As noted in the previous essay, critics of the current American capitalism are often accused of being envious and/or Marxists to refute their criticisms. As shown in that essay, even if a critic is envious of the rich, it would be a fallacy to conclude that their criticism is therefore wrong. But it could be argued that a person’s envy can bias them and thus diminish their credibility. I will look at this matter and then turn to an examination of envy. I will then engage in some self-reflection on whether I am envious.
Since envy involves resentment an envious person could have a bias against the target of their envy and see that target in an unwarranted or exaggerated negative light. This might occur for a variety of reasons, such as a desire to explain away their own failures or feel better by attributing negative qualities to their target. For example, a person who envies the rich might be inclined to explain their own lack of wealth in terms of the machinations of the wealthy and “the system” while also attributing to the rich such qualities as greed, dishonesty and corruption. Thus, it is certainly possible that an envious person could be strongly biased against the target of their envy. If such a bias exists, then the envious person’s credibility would be reduced proportional to their bias. This is because they would be more inclined to accept and make negative claims and reject positive ones about the target of their envy. So, it would certainly be rational to consider the possible influence of bias when assessing claims.
But the mere possibility of bias is not proof of bias—there would need to be evidence that the person 1) is envious and 2) is biased by this envy. If this evidence exists, then there would be grounds for considering the impact of this bias on the person’s claims on this matter. This approach can have merit in the context of the Argument from Authority.
An Argument from Authority occurs when it is argued that a claim should be accepted because the person making it is an authority on the subject. The form is this:
Premise 1: Person A is an authority/expert on subject S.
Premise 2: A says P about S.
Conclusion: P is true.
This inductive argument is assessed in terms of the quality of the expert and this includes considering whether the expert is significantly biased or not. If an expert is biased to a degree that would render them untrustworthy, then accepting a claim they make in this area would be an error of logic. If I were so envious of the rich that I was significantly biased against them, then unsupported claims I make about them should not be accepted as true based on my (alleged) expertise.
But even if it is established that the person is extremely envious and extremely biased, this would still not disprove their claims—the claims stand or fall on their own; to think otherwise would be to fall into the Accusation of Envy fallacy discussed in the previous essay. The logical response to bias is thus not to reject the claims, but to subject them to the proper scrutiny. Even if I was shown to be extremely envious of the rich, it would not follow that my claims about capitalism are false—they would need to be assessed on their own merit. But am I envious of the rich? To answer this, I need to consider the nature of envy.
At its core, envy involves wanting what someone else has. This can range from a possession to a quality. But merely wanting what someone else has is not the defining feature of envy. You might want to have the artistic skills to match Rembrandt, but this need not make you envious. Envy includes a resentment towards the possessor of the desired thing and usually includes the desire to take it from the other person. But even this does not properly capture envy. Suppose that you enter into business with a trusted friend, but they end up betraying you and fleeing the country with your money. You want the money, you resent that they have it, and you desire that it be taken away from them. But it would be wrong to say that you are envious of them. More must be added to the recipe for envy.
One plausible addition is that the resentment must be unwarranted and that the desire is improper in some relevant way. In the case of the hypothetical friend who betrayed you, your resentment would be warranted and the desire for the money would be proper. Establishing a claim of envy would thus require showing that a person wants what another has, that they unjustly resent that the other person has it, and that there is something improper about their desire for it. Envy also tends to involve an inability on the part of the envious to get what they desire—if they could, they would not be envious. The envious person thus suffers from a series of moral failings relative to their desire. While this is hardly a necessary and sufficient definition of “envy” it should suffice for sorting out whether I am envious of the rich.
To be envious of the rich, I would need to want to be rich. I would also need an unjust resentment of the rich, an improper desire to be rich, and perhaps a desire that the rich no longer be rich and an inability to become rich. Let us walk through each of these in turn. While I do not deny that I want to have money (food and running shoes are not free), I do not have a desire to be one of the rich. As for evidence, my life choices have not been aimed at becoming rich. For example, I earned my doctorate in philosophy and then became a professor. While I write books, these are in philosophy and gaming—areas that are not particularly known for profitable best-sellers. If I wanted to be one of the rich, I would be going about it in a rather ineffective way. But it could be contended that while I want to be rich, I lack the ability to do so and have been stuck with what I have done.
The easy and obvious reply is that given I had the ability to complete a doctorate, I also had the ability to complete a far more lucrative advanced degree. Given that I was a college athlete and still train regularly despite numerous injuries, I can stick to challenging tasks and persist through difficulties. While it would be immodest to go through my strengths and accomplishments, suffice it to say that I could have certainly succeeded in a career far more profitable than being a professor if I desired to be rich. I am not saying that I would be rich; simply that if I wanted to be rich, I could have put myself on a path far more likely to achieve that result than a career in philosophy. If being rich was my goal, then I would have tried. If I had turned out to be a bitter failure at attempting to get rich, then the charge of envy could have some merit. But to say that I am envious of what I never aimed for would be odd indeed. One could certainly make that charge and claim some secret knowledge of my motives, but that would be mere unsupported speculation.
I certainly do not unjustly resent the rich who have earned their wealth. I do admit that I have a negative view towards those who have acquired wealthy unjustly, who use their wealth to the detriment of others, or who have merely squandered the opportunities their wealth afforded them. I do believe that the current system is unfair, but I do not feel indignation that I have been treated unfairly—rather I feel moral anger at the morally wrong aspects of the economic system we have created and perpetuate.
I do admit that I think that the rich should have less wealth—that they should contribute more to the United States and do more good with their wealth. But I also think that everyone should use more of their resources to do good, myself included. Like most people, I do not always live up to my moral ideals. But I do not want the rich to be stripped of their wealth and left poor—being poor in America is a terrible thing, so I do not want that.
As such, while I do have a negative view of some rich people and I have serious criticisms of the current economic system, I do not envy the rich. And even if I did, this would be irrelevant to any criticisms I make. In my next essay I will look at the accusation that I am a Marxist and this drives my criticism of the moral defects in capitalism.