An envious man, generated by Bing AI.
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Moral envy, a sentiment of resentment towards those perceived as morally superior, has the potential to impede innovation and obstruct societal progress. This emotion, extensively examined by anthropologist and author David Graeber, often emerges when individuals witness others receiving acclaim for their moral choices, leading to feelings of inadequacy. Graeber defined moral envy to explain why essential jobs are often the worst-paying jobs. But this idea can be extended further. Individuals taking small steps to help the environment, like reducing meat consumption, might face challenges from others, such as criticism for wearing leather shoes.

Graeber’s exploration of ‘moral envy’ offers a novel perspective on societal norms and ethics, thereby questioning the conventional idea of work and its inherent dignity. Overcoming moral envy becomes indispensable for reforming our society and driving progress.

  • Moral envy poses a significant barrier to technological innovation, as new technologies that challenge moral norms often face skepticism and resistance driven by envy
  • Despite their importance, moral envy also leads to the undervaluation of caring professions like nursing and teaching.
  • Overcoming moral envy through acknowledging its existence, reevaluating assumptions, and celebrating moral virtue over envying it can help drive societal progress and innovation

Obstructing climate change initiatives

Moral envy has far-reaching implications when addressing vital global issues such as climate change. Often, individuals who initiate small yet significant changes to combat climate change are met with criticism and ridicule rooted in moral envy. For instance, a person who decides not to fly anymore as a part of their environmental commitment might be criticized by others for still owning a car, thus undermining their efforts.

This backlash is a classic manifestation of moral envy, where the critics, feeling morally inferior due to their lack of similar initiatives, resort to nitpicking and belittling the efforts of the environmentally conscious individual. Instead of lauding their efforts and following suit, they attempt to tarnish the individual’s moral image, thus feeding into a vicious cycle that stalls collective progress toward mitigating climate change.

The hindrance to technological innovations

Further, moral envy also poses a significant barrier to technological innovation. In their exploration of moral uncertainty in technomoral change, Nickel, Kudina, and van de Poel highlight how envy can hinder the acceptance and adoption of disruptive technologies.

As new technologies challenge existing moral norms and values, they often incite moral uncertainty. This, coupled with moral envy towards the innovators, can lead to resistance towards these technologies. For instance, the introduction of early pregnancy tests and the birth control pill, both groundbreaking advancements in their time, were met with skepticism and controversy. We now see similar skepticism towards innovations like electric vehicles. Leading to all kinds of myths trying to prove EVs are ‘equally bad’.

Undermining care professions

Similarly, Graeber’s work highlights the disparity between the rewards of meaningless jobs and the undervalued caring profession. He suggests that these professions, which cannot be automated and are essential during crises, are often paid poorly due to moral envy. For example, roles such as nursing, teaching, and social work often face underpayment and poor recognition despite their undeniable societal value. The argument usually is that social significance is part of the reward for the job. This discrepancy is rooted in moral envy towards these professions, leading to a devaluation of their contributions.

Overcoming moral envy

Overcoming moral envy, therefore, becomes an essential step in driving societal progress. Acknowledging the existence of this emotion and its detrimental effects on innovation and change is the first step. This can lead to reevaluating societal norms and assumptions, fostering an environment that celebrates moral virtue rather than envying it.

Indeed, dismantling the barriers posed by moral envy is crucial to addressing global challenges and paving the way for a more tolerant, understanding, and progressive society. Only by doing so can we hope to fully embrace change and innovation, be it in the form of climate change initiatives, technological advancements, or a reimagining of the value we place on various forms of work.