Equality and emotion

Nozick explores a number of intriguing questions in the third subsection of Chapter 8 of ASU (pp. 239-246). Why do people feel envy? What is the source of this emotion? And what is the best way of reducing the incidence of envy? I shall succinctly summarize Nozick’s argument in my own words as follows:

According to Nozick, one source of envy is self-love (p. 241): “It may injure one’s self-esteem … to know of someone else who has accomplished more or risen higher.” To modify an example used by Nozick to illustrate the connection between self-esteem and envy, imagine a society in which the average person was as swift a sprinter as Usain Bolt, as strong a swimmer as Michael Phelps, and as accurate a three-point shooter as Steph Curry. As Nozick notes (again on p. 241), the average man in such a fanciful society “wouldn’t think he was very good or adept at those activities. He would have problems of self-esteem!” Why? Because we evaluate how well we do something by comparing our performance to others.” (Nozick, p. 240, emphasis in original.)

But at the same time, there are many different dimensions along which people can vary. In addition to athletic prowess, there are such dimensions as annual income, beauty (or “hotness” in today’s lingo), GPAs or SAT scores, etc. Since comparisons will be impossible to avoid, the best way to reduce envy is to multiply the number of dimensions along which people can vary as well as the methods for weighting these dimensions (p. 245): “The most promising way for a society to avoid widespread differences in self-esteem would be to have no common weighting of dimensions; instead, it would have a diversity of different lists of dimensions and weightings.” (Wait: does “society” keep some master list of dimensions and weightings?)

For my part, I found Nozick’s analysis of envy and self-esteem to be plausible, but his reasoning is sloppy (as my parenthetical above shows) and his answers, highly speculative. After all, there are other possible emotions that might affect one’s self-esteem, such as fear, jealousy, regret, spite, and many others. (For a comprehensive listing of possibly relevant emotions, just check out the compilation of emojis on your smart phone!) In addition, perhaps one of these alternative emotions–or maybe some or all of them in combination–are what motivate the ideal of equality.

There is yet another potential problem (or should I say, “meta-problem”?) with Nozick’s argument. Recall Nozick’s entitlement theory of justice: people have an inviolable right to their holdings as long as those holdings are obtained in a legitimate manner, i.e. without violating the rights of any other person. But Nozick’s analysis of envy in Chapter 8 leads me to ask the following meta-question about his entitlement theory: Do motives matter in determining whether a holding was acquired or transferred in a legitimate manner? If not, why should we inquire into the motives of persons arguing for greater equality, however enlightened or misguided these motives might be?

In any case, Nozick will consider two other possible perils to self-esteem in the next two subsections of Chapter 8 (pp. 246-253): the lack of meaningful work and the lack of workers’ control in most market economies. Stay tuned, for we will address these topics in our next blog post.

Image result for list of emotions

About F. E. Guerra-Pujol

When I’m not blogging, I am a business law professor at the University of Central Florida.
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