Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Helmut Schoeck's Envy

Helmut Schoeck published Envy in 1966. It remains one of the few systematic treatises on the subject and highlights a profound aspect of human nature. Envy is of keen interest to me because ever since I wrote my dissertation on the low volatility effect back in 1994, I have been interested in why. In standard economic theory, individuals are assumed to maximize their utility, which is independent of other's wealth. With this assumption, you get a risk premium, and it should be ubiquitous. The risk premium is actually quite rare, limited to a couple of asset classes (though not within them). For more on envy in economics, see here.

Envy is eternal and ubiquitous, but also taboo. This is because envy is one of those few vices that is neither an excess or deficit of virtue, in that cowardice and recklessness are a deficit and excess of the virtue courage. The literature defending the rationality and value of emotions usually excludes envy as irredeemable.

Thus, no one candidly admits to being envious. We really do not even have a word for sincerely saying, 'I envy John,' in that one can only say this in a way that implies a benign, emulative, or admiring variety of envy, rather than the invidious form.  We do not even like to analyze it very deeply.  For example, Schoeck notes that Herman Melville's Billy Budd is about a good man who arouses the envy of the ship's master-at-arms, motivating many spiteful actions. The book's theme is clearly about envy, yet of the many written analyses of the novel they rarely mention envy, and never focus upon it, but rather highlight evil or injustice

Ordinary language tends to conflate envy and jealousy, yet they are distinct emotions. A man can be jealous of another man because of their mutual affection for a woman, and here the rival is fungible and the beloved is not fungible. In envy, it is the other way around, resenting a rival, not because of a specific woman, but rather, that he can obtain a woman of that type.

Most observers of envy, from Aristotle on, have noted it is felt toward those with whom the subject perceives himself as in competition. We only feel envious of our peers, or who we consider being our peers. Thus, we do not envy a world-class athlete, in that we know we are simply not in that class of people. In medieval times you had peasants, knights, lords, and a king, while in Ancient Greece you had slaves, freedmen, metics, and the upper class. Envy was restricted to one's class and perhaps those in the class above.

Essence of envy

Schoeck presents some theories for the origin of envy, not all convincing. First, from our competition for parental resources. As the runt of the litter gets fewer parental resources, or the weak bird is left to naked fratricide in the presence of the mother, all children wish to dominate their parent's attention out of self-preservation. Yet this is the definition of jealousy, in that the instinct presupposes a non-fungible desired object: parental attention. Another cause mentioned is in keeping society well-functioning. In his view, without envy, people with power would be haughty and overbearing. Yet, simple reciprocal altruism would seem to be at play, in that a successful alpha baboon realizes that if they are too overbearing, their underlings can and will kill him (see Frans de Waal).

Another interesting cause of envy is the ignorance of chance. The most envy-ridden tribes do not possess a concept of luck. Everything is determined by spirits, fortune, or the 'evil eye.' In primitive societies, the success of others is equated with the betrayal of the tribe, because it could have only have occurred by leveraging evil spirits or stealing from others. A certain degree of rationality, or at least a freedom from a magical view of things, is required before the envious man can fully realize that the man he envies does not possess something which, but for the possessor's existence, he, the envious man, might otherwise have.

I see envy as the result of our base, animalistic, status-seeking human nature. When we focus on life on this Earth, we want status, and what that implies, justification. Only a high status can prove, to ourselves and others, that we are good, important, and admired. Status, alas, is in fixed supply. While this constraint can be ameliorated by the concept of having many status silos--football, math, Fortnight--ultimately there are a limited number of positional goods: lakefront property, the 'best' cars or vacations, and most importantly, attractive mates.

Note that our greatest suffering is not caused by physical pain or privation, but rather when the will of another inflicts it. This is because random accidents do not reflect on us as individuals, as they happen by chance to everyone. But suffering caused by another implies inferiority, in that the tormentor had the ability to force their will against ours. Our status is diminished when a malefactor successfully torments us, as it highlights our impotence, and thus, lack of status.

Utopia and Envy

The completely just society where envy is absent is doomed because it is based on the false premise that once there is justice, there will be nothing left for anyone to envy. This situation can never occur because man inevitably discovers something new to envy. Further, by raising envy to the status of virtue (as righteous resentment over injustice), political entrepreneurs are motivated to reveal new inequalities that are to blame for people's impotence. Thus we now have the virtue of intersectionalism, where a transgendered black man is more righteous than a cis-black straight man.

There are so many ways to align individuals at some point we realize the ultimate minority is the individual. Yet, when envy is elevated it inverts all values that compete, resulting in the de-individualization of individuals in the name of equality. Simple utilitarianism implies that justice for many is more important than for any one person, and so what counts are the superficial categories we consider 'diverse.' The individual is unimportant.

Most utopias presume that reducing inequality will eradicate envy, though in fact, the opposite is more certain. Utopias are places where people are so equal that they will only have less than others by conscious choice, the way I have less strawberry ice cream than my neighbor because I prefer chocolate. A sad fact of life is that equality of opportunity comes to grief because individuals do not all have the same ability to make use of their opportunities with comparable success. This is a more bitter experience than one for which one can blame others rather than one's self.

The most egalitarian societies, hunter-gatherer societies, actually have more envy that less egalitarian ones. This isn't obvious because their lack of wealth seems to imply they are not greedy, and thus, selfish like Westerners, but this is just wishful naïve thinking. There is no tribe where social harmony prevails because each man has as little as the next. For primitive egalitarian societies, envy is both a cause and an effect. Schoeck notes that such communities tend to have no conception of luck, and so see any objective relative prosperity as a sign of theft or alignment with evil forces. Schoeck discusses Native American, African, and Polynesian tribes, and note the strong social pressure for anyone better off to be lavish in hospitality and generous with gifts. He knows that if he fails in this, 'the voice of envy will speak out in the whispers of witchcraft' which would make his life very unpleasant.

Envy prevents people from accumulating the wealth needed to create technology, and thus the free time needed to create art, science, literature, and philosophy. A lack of differentiation makes more apparent one's inadequacies, in that some will be more clever, athletic, or brave. When people are made equal in endowments, the only reason for not attaining a higher status is within us, our character, our essence.

In earlier times, the upper classes were different in many objective ways. An elite's risk of starvation was insignificant compared to the peasant, reflected in the fact that they were 10 centimeters taller than a commoner in 18th century England; they could read, sometimes in foreign languages, which implied a great deal of useful education. Today those barriers are gone. Almost everyone knows how to read and write, the basics of mathematics and history, the poor are fatter than the rich, and height disparities between individuals of the same race are absent.

 Equality Increases Envy

Our unprecedented wealth and comfort should have led to less envy, in that we all have access to the knowledge that brings self-actualization and self-esteem, but instead, it has lead to greater envy. The poorly paid op-ed writer of your local newspaper considers themselves not just equal to the rich, but better informed and more articulate, as proven by their many eloquent and insightful essays. Their lack of status motivates envy because they feel just as worthy, as competent, as those who are doing better. David Brooks highlighted this in his book Bobos in Paradise.

Consider our very best intellectuals. One might think they have acquired wisdom, and so a sense of self-actualization and self-esteem. Yet professors in the social sciences are an unhappy lot, reflected in Sayre's law: 'academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low.' This is because only those at the top of each specialty have the power to confer prestige and honor on favored individuals, subjects, and style of discourse. They influence taste, favor certain methodologies, and define the boundaries of their disciplines. To be chief consecrator is the intellectual’s dream, and it only can be apportioned to a few.

The idea that men are intrinsically equal in every admirable trait, combined with the idea that all we need is nourishment, warmth, and education, is simply wrong. Sure, to be engaged in a desperate struggle for food and shelter is to be wholly free from a sense of futility, but such environments are rare for anyone reading this blog. The desire for praise is more imperative than the desire for food and shelter. Praise from the praiseworthy is beyond all rewards, why we are more hurt by the lukewarm approval of men we respect than the contempt of fools.

Social justice justifies not having many things so that others may not have them either. In the politics of envy, all that is needed is to promise the envious the destruction or the confiscation of assets enjoyed by others; behind that, there is no need to promise anything constructive. Thus it really does not matter how the government spends punitive taxation. As shown in primitive societies, when creative ambition is punished, you get stasis, not just in economic productivity, but everything else: art, literature, science.

Resentment is held to be a potentially morally justifiable emotion, whereas envy former is not.  Resentment may come from real injustice, such as slavery. Yet good reasons for resentment are few, edge cases, while much resentment comes from a desire to blame others for our inadequacies. A passionate obsession with inequality is an attempt to compensate for a lack of meaning in one's own life, and you can never get enough of what you don't need to make you happy.

It is easy to lie to ourselves about our motivations, creating a bad equilibrium, as poor hunter-gatherer societies show. These are not idyllic communes free of self-interest, but rather, ignorant and envious cultures. Social flourishing is most fruitful when envious considerations unencumber man's creative faculties. Envy is something that should be discouraged. Pride is a sense of worth derived from the perceived appreciation of others, while self-esteem derives from the belief that we are profoundly appreciated, as a unique individual, by those we profoundly appreciate. Note that such a feeling comes out of a relationship of individuals, not some aggregate metric of status.

While there is nothing wrong with having wealth or wanting more, this should be of secondary importance, and wisdom is all about priorities. We should be encouraged to appreciate excellence in others to build excellence in ourselves. This takes faith, in that we have to believe our excellence in character, even if not reflected in the current status hierarchy, is appreciated by someone we admire, if not now, then in the future.


Paul Brassey said...

Rene Girard dedicated his career to studying envy and related emotions such as desire, imitation, and rivalry. His magnum opus is Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World.

PV van der Byl said...

Thanks, Eric.

This is a very good assessment of an outstanding book.