Thursday, November 08, 2007

Assessing Envy

In 'Reasons: Practical and Adaptive', Raz writes (p.13):
[A]ffect-justifying reasons are not value-related. This would explain why there can be adaptive reasons for having emotions which it is always wrong to have. For example, some people believe that there is never a good reason to be envious. They must refer to practical reasons, for surely there are adaptive reasons for envy. If you envy someone his victory then you have no reason to envy him if he did not in fact win, if you are mistaken about his victory. If you continue to envy him after your mistake has been corrected, you are irrational. If he was victorious then you may have an emotion which it is bad or wrong to have, but you are not irrational.

[Note that "Reasons are adaptive if they mark the appropriateness of an attitude in the agent independently of the value of having that attitude, its appropriateness to the way things are." (p.11)]

Doesn't the sentence I put in bold seem to get things exactly backwards? Surely there's no question at all that there can be practical value to envy (or anything else for that matter). Suppose an evil demon will destroy the universe unless we are envious. Whatever. It would be crazy for the opponents of envy to "refer to practical reasons", for that would render their position transparently absurd. Rather, the claim is that envy is never rational (even if it may be practical), never an inherently appropriate response to "the way things are." The claim, in other words, is precisely that there are no adaptive reasons for envy. It is not an emotion that is ever warranted by the situation.

Now, Raz effectively shows that we may also assess an emotional state according to its internal correctness conditions. Envy is internally misguided if its purported basis (the other's victory) does not actually obtain. It would certainly be irrational to retain the emotion even upon recognizing it to be misguided in this way. But it doesn't follow that the emotion is rational if it lacks this flaw. Even if not irrational on internal grounds, it may still be irrational for other reasons.

We may think, for example, that good things generally warrant positive reactions. But envy consists precisely in feeling bad or resentful about the good things that happen to other people. Doesn't that just seem fundamentally misguided? Similarly for schadenfreude, or taking pleasure in others' suffering. It's simply perverse; not an apt response to the normative features of the situation.

If that's right, we need to recognize adaptive reasons as providing a third kind of evaluation, distinct from both practical value and internal correctness conditions. It's one thing to ask how advantageous an emotional state would be, and another to ask whether it is internally misdirected (wrong by its own lights) -- but it's a further question still whether the emotion is apt or objectively warranted.


  1. > Suppose an evil demon will destroy the universe unless we are envious.

    Now that you have proven that there could 'theoretically' be a reason envy is a good thing, maybe the question could be have there ever been any ACTUAL incidences of envy being a good thing.

    Personally I think envy seems to be a feeling where you seem to hurt yourself and maybe as a concequence others, with little other effect that could not be achieved by other emotions. So in a way I'm having difficulty picturing a real situation where it would help.


  2. Could it make sense (in terms of adaptive reasons) for me to feel envy towards you if you receive some positional good? After all, by receiving it, you may be frustrating some desire of mine.

  3. Yeah, I guess that could be an exception. (Though I'm sort of tempted by the hard line person-neutral view that there's generally no reason for one to benefit at another's expense. Thus envy would remain unwarranted even in such zero-sum situations.)

  4. You are missing the point of emotions; they are there to motivate us toward particular actions.

    I think there are definite cases where jealousy and envy are rational, because the actions they motivate lead to the obtainment of my goal. Let's assume I am on a desert island with two other people - one male, one female.

    Jealousy: I am jealous of my mate, because I wish to procreate with her, rather than have another do the same. This jealousy will motivate my protectiveness.

    Envy: I am envious of another's mate, because I wish to procreate with her. This envy will motivate my competition with the other male to obtain the woman.

    Jealousy and envy are rational in these cases because they motivate actions which assist me in obtaining my goals.

  5. No, 'behold', you are missing the difference between being beneficial (practical) and being warranted. Emotions, no less than beliefs, are a kind of reaction to the world. As such, we can ask both whether the reaction is likely to help us in our future actions (as you do) or - the question I am instead concerned with here - whether the reaction is inherently apt or inapt, given the way things are. See also: 'The Claims of Emotion'. (On the other hand, one might even question whether the 'goals' you mention are reasonable ones.)


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