Envy makes the world go round. Therefore those who hate envy are often found to hate the world.

Envy is one of the great vices that became a virtue. This ugly duckling story may also have been seen, from a different perspective, as the killing of the goose that lays the golden egg (if I may, in one sentence, mix metaphors, fables and waterfowl). Let me explain.

Envy begins its life as a vice. For you moderns, who think of vice as a police department, let us recall that vice is the opposite of virtue or excellence, the linchpin concept of ethics before the notion of universal human rights ushered in the modern age. The word vice has an old-fashioned ring. Today we simply call it a lifestyle choice, at least whenever it is not a police matter.

So to say that envy is a vice, we must transport our mindsets back to another time. The very roots of the word betray its vulgar history. Envy derives from the Latin invidere, which means to look askance at. Our word invidious, derived from the same root, refers to a tendency to cause discontent, animosity or envy. The oldest meanings of envy in English are now obsolete, but they include: malignant or hostile feeling, ill-will, a malicious look, an active evil, harm, mischief, odium, and holding a grudge. So it is not too much too say that envy began as a vice, but was only later rehabilitated as a middle class virtue.

Apart from these ancient attenuated negative connotations, there is the chief and core meaning of envy, from which we shall not, unfortunately, be able to remove all negativity. Whatever one’s final assessment of envy as virtue or vice, one must agree that envy, as an emotional experience, is unquestionably a negative feeling. Envy is mortification, a discontent, a miserableness, a sadness occasioned by the good fortune of another. There is no joyful envy. Hunger is a negative experience; but we eat to satisfy it, and we are benefited. Envy too, may carry such indirect benefits (at least, that is what all the controversy is about). But, like hunger, the immediate experience of it is — without controversy — an unpleasant state.

Fortune may bestow a wide variety of gifts, and accordingly one can distinguish kinds of envy by attention to the envied object. Broadly, there are three main categories of goods that others may enjoy, and each type evokes a corresponding and characteristic envy. Envy may have a material complexion, as one feels chagrin at the wealth, prowess, or physical comforts of another. Or envy has a social complexion, and we are discomfited by the reputation, status, or social circle of someone else. Thirdly, we may envy the inner attributes of another, whether intellectual, ethical, aesthetic, psychological, or spiritual. Thus we may distinguish (inexhaustively) among material, social, and psychological objects of envy.

In addition to distinguishing envy by its objects, one may look to the intentions that accompany the core feeling. Here we find a snake pit. At its most innocent, envy merely wishes to enjoy boons equal and equivalent to those of our rival. Envy here is mere emulation. But it is one thing to wish to be as rich as Joe Tycoon; it is quite another to deprive him of his wealth, or to steal from him, or to desire to eliminate him and take over his empire. And when one begins to lay plans for the seizure, it is no longer a matter of mere wish. Envy has gone beyond emulation.

Similarly, one may wish to match the wedded bliss of another. This can take the form of imitation (as a wish to find one’s own mate) or the form of replacement (as a wish to seduce that happy person’s spouse in a vain attempt to take part in the existing bliss). Again there are a variety of intentions possible, even relative to the same object.

One may be miserable till one has as much and as good; or one may insist on having the exact items the other owns, in effect supplanting the other and taking his or her place. Besides these strategic intentions, there is the scorched earth policy: If I cannot have it, no one will have it. Envy can be purely destructive of the happiness of others, and is more likely to be such whenever it despairs of its own consummation. The insides of envy are uglier than its outsides.

Categorizing envy by its objects is a little like classifying stars by who looks at them. Such means are not likely to advance astronomy, much less to shed light on envy. Mostly, distinctions by object are made by apologists, who wish to defend the indirect benefits of one or another sort of envy. Thus I have heard spiritual envy extolled, while material envy is scorned. The idea is that if we envy the wealth of others, we are entering into vain competition with them. But if we envy the spiritual perfections of a saint, bodhisattva, or deity, we have no wish to win out over them, but to join them as equals in spiritual attainment. Far from competitive, our envy of them is praise to their ears, and they may magnificently grant us boons that elevate us to their peerage. They help us up; we don’t wish to out-glorify them, but to honour them. What’s so bad about such envy? Earnest emulation of virtue is virtue.

A related perspective holds that envy is ethically neutral. If one envies good things, and if this envy is without spite, and leads to personal improvement through emulation, then it is a good thing. If one envies evil things, or if one’s envy is spiteful and malicious, then it is evil, even absent of all emulation (which would make it still worse). Envy is only a means. It is the end for which it is used, and the manner of its employment, that is good or evil. Envy is instrumental. This is consistent with the previous view (distinction by object), since it assumes that we should not envy sinners or the arrogant; but envying the spiritually great might be okay, if it is done in the right way for the right reasons.

A predominant view since Adam Smith, has been that private envy leads to public wealth. The very competition that spiritualists demean is the great engine of growth and hope. It is envy that sparks competition, and the desire to better one’s own position, to stand out amongst one’s peers, to live on the top of the hill. The general struggle for relative wealth leads to absolute wealth creation. While individuals may or may not survive, the market grows and gets more goods to more people, eventually better goods to richer people. We have a right to our envy, on this view, which claims that envy is the goose that lays golden eggs. The spiritualist disdain of envy would kill this squawking goose. Let us rather emulate the Joneses to keep up with them. If such envy is evil, at least it pays the bills.

So envy has been extolled as the ecstatic admiration of the spiritually great, defended as a neutral tool that can be used either for good or for evil, and lionized as the innate will to self-improvement, thanks to which we have all progress. It has come a long way from being a mere vice, a malicious twinkling of the eye. To those who hate envy, these benefits will hardly seem impressive. What have we established? That envy fuels the rat race? Can what is so joyless and inwardly ugly fail to transgress against the spirit? Even spiritual envy seems to violate a spirit of generosity. It is an expression of spiritual poverty, a desperate admission of a spiritual lack. It is already seeing the divine as other. This is the first mistake of believers (the second being seeing the divine as self). And as for the moneyed apologists who are feigning sympathy for fowl, all they actually have to show for their case are the golden eggs; the spirit of the goose has long since died in the sweatshops of progress, its carcass carved and served with a sauce of gloating at their annual opulent thanksgiving dinner.