Wednesday, April 25, 2007

What Good is Envy?

Envy is a good example of a biologically-driven impulse that, on average, benefits us all -- although it might hurt the person who suffers from it.

Basically, envy provides a motivation for people to produce things that indirectly benefit others.

For example:

- If I am envious of your baseball skills, I might practice to become a better ballplayer -- and thereby produce more entertainment for baseball fans.

- If I am envious of your status, I might attempt political maneuverings to become more popular -- and thereby do favors for others.

- If I am envious of your money, I might work harder to make more money -- and thereby benefit the recipients of my efforts.

- If I (with "I" being used only in the most abstract sense) am envious of your girlfriend, I might try harder to be more appealing to her -- and thereby make her happier.

That fourth example is probably the main reason why envy is such a common trait. Those people who acted on their sexual envies were more likely, over the long term, to produce more offspring -- who will inherit the "envy gene". And they will then compete against each other to produce even more envious offspring. Given the direct connection between sexual jealousy and procreation, it is little wonder that sexual jealousy is the most potent of all envies -- if not all emotions.

Also note that the first three examples are probably outgrowths of sexual jealousy; i.e., people (especially men) who are athletic and/or powerful and/or rich are highly demanded by the other gender for procreation. That is, men can satisfy their sexual envy by first working on their other envies. And along the way, third parties benefit.

Of course, envy is not entirely wonderful. For starters, it induces people to expend much effort for relatively little tangible gain. Even with no potential mates to impress, the envy impulse might still function senselessly. ("He worked how many hours to own the most expensive car on the block?") And, of course, acting on envy can alienate people, can cause your friends to disappear, and even get you killed. (Perhaps many fatal conflicts over a female were not, in hindsight, really worth it?) And many people whose envy drives them to seek power and money do so by illegitimate means -- through lying, cheating, stealing, threatening, and killing.

In short, it is very unproductive to feel sick over the fact that a co-worker won Lotto -- but maybe that impulse, someday, will do some good for someone else.

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