My plan was to write about Marxism but the subject of envy demanded more attention. So, this essay will continue the discussion of envy and will also cover the tactic of Secret Motive.
As noted in previous essays, one tactic used against those critical of current capitalism is to accuse them of being motivated by envy. As an argument, the Accusation of Envy is a fallacy—it is merely a variant of the classic ad hominem fallacy. However, as was noted in the previous essay, a person’s envy could bias them on a subject and thus impact their credibility on that subject. Even in cases where envy is relevant to credibility, proof of envy has no relevance to the truth of the person’s claims or the quality of their arguments. From a rhetorical standpoint, such attacks can be effective: if someone is convinced another person is motivated by envy, they will often dismiss their claims and arguments for psychological rather than logical reasons. Some people also seem to enjoy attacking those they disagree with and casting them as being corrupted with vices. So, how would one tell if another person is envious?
My rough account of envy is that it involves an improper desire for what someone else has and the feeling includes an unwarranted resentment towards the possessor of the desired thing. It often includes the desire to unjustly take it from the other person. An envious person would tend to be unable to get what they desire—if they could, they would presumably cease their envy (though they might become jealous). Determining if a person is envious would require assessing that person in terms of these factors in a fair and objective way.
Much of this would be determining if the person had an improper desire for what someone else has. If a person shows no interest in their alleged object of desire, the accusation of envy would seem unwarranted. Even if a person is interested in this thing, it must be shown that there is a defect in their desire and that unwarranted resentment is present. Consider the difference between training hard to be as good a basketball player as Jordan because he is an athlete you respect and sourly begrudging him his ability because you wish you had his talent. Discerning the presence of unwarranted resentment would involve assessing the person’s words and deeds relative t0 the target of the alleged envy. Due caution must be taken to distinguish criticism and even anger from unwarranted resentment. Consider the difference between being justly angry at someone who has stolen from you and being unjustly resentful of someone who has done well in an area where you have failed. If fair and objective assessment shows that the person is suffering from envy, then it would be fair to make that claim. But this would still be utterly irrelevant to the truth of their claims and the quality of their arguments.
In some cases, people will make their envy clear: they will express bitter, yet unwarranted, resentment and have a string of failed attempts to acquire what they desire. They might even admit to their envy. In other cases, it will be harder to determine if a person is driven by envy. After all, strong criticism can resemble unwarranted resentment and just anger can arise from a string of unfair failures. For example, a person who tries to start a small business and is repeatedly driven out of business by corporate franchises could be seen as having righteous anger at an unfair system or cast as a failure who is green with envy at their betters. If a person does not show clear signs of envy or denies that they are envious, one tactic that can be used is Secret Motive.
Secret Motive (or Real Motive) is a rhetorical technique in which a person accuses another of having a secret, typically bad, motive for their claims, arguments or actions. That is, they are being accused of having a real motive that is bad. This is often a set up for an ad hominem attack built around the alleged secret/real motive. For example, a critic of current capitalism is accused of envy, but denies it and aside from their criticism there seems to be no grounds for asserting they are corrupted by envy. The simple solution is to insist that their real motivation is envy—despite the utter lack of evidence. The accuser often claims a special insight or understanding into the psychology of the accused—which is why they somehow know the person’s secret motive. While primarily a rhetorical device (and hence not an argument) it can also be cast as a fallacy:
Premise 1: Person A asserts that person B has a secret/real motive.
Conclusion: B has a secret motive.
The error occurs when A fails to provide adequate evidence in support of their claim that the other person has a secret motive. This is not to say that “evidence” will never be provided; but what is offered fails to support their claim. For example, the “evidence” of envy might be that the person has been critical of the rich, though they have never expressed resentment at earned wealth and have never showed much interest in becoming rich. But the accuser somehow “knows” that the accused is secretly envious—apparently through some exceptional epistemic abilities.
The defense against this technique is objectively assess whether adequate evidence exists for the accusation of the secret motive. If not, the claim should not be accepted. It must also be remembered that even if a person has a bad (secret or not) motive, this is irrelevant to the truth of their claims and the quality of their arguments.