Envy – A Theory of Social Behaviour

“Social justice means that we deny ourselves many things so that others may have to do without them as well, or what is the same thing, many not be able to ask for them.” ~ Sigmund Freud (emphasis my own)

Helmut Schoeck’s theory of social behaviour focuses on Envy as the key driving force behind individual and social human progress – and regression – over time.

Schoeck, a mid-century philosopher and psychologist wrote Envy in the late 1950s, but the books themes are timeless.

The key themes Shoeck’s theory of Envy revolve around how, to a large extent, human society and human behaviour is structured to 1) protect society from envious individuals (through property rights, legal systems and moral codes), and  2) to reduce envy in those afflicted by the vice (through progressive taxation, social taboos and social justice).

Another big idea explored is how members of a group who have succumbed (by choice or force) to oppression will force others to join them in their oppression. In other words, envy turns the oppressed into the oppressor.

“…since it is always the wish of those who subject themselves to power that others, still able to evade that power, should also subordinate themselves and conform to it. Phenomenon such as the totalitarian state and modern dictatorship cannot be fully understood if the social relations of those who have, and those who have not yet conformed are overlooked.” ~ Helmut Schoeck, Envy

An example of this sort of destructive envy is the story of how survivors stranded at sea during WWII after a shipwreck, with little chance of survival, attempted to destroy what was left of the provisions in their lifeboat before committing suicide by jumping overboard – so that their non-suicidal shipmates would perish along with them.

This point is precedent today, when companies are considering microchipping their employees – and parents their children. How long before the chipped insist that everyone else also submit to the same control and privacy violations that they have submitted to?

Similar logic gives one pause about the privacy we trade away in exchange for being a part of our online communities.

Will privacy become considered a “sin” by those who refuse to share in the big data collective we are building?

Schoeck also touches on a very interesting cultural shift, which first developed in Western society after WWII and has progressed ever since, regarding the social acceptability of the idea of envy. Although for most of Western history, since the middle ages at least, envy was regarded an embarrassing vice, something that the envier should attempt to overcome in private;  within a couple of decades of WWII, envy had become not only socially acceptable, but completely justifiable. Instead of the envier being encouraged to resolve his envy through introspection; society became obligated to bow to and placate the envious man with more and more (popular) redistributive economic and social policies.  In fact, you could say, envy has become a virtue, the envious the virtuous and the envied the enemy of society.

“Who does not envy with us is against us!” ~ Helmut Schoeck, Envy

As an example of the terrible sacrifices humanity has laid on the altar of envy, Schoeck explains how mothers in one primitive society would traditionally kill and eat every second child they bore to stave off their elder child’s sibling jealousy (the first-born cannibal was invited to partake in the feast of his unlucky sibling). This is just one chilling example of many such case studies which reveal the horrible lengths humans have gone to ward off the evil eye and placate the envy of others.

Of course, as Schoeck points out, envy can be a force for social good too, when it encourages the envier to progress, innovate, and achieve in order to surpass the subject of his envy – indeed what is a benchmark or a role model other than envy converted into action?

All in all, a thought-provoking, if depressingly relevant, read for life in the precarious 21st century. After all, as Schoeck explains, envy is incurable and will always be among us – our only choice as a society is whether to suppress and punish it, or to placate and reward it.

Perhaps envy, rather than greed, is the root of all evil. (or are they really the same thing?)




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