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Proverbs 6:16-19

Lust Chastity
Gluttony Temperance
Greed Charity
Sloth Diligence
Wrath Patience
Envy Kindness
Pride Humility

Envy (Latin, invidia)

Main article: Envy

Like greed, envy is characterized by an insatiable desire; they differ, however, for two main reasons. First, greed is largely associated with material goods, whereas envy may apply more generally. Second, those who commit the sin of envy resent that another person has something they perceive themselves as lacking, and wish the other person to be deprived of it. Dante defined this as "love of one's own good perverted to a desire to deprive other men of theirs." In Dante's Purgatory, the punishment for the envious is to have their eyes sewn shut with wire, because they have gained sinful pleasure from seeing others brought low. Aquinas described envy as "sorrow for another's good".[1]

Envy may be defined as an emotion that "occurs when a person lacks another’s superior quality, achievement, or possession and either desires it or wishes that the other lacked it."[1]

It can also derive from a sense of low self-esteem that results from an upward social comparison threatening a person's self image: another person has something that the envier considers to be important to have. If the other person is perceived to be similar to the envier, the aroused envy will be particularly intense, because it signals to the envier that it just as well could have been him or her who had the desired object.[2][3]

Bertrand Russell said envy was one of the most potent causes of unhappiness.[4] It is a universal and most unfortunate aspect of human nature because not only is the envious person rendered unhappy by his envy, but also wishes to inflict misfortune on others.

Although envy is generally seen as something negative, Russell(1930, p. 90-91)also believed that envy was a driving force behind the movement towards democracy and must be endured in order to achieve a more just social system. The tendency to feel envy seems to be present in all cultures [5][6].

The words "Envy" and "Jealousy" are often used interchangeably, but in correct usage, both words stand for two different distinct emotions. In proper usage, jealousy is the fear of losing something that one possesses to another person (a loved one in the prototypical form), while envy is the pain or frustration caused by another person having something that one does not have oneself. Envy typically involves two people, and jealousy typically involves three people. Envy and jealousy result from different situations and are distinct emotional experiences. [7]

Both envy and jealousy are related to schadenfreude, the rejoicing at, or taking joy in, or getting pleasure from the misfortunes of others.[8][9]

In some cultures, envy is often associated with the color green, as in "green with envy". The phrase "green-eyed monster" refers to an individual whose current actions appear motivated by envy. This is based on a line from Shakespeare's Othello.


The “Matador” Plant

In South America there is a strange vine known as the matador. Beginning at the foot of a tree, it slowly makes its way to the top. As it grows, it kills the tree, and when at last the top is reached, it sends forth a flower to crown itself. Matador, means KILLER. … jealousy … It appears harmless when it is small, but if it is allowed to grow, its tendrils of malice and hatred soon clasp themselves around the heart and eventually kill the soul.

—J. A. Clark


“I See A Flaw”

There it was on display in Cartier’s Fifth Avenue store in New York—the flawless 69.42-carat diamond, originally bought by Cartier for a record $1,050,000 at an auction. People were filing through the jewelry salon to get a glimpse of the diamond.

A short, bald man peered condescendingly at the big diamond in the small glass case and told his wife, “I see a flaw there, but I wouldn’t want to say anything. “

“It isn’t really that beautiful,” concluded a well-dressed lady, “but I wouldn’t mind having it.”

“It’s too large,” said one woman in rhinestone-studded glasses.

“I think it’s vulgar, but I just had to see it,” commented another woman.

Said Joe Whitehead, guard at the store, “I’ve heard more sour grapes in the last two days than in my whole life.”

—Prairie Overcomer


Two Greedy Men’s Wish

One of the old saints, according to the legend, in his journey overtook two travelers. One was a greedy, avaricious, covetous man; the other was of a jealous and envious nature. When they came to the parting of ways, the saint said he would give them a parting gift. Whichever made a wish first would have his wish fulfilled, and the other man would get a double portion of what the first had asked for.

The greedy man knew what he wanted; but he was afraid to make his wish, because he wanted a double portion and could not bear the thought of his companion getting twice as much as he had. But the envious man was also unwilling to wish first, because he could not stand the idea of his companion getting twice as much as he would get. So each waited for the other to wish first.

At length the greedy man took his fellow by the throat and said he would choke him to death unless he made his wish. At that the envious man said, “Very well; I will make my wish. I wish to be made blind in one eye.” Immediately he lost the sight of his eye—and his companion went blind in both eyes.

—C. E. Macartney



Be Content

In the tenth commandment, “you shall not covet,” God’s searchlight moves from actions to attitudes, from motions to motives, from forbidden deeds to forbidden desire. The word for “covet” conveys the thought of seeking dishonest and dishonorable gain. Coveting appears here as first cousin to envy: you see what someone else has, and you want to grab it for yourself, as Ahab wanted to grab Naboth’s vineyard in 1 Kings 21. In Colossians 3:5, Paul calls coveting idolatry, because the things coveted become your god, controlling your life.

Coveting is a root of all social evil; desires that burst the bounds beget actions to match. David took Bathsheba (thus, by theft, breaking the eighth commandment) and got her pregnant (thus breaking the seventh) and then to avoid scandal arranged for her husband Uriah to be killed (thus breaking the sixth), and it all began with David coveting his neighbor’s wife, in breach of the tenth (see 2 Samuel 11).

Similarly, Ahab’s coveting of Naboth’s vineyard next door led to the framing of Naboth by false witness (breaking the ninth commandment), his judicial murder (breaking the sixth), and his vineyard being forfeited to the crown—in other words, legally stolen (breaking the eighth).

Then there was Achan (Joshua 7; note verse 21), and also Judas, whose coveting led him to break first the eighth commandment (John 12:6) and then the sixth and ninth together as he betrayed Jesus to death by a simulated act of homage (Matthew 26:48–50), all for money (Matthew 26:14–16; cf. 27:3–5). Perhaps Paul had Achan and Judas in mind, as well as folk known to him directly, when he wrote that “the love of money is the root of all evils; it is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced their hearts with many pangs” (1 Timothy 6:10).

Called to Contentment

Put positively, “you shall not covet … anything that is your neighbor’s” is a call to contentment with one’s lot. The contentment which the tenth commandment prescribes is the supreme safeguard against temptations to break commandments five to nine. The discontented man, whose inner itch makes him self-absorbed, sees other people as tools to use in order to feed his greed, but the contented man is free as others are not to concentrate on treating his neighbor right. “There is great gain in godliness with contentment,” wrote Paul (1 Timothy 6:6).

Scripture presents contentment as a spiritual secret. It is one dimension of happiness, which is itself the fruit of a relationship. Toplady focuses this superbly in a poem beginning “Happiness, thou lovely name, Where’s thy seat, O tell me, where?” He writes:

Object of my first desire,

Jesus, crucified for me!

All to happiness aspire,

Only to be found in thee.

Thee to please and thee to know

Constitute our bliss below,

Thee to see and thee to love

Constitute our bliss above.

Whilst I feel thy love to me,

Every object teems with joy;

Here, O may I walk with thee,

Then into thy presence die!

Let me but thyself possess,

Total sum of happiness!

Real bliss I then shall prove,

Heaven below, and heaven above.

Knowing the love of Christ is the one and only source from which true contentment ever flows.

Jesus diagnosed, however, one mortal enemy to contentment: worry (see Matthew 6:25–34). But, he said, for a child of God (and every Christian is that) worry, which is in any case useless, since it can improve nothing (verse 27), is quite unnecessary. Why? Because “your heavenly Father knows” your needs (verse 32) and can be relied on to supply them as you “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness” (verse 33). Not to see this, and to lose one’s contentment in consequence, shows “little faith” (verse 30). The God whose fatherhood is perfect can be trusted absolutely to care for us on a day-to-day basis. So to realize that while planning is a duty and worry is a sin, because God is in charge, and to face all circumstances with an attitude of “praise God, anyway” is a second secret of the contented life.

Nor is this all. Look at Paul, a contented man if ever there was one. From prison he wrote, “Not that I complain of want; for I have learned, in whatever state I am, to be content … I have learned the secret of facing … abundance and want. I can do all things [i.e., all that I am called to do] in him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:11–13). The open secret to which Paul alludes here is fully spelled out in Hebrews 13:5ff.—“Put greed out of your lives and be content with whatever you have; God himself has said: I will not fail you or desert you, and so we can say with confidence: With the Lord to help me, I fear nothing: what can man do to me?” (JB). To realize the promised presence of one’s loving Lord, who both orders one’s circumstances and gives strength to cope with them, is the final secret of content.

Directing Desire

We are all, of course, creatures of desire; God made us so, and philosophies like Stoicism and religions like Buddhism which aim at the extinction of desire are really inhuman in their thrust. But desire that is sinfully disordered needs redirecting, so that we stop coveting others’ goods and long instead for their good, and God’s glory with and through it. When Thomas Chalmers spoke of “the expulsive power of a new affection,” he was thinking of the way in which knowledge of my Savior’s love diverts me from the barren ways of covetous self-service, to put God first, others second, and self-gratification last in my concerns. How much do we know in experience of this divine transforming power? It is here that the final antidote to covetousness is found.

Further Bible Study

From discontent to contentment:

•     Psalm 73

Contentment in prison:

•     Philippians 4:4–20

Questions for Thought and Discussion

•     How is the contentment prescribed in the tenth commandment a safeguard against temptations to break the first nine?

•     Do you agree that philosophies which aim at the extinction of desire are misguided? Why or why not?

•     What did Thomas Chalmers mean by his phrase “the expulsive power of a new affection”?


jealousy. 1 A term used of God to refer to the unique relationship between God and his people (Exod. 20:5; Deut. 5:9; Josh. 24:19; 1 Kings 14:22). They are not to provoke God’s ‘jealousy’/wrath by idolatry or sinful behavior (Deut. 32:16; 1 Cor. 10:22). 2 What humans show as zeal or ardor (2 Cor. 9:2; 11:2; Rom. 10:2). 3 Envy, a negative quality in humans (Gen. 26:14; Ecclus. 30:24; 1 Cor. 3:3; Rom. 13:13; 2 Cor. 12:20; Gal. 5:20; Jas. 3:14, 16).


1en•vy \ˈen-vē\ n

pl envies [ME envie, fr. AF, fr. L invidia, fr. invidus envious, fr. invidēre to look askance at, envy, fr. in- + vidēre to see — more at wit] 13c

1           painful or resentful awareness of an advantage enjoyed by another joined with a desire to possess the same advantage

2           obs malice

3           an object of envious notice or feeling 〈his new car made him the envy of his friends〉



Why do you look with envy,                          Ps 68:16          7520

Do not envy a man of violence And do         Pr 3:31             7065

Do not let your heart envy sinners,                 Pr 23:17           7065

according to your envy which you showed    Ezk 35:11        7068

of envy they had handed Him over.               Mt 27:18         5355

as well as deceit, sensuality, envy,                 Mk 7:22           3788, 4190

had handed Him over because of envy.         Mk 15:10         5355

full of envy, murder, strife, deceit,                 Ro 1:29           5355

Christ even from envy and strife,                   Php 1:15          5355

about words, out of which arise envy,           1Tm 6:4           5355

spending our life in malice and envy,             Ti 3:3               5355

hypocrisy and envy and all slander,               1Pe 2:1            5355


envying, drunkenness, carousing, and            Ga 5:21           5355

one another, envying one another.                             Ga 5:26           5354


§ 14. The Tenth Commandment

Is a general prohibition of covetousness. "Thou shalt not covet," is a comprehensive command. Thou shalt not inordinately desire what thou hast not; and especially what belongs to thy neighbour. It includes the positive command to be contented with the allotments of Providence; and the negative injunction not to repine, or complain on account of the dealings of God with us, or to envy the lot or possessions of others. The command to be contented does not imply indifference, and it does not enjoin slothfulness. A cheerful and contented disposition is perfectly compatible with a due appreciation of the good things of this world, and diligence in the use of all proper means to improve our condition in life. Contentment can have no other rational foundation than religion. Submission to the inevitable is only stoicism, or apathy, or despair. The religions of the East, and of the ancient world generally, so far as they were the subject of thought, being essentially pantheistic, could produce nothing but a passive consent to be borne along for a definite period on the irresistible current of events, and then lost in the abyss of unconscious being. The poor and the miserable could with such a faith have little ground for contentment, and they would be under the strongest temptation to envy the rich and the fortunate. But if a man believes that there is a personal God infinite in power, wisdom, and love; if he believes that God’s providence extends over all creatures and over all events; and if he believes that God. orders everything, not only for the best on the whole, but also for the best for each individual who puts his trust in Him and acquiesces in his will, then not to be contented with the allotments of infinite wisdom and love must be folly. Faith in the truths referred to cannot fail to produce contentment, wherever that faith is real. When we further take into view the peculiar Christian aspects of the case; when we remember that this universal government is administered by Jesus Christ, into whose hands, as He himself tells us, all power in heaven and earth has been committed, then we know that our lot is determined by Him who loved us and gave Himself for us, and who watches over his people as a shepherd watches over his flock, so that a hair of our heads cannot perish without his permission. And when we think of the eternal future which He has prepared for us, then we see that the sorrows of this life are not worthy to be compared with the glory that shall be revealed in us, and that our light afflictions, which are but for a moment, shall work out for us a far more exceeding and an eternal weight of glory; then mere contentment is elevated to a peace which passes all understanding, and even to a joy which is full of glory. All this is exemplified in the history of the people of God as recorded in the Bible. Paul could not only say, "I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content" (Philippians iv. 11); but he could also say: "I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake." (2 Cor. xii. 10.) This has measurably been the experience of thousands of believers in all ages. Of all people in the world Christians are bound in whatsoever state they are therewith to be content. It is easy to utter these words, and easy for those in comfort to imagine that they are exercising the grace of contentment; but when a man is crushed down by poverty and sickness, surrounded by those whose wants he cannot supply; seeing those whom he loves, suffering and wearing away under their privations, then contentment and submission are among the highest and rarest of Christian graces. Nevertheless, it is better to be Lazarus than Dives.

The second form of evil condemned by this commandment is envy. This is something more than an inordinate desire of unpossessed good. It includes regret that others should. have what we do not enjoy; a feeling of hatred and malignity towards those more favoured than ourselves; and a desire to deprive them of their advantages. This a real cancer of the soul; producing torture and eating out all right feelings. There are, of course, all degrees of this sin, from the secret satisfaction experienced at the misfortunes of others, or the unexpressed desire that evil may assail them or that they may be reduced to the same level with ourselves, to the Satanic hatred of the happy because of their happiness, and the determination, if possible, to render them miserable. There is more of this dreadful spirit in the human heart, than we are willing to acknowledge. Montesquieu says that every man has a secret satisfaction in the misfortunes even of his dearest friends. As envy is the antithesis of love, it is of all sins the most opposed to the nature of God, and more effectually than any other excludes us from his fellowship.

Thirdly, the Scriptures, however, make mention most frequently of covetousness under the form of an inordinate desire of wealth. The man of whom covetousness is the characteristic has the acquisition of wealth as the main object of his life. This fills his mind, engrosses his affections, and absorbs his energy. Of covetousness in this form the Apostle says it is the root of all evil. That is, there is no evil —from meanness, deceit, and fraud, up to murder —to the commission of which covetousness has not prompted men, or to which it does not always threaten to impel them. Of the covetous man in this sense of the word the Bible says, (1.) That he cannot enter heaven. (1 Cor. vi. 10.) (2.) That he is an idolater. (Eph. v. 5.) Wealth is his God, i. e., that to which he gives his heart and consecrates his life. (3.) That God. abhors him. (Ps. x. 3.)

This commandment has a special interest, as it was the means, as St. Paul tells us, of leading him to the knowledge of sin. "I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet." (Rom. vii. 7.) Most of the other commandments forbid external acts, but this forbids a state of the heart. It shows that no external obedience can fulfil the demands of the law; that God looks upon the heart, that He approves or disapproves of the secret affections and purposes of the soul; that a man may be a Pharisee, pure outwardly as a whited sepulchre, but inwardly full of dead men’s bones and of all uncleanness.


Envy – draws us into a vicious cycle of desire that can never be satisfied and that poisons our relationship of love with others.

Spiritual remedy: knowing the depths of God’s unconditional love.

-          Envy not only takes on desiring to be better than others, but delighting in seeing others worse off

What is envy:

-          The word “jealousy” is often used as if it were synonymous with envy; but I think the distinction worth preserving. Jealousy is predominantly concerned with the fear of loss of something one possesses, envy with the wish to own something another possesses. Othello suffers from the fear that he has lost Desdemona’s love. Iago suffers from envy of the position held by Cassio, to which he feels entitled. -Anthony Storr, Churchill’s Black Dog, Kafka’s Mice, & Other Phenomena of the Human Mind, ch. 5, Grove Press (1988)

-          Jealousy is both reasonable and belongs to reasonable men, while envy is base and belongs to the base, for the one makes himself get good things by jealousy, while the other does not allow his neighbour to have them through envy. -Aristotle, The Art of Rhetoric, sect. 6, ch. 2.11.

-          Never allow anyone to rain on your parade and thus cast a pall of gloom and defeat on the entire day. Remember that no talent, no self-denial, no brains, no character, are required to set up in the fault-finding business. Nothing external can have any power over you unless you permit it. Your time is too precious to be sacrificed in wasted days combating the menial forces of hate, jealously, and envy. Guard your fragile life carefully. Only God can shape a flower, but any foolish child can pull it to pieces. -Og Mandino


First published Wed Dec 18, 2002

Envy is a complex and puzzling emotion. It is, notoriously, one of the seven deadly sins. It is very commonly charged with being (either typically or universally) unreasonable, irrational, imprudent, vicious, or wrong to feel. With very few exceptions, the ample philosophical literature defending the rationality and evaluative importance of emotions explicitly excludes envy and a few other nasty emotions as irredeemable. Indeed, some authors who are prepared to defend even jealousy insist that envy is beyond the pale. Yet there is considerable controversy over what precisely envy is, and the cogency of various specific criticisms of envy depends on what view of that subject is adopted.

In addition to its centrality to discussions in the philosophy of emotions, envy has sparked controversies in political philosophy. Perhaps best known among these is the claim that egalitarian views of justice are motivated by envy. It also receives substantial treatment from John Rawls, who takes pains to argue that envy does not pose a threat to his theory of justice. Each of these topics receives some treatment below.

  • 1. The Nature of Envy
    • 1.1 Defining Envy
    • 1.2 Envy vs. Jealousy
    • 1.3 ‘Benign’ and ‘Invidious’ Envy
    • 1.4 Envy vs. Resentment
  • 2. The Rationality of Envy
  • 3. Envy and Justice
    • 3.1 Egalitarianism and Envy
    • 3.2 Envy-free allocations
    • 3.3 Rawls' Problem of Envy
  • Bibliography
  • Other Internet Resources
  • Related Entries

1. The Nature of Envy

1.1 Defining Envy

This entry follows the widespread assumption that envy is an emotion.[1] That is not to say that it is a mere feeling. Emotions are generally agreed to be more than feelings. Most emotion theorists could agree on this vague characterization: emotions are syndromes of thoughts, feelings, motivations, and bodily movements, loosely enough bound together that a given emotional episode may not require the occurrence of every element in the syndrome. The specific contours of the emotional syndrome of envy are controversial. It is agreed that envy involves an envier (“Subject”), a party who is envied (“Rival”)—this may be a person or group of persons—and some possession, capacity or trait that the subject supposes the rival to have (the “good”). The good might be something that only one party could possibly possess (the crown jewels, or being the world's best go player), or it might be something easily duplicated. It is sometimes held that the good may even be utility, happiness, or some psychological state that Subject could attribute to Rival even if there were no material difference in their possessions or capacities. Most philosophers who have sought to define envy agree in identifying it as a form of distress felt by the subject at the thought that he does not possess the good and the rival does. Many, but not all, go on to add that envy involves a desire that the rival not have the good. This disagreement is explored below, [see benign and invidious envy]. Envy is widely agreed to be a symptom or instance of the human tendency to evaluate one's well-being comparatively, by assessing how well one is doing in comparison with others. Influential definitions of envy include:

Envy is pain at the good fortune of others. (Aristotle, Rhetoric, Bk II, Chapter 10)

Envy is a propensity to view the well-being of others with distress, even though it does not detract from one's own. [It is] 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. (Kant, The Metaphysics of Morals 6:459)

Envy is that passion which views with malignant dislike the superiority of those who are really entitled to all the superiority they possess. (Kant, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, p. 244)

1.2 Envy vs. Jealousy

Ordinary language tends to conflate envy and jealousy. The philosophical consensus is that these are distinct emotions.[2] While it is linguistically acceptable to say that one is jealous upon hearing about another's vacation, say, it has been plausibly argued that one is feeling envy, if either, in such a case. Both envy and jealousy are three-place relations; but this superficial similarity conceals an important difference. Jealousy involves three parties, the subject, the rival, and the beloved; and the jealous person's real locus of concern is the beloved—the person whose affection he is losing or fears losing—not his rival. Whereas envy is a two party relation, with a third relatum that is a good (albeit a good that could be a particular person's affections); and the envious person's locus of concern is the rival. Hence, even if the good that the rival has is the affection of another person, there is a difference between envy and jealousy.[3] Roughly, for the jealous person the rival is fungible and the beloved is not fungible. So he would be equally bothered if the beloved were consorting with someone else, and would not be bothered if the rival were. Whereas in envy it is the other way around. Because envy is centrally focused on competition with the rival, the subject might well be equally bothered if the rival were consorting with a different (appealing) person, but would not be bothered if the ‘good’ had gone to someone else (with whom the subject was not in competition). Whatever the ordinary meaning of the terms ‘envy’ and ‘jealousy,’ these considerations demonstrate that these two distinct syndromes need to be distinguished.

1.3 ‘Benign’ and ‘Invidious’ Envy

One way to resolve the dispute over whether envy necessarily involves a desire that the rival lose the good is to hold that, while envy sometimes involves this desire, it need not. Many authors pursue this strategy by positing a fundamental distinction between two kinds of envy: a malicious or invidious form, and a benign, emulative, or admiring variety of envy.[4] Invidious envy is envy that involves the unsavory motivation, where benign envy does not. Other philosophers claim that the latter is not envy at all.5 Like many disputes over the nature of emotions, this one threatens to devolve into competing stipulations, but it can be understood as a substantive question about the character of an empirical phenomenon.[6]

Some of the examples advanced on behalf of the suggested bifurcation threaten to obscure the issue. It will not do, for instance, simply to point out that people commonly say they envy someone's skill, say, in cases where it is quite implausible to suppose that they have any desire that the person loses the skill. There is undoubtedly a common tendency to use the term ‘envy’ for any desire for something that is possessed by another. But, given the looseness of natural language noted above, we must not simply assume that these are really cases of the emotional syndrome of envy. All parties to the debate would grant that not every case in which someone would like something that someone else possesses is a case of genuine envy. First, envy is agreed to be a form of pain or botherment—an unpleasant emotion. To fancy someone else's linens is not yet to envy them. So proponents of benign envy don't or shouldn't count every such desire as a case of benign envy. Furthermore, even a painful desire for what someone else possesses might be better described as longing than envy. If you badly (painfully) want the new Mercedes convertible, only to discover that your neighbor has bought one, it is a substantive psychological question whether you envy her for it. Envy should not be permitted to follow as a trivial consequence of the conjunction of your painful desire with the belief that she has (an instance of) its object.[7]

Still, it is often rightly observed that in many cases of genuine envy, the actions the subject actually performs are directed at securing the good (or a comparable one) for himself, rather than at undermining the rival. Success at such projects sometimes resolves the situation by eliminating the envy. If such positive steps can satisfy some envy, this may suggest that those instances of envy involve nothing more than a positive desire for the good. Furthermore, even decent and strong-willed people sometimes envy the talents of their more accomplished friends. Surely such people do not want those friends to lose those talents. This, again, is supposed to suggest the possibility of benign envy. However it is not clear that defenders of the negative view of envy need to deny any of this. They may be best understood as holding a disjunctive view of envy's constitutive desire. On this view, the characteristic dissatisfaction of envy supplies or embodies some level of motivation toward whatever would ameliorate the situation: in other words, toward either outdoing or undoing the rival's advantage.[8] It is entirely compatible with this view to grant that a given episode of envy might only produce actions directed toward the positive aim—and even that a given person might act exclusively toward the positive aim. The question is whether such episodes are entirely benign, or whether they involve a motivational tendency toward undoing the rival's advantage that was left unexpressed—due perhaps to the subject's unwillingness even to entertain destructive action, or perhaps to less noble considerations. Settling this question may be difficult in practice, but failure to recognize its significance mars a number of arguments offered in the present dispute.

1.4 Envy vs. Resentment

Although much of the psychological literature on envy supposes that envy is concerned with matters of perceived injustice, most philosophers reject this suggestion.[9] The received view is that envy is to be distinguished from resentment. The latter is held to be a moral emotion, whereas the former is not. What makes a given emotion a moral emotion has been glossed in various ways. Roughly, the idea is that moral emotions are ones that somehow embody moral principles or appraisals. Resentment is a moral emotion because a given emotional episode does not qualify as a state of resentment unless the subject holds some moral complaint against the object of the state. The claim that envy is not a moral emotion may be understood strongly, as the claim that it never involves a moral complaint per se, or weakly, as the claim that it need not embody such a claim.

It seems clear that in many (perhaps even most) cases of envy, the subject is liable to find some moral complaint with which to justify negative feelings toward his rival. This would explain various experimental findings that correlate feelings of envy with complaints of injustice. But, of course, such complaints may be defensive rationalizations of rancorous feelings, rather than elements in envy. Claims about which of the various thoughts that commonly attend a given type of emotion belong in a characterization of that emotion type are best defended within the context of a general theory of how to individuate emotion types, which is beyond the scope of this entry. In any case, some version of the thesis that envy is not a moral emotion seems both plausible and necessary to make sense of the debate over whether egalitarianism is motivated by envy.

2. The Rationality of Envy

Assessments of the rationality of emotions take various forms. It is useful to distinguish the prudential advisability of emotions from their fittingness (roughly, whether the appraisal of circumstances involved in the emotion is accurate or not). Both of these rationality assessments are to be distinguished from various ethical appraisals of emotions. Most authors who address the issue seem to agree that envy is seldom advisable: insofar as one is able to control or influence one's emotions, it is best not to be envious, because envy harms those who feel it. This is sometimes urged simply on the grounds that envy is a form of pain, but more often because, in envy, a person's subjective sense of well-being, self-worth or self-respect is diminished. But if envy involves certain characteristic patterns of motivation, such as a motive to outdo or undo the rival's advantages, then the advisability of envy may be strongly dependent on the advisability of the actions it motivates. And whether these actions are advisable, in turn, depends upon whether they are efficient means to the ends at which they aim, and whether those ends are themselves in the subject's interests. Thus an adequate assessment of the prudential advisability of envy may well depend on whether the envious subject's sense that he is worse off because of his rival's possession of the good that he lacks is accurate (since envious motivation might actually serve the subject's interests, especially if it were accurate). We turn now to issues of accuracy.

It is commonly supposed that emotions, envy included, involve a way of taking the circumstances—a thought, construal, appraisal, or perception of the circumstances—which can then be assessed for fittingness (objective rationality) and/or warrant (subjective rationality).[10] Thus fear can be unfittingly directed at something that isn't really dangerous, or fittingly directed at something that is. And it can be unwarrantedly directed at something the subject has good reason to believe poses no danger, or warrantedly directed at what she has good reason to think dangerous—even if that good reason is supplied by misleading evidence, so that the object of the emotion is not, in fact, dangerous. Similarly, in light of the discussion above, we might say that envy involves thinking that the rival has something good that the subject lacks, and negatively evaluating this difference in possession, per se. Each of the various strands in this way of taking the circumstances, then, can be appraised for fittingness and warrant. We will focus on fittingness here, but analogous points can be made in terms of warrant. Envy will be unfitting, for instance, if the rival does not really have the good, or if the ‘good’ isn't really good—for instance if the envy is directed at some possession that the subject would not really value if he knew its true nature. These suggestions are uncontroversial. A more interesting question concerns the last element in envy's characteristic appraisal: the negative evaluation of the difference in possession. This too might be thought to be amenable of broadly rational appraisal.

Some philosophers suggest that envy is always or typically irrational, and they seem to have in mind the charge that it is unfitting.[11] Theirs is a restricted version of the Stoic critique of emotions, according to which (roughly) all emotions are unfitting because they involve taking various worldly things to matter that don't really matter. Not many contemporary philosophers are attracted to the Stoic view of value, which is embedded in an idiosyncratic ancient cosmology. But perhaps specific emotions can be convicted of the putative mistake, and envy appears to be a likely suspect. If envy involves taking the difference in possession between subject and rival to be bad in itself, then, if such differences are not bad in themselves, envy is systematically unfitting. Developing this charge demands getting clearer about the sense in which envy can be said to involve taking the difference in possession to be bad in itself.

Suppose that envy includes some desire that the rival not have the good. Then envy may be interpreted so as to involve a preference for the situation in which neither subject nor rival have the good to the one in which rival has it and subject does not.[12] Call this the “envious preference.” The envious preference is invoked as a basis for the claim that envy appraises the former situation as better than the latter. But better in what respect? There are a number of possibilities, and we will consider just two. First, it might be held to be better, from the point of view of the universe (“impersonally better” for short). Secondly, it might be held to be better for the subject.

If envy holds that the situation in which neither has the good is better, impersonally, than the one in which Rival has it, this can be criticized as an axiological mistake.[13] Surely the world is a better place, ceteris paribus, if someone possesses a given good than if no one does. But this is too quick. First, consider cases in which rival has acquired the good by wrongdoing. Arguably the world is not a better place when the fortunes of some are wrongfully improved. Secondly, an extreme egalitarian may hold that inequalities themselves are prima facie bad, because they are unjust. On that view, it may sometimes be better that neither possesses a given good than that one does. Either of these considerations might then be invoked as a defense of fittingness of envy. Thus, if envy is interpreted as making a claim about impersonal value, it will be difficult to prevent moral considerations from guiding verdicts about its fittingness.[14] While this does not completely collapse the distinction between envy and resentment, it renders it considerably murkier.

Alternatively, envy can be held to present the difference in possession between subject and rival as bad specifically for Subject. This interpretation of envy's characteristic appraisal jibes better with the doctrine that envy is not a moral feeling. Envy can nonetheless be criticized as irrational, on this interpretation, for taking something to be bad for Subject that is not in fact bad for him. What matters to how well things are going for Subject is a function of what goods Subject has, not what goods his rival has. Hence, while the present state of affairs is worse for Subject than the one in which he has the good and Rival lacks it, there can be no reason of self-interest for Subject to have the envious preference. The cogency of this argument for the irrationality of envy hinges on questions about the nature of well-being. If people do in fact systematically care about the possessions of others, and regard themselves as worse or better off accordingly as they stack up against their selected comparison class, some subjectivist accounts will license taking this concern as itself a part of these subjects' well-being—in which case, some envy will be fitting. Whereas most objective accounts of well-being either treat it as a measure of primary goods, or supply content restrictions on the desires whose satisfaction contributes to well-being which would exclude desires like the envious preference.

3. Envy and Justice

3.1 Egalitarianism and Envy

A recurring suggestion in the history of philosophical and political thought has been that envy supplies the psychological foundations of the concern for justice, and, especially, of egalitarian conceptions of justice.[15] Both the proponents of this charge and those who contest it have commonly taken it to be a damaging suggestion for egalitarianism.[16] It is worth distinguishing genetic versions of the charge from occurrent ones. Genetic versions concern the historical or developmental sources of a concern for equality. Freud, for instance, held that concern with justice is the product of childhood envy of other children leading to concern for equal treatment, and thereby to ‘group spirit’: “If one cannot be the favorite oneself, at all events nobody else shall be the favorite.” (p. 120). Nietzsche can be read as tendering an account of the origins of egalitarian values or ideals in envy in his account of the "slave revolt in morality."[17] Whatever their merits, these claims should be distinguished from the claim that those who defend egalitarian views of justice are motivated by occurrent bouts of envy or propensities to them.[18]

Defense of the charge that egalitarianism is occurrently motivated by envy hinges both on the commitments of egalitarianism and on the nature of envy. The common motif is that egalitarians wish to do away with the advantages of the better off, and that they wish to do this because they are bothered by the very fact that the better off are better off. This is supposed to show that egalitarians are motivated by envy. Whether this is a fair characterization of any prominent egalitarian position is certainly open to question.[19] But in any case, in light of the distinction between envy and resentment, it is clear that there can be no direct move from the claim that egalitarians are ‘bothered’ by the advantages of the better off to the claim that they are envious. For another possibility is that what they feel is resentment, occasioned by the thought that the present distribution is unjust.[20] Note that the claim that what is felt is resentment does not depend upon showing that the resentment is fitting—that the distribution really is unjust. It would suffice to show that the response really is a moral evaluation, justified or not.

It seems clear that the occurrent version of the charge is only damaging to egalitarianism if the basic distinction between envy and resentment is accepted. Otherwise, envy could be granted to motivate egalitarianism, but this would not impute any concern aside from concerns with justice to the position. With the distinction in hand, however, the charge is difficult to defend. Envy does not arise in cases where inequalities favor the subject. So defenders of the charge appear to be committed to the falsifiable (and surely false) thesis that all egalitarians are inconsistent in their commitment to inequality.[21] If the thesis were true, egalitarians should oppose only the inequalities that are unfavorable to their own interests. To the extent that egalitarians are sincere and consistent in the embrace of their principles, this counts against the charge that their occurrent motivation is envy.[22]

3.2 Envy-free allocations

A different way in which envy might be thought to motivate broadly egalitarian thought is by appeal to the idea of envy-free allocations. A distribution of goods is said to be “envy-free” when no one prefers anyone else's bundle of resources to her own.[23] The suggestion here is not that envy is the psychological motivation for the concern with equality, but rather that, where a distribution in fact produces envy, this is grounds to doubt the fairness of the distribution. But ‘envy’ in these contexts is a technical term for any situation in which someone prefers another's bundles of goods, and does not refer to the emotional syndrome with which this entry is concerned.[24]

3.3 Rawls' Problem of Envy

In constructing the “original position” from which deliberators select principles of justice in A Theory of Justice, Rawls assumes that the imagined deliberators are not motivated by various psychological propensities. One of these is the propensity to envy. One justification Rawls offers for this stipulation is that what principles of justice are chosen should not be affected by individual inclinations, which are mere accidents. This rationale is less persuasive if envious concerns are universal in human nature. Another justification is that parties in the original position should be concerned with their absolute level of primary social goods, not with their standing relative to others as such.[25] He then proceeds in the second part of the argument for the principles of justice to consider whether, in fact, human propensities being what they are, the tendency to envy will undermine the arrangements of a well-ordered society (in which case the principles of justice would have to be reconsidered). The ‘Problem of Envy’ is the possibility that widespread envy might do just this. The reason that Rawls takes this to be a live possibility is that “the inequalities sanctioned by the difference principle may be so great as to arouse envy to a socially dangerous extent.”[26]

The primary way in which Rawls thinks envy could pose such a threat is if it comes to undermine the self-respect of those who are less well off. It might do this, he thinks, if the differences between the haves and the have-nots are so great that, under existing social conditions, the differences cannot help but cause loss of self-esteem. “For those suffering this hurt,” he continues, “envious feelings are not irrational; the satisfaction of their rancor would make them better off.” (534) He calls this “excusable general envy,” and offers two reasons for doubting that it will be prevalent in a well-ordered society. First, he argues that the liberties and political status of equal citizens encourage self-respect even when one is less well off than others. Second, he suggests that background institutions (including a competitive economy) make it likely that excessive inequalities will not be the rule.

Rawls' discussion is in some tension with the received view of envy. He supposes that “the main psychological root of our liability to envy is a lack of self-confidence in our own worth combined with a sense of impotence.” This leads him to expect that envy will be more severe the greater the differences between subjects and those they envy.[27] However most observers of envy, from Aristotle on, have urged that it is most often felt toward those with whom the subject perceives himself as in competition, so that typically very great disparities in well-being are not envied. And there is some empirical evidence to support this claim.[28] This is usually explained by the hypothesis that the benchmarks against which people measure their comparative well-being are, in some (possibly metaphorical) sense, local. If true, this calls into question whether preventing excessive inequalities is likely to reduce the frequency or intensity of envy. But it also suggests that the phenomenon of general, or class, envy toward which Rawls' discussion is directed may not pose a substantial threat to the well-ordered society.


  • Aristotle, 1941, The Basic Works of Aristotle, R. McKeon (ed.), New York: Random House.
  • Ben-Ze'ev, A., 1990, “Envy and Jealousy,” Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 20: 487-517.
  • Ben-Ze'ev, A., 1992, “Envy and Inequality,” Journal of Philosophy, 89: 551-581.
  • Cohen, J., 2001, “Taking People As They Are?,” Philosophy and Public Affairs, 30.4: 363-86.
  • Cooper, D., 1982, “Equality and Envy,” Journal of Philosophy of Education, 16: 35-47.
  • D'Arms, J. and Jacobson, D., 2000, “The Moralistic Fallacy,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 61,1: 65-90.
  • D'Arms, J. and Jacobson, D., 2002, “The Significance of Recalcitrant Emotions; Or AntiQuasiJudgmentalism,” Philosophy, suppl. vol.: Proceedings of the Royal Institute of Philosophy, forthcoming.
  • de Sousa, R., 1987, The Rationality of Emotion, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
  • Dworkin, R., 1981, “What Is Equality? Part 2: Equality of Resources,” Philosophy and Public Affairs, 10,4: 283-345.
  • Elster, J., 1999, Alchemies of the Mind: Rationality and the Emotions, New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Farrell, D., 1980, “Jealousy,” Philosophical Review, 89: 527-559.
  • Farrell, D., 1989, “Of Jealousy and Envy,” in Person to Person, Graham and LaFollette (eds.) Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
  • Foley, D.K., 1967, “Resource allocation and the public sector,” Yale Economic Essays, 7: 45-198.
  • Frank, R., 1985, Choosing the Right Pond, New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Freud, S., 1949, Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, J. Strachey (trans.), New York: Liverwright.
  • Greenspan, P., 1998, Emotions and Reason: An Inquiry into Emotional Justification, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
  • Hammond, P., 1987, “Envy,” The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics, London: Macmillan.
  • Hubin, D., 1989, “Scarcity and the Demands of Justice,” Capital University Law Review, 18,2: 185-199.
  • Kant, I., 1797, “The Metaphysics of Morals,” in The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant: Practical Philosophy, Gregor, M. (ed. and trans.), New York: Cambridge University Press
  • Neitzsche, Friedrich, 1998, On the Genealogy of Morality, M.Clark and A. Swensen (trans.) Indianapolis: Hackett.
  • Neu, J., 1980, “Jealous Thoughts,” in Rorty (ed.) Explaining Emotions, Berkeley: U.C. Press.
  • Nozick, R., 1974, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, USA: Basic Books.
  • Ortony, Clore, and Collings, 1988, The Cognitive Structure of Emotions, New York: Cambridge.
  • Rawls, J., 1971, A Theory of Justice, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.
  • Roberts, R., 1991, “What Is Wrong with Wicked Feelings?,” American Philosophical Quarterly, 28: 13-24.
  • Schoeck, H., 1966, Envy: A Theory of Social Behavior, Glenny and Ross (trans.), New York: Harcourt, Brace.
  • Smith, R., 1991, “Envy and the Sense of Injustice,” in Salovey (ed.) The Psychology of Envy and Jealousy, New York: Guilford Press.
  • Smith, Parrott, Ozer, and Moniz, 1994, “Subjective Injustice and Inferiority as Predictors of Hostile and Depressive Feelings in Envy,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 20, 6: 705-711.
  • Sugden, R. 1984, “Is Fairness Good? A Critique of Varian's Theory of Fairness” Nous, 18: 505-511.
  • Varian, H., 1974, “Equity, Envy, and Efficiency,” Journal of Economic Theory, 9: 63-91.
  • Varian, H., 1975, “Distributive Justice, Welfare Economics, and the Theory of Fairness” Philosophy and Public Affairs, 4: 223-47.
  • Young, R., 1987, “Egalitarianism and Envy,” Philosophical Studies, 52: 261-276.


[1]Paul Lee Tan, Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations : A Treasury of Illustrations, Anecdotes, Facts and Quotations for Pastors, Teachers and Christian Workers (Garland TX: Bible Communications, 1996, c1979).

[2]Paul Lee Tan, Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations : A Treasury of Illustrations, Anecdotes, Facts and Quotations for Pastors, Teachers and Christian Workers (Garland TX: Bible Communications, 1996, c1979).

[3]Paul Lee Tan, Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations : A Treasury of Illustrations, Anecdotes, Facts and Quotations for Pastors, Teachers and Christian Workers (Garland TX: Bible Communications, 1996, c1979).

[4]J. I. Packer, Growing in Christ, Originally Published: I Want to Be a Christian. Wheaton, Ill. : Tyndale House Publishers, c1977.; Includes Index. (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1996, c1994), 275.

[5]Paul J. Achtemeier, Publishers Harper & Row and Society of Biblical Literature, Harper's Bible Dictionary, Includes Index., 1st ed. (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985), 449.


\ə\ abut \ə\ kitten, F table \ər\ further \a\ ash \ā\ ace \ä\ mop, mar

\au̇\ out \ch\ chin \e\ bet \ē\ easy \g\ go \i\ hit \ī\ ice \j\ job

\ŋ\ sing \ō\ go \ȯ\ law \ȯi\ boy \th\ thin \ṯẖ\ the \ü\ loot \u̇\ foot

\y\ yet \zh\ vision, beige \ḵ, n, œ, ue, y\ see Guide to Pronunciation

n northern, noun

pl plural

ME Middle English

fr from

AF Anglo-French

L Latin

c century

[6]Inc Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary., Includes Index., Eleventh ed. (Springfield, Mass.: Merriam-Webster, Inc., 2003).

[7]Robert L. Thomas and The Lockman Foundation, New American Standard Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible : Updated Edition (Anaheim: Foundation Publications, Inc., 1998, c1981, c1998).

[8]Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Originally Published 1872. (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), 3:463.

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