Thursday, October 17, 2002


This is the cardinal vice. It is the resentment of others’ success or good fortune. Deeply nasty, it is the desire to see others meet up with misfortune and unhappiness. Unlike the thief, the one who envies wants another’s pain as an end in itself. Envy is sadistic.

It is also a lynchpin in a network of vice. We struggle to maintain three very important values in America while beset with envy, as though struggling under a bacterial load. These fundamental values are the right to private property, the duty of self-reliance, and the duty of charity. Envy attacks them all.

The rich, white male is the object of an envy the intense hatefulness of which should make anyone sick with revulsion and despair at the human situation. We live in a free society, in which anyone has the opportunity to obtain enough private property for a good life. Some of the energy we need to pursue such a life is sapped away by envy, and preyed upon by opportunistic race- and class-baiters in order to make political careers for themselves. Our devotion to the right to private property itself is being eroded by this acid. Instead of making good lives by working to obtain the private property that makes for them, many Americans have persevered in a fight for justice that was won decades ago. This progressivism is an envy-based movement. The only duty of the wealthy to the poor, besides abiding by the rules of fair play in the marketplace, is to provide a minimal welfare net, in order to meet basic needs of food, housing, and medicine. The fight has been won. Justice has been achieved (which is the very good news). But the American left wants more than just deserts. It pounds its fist for more, and it has power. Since there is no moral basis for it, we can conclude that this movement is therefore peopled by the envious and those who use them to further their political careers. This is a gigantic waste of human capital, which could have been devoted to building good lives. It is also a partial destruction of the liberty of property rights, and it therefore makes our country worse in many ways.

Misfits will envy the happy and well-adjusted. The poor and their leaders are not the only elements of the progressivist left. The movement needs a middle management class, and it has one. These are the college-educated middle class who don’t fit in and who have been hoodwinked by the leadership into feeling guilt about their wealth. They join the movement because they are bored and restless. The system does not bring them happiness, and they are angry and envious at those to whom it does. They therefore want to bring some excitement into things by rocking the boat, “working for change,” being at the vanguard of a movement. They cannot find happiness in this movement. This is a tremendous loss of human potential, as well.

If only the poor and the middle-class elements in the progressive movement had been shown how a human being of any sort can find happiness in the tradition of values America maintains, none of this would happen. But they do not find this happiness, and they envy in proportion to their discontent. The result is wasted lives and the corruption of our values and political system.

Envy also attacks the value of self-reliance. Leftist progressivism maintains that one probably has a good reason to envy others if one is not a white male and doesn’t end up well-off. There is no good reason for this belief; it is fueled by envy. This distraction from occupying oneself with one’s own concerns and one’s effort to rely on oneself so as not to be a burden to others, worsens one’s life by wasting its energy and also brings ruin to a value which would protect us from this fate: the value of self-reliance.

Finally, it is likely that envy diminishes our potential for charity. This is ironic, given the intimate marriage between envy and the progressivist’s concern for the unfortunate. But it stands to reason that many of us feel deserving of more happiness than we have and zealously guard our opportunities to achieve more of it. The extremely unfortunate amongst us (whose misery can’t be taken away by mere welfare nets) need extra help, but we are less likely to be inclined to give it to the extent that we feel we are already struggling under a shortfall in happiness ourselves. The pureness of heart and benevolence it takes to give charitably is incompatible with the vague feeling of having been cheated by fate or society inherent to envy. This is why those who are able to devote some of their time to charity feel as though a load has been lifted from their shoulders. By forcing themselves to follow their gentler instincts, they have warred against the envy, spite, and self-absorption that makes them discontent with what they have. They are therefore able to find the abundance of happiness in what they have. It was waiting for them all along, but they were too busy looking with envy at others’ situations to notice it.

Two important values in moral life are happiness and justice. America is a just society. It is less happy than it could easily be. And economic justice is under leftist attack. Much of the problem is due to envy. Envy causes sloth, diminishes self-reliance, increases injustice, and forms an obstacle to charity. This makes envy a cardinal vice. The answer is to try to learn how to find happiness with ordinary ways of life, and to help others beset by envy to do so, as well.

[Update: As AC Douglas has pointed out, I've applied some Nietzsche in this essay and should have said so. It was Nietzsche's idea that envy can make those who are not living good lives decide to consider those who are living good lives immoral.]