On the problem of Schadenfreude

Portmann, John Edward, Department of Religious Studies, University of Virginia
Childress, James, Department of Religious Studies, University of Virginia
Spacks, Patricia, Department of English, University of Virginia

Philosophical attention to suffering, scarce as it has been, resembles explicitly Christian reflection in its conclusion that aberrant and wicked is any pleasure caused by the suffering of another person. In this study I argue that one important brand of this pleasure, Schadenfreude, should be recognized as an ordinary object of rational assessment, as well as an explanatory category useful for moral thinking.

My defense of Schadenfreude passes through such familiar philosophical topics as compassion, punishment, and equality in order to call for an expansion of the cultural ideal to which a good person's emotional life must conform. This defense also attends to the peculiar capacity of a given religious tradition to enable its adherents to disavow their Schadenfreude, namely by proclaiming an ideal of justice according to which God punishes discriminately the sinful. Where philosophical ethics has generally precluded any difference between Schadenfreude and malice, much religious thinking has erected a questionable distinction between celebrating misfortune per se and celebrating divine justice. Either perspective serves to generate terrible anxiety over Schadenfreude. A person's beliefs and perceptions, the descriptions under which she views the objects of her attitudes, are essential to the identification and individuation of Schadenfreude. Where some emotions are strongly dispositional, explained by and indicative of character, others are episodic, explained primarily by their immediate contextual causes. Pace Kant and Schopenhauer, I demonstrate that Schadenfreude is not an exclusively dispositional matter. I argue that when Schadenfreude does put down roots in the fabric of character, it amounts to what Nietzsche describes as "ressentiment." The invocation of God to justify the enjoyment of another’s suffering is especially likely to involve character and, accordingly, to beg the difficult question of who feels ressentiment and who does not.

The problem involved in theorizing Schadenfreude turns on the temptation to decide for others the moral question of appropriateness. The danger is that one person or moral tradition might establish which instances of happiness in others' suffering it finds acceptable and then peremptorily exclude competing standards of appropriateness. This danger is instructive: an examination of the pain and humiliation from which Schadenfreude blooms contributes to moral progress as it strains conventional standards of the appropriateness of suffering.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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