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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Friday, April 15, 2011

"Envy"; "jealousy"; "spite"

While we're talking about envy, jealousy, and spite, I'm interested in how people distinguish among these and related concepts.

Robert Nozick has a famous discussion of them in a (very) long footnote in Anarchy, State, and Utopia (page 239 for those who are interested). He makes some subtle distinctions, and they do seem to correspond with concepts that we actually have. I'm not sure, though, that his explications of envy, jealousy, and spite match my intuitive ones.

Nozick has this little matrix that applies to some sort of good, whether it's money, fame, success, sexual desirability, or whatever. The possibilities that he imagines boil down to these:

1. Both you and the other person have it.

2. The other person has it and you don't.

3. You have it and the other person doesn't.

4. Neither of you has it.

The question is: What are your preferences among 1., 2., 3., and 4.?

Nozick has a complicated analysis that has now left me wondering, though I do think that someone who prefers 4. to 1. is spiteful. Nozick defines spite as preferring 4. to 1. while preferring 3. to 4. I guess that's fair enough.

But what about jealousy and envy? And Nozick adds a couple of other categories - someone who is begrudging and someone who is merely competitive (which he doesn't really disapprove of).

What if you prefer 4. to 2. but prefer 1. to 4. (while your favourite is actually 3.). Is that jealousy or envy? Is it a form of spite? What if you're neutral between 1. and 3., both of which you prefer to 2., while putting 4. last? That's okay isn't it? There are lots of possibilities. What if your preferences are, in order, 1., 3., 2. 4.? That would seem fairly normal and healthy to me. Yes? But some people might list their preferences as 3., 1., 2. 4. Is that jealousy?

Anyone who prefers 4. to 2. seems very worrying, and someone who prefers 4. to 1. even more so.

Just asking.


March Hare said...

3, 1, 4, 2. That's the rational order if you value happiness.

3 is best because your happiness is based on your relative wealth (etc.) rather than the absolute amount.

1 is second as you are better off being objectively better off even if you're not subjectively so.

4 as you feel better with nothing when that's what others have too.

And the worst case is 2 due to the opposite reasons that make 3 the best.

So apparently, according to Russell, I am a very worrying person... Also, someone confident of their abilities could easily prefer 4 to 1 as 4 allows them scope to advance to 3 (if you rank that as best) due to their abilities whereas 1 does not.

Tony Newell said...

Agreed. Although I'm not sure that spite is a trait that's necessarily worrying. If I am one half of the equation, and the other half is my daughter's murderer, and the good we are talking about is something like health, then I think preferring 4 to 1 is quite natural...maybe even admirable.

Russell Blackford said...

Shouldn't we prefer 1. to any of the others? Prima facie, it seems to be the preference that maximises well-being. And shouldn't 4. come last? It seems to be the one that minimises well-being.

I can see why you wouldn't want to sacrifice your own well-being, and why a morality that says you should is unreasonable, so I can see why you can prefer 3. to 2. But wouldn't a society trying to work out what sort of people it wants to have as inhabitants (e.g. through socialisation of children) aim at people who go 1., 3., 2., 4.?

I get the argument about relative wealth, but often it's not like that even if you think purely self-interestedly. Often you are better able to enjoy a good if other people also have it - think of intelligence, literacy, creativity, musical talent... In all these cases, someone who has these things will be better off enjoying the company of other people who also have them. Many goods give network benefits - the more people who have them the better for each individual who has them - rather than positional advantages.

March Hare said...

But you've just shifted the goalposts, Russell.

The original is about what oneself prefers, or even should prefer for their own well-being. You have suddenly scaled it up and said what should we try to make everyone prefer...

Individual: 3, 1, 4, 2
Society: 1, 3, 2, 4

Society is not simply the amalgamation of individual preferences (even for a libertarian such as myself). There has to be some benevolence looking out for the greater good - ideally with performance related pay so it is in their self interest to do so.

Russell Blackford said...

Well, from my point of view you shifted the goalposts when you brought those issues into it of how the utility obtained from some goods like wealth may depend on relative distributions. :)

Once you raise complications like that, it's also legit to raise complications about network effects, positional goods, etc.

My original question was meant to be much simpler.

It's getting at whether you are happy at the success of others, even if you don't enjoy the same success, and even if your attitude tends to undermine overall well-being. Remember, we're talking here about envy, jealousy , etc., and I suppose I want to know which are the attitudes that we consider socially destructive and how we label them.

Come to think of it, though, our social expectations that people try to avoid envy, spite, and so on, probably do have to do with a sense that it's not a zero sum because of network effects, synergies, or whatever. But I didn't originally have that in mind, just the destructiveness that can come out of emotions like spite.

Anyway, bedtime for me, but I look forward to seeing some more comments come in overnight. This topic may be more interesting than I originally thought.

Jason Streitfeld said...

Here's a shot at jealousy and envy:

Jealousy is a negative attitude towards the fact that 2, where 4 is better than 2 while 1 (if possible) and 3 are equally better than 4. (Assuming 1 is an option.)

Envy is a negative attitude towards the fact that 2, where 1 (if possible) and 3 are preferable to 2 and 4.

If you prefer 4 to 2, but 1 to 4, then it is jealousy. I tihnk jealousy should have an ambiguity between 1 and 3. If 3 is your favorite, then it is only jealousy if 1 is not an option. If 3 and 1 are options, and you prefer 3, then there is a touch of spite involved.

The preferences <3, 1, 2, 4> and <1, 3, 2, 4> . . . I don't know if these are distinct psychological attitudes. They look like combinations of greed (weak and mild, respectively) and a desire for something not to be wasted.

Ken Pidcock said...

I would think one should be mindful of anxiety over 2 (envy) and satisfaction with 3 (jealousy). Working on those is a lifelong project that could be worthwhile. 1 and 4 are just background.

March Hare said...

It's all too complicated.

Fame, wealth, housing, cars etc. are all things you compare to other people for their utility.

However, I would rather someone be a great film maker, musician, author etc. than no-one because I enjoy their produce.

I think the split between goods/talents we enjoy the output of from the ones we enjoy using needs to be done before we can order these properly.

I might be jealous of a great artist, but I can't spite them since I enjoy their art. I guess I can't envy them either because the joy they get creating is, more or less, available to anyone and the joy they give others is enormous.

I can spite a banker with his wealth because I don't think he earned it and/or I don't utilise any of his output.

And I can envy a great footballer because while I do enjoy his product I am gutted at my inability to be that good because of how much enjoyment I'd get from being that good.

I think I've got jealousy and envy the right way round here... let me know if my incoherent ranting makes any sense.

Charles Sullivan said...

I distinguish between envy and jealousy in this way.

Envy is when you want something like what someone else has. Jealousy is when you want that very thing that the other person has.

I'm envious of you when you're kissing a beautiful women, because I want to kiss a beautiful woman too.

I'm jealous of you when you're kissing my girlfriend because I don't want my girlfriend kissing you; instead, I want her kissing me.

Marshall said...

"Comparisons are odious." If humans can't value themselves for what they are and have but only by superiority to others, then that's the end of any Universal Ethic on which all observers can agree. The net subjective valuation of a situation of total equality would be negative: no one is superior, a universally undesired result. Spinoza said that if humans understood their true situation, the problem wouldn't arise, but few do and it seems that jealousy and envy are integral parts of the current social environment. *

This was essentially Craig's claimed "killer counter-argument" to Harris' stance, that there's no reason to think people could ever agree on what situation would be the most desirable or undesirable for human flourishing. Craig suggested considering a psychopath, but it seems to be enough to point out that humans are motivated by #s 2, 3, and 4, that is anything other than #1. Harris replied by going off his nut about hellfire, but actually I don't see any other response open to him.

The rational Evolutionist must concede that evolution is driven by differences, by electing winners and losers. So if morality includes a notion of "fairness", we are doomed, eh? Craig would say "Except for Grace", but that's not open to Harris, is it?

* I would take jealousy and envy as respectively the reflexive and transitive versions of the emotion associated with ego-greed: as, "I jealously guard my plate of cookies, and I envy the chocolate chips in yours". Spite adds a flavor of despair. These are variations more than distinct things.

Dave Ricks said...

Given any of the four situations, we can respond with positive attitudes, and select constructive courses of action. If the good is musical skill or reputation, then definitely, sign me up for [2, 1, 3, 4], for the creative potential.

My favorite situation is 2 as my strongest and most creative position. Twyla Tharp's book The Creative Habit includes a questionnaire of 33 questions she called "Your Creative Autobiography" (pp. 45-46) to help us investigate what makes us tick. She provided her answers (pp. 54-59), and her answer I relate to the most by far (really my favorite part of the whole book) is for question 23:

Q: When confronted with superior intelligence or talent, how do you respond?
A: Enthusiastically. I can get there. Let's go.

Charles Sullivan said...

I wanted to revisit this after thinking more about it.

I do think that jealousy is different than envy, but I'm not convinced that envy is (necessarily) socially destructive, whereas I am convinced that jealousy is.

Jealousy wants to take from its object. That's what makes it particularly harmful. Envy has no preference whether the object of envy is taken or whether another, similar one, is found.

Nozick's scale as applied to jealousy would (in my view) prefer #3 as the preferential outcome.

You can't apply #1 to jealousy. Jealousy doesn't permit us both to have it. Otherwise, what's the point in being jealous in the first place?

And envy would prefer #1 as a preferential outcome (although it may be indifferent when it comes to #3, but only as long as it's not responsible for taking it from the other person).

Perhaps envy sometimes has a role in motivating people to achieve what others have achieved. In this sense it's not necessarily destructive.

#4 is spite, no question.

Russell Blackford said...

I'm amazed at how complex this is, but my intuition, for whatever that's worth, is along the lines of what some are saying here: jealousy is worse than envy but not as destructive as spite. Envy does not necessarily want to deny a good to someone else, or want to take it away from them - it's more about getting the good as well. So envy doesn't necessarily distinguish between 1. and 3. and it doesn't necessarily prefer 4. to 2.

Jealousy is something stronger than that. Spite can even be self-destructive: the spiteful person would rather have 4. than 2.

Russell Blackford said...

And preferring 4. to 1. is very worrying. Acting on that preference would be quite destructive. It's about dragging others down to your level, rather than about trying to get up to their level.

March Hare said...

Where does schadenfreude come in? Is that simply preferring 4 to 2?

In common usage I can't see any difference between envy, jealousy or covetousness. I think spite is a different animal though. Wanting something you have, whether or not it deprives you of it, is much more normal than simply willing you not to have it, i.e. preferring 4 to 2.

I think we are missing the key point that our ordering of these options is very dependent upon which good/attribute we're talking about and how that relates to ourselves. e.g. if it attractiveness then if we are talking about my girlfriend my preference is 1,2,3,4. If it is a random stranger then it is 3,1,4,2 since other people having it diminishes mine. Musical ability might be 1,3,2,4.

So decide what good/ability it is we're talking about, who the other person is and then start again.

March Hare said...

Russell: And preferring 4. to 1. is very worrying. Acting on that preference would be quite destructive. It's about dragging others down to your level, rather than about trying to get up to their level.

Not necessarily. If the thing in question is absolute power then it is probably a better for all (maybe even including you) for 4 to be the first preference. Although absolute power does tend to preclude 1 from happening... ti would rank 4,3,(1),2.

Anonymous said...

I think that a lot of the complexity here is coming from focusing ON the truly destructive extremes of all of these emotions. There seem to be weaker instances of these that are not socially destructive and seem fairly reasonable. People do envy their friends and claim to be jealous of things they have with it only being a loose, friendly rivalry type of thing.

I also follow Prinz's view of emotions as appraisals and then think that the link to preferences is probably not correct; that preference thing comes after, not before.

To me:

Envy: The appraisal that someone has something you want, but that their having it is in no way the reason you don't have it.

Jealousy: The appraisal that someone has something you want, and their having it is in some way the reason you don't have it.

Spite: A desire to withhold something from someone for reasons unrelated to the reasons you should consider for deciding to give or withhold that thing.

You can be spiteful even when you have things someone doesn't, and even when you are in a position of power over them. You may decide to be spiteful just because you don't like them, or you feel that they're too demanding, or too arrogant.

Stuart Andrew said...

I would say that jealousy represents a preference for 3 over 1, whereas envy represents a preference for 1 over 2. At least, that is my understanding of the terms. As you say, spite is a preference for 4 over 2.

Of these, envy is the only one that could be called rational.

Stuart Andrew said...

I would say that jealousy represents a preference for 3 over 1, whereas envy represents a preference for 1 over 2. At least, that is my understanding of the terms. As you say, spite is a preference for 4 over 2.

Of these, envy is the only one that could be called rational.