Saturday 27 February 2016

Rehabilitating Rational ENVY

As the gap between rich and poor widens inexorably, I'm puzzled by the tolerance shown by poor humans towards the wealth possessed by the super-rich.

We need a word that means ‘rational aversion to other humans living a far more comfortable lifestyle than your own which you would like to enjoy yourself.’  Perhaps R.A.I.G. (Rational Aversion to Income Gaps). Currently our only option is the demeaning, pejorative term for a Deadly Sin, the Green-Eyed Monster, ‘Envy’.

Adam Smith,  Kirkcaldy-born Hero of Capitalist Theory
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (a superb open access resource which I’ve used much writing the lecture I’ve just given at Stanford Uni.) states that envy is ‘very commonly charged with being…unreasonable, irrational, imprudent, vicious, or wrong to feel’. Witness Adam Smith: ‘Envy is that passion which views with malignant dislike the superiority of those who are really entitled to all the superiority they possess’.   

Even social fairness advocate John Rawls thinks envy is horrid and undermines the self-respect of the poor, thus posing a threat to societal stability. But why so? It takes self-respect and a sensitivity to human dignity to recognise the absurdity of over-payment for doing nothing useful.

So I’m thrilled to discover that Aristotle is also puzzled. He notes the absence of a Greek word for people who fail to feel appropriate envy of the undeserving plutocrat. There wasn’t even a word in ancient Greek for that kind of incomprehension of economic reality.

In his ‘Golden Mean’ table in the Eudemian Ethics he lists twelve virtues. Each has two correlative vices caused by excess or deficiency. Courage in excess is recklessness, but in deficiency it is cowardice. Friendliness in excess becomes brown-nosing, but if deficient just means you're rude.

Nemesis--Not Happy in 2016
Aristotle says that excessive envy (phthonosmeans revelling in the misery of the deservedly fortunate. The correlative virtue is Righteous Indignation (i.e. my proposed R.A.I.G.), which well-balanced people feel about the selfish rich and ill-gotten gains. But the one hole in his table of 36 terms (12 virtues and their correlative 24 vices) is the box where ‘stupid tolerance of unfairness’ should be.[*] 

Nemesis--Rational Aversion to Nasty Rich (with Good Luck)
So both the English language and ancient Greek have a real problem with even naming the inability of people who can’t heat their own homes to resent star footballers’ salaries.

But there is some good news: ancient Greek does have a solution to my R.A.I.G problem. In Aristotle’s table, the rational and appropriate level of envy, a commendable sensitivity to inequality and desire to erase it, my cacophonous proposed virtue of R.A.I.G., is strong, holds a hint that the world can be changed, and rolls off the tongue: it is NEMESIS. 

Giving Eitner Lecture on February 18
[*] I asked the Father of My Children what the English word was for 'failure to feel Rational Envy of Undeserving Super-Rich', it being missing from ancient Greek. He responded immediately 'False Consciousness'. Must have been reading Marx or somefink.


  1. I suspect that Smith would exclude from the class of 'those who are really entitled to all the superiority they possess' people who benefit from 'over-payment for doing nothing useful'.

  2. Thanks for a your interesting post, on a subject I know little about (not even the righteous indignation). I'm a bit confused by the last sentence (In Aristotle's table ...) - is it just me or is there something missing there?