The 10th commandment is unique: It prohibits a mental state (coveting) rather than an action (like stealing, murdering, or committing adultery). That seems to put the commandment in the Orwellian realm of a thought-crime: The sin lies in the soul, not in the actions of the body. But the final commandment does not merely warn us away from bouts of jealousy — it is specific about particularly sinful objects of our jealousy: “your neighbor’s house … your neighbor’s wife … his male servant, his female servant … his ox … his donkey.” Lest you think that coveting your neighbor’s rooster or mule (or Lamborghini) is fair game, the commandment closes with a catch-all: “or anything that is your neighbor’s.” Yet even this Exodus elastic clause seems to apply only to your neighbor’s outward possessions or relations. The prohibition is against wanting to have these things or people as your own. But does the no-no apply to coveting your neighbor in a less crass way? What if it’s not her ox or donkey you’re after, but her poetic flair, or her gardening skills, or her ethical principles, or her resoluteness? What if you covet her very outlook on life?
Immanuel Kant, the 18th-century German philosopher, maintained that all kinds of envy are destructive: “Envy is a propensity to view the well-being of others with distress, even though it does not detract from one’s own.” The emotion amounts to “a reluctance to see our own well-being overshadowed by another’s because the standard we use to see how well off we are is not the intrinsic worth of our own well-being, but how it compares with that of others. Envy aims, at least in terms of one’s wishes, at destroying others’ good fortune.” So envy, for Kant, is the nastier cousin of schadenfreude, the joy one feels when learning of the failure of others. It is the pain one experiences when learning of a rival’s successes.
For some philosophers, like Robert Young, Robert Roberts, Daniel Farrell, and Jerome Neu, envy comes in two very different forms. “Malicious envy” entails a desire to one day revel in some delicious schadenfreude when your competitor stubs his toe or falls from grace. But “benign envy” grows out of admiration for someone. It is still painful, since the person you are thinking about enjoys some capacity or expertise or grace that you lack, but benign envy does not have you actively wishing for bad luck to come anybody’s way.
As it happens, this second type of envy may be just what the doctor ordered. In 2011, a four-part study conducted by three psychologists found that “envy may … have important consequences for cognitive processing.” People experiencing the admiring type of envy seem to have sharpened memories, greater focus and enhanced perseverance. Basically, envy puts you on your toes. When paying attention to the virtues of another person, you are enlisting your powers of concentration, making note of the comparison between you and that admirable other and, possibly, spurring yourself to raise the bar for your own life. Another experiment by Dutch psychologist Niels van de Ven found more evidence of this association. Envious people study harder and tend to be more creative than their more staid peers.
Yet benign envy can turn us into overzealous consumers. In a 2010 study by de Ven and two colleagues, the researchers found that “consumers are willing to pay a premium for products that elicit their envy.” Does this example sound familiar?
A colleague considered buying an iPhone for some time. Because it was more expensive than other phones, she kept deferring the purchase. Yet, when a friend bought an iPhone, she bought one too, the next day. The higher price of the iPhone lost its meaning when envy kicked in.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau noted long ago that comparisons between ourselves and others both defined and warped civilization in its earliest incarnations:
Everything now begins to change its aspect. Men, who have up to now been roving in the woods, by taking to a more settled manner of life, come gradually together, form separate bodies, and at length in every country arises a distinct nation, united in character and manners, not by regulations or laws, but by uniformity of life and food, and the common influence of climate. Permanent neighbourhood could not fail to produce, in time, some connection between different families. Among young people of opposite sexes, living in neighbouring huts, the transient commerce required by nature soon led, through mutual intercourse, to another kind not less agreeable, and more permanent. Men began now to take the difference between objects into account, and to make comparisons; they acquired imperceptibly the ideas of beauty and merit, which soon gave rise to feelings of preference. In consequence of seeing each other often, they could not do without seeing each other constantly. A tender and pleasant feeling insinuated itself into their souls, and the least opposition turned it into an impetuous fury: with love arose jealousy; discord triumphed, and human blood was sacrificed to the gentlest of all passions.
Rousseau’s is a grim picture, but contemporary psychologists seem to paint a happier one. We are emphatically social creatures. We can’t help noticing how others around us are faring, making envy at least an occasional fate for all of us. But as long as we keep our envy in perspective, it’s a mistake to try to shield ourselves too assiduously from the emotion. Envy hurts, and it can devolve into nastiness and even violence, but envy can also encourage us to aspire to our better or our best selves at work, school or at home. In proper doses, envy can gear up our minds and souls to aim higher.
Steven V. Mazie is Professor of Political Studies at Bard High School Early College-Manhattan and Supreme Court Correspondent for The Economist. He holds an A.B. in Government from Harvard College and a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Michigan.
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