Menu

in: Behavior, Character, Podcast

• Last updated: December 12, 2023

Podcast #949: Unpacking The Emotion No One Likes to Talk About

Of all the emotions, there’s one that people are arguably the most reluctant to talk about and admit to feeling.

Envy.

Not only is there very little social discussion of envy, but there’s also been very little academic scholarship on the topic. As a result, few people really understand this emotion — what it is, why they feel it, and what it means in their life.

Today we’ll reveal the fascinating dimensions of the green-eyed monster with one of the few people who has given a lot of thought and study to this oft-neglected but important subject: Sara Protasi, a professor of philosophy and the author of The Philosophy of Envy. Today on the show, Sara defines envy and explains how it’s different from jealousy and why people are more comfortable admitting to feeling jealous than envious. Sara then unpacks what she thinks are the four types of envy, and we work our way from the worst type to a kind that is actually redeemable and potentially beneficial. We end our conversation with how envy, something that’s often considered the worst kind of vice, can, in fact, be used to achieve more excellence in your life.

Resources Related to the Podcast

Connect With Sara Protasi

Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)

Spotify.Apple Podcast.

Overcast.

Listen to the episode on a separate page.

Download this episode.

Subscribe to the podcast in the media player of your choice.

Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. Of all the emotions, there’s one that people are arguably the most reluctant to talk about and admit to feeling, envy. Not only is there very little social discussion of envy, but there’s also been very little academic scholarship on the topic. As a result, few people really understand this emotion, what it is, why they feel it, and what it means in their life. Today we’ll reveal the fascinating dimension to the green-eyed monster with one of the few people that’s given a lot of thought and study to this often neglected but important subject, Sara Protasi, a professor of philosophy, and the author of The Philosophy of Envy. Today on the show Sara defines envy and explains how it’s different from jealousy and why people are more comfortable admitting to feeling jealous than envious. Sara then unpacks what she thinks of the four types of envy. We work our way from the worst type to a kind that is actually redeemable and potentially beneficial. We end our conversation with how envy, something that’s often considered the worst kind of vice can infact be used to achieve more excellence in your life. After the show’s over, check at our show notes at aom.is/envy.

All right, Sara Protasi, welcome to the show.

Sara Protasi: Thank you so much for having me. I’m really excited.

Brett McKay: So, you are a professor of philosophy, and you have written a book called The Philosophy of Envy. Now, I imagine a lot of people didn’t think there’s a philosophy of envy. I’m curious what led you to take this deep dive into this emotion?

Sara Protasi: Yes, I get asked this a lot, and it’s always a little embarrassing to answer, I have to say, because sometimes people ask me, so are you a very envious person? And even though you know I defend envy, it’s always a little hard to answer that question, and I don’t know if I’m a more envious person than the average person, but I definitely have always been deeply aware of my envy. I talk a little bit about this in the book, even when I was a small child preparing for the first communion, so not so small, about 10 years old. I remember thinking that envy was clearly the worst of the deadly sins. And that was partially because I felt that nobody else confessed their envy or talked about their envy. And so I must surely have been the only one feeling this green-eyed monster inside me. And also as a dancer, I’ve always seen a lot of envy among dancers, and then there is other stuff that only my therapist knows about. So, I’m not gonna tell you everything. And so partially it’s a personal reaction, a personal interest. And partially it’s because when I started looking into the topic, while there were some historical accounts, there wasn’t a lot of contemporary philosophy on envy. And so I always like to investigate topics that have been neglected.

Brett McKay: So you do ballet, correct?

Sara Protasi: Yes, I do.

Brett McKay: Yeah. And speaking of… I haven’t seen the movie, but like The Black Swan.

Sara Protasi: Yes.

Brett McKay: I think there’s an element of envy in that film, correct?

Sara Protasi: Absolutely. And actually, I use many clips or many images from Black Swan in some of my presentations. I have to say, I’m not a fan of horrors. So I’ve seen some scenes, but I haven’t been able to watch the whole movie. But I do think that that movie exemplifies some things about envy and definitely the stereotype of envious dancers, which is something I rely on. And again, I don’t think it’s just a stereotype. I do think that all the four kinds of envy that I talk about in the book, which we’ll talk about later, probably can be found very easily in the ballet world.

Brett McKay: So you mentioned that there’s not a lot out there written about envy. Why do you think it gets overlooked?

Sara Protasi: Well, I do wonder if to some extent it is a matter of the moral and social stigma attached to it, as people know that usually envy is considered this unconfessable emotion, this emotion that cannot be confessed. And also, it’s just a bad thing for many people. If you ask them, what do you think about envy? They will think that it’s something bad. And so I do wonder if that has affected even the scholarship on it. It’s interesting because I edited a collection, an interdisciplinary collection on envy, and there was some psychologist who was writing for it. And he, Jan Crusius he’s one of the experts on envy, and he looked at the empirical investigation of emotions in the last few decades. And even though there has been a lot of work on emotions, even in psychology, envy is comparatively more neglected. And so it’s not just philosophy in many… And even for instance, when I look for literature on envy in sociology, aside from a classical work from the 1960s, there’s basically nothing. So it’s not just philosophy. There is an interdisciplinary fear of envy that I think even affects its research.

Brett McKay: So let’s get Socratic here and do definitions. So envy is a word I think we’ve heard a lot. We use it a lot. But I think if you were to ask me like what exactly is envy, some people would give you kind of a vague description of what it is. So what exactly is envy?

Sara Protasi: Yes. So I’m gonna give you a long definition, and then I’m gonna explain it because it’s a mouthful. So I define envy as an aversive response to a perceived disadvantage or inferiority vis-a-vis a similar other with regard to a domain of self-importance that can motivate to level up or down. So it sounds complicated, but it’s not too complicated. So first of all, envy is aversive with regard to affect. It means that it’s painful or unpleasant. It’s something that we usually don’t like feeling. And why do we feel this kind of painful feeling? Well, that’s because we perceive someone else as being in a superior position, as having some kind of advantage, as being better, as coming off better than us. And this is meaningful, this inferiority is not just painful, but it says something about us because the other person is similar to us in some respect.

And because this inferiority or disadvantage is felt with regard to what psychologists call a domain of self-importance, which means that it’s relevant to our sense of identity. It’s something that it’s important to us. And finally, because we perceive ourselves to be inferior, there’s this gap that needs to be overcome and we can over overcome in one of two ways. We can level up by which that means we can push ourselves to the level of the other person, or we can level down, we can pull the other person back to our level, so to speak. And so for example, imagine that I say I’m envious of, I don’t know, a colleague of mine, another philosopher, right? And so that means that I’m pained by the fact that I see this person as being a little better than me, perhaps I think of them as having superior philosophical talents, and they’re a philosopher.

Imagine that I’m likely to be envious of someone who’s roughly my same age, right? I’m not gonna be envious of a very young colleague or a much older colleague who has had a lot of time to say, develop their research. But I’ll likely compare myself to someone who’s more or less my age or the same kind of job as me. And of course, being a philosopher is something that is very relevant to me. And I will be motivated to get rid of this painful feeling, either by becoming as good as them, or perhaps somehow by making them be worse. And we can talk later about the ways in which this can happen.

Brett McKay: Okay. So in this definition that you have, this has been influenced by other philosophers. Aristotle, in his rhetoric came up with a very similar definition of envy that you described. He talks about, it’s a social emotion. We feel it when we experience that pain of inferiority to someone who is our equal. He talks about here, he says, we usually don’t feel envy towards those who have lived a hundred centuries ago, or those not yet born, or those who dwell near the pillars of Hercules. And so for me, like I don’t feel envy of someone who lives in another town. ’cause I don’t know who they are. For example.

Sara Protasi: Yeah. Yeah. And I mean, so my definition is really, I like to think of it. It comes both from the psychological and the philosophical tradition. So I kind of intersected different things, and I think it’s not a particularly controversial definition, but I do incorporate philosophical accounts more, for instance, than some psychologists. And I like Aristotle’s account. I think he got a lot of things right that… I mean, he says things about envy that have been confirmed empirically by social psychologists in the 20th and 21st century. And one of the things he says is that other people’s success is of reproach to us, right? And of course, that can only be the case if the person is similar to us in some respect. That someone… Imagine that I have a friend who’s a great soccer player.

Her success is not gonna make me feel bad about myself because I don’t care about being a soccer player. And actually I’m gonna bask in reflected glory. I’m gonna tell everyone, that’s my friend. She’s so good, because her success is not a reproach to me in that case. But if you’re talking about the same domain of self-importance, then the fact that she’s so similar to me, but she’s doing better than me will make me wonder, what did I do wrong? Right? Why am I not getting the same successes? And Hume, David Hume, a Scottish philosopher from the 18th century also talks about what you just mentioned, this idea of closeness, right? If someone is far away from us, just geographically, for instance, it’s not gonna be as common for me… As easy for me to compare myself to the [0:10:00.8] ____ Emal Doe. Of course, in the age of internet and social media, that has changed a little bit, right? But in David Hume’s times, or even of course in Aristotle’s times, if those people live in a different town their success doesn’t impact you in any way. And again, social media has kind of changed the equation and what it means to be close to someone has changed a bit.

Brett McKay: Well, okay, so that bit, we envy people who are like us similar to us. So I don’t envy like Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk, they’re just so wealthy, so rich. It’s not even in my frame of reference, but I could envy a neighbor or a close friend.

Sara Protasi: Exactly. Or at least your envy is likely to be more intense in that case. And look, some people often at this point say, oh, but it’s not true. People envy the rich. I envy Jeff Bezos, right? Well, and so to my response to that is, if you’re someone who’s not a billionaire and you do envy Jeff Bezos, two things are possible. One is that you envy him with regard to… Like you perceive yourself to be similar to him in some respects in which you are similar to him, right? We’re all human beings who want to be happy, who want to be comfortable. Maybe Jeff Bezos seems really happy to you, and you feel unhappy at this point in life, right? And so in that respect, of course, you can compare yourself to anybody. There are some ways in which we all are similar to each other, just in virtue of being human beings and so on.

The second thing is that this is about perception, not reality. If you envy Jeff Bezos, maybe you see yourself as similar to him in some respect. Maybe you’re an aspiring billionaire or something. And even though from a third personal perspective, if I look at you two, I’m like, well, are you insane? You’re so different from Jeff Bezos. But from the inside, maybe you feel very similar to him, right? So like emotions a lot of times are a matter of subjective perception. And so I might think that like a friend of mine, if they envy Jeff Bezos and they’re very different, well maybe their envy doesn’t make sense or is unfitting in some ways, it’s irrational in some ways, but they still feel it, right? And the fact that they feel it reveals to me their self-perception, what they value, and so on and so forth. But I’m with you. I actually don’t envy very rich persons because they’re so different from me.

Brett McKay: Well, and then the other point about envy that you really flesh out, and I think is important is that the thing you envy has to be important to you. So you talked about that earlier. You’re not gonna envy your friend who’s really great at soccer because you don’t play soccer. And I think there’s a great line in the book and maybe a philosopher said it too, but the question you can ask someone is like tell me what you envy and I’ll tell you what’s important to you.

Sara Protasi: Yes, yes. Yeah. I mean, I say that because of course paraphrasing other similar dicta. Yeah. I mean, the idea is that your envy is very revealing. And that’s why sometimes we don’t confess our envy. There are many reasons why we don’t confess our envy. It’s multi determined. But one reason is that we might find ourselves to be envious of someone and then kind of be ashamed that we’re envious because we are surprised that we care about those things. Right? Imagine that I’m an academic and I want to think of myself as indifferent to materialistic pursuits. And maybe I’m a feminist and I think that you shouldn’t care about appearances. And then I find myself envious of a friend who just had, say, plastic surgery or who uses Botox or something like that. And as an academic who’s a feminist, I might not want… I may not like, right? To feel that I’m envious. I’m like ah, if I’m envious of her lack of wrinkles or her plump lips or her new bra size or whatever, that tells me something about myself that I might not like to know about myself. And therefore I might not wanna tell other people that I’m envious because I’m revealing something pretty personal about myself.

Brett McKay: Well, and I think the other reason people too don’t like to just talk about feeling envy. So there’s the point, ’cause it can reveal something about ourself that maybe we don’t like. Oh, actually I do care about material wealth, even though I think of myself, as a person who doesn’t. But also it’s about social status, When you admit envy, you’re kind of admitting that I think you’re better than me.

Sara Protasi: Absolutely.

Brett McKay: And people don’t like to do that.

Sara Protasi: People don’t like to do that, right? You’re admitting that one, even just that you’re comparing yourself to others. And in some cultures or context, we’re told we’re not supposed to do that, even though I think it’s impossible. But that’s another matter. But also, yeah, you’re revealing that you see yourself as inferior to someone. And that’s also information that maybe from an evolutionary perspective, maybe there is also a reason why we don’t confess envy. Because that may be an information that we don’t want to give out. We don’t want to reveal to other people that we feel inferior to others also, lest they agree with us and they think, oh, you’re right. Now that you pointed out, I noticed that too.

Brett McKay: All right, so let’s recap that definition of envy. Just walk us through it again. I want to just do a recap.

Sara Protasi: Yeah. So you feel bad, it’s never pleasant. It can be very painful or less painful, but it’s never a pleasant emotion. It’s a negative affect emotion. And it’s felt because you feel inferior to someone else in some sense, or others, you lack something. And this other person that you’re envious of is similar to you in some relevant respects in the same league, so to speak. Right? The comparison makes sense and it’s with regard to something that you care about. And finally, because there’s this gap that is perceived between you and the envied. And because it’s a negative emotion, you are motivated to overcome your perceived inferiority to fill this gap somehow. And you can either level up or down.

Brett McKay: Okay, I love that. But let’s talk about jealousy. ‘Cause jealousy is a word that often we use synonymously with envy. But jealousy is not envy. So what’s the difference between the two?

Sara Protasi: Yeah. So these two terms are often confused, especially in English and some other languages, this doesn’t apply to all languages. But there is a scholarly consensus, both in psychology and philosophy, that these are distinct emotions. Envy roughly has to do with lack, with perceiving oneself to lacking an object, an advantage, a skill, a trait, and so on. Whereas jealousy is a protective emotion that is felt with regard to something that one has, and that one is afraid of losing. So typically, for instance, with romantic jealousy, if I’m jealous of my partner, and of course this could mean… It means that I’m jealous that some competitor will take away my partner from me say, that means that I see this relationship with my partner as something that I have, right? “I have this person, she’s my girlfriend, she’s my boyfriend” and I want to protect this valuable object that I have.

And so I’m afraid of losing it. So jealousy is about loss or potential loss, and envy is about lack. And so in a way we can say that jealousy guards what envy, covets. So they’re complimentary emotions, even though they also can be felt at the same time. So again, in the case of a romantic rivalry, maybe I’m both jealous and envious of someone, right? I think that they are hitting on my girlfriend, and so I’m jealous of them. I want to make sure they stay away from my girlfriend, but at the same time, maybe I think they’re cool. I think he’s cooler than me or he’s more attractive. And so I’m also envious of him. So they can be felt at the same time, but they can also be felt by two people in the same situation, right? So they’re complimentary emotions.

And the reason why sometimes we confuse one with the other, at least in English, and other languages, is that… I argue, I mean, and not just me arguing this is that sometimes… So jealousy, because it’s an an emotion that is protective of a status quo, it’s more legitimate. Like even though it can be excessive, people tend to think that it’s okay to be a little jealous. It’s okay to protect what’s yours. And so there is not as much stigma attached to it. So it’s easier to confess jealousy. And so what has happened with time is that when we feel a kind of envy that is not as bad as other kinds, then we tend to use the word jealous. It’s as if jealousy now encompasses jealousy proper and a certain kind of benign envy. And so that’s why people confuse the two terms.

Brett McKay: Oh, and you give a good example of the distinction between jealousy and envy. In Lord of the Rings, the ring. So Frodo, he had the ring and he was jealous. He protected that thing. He didn’t want to give it up. So he’s always looking at people like oh, you’re after the ring. And then you had Gollum who owned the ring before he was envious. He wanted the ring.

Sara Protasi: Exactly. Yeah. I think that’s a good case to show that jealousy is not just about romantic jealousy, even though we often talk about it in that case, where you can say I’m jealous of my objects. I’m jealous of my time, I’m jealous of my privacy and so on and so forth. And so they’re both triadic emotions. They have a lot of things in common, but they’re also very different at the same time in the sense that they are… Again, Gabriele Taylor a contemporary philosopher talks about how their relation to the status quo is different. It’s symmetrical. It’s the opposite thing. Envy wants to change the status quo with regard to a valued object, whereas jealousy wants to maintain the status quo with regard to a valued object.

Brett McKay: Okay. So we got this great broad definition of what envy is in general. We’ve distinguished it from jealousy. But one of the things you do in this book that I think is really unique is you make the case that there isn’t just one type of envy. There are four types of envy. But to understand the four types of envy, we first need to understand this idea of leveling orientation that you lay out in the book. So what do you mean by leveling orientation?

Sara Protasi: So this idea of leveling orientation, the term comes from this quote by Dorothy Sayers. She says, “Envy is the great leveler. If it cannot level up, it will level down.” And so what she means there is that, again, imagine that I envy my sibling who got a really new shiny toy, right? So she has this toy, I don’t have it. What can I do? Well, there are two options. I could bug my parents so that they get me the new toy too, right? So we are even, she has a new shiny toy, and I have it too. So I’m leveling up. Or I can, for instance, steal the toy from her or even spoil… Or even break it. And that way I don’t have the toy, but neither does she at this point, right? And so this idea that you can level up or down, actually you can find it not in these terms, but you can already find it in Aristotle.

I argue in the book that Aristotle distinguishes between two emotions. But even if you know independently from the details, what he does is that he thinks that you can either level up or you can level down. And what motivates you to want to do one or the others is what you care about. So if I’m envious of someone because they have something that I really care about, then naturally I am motivated to try to get in myself, right? Because that’s what I really care about. It’s not that I’m bothered that another person has this thing, but I really care about that. In the case of philosophy and philosophical talents, if I envy my colleague, because they are great at writing very clear papers, well, I don’t want ’em to lose their clarity in writing. I want to acquire it myself, right? Because that’s what matters to me.

But if instead I’m envious of a colleague, because I don’t know, maybe we went to grad school together, we were kind of rival all along. I don’t like them. They’re kind of snobbish and not nice to me. Right? In that case, the fact that they have some kind of advantage, perhaps they get a better office, maybe it’s not that I care about the better office, but I’m just bothered that this person that I don’t like is getting this advantage. In that case, I will be more motivated to level down to have them lose that advantage. And so Aristotle already, I think, identifies this important feature. But then what I notice is that there’s a different kind of explanatory model of this different leveling orientation in psychology. So social psychologists have observed that when we feel in control over a situation, that also means that usually we don’t develop hostility or antipathy toward the envy.

And if we feel that we can improve our situation, then we’re going to be motivated to improve that situation. But if we feel hopeless and helpless as two Italian psychologists put it in a classical article, then we develop hostility toward the other person. And also, again, we don’t feel capable of improving our situation. And so we want to level down, we want to bring them down. And so once you see that there are these different explanatory models, and because I think that actually these are complimentary. They’re not alternative proposals, but they can be combined. That’s how you get my four kinds of envy.

Brett McKay: Okay. I thought this was really interesting. So to recap here, to get rid of the bad feeling, we experience, whenever we experience envy, we have to level up or level down. If we are focused on the object that the person that we envy has, so it could be a position, talent, etcetera. We’re more likely to level… We’re actually gonna try to make ourselves better so we can get that thing too. But if we just don’t like the person, we’re just focused on the person, then we don’t really care about the thing they have, then we’re gonna level them down. And then you kinda see this with siblings, like little kids, they would see that one kid had something else. And like my daughter might not have cared that my son had a baseball card, but she was just upset that he had the baseball card.

Sara Protasi: He had it. Yes.

Brett McKay: And she didn’t. And it’s because she was like upset with him, so…

Sara Protasi: Right. Yeah, exactly. Yeah. And so I think that works. Yeah, that’s perfect, that’s a perfect example, right? Siblings rivalry, usually for whatever complicated evolutionary reasons you’d wonder why did we evolve to have siblings rivalry? I don’t know. I’m sure the evolutionary psychologists have an answer to that. But there is this kind of long… This is like background condition of rivalry, right? Especially at some point in their lives, every parent knows that they’re just constantly bickering. And so even when they really don’t care about some other advantage, they just resent that the other sibling has it, right? And so they’re more focused on the envied than the envied object. And so I think this is the kind of explanation that you find in Aristotle. And I think there is something very right to it. But at the same time, there is this other factor that sometimes you can do something about the situation and sometimes you cannot.

And when you can do something about the situation, usually you feel a certain kind of envy. And what psychologist called benign envy. And when you cannot do anything about the situation, in the sense that you cannot overcome your disadvantages by getting the envy good, then you tend to level down, right? To try to spoil it for the other person. And again, so instead of having… So something I omitted to say is that psychologists distinguish between benign and malicious envy. But because I also introduced the Aristotelian explanation, I argue that in fact, you can get four kinds of envy instead of just two, because the varieties of envy are more. It’s a more nuanced account.

Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors. And now back to the show. Okay? So there’s envy where you can do something about the situation. Then there’s an envy where you don’t have control. And then there’s envy where you’re focused on something, you know possession or equality or a talent that someone has. But then there’s envy where you’re just focused on the person themselves. And these dimensions, the control orientation and the focus orientation, they form like a quadrant in that this quadrant forms those four different types of envy. There’s envy where you can’t change the situation and you’re focused on the person, and you call that spiteful envy. Then there’s envy where you can do something and you’re focused on the person, and that’s aggressive envy. Then there’s envy where you can’t control the situation and you’re focused on the thing the person has, and you call that inert envy. And then there’s envy where you do have some control and you’re focused on the thing. And that’s called emulative envy. And we’re gonna unpack and explain these four types of envy. And I’d like to go from the worst type and then work our way up. So let’s start with spiteful envy. What is spiteful envy?

Sara Protasi: So spiteful envy is again, the kind of envy that may be a lot of small children engage with their siblings. Imagine this situation where you know that your sibling has gotten a new shiny toy and perhaps because they’ve gotten better grades or whatever, and you don’t really care about the toy itself. Perhaps it’s a kind of toy that you don’t like but you are really upset that your sibling got something and you didn’t. So you’re more focused on the envied than on the good that you’re missing, that you’re lacking. And at the same time, however, perhaps you know that your parents are not gonna change their mind, they have already said that this is a special reward. You’re not gonna get one. Stop whining. And imagine it’s a situation where perhaps it’s not a physical object that you can steal, but it’s like I don’t know, maybe a special experience or something like that, right?

Maybe they’re getting to have a party, a special party with their friends. And so what you do is that you just throw a tantrum during the party. You behave in awful ways, and you don’t get anything for yourself. In fact, you might even be punished for what you have done. And that actually would count as uber spiteful envy. But I don’t wanna complicate things too much. But so you just spoil the fun of the other person. So in a way, you spoil their good, their special party that you couldn’t have. And so this is the worst kind of envy, because it spoils the good it covets. It’s bad for you. You’re not getting anything good out of it, except perhaps for a very fleeting sense of satisfaction. And of course, it’s immoral. Maybe your sibling really deserved a special party. Maybe they they had these really good grades and they deserved their reward. And so it’s the worst kind of of envy. And then I have various examples of this kind of spiteful envy, but this is just one kind of everyday example of it.

Brett McKay: Yeah. That that’s where the spiteful envy… That’s where that phrase cut off your nose to spite yourself. Right? It’s like…

Sara Protasi: Exactly.

Brett McKay: You just hurt yourself for… You just do something even that harms you just to get back at the other person.

Sara Protasi: Right right Exactly.

Brett McKay: And you offer these different phrases that describe the different types of envy. And for spiteful envy, the phrase is, it should have been me. So you’re like, it should have been me. And if it can’t be me, then you can’t have it either.

Sara Protasi: Yes. Nobody else gets it. Yeah.

Brett McKay: Okay. So spiteful envy, you are focused on the envy and you feel like you can’t do anything about it, and it just goes nowhere.

Sara Protasi: Yeah. The only thing you can do, you can spoil the good.

Brett McKay: Spoil the good.

Sara Protasi: It motivates to spoil the good.

Brett McKay: There’s actually a… Have you ever seen the movie Mississippi Burning?

Sara Protasi: No, I have not.

Brett McKay: No. It’s part about American civil rights history. These two FBI agents go down to Mississippi to investigate the murders of three Black men who were promoting voter registration. And there’s this scene, one of the FBI agents played by Gene Hackman, where he is talking about, he’s from the south, and he just, he was telling the story to this one FBI agent who’s from the north. So he didn’t really understand the racism in the south. And he was talking about when he was growing up, there was a sharecropper that lived next to him who was Black, and he got a new mule. But Gene Hackman, or the Gene Hackman character, his father was poor and he couldn’t afford a new mule. And it really, it upset him, like he felt that inferiority, this White guy felt inferior to this Black guy. I don’t think the guy even really cared about the mule. Like he was just upset that there was a Black guy that was better than him. And so the way the story goes is Gene Hackman’s character’s dad, he poisons the mule. Yeah. He just spoils it. So that’s spiteful envy, right?

Sara Protasi: Right. Yes. Yeah, that’s a great example of spiteful envy. Yes.

Brett McKay: Okay, so let’s move to aggressive envy. What’s aggressive envy?

Sara Protasi: So aggressive, I mean, in this case, for instance, he could have stolen the mule, right? And that kind of aggressive envy is like there are some situation where we can steal the envied good. And sometimes we can do it and get away with it, right? So imagine that, again, you live in this racist place, and perhaps if he stole the mule, maybe he would’ve not been punished, right? He could have gotten away with it. And in other cases, we can imagine doing things as a subterfuge, like you do it, but you hide that you stole the good, so to speak. In the book, I sometimes use the example, it sounds a little cartoonish, but actually it’s not that cartoonish examples of sabotage, right? Sometimes you have you know I have this idea of a ballerina who is the understudy of another one.

She’s not as good as the other person, but she makes the ballerina fall down the stairs. And so she gets the same role. She hasn’t gotten any better, but she managed to sabotage the rival and get the role. Or imagine in a foot race, if I trip the person in front of me and she falls, then I manage to get there first. And so I haven’t become a better runner, but I still get something. In this case, I get first place. And I think it’s important to differentiate these two kind of envy, which is something that this difference gets lost when people just talk about malicious envy. Because in one case, you get a genuine advantage, you get the mule, you get the role, you get the toy that you stole, you get the first place. And even though it doesn’t improve yourself, it doesn’t make you better on your own terms.

In situations where in zero sum games, as sometimes people call them in situation where if one person wins the other loses, well, you get a genuine advantage. And so I think this is the kind of envy that perhaps someone who doesn’t have a moral conscience, maybe, I don’t know, a psychopath or something like that, these people can get away with doing bad things like this. And I think this is the kind of emotion that motivates them is aggressive envy. So in this case, you’re more focused on the rival than the good. You want to bring them down, but you also end up getting something out of it. And so it’s not from a prudential perspective, as philosophers say. From the perspective of your own wellbeing and gains, well, you do gain something.

Brett McKay: Right? Okay. So with aggressive envy, you see something that someone has, you want the thing. So you might take the thing and you talk about like aggressive envy can possibly be an explanation of why countries go to war.

Sara Protasi: Right. I mean, this is something that a philosopher Adam Smith talks about in the Theory of Moral Sentiments. And this is, again, a philosopher from the modern era in the history of philosophy. And so I think he’s right that when we think about wars, a lot of times wars are about resources, right? You want some land or access to the sea or oil or usually it’s about some kind of material gains. And you can think of it as some sort of collective envy. If countries could have feelings, or definitely groups of people can have feelings, right? And so they are motivated by aggressive envy, by taking away something from another nation or another group of people. I’m sure this happened perhaps when there were just tribes or villages, conflicts between smaller groups of people I think might have been motivated by aggressive envy.

And so in a way, this is a form of leveling down that also ends up being a little bit of a leveling up in the sense that if you have just one thing… So in situation where either someone win or someone loses, the distinction between leveling down and leveling up in practice is lost, right? Because what means for one person to level up, it means the other person is leveled down at the same time. But what matters is the mindset. In a lot of situations, like for instance, athletic achievements or skills, right? With things you can’t quite see the difference. But with traits, if what I care about is becoming a better dancer or a better philosopher, then there is a difference between wanting the other person to become worse and wanting myself to be better. And so there is a different kind of mindset that goes with these different kinds of envy.

Brett McKay: I think people listening, they might have experienced aggressive envy in the office. Like when people talk about, oh, I just hate the office politics and the backstabbing that goes on, it’s probably aggressive envy is going on there, right? It may be that, you know…

Sara Protasi: Yeah, I think so.

Brett McKay: Yeah. Like I could say if there’s a promotion, there’s only one spot, there’s two or three people who are all going for that one spot, there’s the temptation to do some things to level people down so that you look better and get the job.

Sara Protasi: Yes, exactly. Yeah. And I think another thing that happens, like I think gossip. I mean, gossip has a social function. It’s just not… It’s not always a negative thing. But I think a lot of time gossip is a way of leveling down, ruining someone’s reputation. And again, sometimes it’s really just spoiling the good. Sometimes gossip doesn’t actually bring you to level down in the sense that you want, but again, sometimes you can spread rumors and you can make another person be liked less. And that allows you to come out better in the comparison. And there is this idea that sometimes maybe you can’t run faster, but you can trip someone else, in that way you have a comparative advantage.

Brett McKay: Okay, so we talk about aggressive envy. Let’s talk about inert envy. What is inert envy?

Sara Protasi: Yes. So inert envy is actually my favorite kind of envy because I think it’s under-discussed in the literature. Inert envy is when you are more focused on the good than the envied. So imagine that, again, you really care about acquiring, say, a certain valuable skill. However, you don’t feel that you’re in control of the situation. You don’t think that you can improve your situation, that you can level up. It’s a situation where it defeats itself, right? You find yourself wanting something that you already think you can’t have. So for instance, I think a lot of people who feel so-called baby envy are in this kind of situation. If they want a biological child, that’s something that typically you can’t control, right? I mean, it’s biology. If you’re not fertile, you’re not fertile. I mean, yeah, technology helps, but at some point you have to accept that you might not be able to have a biological child. And so you might envy people who can, and you don’t want them, I mean, you are happy for them that they have a baby and you don’t want them to lose their children.

And at the same time, you feel this very painful desire to not be around them. And you just want to sulk in a corner and just, it’s… It’s very passive, as I say it’s called inert envy because it doesn’t really motivate you to do much other than sulk in a corner and feel sad for yourself. And so that this is a particular kind of emotion that where you would want to level up, but you can’t.

Brett McKay: So what do people typically do in this? Besides sulking, how do they… They’re feeling the pain. They realize that they can’t get the good, but I’m sure there’s still that desire to get rid of the pain. So how do people do that?

Sara Protasi: Yeah. I think alienation or getting away from the situation, like an avoidant reaction is likely. Imagine that, for instance, you feel envious of a friend. You’re probably not going to want to hang out with this friend much. Also because you might think that if you keep being close to the envied, it’s going to be very painful. And chances are, sometimes what happens is that you’re going to start engaging in this sort of magical thinking where it’s the other person’s fault somehow, or they’re rubbing their fortune in my face. You might have similar thoughts, even though they’re not doing anything like that. And so then I think you might develop feelings of hostility toward the person and you might become more focused on the envied. And that’s actually when you might start having aggressive feelings envy in yourself.

So if you… I remember once I was reading online about some experiences of baby envy. And one person wrote about feeling like they wanted to push a pregnant woman down the subway train. And of course, this person was very scared to be feeling such aggressive impulse. But again, I think it’s in a way it’s understandable. If you’re suffering a lot, then you’re going to start thinking other people are at fault because again, this is a self-defeating emotion. It’s such a counterproductive state.

There’s nothing you can do about it. And so then inert envy can easily evolve into aggressive anger. Or even actually in this case, if you throw a pregnant lady under if you kill her, of course, the baby is lost. So that’s actually spiteful envy. Aggressive envy would be stealing the baby, which rarely it happens. It does happen. It’s not a frequent occurrence. But there are some cases where someone who can’t have a baby steals a baby. So inert envy really sucks. It’s really hard to deal with. And the only thing to do is perhaps to find similar, if not identical goals. So for instance, usually you could adopt a baby. Adoption is an option in this case. And so try to think of things like that. I can’t have this exact thing, but perhaps I can have something similar to it.

Brett McKay: Well, a lot of people may have experienced inert envy in the office, going back to the idea, the job, the promotion. So there’s one position available. Let’s say two other people are also going for the position. You didn’t get it. And it’s not that you aren’t happy for the person that got it. You don’t dislike your colleague that got the promotion. You’re happy for them, but you really wanted that thing. And then you realize, well, there’s nothing I can do to get that promotion. It’s that position’s gone. And so what you end up doing, you kind of do that sulking thing. You’re going to give compliments and congratulations, but it’s going to be kind of lukewarm and…

Sara Protasi: Yep.

Brett McKay: Half-hearted. It’s like, “Oh, I’m so happy for you. Oh, I wish I had what you had.” And then you also talk about another response that people do to deal with the pain of inert envy. So they’re focused on the thing. They feel like they can’t do anything to level up to get the thing. Sometimes we might engage in what’s typically called sour grapes from Aesop’s fables. Well, I didn’t want that job anyway. That job stinks. I’m so glad I didn’t get it.

Sara Protasi: Right. Exactly. And and there is… So a couple of things. One other thing that you can do sometimes in addition to compliments or congratulations that are not truly felt, we engage in what I call sort of dehumanizing compliments. Things like, “Oh, you’re such a machine.” And that’s one way also of decreasing similarity of thinking, well, this person got the job because they don’t sleep at night. So the fact that I didn’t get it is just because I sleep at night and I have a life, whereas the person doesn’t have a life or something like that. But another way is, as you say, there’s a kind of persuading yourself that you didn’t really want that thing. And sometimes it’s this kind of what is sometimes called adaptive preference. Sometimes it’s irrational and it’s not a good way of coping with things because perhaps that was something that you really cared about. But it could also be a good thing. Sometimes reshaping our preferences in light of what’s possible, in light of real life constraints, is a good coping mechanism.

Perhaps you were shooting for a job that was just too hard for you to get. Perhaps you are comparing yourself to someone who’s not really similar to you. Perhaps they are objectively much better than you. And so perhaps you should find a different kind of goal that is more attainable. And finally, another thing that you can do is that you can think about that person. How did that person achieve that goal? If you are right that that’s the right goal for you and that person is similar to you you have roughly the same abilities of that colleague and maybe what they did, maybe they were just luckier, but maybe you can learn from them and see how did I get that promotion. You can emulate them. And that’s how we get to the final kind of envy, emulative envy. When you’re focused on the good. And you feel that you can improve your situation. That’s when you feel emulative envy. And so maybe you can also move from inert to emulative envy by adopting a growth mindset and thinking what, if that person got that job, maybe I can too. I just have to work harder. I have to maybe change my priorities or adopt a different training or depending on what the good is, different things are possible.

Brett McKay: Well, just to end on inert envy, and then we’ll talk about emulative envy here. But yeah, I like that idea that inert envy, that sort of sulking and just being sad that you don’t have the thing that the other person has, that can actually, I like the idea that it can lead to growth and maybe new opportunities. When you were kids, we probably all experienced that. I remember there’s like sports I tried out for or activities that I tried out for because I saw that a friend had that thing or had a talent for that and they were successful. And I wanted that too. It looked really great. And then I tried the thing and then I realized I’m not very good at this. And I don’t know if I’ll ever get really good at this. But I’m glad I went through that experience because I was able to figure out, well, this isn’t for me. Maybe there’s something else out there that better suits my talents and my proclivities.

Sara Protasi: Yeah, it’s a lesson in humility. I really like that idea, actually. And I was recently listening to the radio and they were talking about how nowadays kids specialize too early in sports. And that creates all sorts of problems already in high school, if you’re not a very good athlete, you can’t play certain popular sports, which is a pity. Because you deprive kids of an important source of fun, of meaning, you stress them too much. And it used to be that people had more of a chance to experiment with different kinds of sports, which I think is a source of richness. And especially in this case, you’re right that feeling inert envy for someone who’s maybe better than you at basketball can be a very important lesson in humility, in learning to deal with disappointment and just learning to deal with the fact that sometimes people are better than us. You’re bound… Nobody can be good at everything and what matters is find something that you enjoy and are good at. But we have to accept that sometimes people are are better and and it’s a good experience to have. So yeah, I like your take on this.

Brett McKay: So let’s talk about emulative envy. This is the positive type of envy. So you described the characteristics there with emulative envy. It’s you’re focused on the good, not on the envied. And then you feel like you can do something about to level yourself up to get that thing.

Sara Protasi: Yes.

Brett McKay: But how is that, still, that sounds like a good thing. How could that be envy? It just sounds like you saw someone, they’re like going to be an example to you. So how is it still envy?

Sara Protasi: Well, it’s still envy. First of all, let’s go back to our definition. It’s still unpleasant when you envy someone, you are perceiving them as superior to you with regard to something that you really care about. So it’s still going to be an unpleasant emotion and it’s still going to tell you that that person is superior to you in some respect. So it’s not… A lot of times people ask me how it’s different from admiration, but admiration actually is a very different emotion. First of all, it’s a positive affect emotion. You don’t feel bad when you feel admiration. It’s an affiliative emotion. You want to be closer to the person you admire. And when you envy someone, you might not dislike them. You don’t feel hostility if it’s emulative envy. But still, there is a competitive element to it. And usually admiration arises either toward people who are much better than us. And so they are dissimilar in that regard. Or it arises with regard to domains that are not self-important. I admire great scientists, Nobel Peace prizes, people that are very different from me. It is also the motivational tendency of admiration is usually if there is improvement, it’s long-term improvement. And it’s about being inspired. It’s about developing a certain kind of long-term plan. But I emulative envy is an emotion that is much more about immediate self-improvement. So they’re very different emotions.

Brett McKay: Okay. I like that. So admiration, it feels good. It can inspire you to level up, but it’s more in a… It’s like a general way. It’s more of in a long-term way. It’s like when you see people you admire, they’re less likely to be doing the exact same thing that you do. When I see people who are doing awesome things in the world that don’t exactly relate to what I’m doing, it doesn’t make me feel bad about myself. I’m just like, “Man, I’m really glad there’s awesome people out there doing awesome things, sharing their talents with the world.” With emulative envy, it does make you feel bad, even if it’s just a little bit. Like you can feel dejected. You feel some shame. You’re like “Man, I want to be like that.” But then you feel motivated to become more like that in the short term. It’s more of an immediate thing.

Sara Protasi: Right.

Brett McKay: So how can people harness emulative envy to improve themselves? I really like this idea that we can use envy for positive gains. I think typically in the philosophical tradition, in the psychological research, envy is seen as this bad thing. But I really like this idea that envy can be a spur to improve ourselves in a positive way.

Sara Protasi: Yeah, The way we can harness its power is to be honest about it, at least with oneself. Because I think the temptation, whenever we feel envy, the temptation is to deny even to ourselves that we’re feeling envy. Because it is unpleasant and because nobody wants to feel inferior to someone else. But instead, we have to kind of mindfully accept it. And first of all, see if it’s fitting, if I emulative envy someone with regard to what’s sometimes called conspicuous consumption, engaging in an arms race of consumeristic goods. Maybe that’s not a good thing. Do I want to emulative envy someone who buys more and more expensive cars? I don’t know. Maybe I’m being moralistic here, but I’m not sure that’s going to…

I think empirical evidence shows that this kind of materialistic goals don’t really lead us to be happier. But if I’m envying someone because they’re a better philosopher, they’re a better writer, they’re a stronger athlete, or they’re a better parent. There are all sorts of things that we can envy. They’re actually good. They’re good goals. And so we can look at how these people are achieving their goals and use them as models for us to follow. And it’s one thing that we could all do. And I notice people who know me do that more now is to just confess our envy and destigmatize and accept that it’s a normal emotion. And once it’s out there, it’s easier to say, “You what? I’m envious of you and I want to do what you do.” And maybe if we destigmatize this kind of emotion, then the envied can also provide advice and support. They can, instead of being scared by our envy because they think it’s a dangerous thing, then they can generously and gracefully acknowledge that, yeah my situation is enviable, but let me help you achieve the same goal. So there does need to be a societal change with regard to envy, because also the envied have some sort of duty to share how they got what they have.

Brett McKay: Yeah, that can be scary though for the envied because you hear over and over again, like you have to fear envy because if someone envies you, it means they might take what you have or might wanna just replace you or just get rid of you or just take what you have. But we’ve all, I know there’s people in my life that I’ve encountered and there’s this friend of mine who is like this awesome dad. He’s really crafty. He can just build things. He can whip up a tree house. And whenever I see what he does for his kids, it makes me feel bad. I’m like, “Man. I’m not a good dad in that regard.” But at the same time, it’s I don’t begrudge him. I don’t feel… I don’t want to like punch him in the face because it makes me feel bad. It actually inspires me. That I should learn some new skills. I should get on YouTube and learn how to make a treehouse.

Sara Protasi: Yep. Yeah, and there are some scholars who now they think that… So there’s this idea in moral philosophy that, moral education has largely to do with moral exemplars. We learn to be good by looking at other people who are good. Learning to be good is not something that you can learn from books. It’s not like math or physics. And so within this idea of moral exemplars, there are some scholars now who are talking about inspiring envy, just like you mentioned. And so this is a kind of emulative envy that has to do with being inspired and trying to become better by looking at how people are. And so people are using this idea of inspiration as a consequence of emulative envy.

Brett McKay: Okay. So just go through the different types of envy. We have spiteful envy. That’s the worst kind. That’s when we say it should have been me. And if it can’t be me, no one’s going to have it. Then you have aggressive envy and that’s the, we say it should be me. And so we’ll just push the ballerina down the stairs. So they’re not the lead ballerina anymore. Then we have inert envy where we just mope and say, “Oh, it could have been me. I could have been a contender and nothing I can do about it.” But inert envy might have some value. Can you… During that sulking, you can maybe think of new ways, reevaluate your goals in life. And then emulative envy, it’s positive. We say to ourselves, “It could be me.” I see someone doing great. They make me feel bad because I am inferior to them, but they inspire me to get better.

Sara Protasi: Exactly.

Brett McKay: I love that. Here’s the question. Is it possible to never feel envy? Like some people still have that idea that all types of envy are bad. I think we made the case that some envy is worse than others, but let’s say like someone wants to be well, I never feel envy. Is that possible?

Sara Protasi: Is it conceptually possible? Sure. Is it realistically, psychologically possible? I doubt it. It’s hard to answer this question empirically because envy is an emotion that hides itself. Again, we are taught to inhibit and suppress envy from an early age in most cultures and traditions where envy is condemned as an immoral emotion. And of course, we tend to not admit envy even to ourselves. And so when you run a study and you want to try and see if people feel envy, there’s going to be some people who will manage to hide their envy. And of course, people are idiosyncratic. I’m sure there are some people who never feel envy, just like there are some people who never feel empathy. Some people never feel guilt. Human beings can be pretty weird. But for most of us, the social psychological evidence show that most people feel envy.

Children who have not been socialized fully to hide their envy actually feel a lot of envy. Small children are envious of anyone all the time. [chuckle] Sometimes they are also envious of people who are not similar to them because they can’t draw those distinctions. Anthropologists tell us that there is no culture void of envy that has been discovered so far. Is it possible to never feel envy? At some level, I guess the answer is, perhaps, yes, for some special individuals. But I think most of us feel envy at least sometimes. Some people do tend to be more envious than others, like with anything else. But I’m personally skeptical. Whenever someone tells me, “Oh, I never feel envy,” I have my doubts. And I think that either they define envy in a different way. Perhaps, again, they think of times where they feel positive, benign envy as being jealous. So yeah, I’m skeptical that people can never feel envy. It’s a normal… And we know, again, also the literature on social comparison is tell us that we compare ourselves to other people all the time, inadvertently, unconsciously, automatically. So we might not realize that we’re feeling envy, but we do.

Brett McKay: Well, you highlight research from psychology and social science, and even philosophers have talked about this. If the goal in life is to pursue excellence, flourishing, well, how do you know what is a flourishing life? How do you know what an excellent life is? Well, you have to compare, right? It’s like, am I a good parent? What does a good parent look like? And how do I stack up to good parents? Or am I a good philosophy professor? Or am I a good podcaster? So you have to compare. And in that comparison, you’re going to likely experience some type of envy.

Sara Protasi: Yeah, excellence, when we think about how to define excellence, this excellence, this can get complicated, but in simple terms, it’s being quite above average. There is no concept of average that is non-comparative. Even when you think about parenting, what used to be a good father is not the same as what is a good father now. It used to be you don’t beat your children and you come home for dinner. And you glance at your children every now and then, great parent, dad, great father, at least, that’s not the same thing anymore. And how do you know that? Well, you compare. Even if you don’t compare yourself to, I can believe that someone says, “I don’t compare myself to other parents.” I doubt it, but I will pretend to believe it. But maybe you compare yourself to your father. How many people say, “Oh, compared to my father, I’m such a good father or mother.” We compare all the time. And that’s how we know if we are a good parent, a good philosopher, a good podcaster, and so on.

Brett McKay: Right. So envy might be the price we have to pay sometimes for excellence.

Sara Protasi: Yes, yes, that’s well put. And again, in some cases, it’s a hefty price. And in some cases, it’s not. But definitely, it’s a price because it’s not a pleasant emotion. So in that regard, yes, it’s a price.

Brett McKay: And I guess the goal is, the aim should be, if we’re going to experience envy, at least let it be that more productive, emulative envy. And that just requires, you have to do work mentally inside yourself. Okay, I’m going to focus on the thing and then think about what can I do to level myself up instead of leveling that other person down.

Sara Protasi: Yes. And a similar emotion in this respect, is grief. We can’t have love without grief. We can’t have the exciting part about being with someone we love without paying the price of grieving them when they’re gone or when they abandon us. But there are more helpful ways of feeling grief, more productive ways of feeling grief than others. And so the same thing goes for envy.

Brett McKay: Well, Sara, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about your work?

Sara Protasi: So I have a simple webpage that can be easily found by Googling me, but that’s not always as updated as I would like it to be. So you can find me on social media, X, and I have also a Facebook public profile. And for those who are very philosophically minded, there is a website for philosophers called PhilPapers. And I always upload my work there. So even people who don’t have access to scientific journals, I always put my papers there so they can be read there.

Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Sara Protasi, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Sara Protasi: Thank you so much.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Sara Protasi. She’s the author of the book, The Philosophy of Envy. It’s available on amazon.com. Check out our show notes at aom.is/envy. Where you can find links to resources. We delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM Podcast. Make sure to check out our website at artofmanliness.com where you can find our podcast archives, as well as thousands of articles that we’ve written over the years about pretty much anything you can think of. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate it if you’d take one minute to give us a review on Apple Podcasts or Spotify. It helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think will get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay, reminding you to not listen to AOM Podcasts, but put what you’ve heard into action.

Related Posts