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By Jerome Neu


The Montréal Review, March 2013


"A Tear Is an Intellectual Thing: The Meanings of Emotion" by Jerome Neu (Oxford University Press, 2000)


"Jerry Neu is one of the most insightful contemporary writers on the philosophy of emotions."

--Jeffrie G. Murphy, Arizona State University


The emotions at the heart of contemporary American political discourse have undergone a dramatic shift. For decades, it was all about pride, as marginalized and denigrated groups sought a proper and appreciated place in the political arena: Black Pride, Gay Pride, Deaf Pride, and on indefinitely, as one group after another sought under the banner of pride a transvaluation of the values that had previously made for the denial of rights to individuals who were members of despised groups. The point was not that one should not be ashamed of one's skin color (for example) because one could not help it, did not choose it, and so was not responsible. Rather, the point was and is that one should not be ashamed of one's skin color because there is nothing wrong with it in the first place: Black is Beautiful. There is an interesting question about how it is that pride went from being one of the traditional seven deadly sins to becoming, during those decades, the banner under which social movements declared their objectives. How might one understand the shift from a theology of sin to a politics of self-assertion (and an accompanying psychology of self-esteem)? While I think a consideration of the nature of pride and how it intertwines with identity can be revealing (I explore the matter in "Pride and Identity" in A Tear Is an Intellectual Thing), the shift from associating pride on the one hand with arrogance, conceit, egotism and vanity and on the other hand with self-respect, self-esteem, self-confidence, and dignity is not the shift I wish to focus on here.

For in recent political discourse, pride has given place to talk of another traditionally deadly sin, envy. And the emotion of the day is no longer a banner for claiming rights but a cudgel for discrediting and dismissing such claims. Republicans these days dismiss as motivated by envy those who would Occupy Wall Street or otherwise point out gross inequalities in American life and go on to call for the 1% to contribute more of their ever-increasing wealth to overcome the disparities and the hardships that their greedy accumulation has imposed on the 99%. This is the emotional analogue of the charge of "class warfare" leveled at those who dare to speak of the facts of inequality and the mechanisms of political power that make it possible. Creating inequality is not regarded as class warfare by those who do the creating, while noticing and speaking of it is.

I think the charge of envy is multiply confused. First, because calling for justice and calling for dispossession of the envied are distinguishable and distinct. And second, because envy is in any case less widespread than the howling bankers would have it. The simple fact is that more than 1% of the American electorate vote Republican, and while various factors are doubtless at work, I suspect that a large part of the story of why people vote (as I see it) against their own interests involves a fantasy identification of have-nots with those who have. People imagine themselves as winning the lottery, and don't want what they will come to regard as their "hard earned" gains taken away. The easy money of the well-to-do, whether capital gains or the carried-interest income of private equity and hedge fund managers and other limited partnerships, is generally regarded as somehow special, indeed is given privileged treatment and encouragement in our current tax code.

But for some reason, empathetic identification of those who have with those who do not have is far less widespread. The very rich these days are often heard to complain of the lucky poor who have so little that they get away with not having to pay taxes and get away too with going to emergency rooms without paying. An influential 2002 Wall Street Journal editorial called the millions of American households that do not pay income tax "lucky duckies." (It makes one wonder about the direction of envy, about who envies whom.) Sometimes, as with Mitt Romney, the talk is of the "47 percent" who pay no federal income taxes, who, according to Romney, don't "take personal responsibility and care for their lives." These privileged dependents of the state in fact include, along with the elderly on social security and others, soldiers who get their combat pay tax free. Paul Ryan too emphasized the evil of dependency, suggesting that our safety-net programs are "a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency." Shame on those undeserving poor, which is to say, in Republican discourse, all the poor. Luck, social structure, tax privilege, regulatory support and the like, in the view of the winners of life's lottery, never have anything to do with success or failure. Being very old or an injured veteran have nothing to do with receiving entitlements from the state ("entitlements" long earned and paid for), and having low income with tax credits for multiple children is improper redistribution while favored tax rates for unearned income and sheltered income in the Cayman Islands are not.

But let's leave questions of the pervasiveness of envy and of fantasy, and of the direction of envy, aside, and focus on the confusions about envy and justice. They are hardly new. Indeed, conservatives have for centuries dismissed calls for justice as motivated by envy, and with that have tended to regard whatever distributions of wealth in fact exist as ipso pipso just. While not making that additional error, Freud, with his general predilection to find the roots of the high in the low, believed calls for justice concealed darker, envious, roots. And Nietzsche, too, suspiciously saw dark forces of ressentiment under calls for justice.

A couple of distinctions should help clarify the confusions behind recent Republican and older dismissals of political and economic demands as based on envy. (These distinctions are further elaborated in "Jealous Thoughts" in A Tear Is an Intellectual Thing.) The distinctions should help protect against the (often hypocritical) exploitation of the confusions in political argument. First, we should distinguish between what might be called admiring envy and malicious envy. When someone says "I envy you," they can usually be taken to be saying: "I wish I were like you" or "I wish I had what you have" (admiring envy). But they would usually not be taken to be saying: "I wish you did not have what you do" (malicious envy), that is usually an unspoken thought. While both these types of thought may constitute envy, they are different, as different as the desire to be like and the desire to destroy (or the desire to have and the desire that the other not have). There is a common element in admiring and malicious envy: a desire to overcome inequality, but the desire comes from different directions, admiring envy involving a desire to raise (the self), malicious envy involving a desire to level (the other). It is only malicious envy which is politically disreputable and dismissable.

Some believe people cloak their envy in demands for equality, while the underlying desire is that no one have what they cannot have. By contrast, I believe the demand for equality need not be a kind of reaction-formation to defend against or hide malicious envy. The desire for equality may involve a desire that all be raised up rather than a demand that the advantaged be cut down. (One thinks here of Lenin's defense of his taste for first class travel on trains: "After the revolution, everyone will travel first class.")

The desire for equality may also stem from principled moral considerations, as John Rawls would have it, rather than infantile malicious envy, as Freud and the Republicans would seem to have it. This point requires a second crucial distinction. There is a difference between envy, specifically malicious envy, on the one side and resentment and indignation based on a sense of justice on the other. The latter are "moral emotions"-not in the sense that they are always justified, but in the sense that they make a moral claim. Malicious envy, by contrast, wishes to take from the better off, whether or not they deserve their goods. Malicious envy involves a simple desire that the other not have-indeed, that desire may even be independent of any attachment of value to the denied object by the envier: that is, even if they don't want it themselves, or could not have it, the key thing is that the envied party be denied whatever it is that is of value to them. But a sense of justice need not be an indiscriminate destroyer of whatever is valued by others. Legitimate resentment of unjustified differences, indignation at rigged games, can ground calls for redistribution and redress. A fuller causal understanding of how things have come to be as they are (including the role of money in politics) might reveal shockingly many gains to have been ill-gotten, often at the expense of the worse off. Socialism, unlike malicious envy, calls for the redistribution of goods, not their elimination. Parodies of socialism often achieve their effects by using destruction, leveling, wherever redistribution (or compensation) is not possible. (This is not to deny the problem of "positional goods.")

I should perhaps add that the desire that others not have something thought valuable (by them) may be less an attack on the possessors (either malicious or based on a sense of justice) than on the thought that it is valuable. There is more to the moral psychology of negative desires than just malicious envy and legitimate resentment. The problem might sometimes be thought to be not with who possesses a valuable thing, but rather with the thought that certain things are valuable. A Savonarola may claim to be neither envious nor resentful, but merely to want others not to have or do certain things because it is bad for them to have or do them. (This is the standard claim of paternalists-and parents.) It need not be a religious doctrine. Someone might object to SUVs not because they want them for themselves, but out of concern over global warming. To properly judge such denials of envy, one would need, in addition to a theory of justice, a theory of the good.

Governor Romney in his presidential campaign was fond of talking of those who would increase taxes on the rich as "attacking success" and "punishing success." As Elizabeth Warren, law professor, consumer advocate, and now Senator from Massachusetts said at the Democratic convention on September 5th, 2012, "These folks [ordinary workers] don't resent that someone else made more money. [The Doonesbury version the morning before the actual speech added, 'or even has so many cars that they need an elevator in their garage.'] We're Americans. We celebrate success. We just don't want the game to be rigged."

We should be proud of our commitment to justice and not shrink back when some would ascribe tainted motives of malicious envy to the desire for the best for all. The charge tends to come from those who would deny even decent education and decent medical care to those not of their class. The false distinction between "makers" and "takers" misidentifies the parties in current struggles. (Are women, immigrants, gays, and on and on "makers" or "takers"?) While the despised categories of the day may shift, the need for passionate struggle-the striving for recognition and respect, taking pride in our separate and in our shared identities-persists. La lutte continue!


Jerome Neu is Professor of Humanities, University of Califonia, Santa Cruz; author of several books including On Loving Our Enemies: Essays in Moral Psychology and Sticks and Stones: The Philosophy of Insults.


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