Continuing discussion.

EPS Blog

This is the blog area for the Evangelical Philosophical Society and its journal, Philosophia Christi.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Envy and the Search for Fairness in our Economic Relationships: An Interview with Victor Claar

Throughout this week and next, I will be featuring some interviews that I conducted with various Acton University scholars on topics related to economics, ethics, and theology.

I recently interviewed Professor Victor Claar, a professor of economics at Henderson, the public liberal arts college of Arkansas, where he specializes in teaching principles of economics courses.

Victor Claar is the coauthor of Economics in ChristianPerspective: Theory, Policy and Life Choices. He has written articles for Applied Economics and the Journal of Markets &Morality, among others. Dr. Claar recently finished a new book on fair trade for the Acton Institute, entitled Fair Trade? Its Prospects as aPoverty Solution. You can read more of his work, by reading his blog.

In our interview, we discuss the importance of economics for the Christian worldview, how envy is a problem to be seriously considered by both the economist and the Christian philosopher-theologian, and how the problem of envy surfaces the problem of fairness and how to deal with it. There are several interesting insights to be gleaned in this interview as Christian philosophers seek to understand the morality of envy and its place in free-market models of economics.

Here is an excerpt from the interview:

Sometimes it is argued that a free-market system produces an envious people. In light of the relevant literature on the topic, how does envy operate in a free-market system? Must envy thrive in order for the free-market to thrive? Do you think that envy is fundamentally corrosive?
First let’s be clearer about what envy is. Saint Thomas Aquinas defines envy simply as sadness at the good of another. Thus envy is a thoroughly personal sin: no one need ever suspect he or she is the object of envy. And unlike the other six deadly sins, envy is the one that is never fun at all—even fleetingly.

Church teaching is clear: envy is a deadly sin. Envy is thought to be so thoroughly corrosive to the human person that once it gains a foothold it can put in peril a person’s prospect of eternal life. But envy corrodes our relationships with each other, too. Anytime anyone enjoys an advantage over me in anything, for any reason, the temptation to commit the sin of envy is present. And sociologists tell us that we can feel envy most intensely for those with whom we most closely identify: our next-door neighbor with a newer car, a slightly larger house, or a more attractive spouse; or a coworker who receives a raise or promotion when we do not.

It follows that occasions for envy will arise in any meritocracy, including market systems. Market outcomes are almost never equal because rewards in markets accrue to those with something valuable to contribute to the well-being of others. Market outcomes are always different because each of us is different: we have different skills, talents, family backgrounds, appetites for risk, patience, work ethics, and entrepreneurial finesse. And sometimes rewards are different due to just plain old luck.

Now I am certainly no apologist for envy—far from it. Envy is a deadly sin we need to talk about more, rather than continue to deal with in secret misery. We need to confess it. Yet I imagine that for some of us envy can be a motivator to do better; that is envy at its best, if one can even say such a thing. Most of the time, though, envy is a leveler—and as Dorothy Sayers has put it, envy will level things down if it cannot level them up. That is, I may very well seek to take down a notch those doing better than I in order to make my envious feelings go away.

So I do think envy is thoroughly corrosive: corrosive to the human person and the soul, and corrosive also to our relationships with each other. Either others’ success makes us feel miserable, or worse still it leads us to feelings of outright malevolence.

And envy is certainly not required to make markets thrive. But is it an inevitable, ongoing challenge given that market outcomes are not equal outcomes.
 You can read the full-text of this interview by clicking here.

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