The Envy Brokers

Recently, I listened to the podcast “Is Envy Worse in a Free Society” by philosopher Dr. Stephen Hicks. (Full transparency: Dr. Hicks is one of my former professors.)

In the podcast, Dr. Hicks gives an intellectual-historical overview of “envy,” explains why envy is viewed as a negative (albeit natural) force in society, and how various socio-political systems deal with envy. Dr. Hicks concludes that envy is less prevalent in a free society since there is greater opportunity to improve one’s situation than there is in less free societies.

And who am I to disagree with something as reasonable as that?

But the podcast got me thinking …

Envy is such a commonly recognized—and criticized—trait in modern society. When someone is slighted online, it’s normal to see responses along the lines of “Ignore her, she’s just envious.” Parents routinely advise their bullied children that bullies are envious, so the children might better understand the bullies’ behavior.

As a matter of fact, envy is so well condemned that it is often misappropriated by people of bad character (aka Envy Brokers) and used as an offensive-defense to ward off criticism of unethical behavior.

This phenomenon—using “envy” as a weapon—is much less talked about and at least as socially destructive as envy because it has a chilling effect on moral assessment and character development.

The Case of Lillian and Sam

“Lillian”—an Envy Broker—has lied, cheated, and manipulated her way into wealth. According to Lillian, anything goes if it allows her to get more money. Lillian has the best clothes, a home overlooking the ocean, and many friends who believe she earned her wealth legitimately. Thus, by all appearances, Lillian has a fantastic life worth applauding and worth looking up to as an example of self-generated success.

Lillian also has a lot of haters, including a young man named “Sam.”

“Sam” works two jobs, takes online courses, and scrapes by, barely able to afford his monthly bills. Sam recently quit a dream job he had only had for one month—a nearly six-figure job that allowed him to do what he loved, computer programming. For a guy without a college degree, the job felt like a miracle.

Not long after he started, Sam discovered that the owners were falsifying financial records. When Sam approached the owners with the evidence, they dismissed it, saying: “It isn’t murder—it’s more like jaywalking.” Then they said that if he couldn’t be a “team player,” he shouldn’t work there. Although he was devastated, Sam quit and reported the company to the proper authorities.

Prior to quitting, Sam had met Lillian—she was friends with one of the owners. Sam once overheard the two of them making snide comments about “losers” who were “too lazy” to do what was necessary to become wealthy. To emphasize the point, Lillian proceeded to explain how easy it is to get money, like the time she got a promotion and salary increase of $50,0000 because she wore a short skirt and low-cut top to a staff meeting.

Sam disliked his former bosses—and he disliked Lillian. One day Sam saw Lillian post on social media a quotation about taking pride in one’s success. Irritated, Sam responded, “That only applies if it is earned.”

Lillian replied: “Your envy is showing.” Then, in a separate post to her followers, she advised: “Don’t let the haters get you down. They’re just envious that they don’t have what you have. They hate people more successful than them, so they want to bring you down to their level. It’s pathetic and parasitic.”

But is Lillian’s assessment accurate?

Does Sam dislike Lillian simply because she is wealthy, and he is not?

On one hand, it is fair to say that Sam dislikes the fact that Lillian is wealthy. It is also fair to say that he dislikes that he has so little wealth while Lillian has so much. On the other hand, it is intentionally misleading to leave out the ethical assessment upon which Sam’s conclusion is based.

The Importance of Ethical Assessment

As Dr. Hicks acknowledges in his podcast: a free society has “more need for character education than other kinds of society” so that people can learn to set morals for themselves that are both “idealistic and realistic.” Part of character education is assessing the behavior of others. We use these assessments to inform our personal standards and to make decisions.

Susan stole a car—that is bad—I shouldn’t hang around Susan.

Billy hit his girlfriend—that is bad—I should call the police.

Mike admitted he broke the glass—that is good—I won’t be too mad at Mike since he was honest.

Wanda didn’t cheat on the test even though someone offered her the answers—that is good—Wanda is the kind of person I would like to study with.

Sam had assessed Lillian’s words and behavior. From this assessment, he concluded that Lillian had obtained her wealth unethically. Therefore, Sam believes that it is unjust that she is wealthy.

Additionally, Sam abides ethical norms. By doing so, Sam’s wealth has diminished significantly.

Lillian has obtained wealth by being unethical.

Sam has lost wealth by being ethical.

As a result, Sam concludes that it is unjust that he has so little wealth compared to Lillian.

It is the lack of justice that drives Sam’s irritation with Lillian’s wealth—by all appearances, a reasonable response. It is not that someone has more than he does, which would be an unjust and unreasonable response.

Envy as a Weapon

When Lillian used the word envy against Sam, she was asserting that Sam is envious simply because she has more wealth than he does. This further implies that Sam is unjust and unreasonable. Simultaneously, she was claiming to be the victim of an unwarranted smear. In psychology, this is known as “reversing the order of victim and offender” (a popular tactic among narcissists).

The other, more insidious, problem with Lillian’s use of envy as a weapon is that it has a chilling effect on just moral assessment in general.

Some who see the exchange between Sam and Lillian will be deceived by Lillian’s accusation, leaving them with the incorrect view of her as the victim and Sam as spiteful—just ethical assessment turned upside-down.

And the few people who agree with Sam will be deterred from openly agreeing with him—lest they also be condemned as “envious.” Social backlash is an effective deterrent. In this case, where social backlash could have been used as a deterrent for unethical accumulation of wealth, it was turned upside-down to deter just ethical criticism.

Real-world Envy Brokers

Though rarely acknowledged, the use of envy as a weapon is seen in the real world at least as frequently as envy itself.

Consider how often you read or hear something like this real-world example:

Albert Dunlap appeared to be a corporate executive with a penchant for successful business turn-arounds—until it was revealed that his “turnarounds” were fraudulent. Additionally, he was the architect of the accounting scandal at Sunbeam Products, which led the company straight into bankruptcy.

Dunlap has used language much like Lillian did in our fictitious example above:

If character matters, then just ethical assessment is a vital part of our social interactions. Focusing on flawed but well-known human traits, such as envy, while ignoring the insidious degradation of just ethical assessment, can only serve as ammunition for people like the Envy Brokers. I suggest we stop feeding the beast. Instead, let’s stunt the beast by calling out the duplicity, encouraging just ethical assessment, and focusing on good character development.

By Virginia Murr, Character HQ