Is there a difference between “jealousy” and “envy?” It seems we often use these terms interchangeably but some have thought or argued that they’re not quite the same. When we discussed the parable of the “prodigal son” in my class, I asked the students if the “older brother” was feeling jealousy or envy (or possibly both?!), or if the distinction was at all meaningful. Most students believed these terms were different words for the same emotion. I was inclined to argue otherwise. In any case, and apropos of the material I’m reading, consider La Rochefoucauld: “Jealousy is in some measure just and reasonable (raisonnable), since it merely aims at keeping something that belongs to us or we think belongs to us, whereas envy is a frenzy (fureur) that cannot bear anything that belongs to others.”
Aaron Ben-Ze’ev says the meaning of these two terms overlap and that “some languages do not even have separate names for these emotions.” Following Ben-Ze’ev, emotions
“toward the fortune of others constitute a common group whose prevalence is related to the importance we attach to the comparison with other in assessing our own value and happiness. This group is divided according to others’ good or bad fortune. The major items in the group of negative emotions toward the good fortunes of others are envy and jealousy; the major emotions in the parallel group directed at the bad fortune of others are pity and compassion.” [….]
Here is a brief introduction to these two emotions from Ben-Ze’ev’s chapter on same which is quite helpful toward distinguishing between jealousy and envy, while conceding some of their common features:
“Envy involves a negative evaluation of our undeserved inferiority, whereas jealousy involves a negative evaluation of the possibility of losing something—typically, a favouable human relationship to someone else. Envy and jealousy would seem to address a similar emotional attitude. Both are concerned with a change in what one has: either the wish to obtain or the fear of loss. The wish in envy is for something one does not have, while in jealousy it is something one fears losing. This distinction is not negligible: the wish to obtain something is notably different from the wish not to lose it. Another difference is that jealousy is typically associated with exclusive relationships. Envy has no such restrictions. The focus of concern in envy is our undeserved inferiority. Because inferiority can stem from a variety of factors, envy may be born of any or all of them and not merely from the threatened loss of some human relationships.”
Please see: Aaron Ben Ze’ev, The Subtlety of Emotions (MIT Press, 2000): 327-352. Another useful but far briefer treatment of these two emotions is found in Robert C. Roberts, Emotions: An Essay in Aid of Moral Psychology (Cambridge University Press, 2003): 256-265. The best analysis of the “parable of the prodigal son” (and all of the parables and principal saying of Jesus for that matter) is Ann Wierzbicka’s What Did Jesus Mean? (Oxford University Press, 2001): 300-309, although she does not focus on our two emotions as they apply to the older brother in the parable.