DevInContext The Case For Personal Growth


Growth As An Opiate, Part 5: Self-Development And The “War On Envy”

The idea that societies with more economic inequality -- whether in terms of income, net worth, or something else -- are less moral is nothing new.

In the past, people have usually made this argument from a philosophical perspective -- for instance, John Rawls' famous argument that, if you designed a society from scratch, with no idea where you personally would end up on the economic scale, you'd choose a society where inequalities were only allowed if they benefited the worst-off.

Today, however, people are increasingly making this argument in psychological terms.  The larger the economic inequalities in a society, advocates of this view argue, the more emotional distress and "lack of social trust" -- i.e., envy -- people will feel.

For example, in The Spirit Level, a book Evan pointed out to me, epidemiologists Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson claim that societies with more wealth inequality, and therefore more (if you will) envy per capita, tend to suffer from lower lifespans, more teenage pregnancy, and a host of other problems.  Not surprisingly, Pickett and Wilkinson argue that -- at least, in already rich countries -- more wealth redistribution will create a healthier and happier population.

Thinking about this argument raises two interesting questions for me.  First, even assuming envy creates social ills, is designing government policy with the goal of reducing envy a good idea?  Second, are there other ways to reduce society-wide envy that don't involve the use of state power?

Mission Creep In The "War On Envy"

I'll admit, the argument that the government should act to combat envy is disturbing to me.  One reason is that, although The Spirit Level and similar books focus on envy created by inequalities of wealth, there are obviously many other forms of inequality that cause jealousy.

For example, suppose I resent what I see as your biological superiority -- maybe you're taller and have lost less hair than me.  Or perhaps I'm jealous of your relationships -- maybe you're married to the woman of my dreams, and I wish she were with me.

If money-related envy causes social ills, I'd wager that other types of envy have similar effects.  In other words, if wishing I were as rich as you renders me more susceptible to disease and shortens my lifespan, surely "wishing I had Jessie's girl," or that I had somebody else's athletic talent, will also be debilitating.

You can probably tell where I'm going.  Does this mean the government should engage in "sexual redistribution," and compel attractive people (by whatever measure) to accept intimate partners they wouldn't otherwise choose?  Should we adopt Harrison Bergeron-style rules requiring, say, people with natural athletic ability to wear weights on their legs?

In other words, if we're willing to redistribute wealth in the name of fighting a "War on Envy," it's hard to see why social policy shouldn't reach into other areas of our lives in ways most people -- regardless of political persuasion -- would find repugnant.

Does Self-Development Soothe Envy?

Earlier in this series, I discussed critics of personal development who cast it as a sort of modern-day "opiate of the masses."  These critics argue that practices like psychotherapy, meditation, and affirmations, precisely because they're geared toward relieving human suffering, are socially harmful.

Why?  Because, these authors say, the main source of human angst in modern times is economic inequality.  At best, self-development practices only offer a temporary "high," because they don't attack the root of this problem.  At worst, these practices perpetuate injustice, because -- like "cultural Prozac" -- they distract the masses from the inequality-induced suffering that would otherwise spur them to rise up against an immoral capitalist system.

What if we took this critique at face value for a moment, and assumed that self-development does reduce some of the pain caused by envy?  In other words, what if meditating, saying affirmations, or doing similar practices actually can cause people to feel less jealous of others?  In my own experience, this has some truth to it -- the more I've kept up my meditation practice, the less I've found myself unfavorably comparing myself to others.

Perhaps the widespread adoption of these practices would make people less interested in redistributing wealth.  But if that's true, in all likelihood, these practices would also lessen people's tendency to suffer over other kinds of inequality -- envy about other people's intimate relationships, jealousy over others' looks and natural aptitudes, and so on.

So, if we take Pickett and Wilkinson at their word, and assume envy causes all kinds of social ills, it stands to reason that personal development -- at least, the types of self-development with real emotional benefits -- may help create a happier and healthier society.  On balance, maybe a little "cultural Prozac" isn't such a terrible thing after all.

Other Posts in this Series:

  • Growth As An Opiate, Part 4: "Money Doesn't Buy Happiness" Cuts Both Ways
  • Growth As An Opiate, Part 3: The Hard Work of Happiness
  • Growth As An Opiate, Part 2: The Hazards of Happiness
  • Personal Growth: The New Opiate of the Masses?