover Publications, p. 206.

[2] Eliot, G. (1876/1996). Daniel Deronda. London, UK: Wordsworth, p. 231.

[3] Fileva, I. (2020). "Envy's Non-Innocent Victims," Journal of Philosophy of Emotion 1 (1): 1-22.

[4] Chaucer, G. (c. 1387/2011). The Parson’s Tale. Arcadia, CA: Tumblar House, p. 66.

[5] Nagel, T. (1998). “Concealment and Exposure,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 27: 3–30, 7.

[6] Fileva, I., "Envy's Non-Innocent Victims."