restricted access Moral Vice, Cognitive Virtue
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Philosophy and Literature 27.1 (2003) 223-230



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Moral Vice, Cognitive Virtue:
Austen on Jealousy and Envy

Thomas Williams


VIRTUE THEORISTS ARE FOND of commending the novels of Jane Austen to moralists who agree with Elizabeth Anscombe's verdict on "modern moral philosophy" and wish to heed her call for a return to talk about virtue. 1 And rightly so, for Austen is an astute moralist—quite as good a jumping-off point for reflection on the nitty-gritty of the virtuous life as Aristotle is (or so I would argue). Unfortunately, virtue theorists rarely go beyond such general commendations; I want to do something to remedy this situation by reflecting on some of the specifics of Austen's vision of the virtuous life.

I have chosen to focus on jealousy. Austen's treatment of jealousy is striking because she uses it to call into question the time-honored view that good character and acute discernment go hand in hand: in Aristotle's language, that there is no virtue without practical wisdom and no practical wisdom without virtue. For jealousy, if not actually a vice, is certainly a shortcoming of some sort, and yet Austen regularly portrays her jealous characters as more than ordinarily perceptive. Conversely, those characters who are least prone to jealousy are also often the most apt to commit moral blunders out of sheer inadvertence, because their moral vision is hazy. Envy, on the other hand, is certainly a vice. Far from sharpening one's moral perception, envy systematically distorts judgment; and Austen portrays the errors to which it leads as far more serious than the foibles of jealousy. [End Page 223]

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I begin by fixing the meanings of our key terms. 2 First, to be envious of someone is to begrudge someone's possession or enjoyment of something one does not oneself possess or enjoy. If Professor Brown is awarded the grant that I had hoped to receive, and I begrudge him his success and think ill of him and make snide remarks about him behind his back, I am envious of him. Envy has been regarded as a very serious moral shortcoming (one of the seven deadly sins, in fact), and it is not difficult to see why. It is the antithesis of that generosity of mind that puts us at peace with others and ourselves. It springs from a cramped, stingy, petty spirit that would rather see others unhappy than see them happy in a way that we do not share. Envy is an ugly state of mind.

Where envy involves two parties, jealousy involves three. Suppose Professor Smith has a reputation for being an outstanding teacher, the best in her department. After some years of enjoying this reputation, she finds that her recently hired colleague, Professor Jones, is beginning to displace her as the students' favorite. Since she values the good will of her students, she is jealous of Professor Jones. Or consider what is probably the paradigmatic case of jealousy: romantic jealousy. If Rosalind has hitherto enjoyed the exclusive attention of Romeo and now finds him increasingly preoccupied with Juliet, she might well be jealous of Juliet. Whatever the source of the jealousy, however, there will be three parties, not merely two. There is of course the jealous person as well as the person of whom he is jealous, but invariably there will be some third party who once gave to the jealous person some valued thing—attention, praise, love, companionship, or what have you—that is now being given to someone else. The jealous person is not merely bothered by his rival's success, for such a state by itself is more akin to envy (or, depending on the nature of the "botherment," anger, depression, or some other emotion). Rather, the jealous person is bothered both by his rival's success and by the third party's favoring of the rival. It is perhaps best, in fact, to think of the object of the botherment as a single state of affairs: the rival's being preferred by the third party.

Whereas envy always has its...


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